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AUTHOR: McKay, Sandra Lee TITLE: Researching Second Language Classrooms SERIES: ESL & Applied Linguistics Professional Series PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum YEAR: 2006
Julian Heather, California State University, Sacramento
Researching Second Language Classrooms is a textbook that introduces novice researchers to the research methods commonly used to gather ''evidence to answer questions about L2 teaching and learning'' (p. vii). In particular, the book focuses mostly on qualitative methods, which are seen by the author as generally more feasible for implementation by individual classroom teachers (who would appear to be the book's primary audience). The book is divided into 4 main chapters, each of which contains a number of application activities and ends with suggestions for further in-depth reading on each of the topics covered in the chapter.
Chapter 1 provides a general introduction to research and is divided into three main sections. In the first section, McKay argues briefly, but cogently, in favor of teachers undertaking classroom research due to the potential for them to (a) generate beneficial insights into teaching and learning by conducting original research and (b) develop the expertise necessary to critically evaluate other's research. In the second section, which is the largest, McKay outlines the major types of research. She begins by examining the construct of 'research' using Richards' (2003) distinction between paradigms, traditions, and methods. While McKay briefly discusses the key paradigmatic distinction between basic and applied research, her main focus is on contrasting the qualitative and quantitative research traditions, which are introduced by describing two representative studies and discussing how they illustrate the major differences between the qualitative and quantitative traditions in their assumptions about reality, the role of the researcher, the purpose of research, and research design. McKay also presents van Lier's notions of control and structure (van Lier, 1988) as a framework for understanding differences between the two traditions and between research methods. Further insight into the qualitative/quantitative distinction is provided by the author's discussion of how each tradition characterizes the qualities of validity, reliability, and generalizability, which again draws on the concepts of control and structure. The second section also includes a brief overview of the research methods that will be presented in greater detail in chapter 2 and a process for determining research questions and designs. In the third section of the chapter, McKay argues in favor of ethical research and describes ways this may be achieved.
Chapter 2 describes several research methods that have been used to ''examine the behavior, beliefs and thoughts of second language learners and teachers'' (p. 29). McKay starts with action research because of the difficulty in placing it on the qualitative/quantitative continuum. The remaining methods are presented in an order that moves from methods that are more controlled and structured to those that are less controlled and structured: surveys (which McKay defines narrowly as written questionnaires), interviews, verbal reports, diary studies, case studies, and ethnographies. For each method, McKay includes a similar set of information: definition of the method; explanation of the method's purpose and key concepts; strengths and limitations of the method and, where relevant, of the different ways it may be implemented; guidelines for conducting research with that particular method, which typically includes suggestions for maintaining reliability and validity; and presentation of studies that exemplify the method. For all of the methods except action research, McKay presents suggestions for data analysis. Her treatment of each method includes application activities that ask readers to complete one or more of a range of tasks such as analysis of sample instruments or data, critical reading of a previous study which used the method, creation of data collection instruments and protocols, or collection of data.
Chapter 3 focuses on the methods used to investigate oral and written classroom discourse. For the former, McKay focuses on interaction analysis and discourse analysis. Her discussion of interaction analysis differentiates between generic and limited coding schemes and provides examples of each for readers to examine and use in coding sample data. Three approaches to discourse analysis are presented--conversation analysis, ethnography of communication, and critical discourse analysis--and guidelines for transcription and analysis are provided. McKay's discussion of the text analysis of written discourse starts with a description of methodologies for linguistic and rhetorical (especially contrastive) analysis of L2 students' written texts before turning to analysis of teacher feedback and of teaching materials. Her discussion of the textual analysis of teaching materials includes a section on corpus-based research which lists online corpora with concordancers. Application activities in this chapter cover the same range of tasks as those in the previous chapter.
The focus of Chapter 4 is on writing reports of research for publication as a master's thesis or as a journal article. It starts with practical guidelines for preparing manuscripts for publication in each of these forums. It also discusses how to choose appropriate journals and the typical process for journal publication. The majority of the chapter, however, focuses on the content of the written report: the sections a report should have, the purpose of each section, what each should include, tips for effective writing, and how to tailor writing to meet the needs of the different publication forums. Direct quotes from several published articles are liberally included to illustrate points the author makes and provide models of effective writing for readers to analyze.
The broad variety of research approaches found in the literature on second language acquisition presents a major challenge to anyone who teaches a research methods class in a masters or doctoral program on second language acquisition. While McKay recognizes this variety in her discussion of both the qualitative and quantitative traditions, the methodologies presented in this book are mostly limited, as she acknowledges, to the qualitative end of the research spectrum. Even where methodologies require quantitative analysis--such as surveys--the discussion is limited to simple descriptive statistics such as the mean. No explanations of inferential statistics are provided; indeed, on the single occasion when the use of inferential statistics is recommended (to establish differences between groups in large-scale survey research), McKay simply refers her reader to a statistics books for the formula with no explanation of the rationale underlying the use of such statistics. On the one hand, this lack of discussion of inferential statistics is understandable. Statistics are often intimidating, and I am sure that many a teacher in the past may have been turned away from the path of research because they felt underqualified to deal with the technical aspects of quantitative research. By focusing on the more ''user-friendly'' (though no less rigorous) qualitative approaches, McKay may be better placed to achieve her goal of inspiring teachers to use research as a tool for professional development. On the other hand, a second stated goal of this text is to help teachers develop the expertise and understanding which will permit a more informed reading of published studies. Although much research on second language classrooms employs the research methods described in this book, a significant proportion of it is quasi-experimental in nature and may not, therefore, be better comprehended after reading this book. This suggests that for some instructors, Researching Second Language Classrooms may not suffice as the sole text in a research methods class and that it may need to be used in conjunction with a text whose focus is on the critical reading of quantitative studies (for example, Perry 2005; Porte, 2002).
In spite of the above caveat, this book has many admirable qualities that recommend its adoption for a research methods class. The first of these is the book's accessibility, practicality, and clarity, all of which make the book a particularly useful tool in encouraging teachers to become researchers. Each method is described clearly, and its strengths and weaknesses are outlined without providing an overwhelming level of detail. McKay provides practical guidelines and some experience in each method's implementation through a combination of explanation and activities. The activities are generally challenging, yet not beyond the ability of the average reader, and I believe they will generate a great deal of useful discussion in research methods classes.
One of the book's strongest features is its use of previous research to increase comprehension and knowledge of each method. When examining a particular research methodology, McKay provides a detailed discussion of at least one previous study which concretely exemplifies key features of that methodology. The inclusion of additional exercises which ask students to independently read and evaluate other studies enhances readers' understanding and also gives readers greater familiarity with the scope and content of research on second language classrooms. The author is to be lauded for including both studies that are older, yet important to the field, and a large number of studies published since the year 2000 (the latter represent 40% of all the studies discussed in-text or suggested for critical reading).
References to previous research serve another important purpose. In the final chapter on writing research reports, the passages quoted directly from previous studies clearly illustrate the content and style of such reports and provide extremely useful models for students to follow in their own writing. Indeed, McKay's book provides a greater degree of training and better models of reports than most of the other introductory texts on research methods. However, while the chapter on writing research reports provides a thorough explanation of what a report should contain, and how it should be presented, it lacks a clear justification of why readers should seek to publish their research in academic journals. As such, this book could, perhaps, benefit from a discussion of the importance of ''going public'' similar to that found in other books (for example, Freeman, 1998; Mackey & Gass, 2005; Wallace, 1998). McKay's book also limits its discussion of possible forums for public presentation to those that are more ''academic'': master's theses and journal articles. While this restriction is understandable in the sense that readers are less likely to be familiar with these genres and will require greater training in them, it is also problematic because it ignores other possible forums for dissemination of teacher-research, such as those discussed in Wallace (1998). This is important because many of the other forums that Wallace suggests--such as informal presentations to colleagues or more formal conference presentations--can serve either as less intimidating initial forays into the research community or as vital preparation for publication.
Finally, I feel that of the introductory research methods books with which I am familiar, few provide any introduction to corpus-based research and none provide as interesting or as relevant an introduction to the topic as this book does.
Freeman, D. (1998). Doing teacher research. New York: Heinle & Heinle.
Mackey, A. & Gass, S. (2005). Second language research: Methodology and design. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Perry, F. L. (2005). Research in applied linguistics: Becoming a discerning consumer. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Porte, G.K. (2002). Appraising research in second language learning: A practical approach to critical analysis of quantitative research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Richards, K. (2003). Qualitative inquiry in TESOL. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
van Lier, L. (1988). The classroom and the language learner. London: Longman.
Wallace, M. J. (1998). Action research for language teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Julian Heather is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at California State University, Sacramento, where he teaches in the English Education and MA TESOL programs. His areas of expertise include research methodology, language assessment, curriculum design, and computer-assisted language learning.