Applying simple yet effective action research principles to the language classroom

Brent CotsworthBy Brent Cotsworth

When I first started teaching ESL, my image of action research was very time intensive and laborious. However, not all action research has to be long or arduous in order for it to be effective. I have found in the last few years that using simple action research based principles in my classroom can help assess student needs and enable better understanding of students both on an individual and group level, therefore influencing my class preparation. Additionally, it has helped me accumulate a wealth of data that I can use for further research.

For those unfamiliar with the term, action research is ‘simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices and the situations in which the practices are carried out ‘ (Carr and Kemmis, 1986, p.162). The four steps involved are Plan, Act, Observe and Reflect.

Using these principles on a small scale in the classroom can help the educator understand what type of students the teacher is dealing with and accordingly tailor the class or certain activities in a way so the students can get the most out of the class. I like to find out about my students by using a simple questionnaire ( 1 – Questionnaire examples ) on the first class, mid semester and then on the final class.

However, at times I use questionnaires more than three times in a semester. I like to have my questionnaires prepared both in Japanese and English. The use of these questionnaires help me understand factors including student attitudes towards English and the class, what motivates them in order to maximise student output in class, what type of personalities I am dealing with, and potential problems or things I should be aware of. For example, knowing some information about the students can help with understanding their study habits in class and with regards to homework and attendance (such as students who live alone and work to support themselves or students who are in clubs or circles where their time and energy is devoted to that club).

In addition to these questionnaires, I also have my students write in a learning journal every week on the class discussing in simple English what they learned while encouraging them to expand on what they thought of the class ( 2 – Journal example ). This helps them reflect on their own progress while also being a valuable source of data as I can follow their progress and read their attitudes and thoughts on the lesson they have just completed.


Edwards and Willis (2005) suggest ten tips for simple research.

  • Keep it small and simple
  • Relevance
  • Make sure there is a clear aim
  • Discuss with others (teachers and students)
  • Read
  • Write and keep notes
  • Listen and learn (from your students and others)
  • Realise that the unexpected is valuable
  • Also realise that there is no correct answer
  • Share your findings

These two examples I have provided of obtaining information are only a guide and I have changed the questions over the years. I have found that expanding on these and thinking about what I would like to know about my classes and students has helped me with teaching. That is why I believe using simple action research can be very beneficial for professional growth as a teacher.


Here is some recommended reading.

  • Nunan, D. 1989 Understanding classrooms: a guide for teacher initiated action Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.
  • Kemmis, S. and R. McTaggert (eds) 1998 (3rd edn) The action research planner Victoria: Deakin University
  • Allwright, D. and K. Bailey 1991 Focus on the language classroom Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Wallace, M. 1998 Action research for language teachers Cambridge: Cambridge University Press



Brent Cotsworth, originally from Australia, has been living in Japan since 1998 and teaching at the tertiary level since 2004. He holds a Masters in Applied Linguistics (Second Language Acquisition) and is interested in task based learning teaching methodology (TBL). Brent currently teaches at Kansai University in Osaka.