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Review of  Narrative Inquiry in Language Teaching and Learning Research

Reviewer: Susan Joffe
Book Title: Narrative Inquiry in Language Teaching and Learning Research
Book Author: Gary Barkhuizen Philip Benson Alice Chik
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Ling & Literature
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 26.66

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


In the first chapter the authors introduce the topic and focus of the book, which is how narratives can be studied to enhance the study of language teaching and language learning. When narrators tell their stories they both make sense of their experiences and offer a glimpse of their inner lives to their readers and listeners. Narratives are presented as a vehicle for understanding the experiences of language learners and language teachers in a qualitatively broader and richer way than quantitative measures allow. In fact, the book is exclusively focused on the qualitative analysis of narratives, to the exclusion of quantitative analysis.

The authors offer four reasons for qualitative analysis of language learning narratives. The first is the belief that psychosocial phenomena should not be studied in the same quantitative ways that we study natural phenomena. The second reason is their belief that questions of identity and self are addressed more effectively on a personal level than in attempting to create broad theories. The third reason they offer is that self-narratives demonstrate the way narrators situate themselves in broader society. Finally, the qualitative analysis of narratives gives voice to the narrators and may potentially empower them.

A distinction is made between 'narrative analysis' and 'analysis of narratives.' ''Narrative analysis refers to research in which storytelling is used as a means of analyzing data and presenting findings.'' Analysis of narratives ''refers to research in which stories are used as data.'' Many examples of each are given in this chapter and throughout the book.

It must be noted that the topic of inquiry here is not the language of the narratives of language learners and teachers. Rather, the narratives are a source of information about the experiences and feelings of language learners and language teachers. Language learning and language teaching are the topics of the narrative research presented in the book. The authors list five categories of narratives that fit within this narrow focus: language memoirs, studies of language memoirs, autobiographical case studies, biographical case studies, and studies of multiple narratives.

Chapter 2 is concerned with methods of collecting and transcribing oral narratives. The research participants may be adult language learners, heritage language learners, migrant learners, teacher trainees, or veteran teachers. Two methods of interviewing are discussed: semi-structured interviews and open interviews. Both methods are discussed at length. The authors present several examples of research using each method and their benefits and shortcomings are examined. A detailed list of the questions from the semi-structured interviews of one study (Coryell et al 2010) is given to enable the reader to understand exactly how the research was conducted. A similarly detailed discussion of a study using an open interview technique is included as well. Particular attention is given to the frequency and length of the data collection process, including the advantages of longitudinal studies. The chapter concludes with a section on data transcription. The authors note that very few researchers give detailed descriptions of their transcription methods. This is a very serious problem when the focus of the analysis is the actual language of the narratives. In the studies cited in this book, however, linguistic analysis of the narratives in not the goal. The goal, instead, is to use the narratives to understand the experiences of language learners and language teachers. This qualitative analysis makes transparency of the the transcription methods seems much less crucial.

Chapter 3 shifts from oral narratives to a focus on written narratives. The authors begin the chapter by noting that written narratives are created in a variety of contexts, and are not exclusively generated for research purposes. Four types of written narratives are discussed in the chapter: learner diaries, language learning histories, teacher narratives, and what the authors refer to as teacher and learner narrative frames. Examples of each type of narratives are given and their usefulness for researchers is described in detail.

The fourth type of written narratives, teacher and learner narrative frames, requires some explanation. This refers to narrative templates that are given to students and teachers in order to elicit written narratives. They are the written equivalent of structured or semi-structured interviews discussed in Chapter 2 on oral narratives. Given the requirement that the topic of the narratives must be the language learning experience it would seem that this approach to data collection will be extremely useful, if not absolutely necessary.

Chapter 4 introduces the reader to two novel ways to elicit language learning narratives. The authors call these multimodal narratives. These narratives are elicited (and sometimes presented) with written questions accompanied by drawings, two dimensional images, and video segments. All of these materials offer the narrators a richer means of accessing their stories and their emotions related to their stories. The chapter also includes discussion of another method of narrative elicitation and presentation: online platforms for creating and sharing language learning narratives. The shared language learning histories and narratives can include individual presentations as well as collaborative stories. The authors include examples of such platforms and several suggestions for how to host them.

Chapter 5 presents several methods of qualitative data analysis for narratives. The chapter begins with some general observations about qualitative research. Citing Dornyei (2007) they note that qualitative data analysis is characterized by three qualities: it is iterative, emergent, and interpretive. The iterative quality refers to the fact that qualitative data collection is not a linear process whereby the data collection phase is completed and followed by data analysis. Rather the research often swings back and forth between the two phases. Related to the iterative quality, the emergent quality of qualitative research refers to the fact that repeated rounds of data analysis may be necessary to identify significant findings. When doing quantitative analysis the areas of focus are likely to be predefined by the researchers. And of course qualitative data analysis is necessarily interpretive. Without the strength of quantitative methods researchers must give strong persuasive arguments to support these interpretations.

The various methods of data collection described in the previous chapters will yield both narratives and non-narrative data. The non-narrative data cannot be analyzed using all of the same methods of narrative analysis. Nevertheless the authors encourage researchers to recreate some of the non-narrative data into what they call ''story form'' (page 73). This would involve retrieving narratives embedded in interviews, journals, and other sources. The authors argue for a very broad definition of narrative. In addition to retrieving elicited narratives from interviews, they include two additional sources of narratives: narratives created by the researcher based on interviews, and non-elicited narratives within interviews.

One way researchers analyze narrative data is to look for themes in the narratives. This thematic analysis may look for themes within a single narrative, or across multiple narratives. Examples of both are given. The discussion helpfully includes both the types of themes that emerge from the analysis as well as a practical discussion of how the themes are identified. The themes that emerge from this type of analysis may reflect the narrators' attitudes toward themselves as learners, toward their linguistic environment, or toward the language learning experience itself.

Another way research analyzes narratives is to look at the narrative discourse itself. There are endless possibilities for this type of analysis. The authors give several detailed examples which focus on very diverse aspects of narratives, including metaphors, narrative structure, and the role of narratives in interaction (see Gao 2010, and Chik 2011 among others).

While qualitative analysis is somewhat less structured as an approach than quantitative analysis, it nevertheless needs to be credible regarding its validity. The chapter includes discussions of the need for the analysis to be rigorous, trustworthy, and generalizable. The methods of analysis must be systematic and thorough. The researcher must be careful not to cherry pick examples which support his or her hypothesis. The authors point out that narrative accounts often represent the emotional response to events rather than the facts of those events. In order for the analysis to be deemed trustworthy, researchers may need to clarify whether they consider the research narratives in question to be accurate representations of, or subjective responses to events. Furthermore, they cite several authors (Chik and Benson 2008, among others) who bring their analysis back to the narrators for their feedback and verification that their analysis is correct. Finally, generalizability is understood here to mean that narrative research findings relate to a wider set of contexts than the individual study cited. Furthermore, the findings should ideally relate to theory. A study which does not contribute to a broader understanding of language, people, settings, or theory is not much of a scholarly contribution. The authors complain that this is indeed a fault of much of the language learning narrative analysis literature.

Chapter 6, “Reporting Narrative Studies”, explains how to write up narrative analysis studies. Most of this chapter is generalizable to writing up any research. The report must include the following sections: introduction, literature review, methodology, findings, discussion, and conclusion. Nevertheless, there are a number of suggestions that are of particular importance to narrative analysis research. In the methodology section, when discussing the research participants, the authors recommend that the section include a description of the researcher(s) as well as the narrators, and clarify the relationship of the two. Another suggestion is that the purpose of the research be made explicit. Because the focus of the book is on a subset of narrative research, the research of narratives on language learning, many of the studies are done with a focus on understanding and improving the language learning experience. This distinguishes these studies from others that focus on language proficiency, identity, narrative structure, and other topics. Making the purpose of the research explicit increases the likelihood that the proper target audiences will benefit from the research, and that those whose interests lie elsewhere will quickly move on to more appropriate reading material. The importance of including examples from the narratives is emphasized, and examples from the authors' own research are given, along with research by others (Casavane 2012).


This book is a very user friendly presentation of how to do qualitative narrative research with a focus on language teaching and research. The authors intend the book to be a how-to manual. The entire book, and each individual chapter, is well laid out. Very useful examples and illustrations are given throughout, and there is a boxed summary at the end of each chapter with a bulleted list of the topics covered. Another important feature is the discussion of ethical issues in almost every chapter. Often this topic receives a perfunctory mention in the literature, if even mentioned at all. It is particularly important that it be discussed in this book for two reasons. One is that much of the research cited here, and the type of research the authors are encouraging, uses narratives that were collected in language learning settings. Often this data was not collected with an a priori intent to make it the basis of analysis. This raises ethical considerations not often faced by researchers who have obtained consent before their data is ever collected. The second reason this is important is that many of the readers who are likely to want to do the type of narrative research discussed here will be language teachers. As people who normally work outside the sphere of academia, they are less likely to be familiar with research ethics and most likely to benefit from the discussion here.

It is important to note that this book discusses a very narrow field of research: the use of narrative analysis in the context of language teaching and research. Within this context the focus is narrowed even further. Only qualitative studies, which focus on identity and the language learning experience, are discussed. As stated above, the authors give clear reasons for this focus.

The book's almost complete absence of discussion of the merits of narratives as a source of quantitative data about L2 proficiency is puzzling. Perhaps the authors feel that the use of language learners' narratives is discussed extensively elsewhere. Perhaps it is not the authors' area of interest or expertise. The book is almost unique in its discussion of qualitative analysis of L2 learners' narratives, so perhaps they mean to fill in a gap in the literature. They certainly give many and varied examples of qualitative analysis. Nevertheless, the absence of a meaningful discussion of quantitative analysis makes the book feel somewhat unbalanced. A discussion of both would offer language teachers a broader, more complete presentation of the many ways that learners' narratives can be used as a source of information about the language classroom, the learning process, and the learners themselves.

A careful reading of the examples of narrative studies cited throughout the book reveals another way in which this book is unique. Many of the studies use learner materials that would not be considered narratives at all by other researchers (give examples). The authors discuss this directly in Chapter 3 when they list possible sources of learner data. These sources include narratives in the traditional sense, responses to questions which may or may not follow a narrative construction, and narratives that the language teacher ''constructs'' from students' responses to classroom materials. This brings two concerns to mind. It might be argued that the qualitative methodologies proposed by the authors make the distinctions between these data sources irrelevant. If the researcher is not interested in narrative structure, for example, then the fact that some of the data is not, in fact, actually narrative data may not be important. If that is the case, perhaps it would be better to identify it as narrative and non-narrative data. Of greater concern is the generation of narratives (by teacher/researchers) from non-narrative learner material. It is hard to imagine that this can truly be done without the researcher's own biases becoming part of the new ''narratives.''
Language teachers, and researchers of language learners, will benefit from this book's presentation of some of the many ways that qualitative analysis of language learners' narratives can be used to understand the experiences of students and teachers.


Barkhuizen, G. (2010). An Extended Positioning Analysis of a Pre-service Teacher's Better Life Small Story. Applied Linguistics, 31, (2), 282-300.

Casavane, C.P. (2012). Diary of a Dabbler: Ecological Influences on an EFL Teacher's Efforts to Study Japanese Informally. TESOL Quarterly, 46 (4), 642-70.

Chik, A. (2011). Learner Language Awareness Development among Asian Learners and Implications for Teacher Education. In S. Breidbach, D. Elsner, and A. Young (Eds.) Language Awareness in Teacher Education: Cultural-political and Socio-educational Dimension. Berlin: Peter Lang.

Chik, A., and Benson, P. (2008). Frequent Flyer: A Narrative of Overseas Study in English. In P. Kalaha, V. Menezes, and A.M.F. Barcelos (Eds.), Narratives of Learning and Teaching EFL (pp. 155-68). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Coryell, J.E., Clark, M.C., and Pomerantz, A. (2010). Cultural Fantasy Narratives and Heritage Language Learning: A Case Study of Adult Heritage Learners of Spanish. The Modern Language Journal, 94 (3), 453-69.

Dornyei, Z. (2007). Research Methods in Applied Linguistics: Quantitative, Qualitative, and Mixed Methodologies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gao, X. (2010). Autonomous Language Learning Against All Odds. System, 38 (4), 580-90.
Labov, W. (1972). Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Polkinghorne, D.E. (1995). Narrative Configuration in Qualitative Analysis. Qualitative Studies in Education, 8 (1), 5-23.
Susan Joffe is a PhD student at Bar Ilan University. Her dissertation research looks at the relationship between motivation, identity, and second language proficiency. Her areas of interest include bilingualism, narrative analysis, corpus linguistics, and research methodologies.

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