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Review of  Researching Second Language Classrooms

Reviewer: Julian Heather
Book Title: Researching Second Language Classrooms
Book Author: Sandra Lee McKay
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 17.2186

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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

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

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.

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