Action research: helping students learn, revitalising teaching (and it's time to apply for our 2016 scheme)
24 November 2015

Seasoned teacher Fiona Wattam wondered what her students did with the writing she so carefully marked when the same mistakes kept on appearing. So she decided to find out more, by carrying out an action research project in her classroom.

Fiona's investigations have just won her the Cambridge English Language Assessment/ English UK Action Research Scheme award - and also led to her new college using her research to change the way in which it teaches writing to ELT students.

"I was fed up that I'd been correcting, correcting, correcting over 23 years' teaching but not seeing progress in student writing," says Fiona, who moved to the Colchester Institute from the Colchester English Language Centre shortly after completing her research.

"I thought there must be some research on there on how to make it better - but there wasn't. Doing this for myself has really re-invigorated my teaching - if you do something different, you get a different result."

So what did Fiona do? As she explained in a presentation about her Action Research investigation at the English UK Teachers' Conference in London, her first move was surprisingly simple: to give eight students a book in which to do written work, so that individual papers weren't getting lost. For the first four weeks of the project, she got students to write their first draft in the book, which she corrected using a code, with the aim of training students to spot mistakes themselves.

After four weeks, she just underlined errors, and asked if they could see what the problems were: they could, but were still making mistakes. The errors increased slightly, but were still lower than at the start - but, says Fiona, closer investigation showed the students were writing more and she could see real progress.

She says: "I had decided marking was a waste of time and wasn't helping them or me but I realised that wasn't enough and I had to pay more attention. The students made obvious progress: they felt the book was something they could take home with them and gave added value to the course: students who came and went asked if they could do it. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking to improve their teaching. The limitation was that with students at low levels, it was difficult to give feedback and for them to express themselves, and that the short time frame meant I couldn't see a long-term impact, though the students asked me to continue."

One student valued their blue book so much that they went to "great effort" to retrieve it after leaving it on a bus, says Fiona. 

Meanwhile, Sally Bates, head of international development at the Colchester Institute where Fiona now works, says they have already adopted the approach. 

The other six 2015 finalists were Lindsay Warwick, a teacher and teacher trainer from Bell Cambridge, who researched whether giving criteria to students before a speaking task would help them self-assess better; Andrew Taylor of St Giles London Central, who researched whether students preferred online or traditional homework; Ceri Thomas and April Pugh of Celtic English Academy, who researched the value of productive skills in weekly tests; and Richard Flynn and Christian Newby, of the now-closed Anglo European School of English, who looked at whether regular self-assessment could improve learners' awareness of their strengths and weaknesses.

"It was a lot of hard work definitely, but enjoyable, and it gave me a bit more of the student perspective on the whole language-learning experience," said Christian.

Fiona Barker of Cambridge English said three things she had heard during the participants' presentations at the English UK Teachers' Conference had summed up what the scheme had meant for their teachers. "One spoke of its clear transformative potential, with the power to transform for teachers colleagues and students. Another teacher said it was a very human experience, developing them as teachers, researcher and mentors and underlining the importance of looking at individuals in classes for transformed ideas of what learners could do. And the best comment was when someone said: 'You've all been brilliant.'"

Simon Borg, who works with the action researchers, said for him the highlight was working with a small group of highly-motivated professionals "to learn more about their teaching and learning, very often learning things they didn't think they would learn rather than the things they were initially interested in. It has enough flexibility to allow people to pursue own interests... they come in wanting to look at X and after a few weeks realise Y is of more interest"

We make suggestions around what really matters, a topic of interest to your teaching and your institution and develop that proposal around that meaning to you and your school, with we hope benefits beyond teachers, to their colleagues, students and organisations. We see it as something that benefits English UK schools more generally."

The third Action Research scheme is now open for applications, and English UK's Huan Japes is keen to encourage as many teachers as possible to take part, and as many centres as possible to encourage their teachers. 

"While we do have an award, I want to emphasise that this is not seen as a competition between participants. The award helps to give the profile we need to celebrate everyone's achievement - we've seen five excellent presentations, with paired projects this year."

 *The Cambridge English Language Assessment/ English UK Action Research Scheme is open to teachers in any English UK member centre: those chosen to take part will be supported to carry out their classroom research, and must be prepared to present their research at the English UK Teachers' Conference 2016 and write it up for the Cambridge Research Notes.

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