Television in TESOL – The research agenda
Richard Kiely

Part three in the three part series

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1. Introduction

In my previous articles I presented an overview of television in TESOL, and a detailed discussion of how I used a specific piece of television data in my own teaching. These articles represent a conventional teacher’s perspective , where the goal is to furnish the programme with activities which engage, motivate and inspire the students and teacher, while focussing on aspects of language form, language and communication, and the wider cultural context of language use. The teacher’s concern is about making the classroom an effective learning environment. Teachers know from experimentation with different material types, data sources and teaching strategies what works to create the kind of classroom they are interested in. What may not be clear from teaching action alone is WHY and TO WHAT EXTENT. As practitioners, teachers have a real time sense of what is successful and what is less successful with particular groups. Where an activity is successful, they re-use and extend the idea. Where it is unsuccessful, they leave it, move on and try something else. This process constitutes valuable learning in itself, and is an essential element of that factor so appreciated in employment contexts: ‘experience’. It does not however, lead to explanation, either for the teacher or the wider professional and academic communities. A research perspective is one way of working towards explanations and thus, understandings of the links between classroom processes and learning.

There are many different perspectives on research carried out by teachers, in many ways different routes and modes of transport towards the destination of knowledge construction. We can consider the ROUTES as traditions of enquiry:

2. Routes

2.1 Action Research

Action research is a form of enquiry which involves practioners, and focuses on how professional action and specific interventions are shaped by local conditions. Kurt Lewin, widely considered as the first user of the term Action Research characterised it in a way which at the time was a radical shift for the knowledge-building process, but now seems quite tame:

Lawfulness in social as in physical science means an "if so" relation, a relation between hypothetical conditions and hypothetical effects. These laws do not tell what conditions exist locally, at a given place at a given time. In other words these laws don't do the job of diagnosis which has to be done locally. Neither do laws prescribe a strategy for change.

Lewin 1946, quoted in Adelman 1993:11

The key contribution of Lewin was the notion that practitioners can and must contribute to knowledge-building and theory-onstruction enterprise: the researchers and designers cannot do this alone. Crookes (1993) discussion the role of Action Research in Applied Linguistics and language education, sets out two types: i) research in the Lewin tradition which merges knowledge building in the local context with the more generic theory elaboration and testing of the academy, and ii) a form of enquiry which constitutes, in a tradition developed by writers such as Kemmis & McTaggart (1981) McNiff (1988), a strategy for innovation and culture change within organisations and programmes.

2.2 Reflective practice

Schön (1983) describes Reflective Practice as a form of personal learning deriving for analytic and critical engagement with automatised routine practices. The Schön perspective contributes essentially towards more effective professional problem-solving, tacit and unarticulated, although in TESOL, this form of action has also been operationalised as a conventional-research form of enquiry (Richards & Lockhart 1994).

2.3 Programme evaluation

Programme evaluation is a form of enquiry which can focus narrowly on the measurement of effectiveness (such as test) or on compliance with mandates from external organisations (such as inspections). Increasingly, programme evaluation also seeks to have a development impact, to work with all programme participants to improve the programme (Kiely & Rea-Dickins 2005). This involves a broader view, which encompasses the goals, efforts and perspectives of all programme participants, as well as scrutiny of classroom activities and learning materials.

These traditions of enquiry can involve teachers working alone, in collaboration with teacher colleagues, or as part of a whole programme/institution initiative, in understanding how learning happens in a context, and how opportunities for learning can be enhanced and more effectively accessed.


3. Modes of transportation

To continue the journey metaphor, we can understand modes of transportation as research strategies, which refer to both research design and data collection and analysis factors. An overview of the options here are set out in Table 1 below.

3.1 Intervention-based and Naturalistic approaches

Research design includes two broad approaches: intervention-based, and naturalistic. Interventionist approaches involve designing and implementing a particular teaching task or strategy and then investigating its effects. Naturalistic approaches are those where the researcher (or teacher) does not intervene in the choice of teaching activity: rather she or he investigates what happens in the classroom. The data types for intervention-based and naturalistic approaches seem similar on the surface: key differences derive from the essentially positivistic, quantitative orientation of research into interventions, and the generally more qualitative, interpretive approaches to naturalistic enquiry in TESOL contexts. These differences are reflected in the use of tests in the study of interventions and the attention to documents and other aspects of practice which reflect local and wider cultural influences in naturalistic research.

3.2 Behaviour and Attitudes

Data in research by English teachers (as indeed for researchers across the social sciences) is likely to involve accounts of behaviour (what people do), or attitudes (what people think), or a combination of the two. The methods for data collection listed in Table 1 represent broad categories of instrument types: normally a researcher will design an instrument from analysis of the research purpose and context (see Table 2). General guidelines to this task can be found in the range of handbooks on research which have particular relevance in the TESOL/Applied Linguistics field, such as: Brown (1990), Cohen, Mannion & Morrison (2000), Johnson (1992), McDonough & McDonough (1997), Nunan (1992), Richard (2003), Wallace (1998).


Recorded classroom discourse / interaction


Test/ assessment results

Students’ written work

Electronic tracking data




Stimulated recall


Recorded classroom discourse / interaction Fieldnotes

Students’ work

Curriculum and cultural artefacts (including electronic data)




Stimulated recall

Table 1 Research strategies – Design and method matrix (adapted from Kiely and Rea-Dickins 2005)

Very often these research strategies (routes and modes of transportation) are established before a specific enquiry is engaged. Teachers through reading, attending conferences or talks, or studying for a postgraduate or research qualification may identify a specific strategy as suited to their personality, individual view of the social, or the set of resources and constraints they are working with. In the next section I consider some of the ways in which research strategy and personal orientation to knowledge-construction might engage with explorations of the benefits of television data in the TESOL classroom.

4. Journeys & destinations

It may be a weakness of the journey metaphor here that the decision about destination is made after consideration of route and mode of transportation. In the real world (as teachers know well) planning and decision-making are never linear in the way that such models suggest. And a final course of action rarely conforms neatly or rigidly to a pre-ordained model of enquiry. Given these limitations, teachers can use the above framework to research the contribution of television to their language teaching programme. Table 2 sets out some ways in which teachers can plan enquiries into these resources. The matrix is intended to be indicative rather than exhaustive; to initiate thinking into teacher research in this are, rather than provide plans ready to implement.

Aspect of language teaching where the contribution of television merits enquiry


Purpose of research – some examples


Research strategy

I: Intervention

N: Naturalistic

B: Behaviour

A: Attitudes

ROUTES: Teacher research discourses


Comparisons of task and activity types using tests and students’ work; (I; B)

Self-assessments and reflections by students and teachers on how learning with television contributed to particular abilities and capacities.

(I; N; A)

Action Research

Programme evaluation

Effectiveness in terms of language learning outcomes To understand how television data contributes to learning in relation to the four skills, (direct skills development such as listening/viewing comprehension skills, or indirect skills development such as television as a stimulus for speaking and writing) development or specific aspects of form, such as grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation    
Effectiveness in terms of language learning process To understand how television data contributes to classroom and other learning processes

Accounts of classroom and other learning processes using recorded classroom discourse and/or fieldnotes which reveal ways in which television data added value, or created opportunities for learning

(I; N; A; B)

Action Research

Reflective Practice

Programme evaluation


Examining how students take ownership of the opportunities for learning, and documenting i) use of television outside the classroom; ii) opportunities to talk or write about responses to television data; and iii) opportunities to suggest television data for classroom activities.

(I; N; A)

Action research

Programme evaluation

Autonomy To understand how use of television data in the curriculum engages and empowers learners and facilitates independent learning    
Culture and intercultural learning as dimensions of the language curriculum To understand the contribution of television the these aspects of the language curriculum

Examining how views of self and others become more complex and nuanced through television-based activities

(I; N; A)

Action Research

Reflective Practice

Programme evaluation

Motivation in language learning and teaching To understand the particular motivational effects of television data in the language curriculum Understanding how language learning aspirations and effort are affected by activities involving television viewing (I;N;A;B)

Action Research

Programme evaluation

Teaching and management perspectives To understand i) how the use of television affects the teacher’s role and planning processes, and ii) the technical aspects of creating and monitoring access to television data

Examining the time and other resources required to create access (in terms of recording, editing, and task designing) to ephemeral television data for learning purposes.


Action Research

Programme evaluation

5. Concluding comments

We can reduce the challenges facing the language teacher to two opposing discourses in current views of communicative language teaching:

  • teaching and learning processes should reflect patterns of language use in the ‘real world’; and
  • language classrooms are not the ‘real world’ of language use, and as sites of learning and teaching may involve language-focussed activities which on the surface bear little resemblance to the patterns of language use in real-world contexts.

Teachers typically in their planning and practices will bridge these discourses. This may involve leading learners in activities which dissect, analyse and manipulate language in ways which do not reflect patterns of language use in other contexts of communication, while at the same time explaining the relevance of such activities in terms of knowledge and skills for later effective and authentic communication. The latter task – explaining the relevance – may involve strategies to inspire, motivate, engage, and contribute to forming extended identities as language users. Television can connect these different elements of the language curriculum. Teachers can take slice of social life, readily-packaged in video or digital format with language and visual elements, subject it to the dissecting and manipulating that characterise language classrooms, and the same time tap directly into the ways in which our knowledge of cultural and communicative practices contributes to comprehension.

When this virtuous conjunction of learning dynamics occurs, it merits celebration, and also further enquiry. Teachers will understand the WHAT and HOW of pedagogical success in the classroom: determining WHY in a way which can be shared with others, and which fully reflects the quality of that teacher’s work, reflect the perspective that only a systematic enquiry perspective can provide.


Adelman, C. 1993 Kurt Lewin and the origins of action research. Educational Action Research Vol 1 No 1 pp. 7-24

Brown, J. D. 1990. Understanding Research in Second Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brumfit, C. & Mitchell, R. 1989. Research in the Language Classroom. Devon: Modern English Publications in association with The British Council.

Cohen, L., Mannion, L. & Morrison, K. 2000 Research Methods in Education. London: Routledge

Crookes, G. 1993 Action Research for second language teachers: going beyond teacher research. Applied Linguistics Vol 14 No 2 pp. 130-144

Johnson, D. 1992. Approaches to Research in Second Language Learning. New York: Longman

Kemmis, S. & R. McTaggart 1981 The Action Research Planner. Victoria: Deakin University Press

Kiely, R. & P. Rea-Dickins 2005 Programme Evaluation in Language Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

McDonough, J. & S. McDonough 1997. Research Methods for Language Teachers. London: Arnold.

McNiff, J. 1988 Action Research: Principles and Practice. Basingstoke: Macmillan Educational.

Nunan, D. 1992. Research Methods in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J. & C. Lockhart 1994 Reflective teaching in second language classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Richards, K. 2003 Qualitative Inquiry in TESOL. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan Wallace, M. 1998 Action Research for Language Teachers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


Richard Kiely has taught English and trained teachers in Zambia, France, Malaysia, Mexico, Hong Kong and Poland. He is a Senior lecturer in the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol where he coordinates the masters in TESOL, directs the CREOLE Research centre, and teaches and supervises research on the EdD and MPhil/PhD programmes.
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