Elements of Primary Research in Writing Class

Engaging learners in the meaningful use of English outside the classroom is one of the aims of any language course. However, this goal is hard to achieve sometimes, especially in those contexts where the target language is not the dominant language of the society. Therefore, it seems to be important, and even necessary, for a teacher to develop activities and projects that would increase students’ exposure to the target language. One such activity, reading-based freewriting, was addressed in my previous entry. In today’s post, I will share another experience from my teaching practice on how to help L2 writers to increase their interaction in English by working on course projects.

The method that I am suggesting is by no means innovative, and I am sure that most of us used it at some point in our pedagogical experiences: This method is conducting basic primary research, such as surveying and interviewing. Regardless of its simplicity, however, this approach accomplishes multiple purposes, among which are motivating students and engaging them in the meaningful use of the target language, diversifying the syllabus, and extending the learning environment beyond the classroom, just to name a few.

Assigning interviews and surveys can be one of the requirements of both larger writing projects and small homework assignments. An example for the former can be one of the course projects from my first-year composition class last semester, for which the students had to explore campus resources available for international students and gather information about those resources by both interviewing students and staff members working in those organizations as well as collecting data from the online materials. The implementation of the primary research technique was successful and elicited positive feedback from the students.

I mentioned motivation as one of the outcomes of the “primary research approach” in teaching writing. Students indeed find themselves interested and engaged in finding out information needed for their projects or tasks by talking to people. To illustrate, I was surprised to realize that for another project, a research paper, which was assigned later on in the semester, some students decided (although it was not not required) to implement interviewing and surveying as they were doing research for their topics.

For example, one student suggested in his paper that a diversity class be implemented for all freshmen students as a mandatory course to help them develop tolerance towards the differences in cultures and accept people of diverse backgrounds. As part of his research for this argumentative paper, he interviewed several students from various majors as well as one faculty member asking their opinions on the implementation of such a class. He was surprised to find out that people did not see eye-to-eye on that issue, which eventually helped him to better develop his argument. He was not the only one in the class who used this approach to examine a research topic chosen for their paper.

An example of a homework assignment that would incorporate the elements of surveys and interviews can be a paraphrasing or summarizing task, which works just like a regular paraphrasing or summarizing task, only in this case, students will deal with the words of a real person – the one that they themselves talked to. Or you could ask students to survey several people and then have them categorize their responses based on a certain principle of organization. The list of such activities can go on and on.

Don’t be discouraged, however, if you teach in a foreign language setting! Your students don’t have to interview native speakers of the language; they can interview learners from another class or even each other! Online surveys may be your other avenue, as well as e-mails and social networking websites.

All in all, even such basic elements of primary research as interviewing and surveying can help you engage students in writing assignments, help them develop their ability to compose for a real audience, and use the target language outside the walls of the language classroom.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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