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Research and EAL : ways forward for the profession.

Lynne Cameron

School of Education, University of Leeds.

1. Introduction : the need for EAL research

The NALDIC conference in November 1996 was, in the words of the plenary speaker Penny McKay, "buzzing with the need for research". Participants were enthusiastic about the research they heard about at the conference, and vocal in their call for more research to inform EAL practice. Without appropriate evidence about what works, and what doesn't, in developing the language skills of bilingual pupils, classroom practice runs the risk of changing in the wrong direction, or of not changing at all. Research can, and should, provide us with evidence as to the effectiveness of different teaching methods and strategies, and the impact of policy decisions on practice. In this article, I want to explore some of the ways in which EAL might be enriched by having a stronger research base, and how we might move forwards to increase research activity within EAL.

2. Research and the EAL Profession: possibilities

In this section, I want to imagine the possibilities open to us in an ideal world in which EAL had become a research-based profession; I'll then return to the reality of the current situation to see what is actually possible. What guides my imagination here are several key characteristics of research:

I start from the assumption that "the EAL profession" is concerned to develop the English language skills of pupils who use English in addition to other languages, so that their achievement in school, and beyond, may be maximised. Each characteristic of research is taken in turn.

research activity can involve all EAL professionals

Research activity includes using research as well as doing research, and can involve both practitioners (classroom assistants, teachers, advisers, inspectors, trainers) and professional researchers (in universities, contracted to agencies such as SCAA, TTA). Professional researchers are trained in a range of research skills, that they can use to design and carry out projects, such as large-scale surveys, evaluations of programmes, and case studies. The Ph.D. is seen as providing the basic training for a professional academic researcher, equipping people with detailed knowledge of published research and theory in their field, and with first-hand experience of carrying out a piece of research. The profession would benefit from the existence of a growing and dynamic group of academic researchers in EAL, who would help in deepening understanding of the language learning of bilingual pupils and of how this might effectively be supported, through a network of research projects both large and small scale. This research would be available and accessible to practitioners so that they could apply it to their practice. Practitioners would be involved with doing research, as well as using it, through participation in research projects and in carrying out their own small-scale projects, of which "action research" is just one type.

research implies a constructively critical attitude

A research-based EAL would be ceaselessly searching for more effective ways of developing language skills, and would maintain a questioning and sceptical attitude to existing practice and to innovation.

Classroom methodology would be subject to inquiry to evaluate its effectiveness, and different forms of assessment and intervention in language development would be tried out on carefully selected groups of pupils before being more widely introduced. Such "evidence-based research" 1 would be a key factor in the development of practice and policy, acting to prompt change and to safeguard against changes not supported by evidence.

Individuals in the profession would work with a critical attitude too; a teacher faced with two pupils whose English is developing at different speeds, would want to know why, and would set about finding out. A teacher dissatisfied with a pupil's progress would be able to draw on research reading to find a possible way forward, would implement it carefully and evaluate the outcomes.

research tries to be objective

Objectivity is a problematic construct in the social sciences, where research is carried out in the complexity of the real world. Avoidance of subjectivity remains nevertheless a basic aim, and, in large scale research projects, we can employ use multiple methods of investigation, and have data analysed by more than one researcher, to try to maximise objectivity. Smaller scale projects are bound to more subjective, and in such cases it is important to be as explicit as possible about all the assumptions that underlie research design and methodology. In a research-based EAL, this would mean acknowledging that some decisions with pedagogical implications are made for political or socio-cultural reasons, and laying those reasons open to critical evaluation.

research interacts with theory

Findings from different types of research studies would feed into the development of theory. EAL theory would, as a result, become more detailed and precise, able to describe and explain how an additional language develops in a range of EAL contexts, and take account of the effects on language development of factors such as age, L1 level, literacy, and formal education. Theory like this would be useful in predicting progress, in developing assessment tools, and in developing new research questions for investigation.

research is dynamic

The interaction with theory contributes to the continuing development of an active research base. Other forces for development come from interaction with practice and policy; the teacher who had carefully implemented and evaluated a new idea would be able to write a report for a research journal read by colleagues, or talk about it in an evidence-based workshop, so that information would spread. The replication of this work by others would lead to modifications and variations.

In an ideal world, the use of research by policy makers in deciding what needed to change and how, in planning for new situations, or in evaluating policy implementation, would create demands for new research methodology or for the researching of new or changing contexts.

research benefits from contact with other fields

Strong research and theory does not find research in neighbouring fields threatening, but benefits from such contact and confidently seeks it out, through, for example, joint research seminars. EAL research could contribute to, and learn from, basic research in applied linguistics, sociology and psychology, applied research into mother tongue development, or research from EFL and ESL contexts in other countries. Defending theory and research in the face of others' critical attitudes can be a positive and developmental process.

research is a way of thinking

A profession can only be research-based to the extent that its professionals value research characteristics such as those discussed. In a research-based profession, individuals would cultivate "a researching mind" throughout their careers. This would start in initial training where trainees would be introduced to the research tradition and values, would learn how to interpret published research, would carry out and write up simple research projects. Further professional development through periods of advanced study would be an expectation, and would include research training to enable practitioners to carry out and publish research. Research skills would be a factor in promotion. By being entrenched in professional development, research would be respected and integral to decision-making at all levels.

3. Research and EAL: the current situation

Back to earth! Where are we now as far as research in EAL is concerned? Clearly, as members of NALDIC are aware, EAL is under-researched. To pick out just two examples of under-researched areas in EAL: we don't have sufficient research on which to base the development of L1-based teaching of bilingual pupils; we don't have sufficient information to decide whether successful classroom EAL strategies would be useful for monolingual pupils.

It is notable that, in NALDIC, the call for more and better research is coming from EAL practitioners. I believe this reflects something special about EAL professionals, when contrasted with other subject specialists in the broad professional field of education. As a professional group, EAL probably contains a higher proportion of highly qualified (Masters level and above) specialists than many other curriculum areas, partly because language teaching as a field has a long tradition of Masters level specialised courses in Applied Linguistics or ELT. Further study alerts teachers to the existence and relevance of research, and familiarises them with journals and key work in the field. In schools, however, the EAL specialist operates differently from, say, the Maths or History specialist. Mainstreaming shifted responsibility for EAL development on to non-EAL specialist mainstream teachers, and required EAL specialists to work in new ways: in support / partnership roles inside the school or in 'visiting expert' role, when based outside. The interpersonal demands of such roles must often preclude the application of expertise informed by research and theory.

A further paradox appears when we compare EAL in the UK to parallel professional areas in other countries. In America, for example, the research-base for ESL practice is strong, and developed through journals and conferences mainly aimed at practitioners. It is also linked closely to EFL research and practice, through the professional association "TESOL", while maintaining for itself a clear and distinct identity as an area concerned with a particular context of language development. In the UK, links with EFL have been severed for many years. Although this may at one point have been necessary to establish a separate identity for EAL, it does deprive practitioners of potentially relevant and fruitful cross-over links, in both directions.

These various factors contribute to produce a clearly under-researched professional area, staffed by professionals who are aware of the potential of research, with the resulting hunger for relevant research that was felt so clearly at the 1996 NALDIC conference.

More and better directed research is needed to develop EAL theory, which in my opinion, is woefully inadequate. One of the central problems lies in reliance on theory which is over-general 2. We need theory that has been developed for the particular, specific contexts of language development in the mainstream, rather than general theory about language for communication. For example, Penny McKay's research in Australia suggests that many bilingual pupils reach a "plateau level" in their language development after several years in school; this needs to be further researched and incorporated into theoretical explanations of language learning. It seems likely that different theoretical frameworks are needed to describe and explain development at different points in pupil's language learning career, and, without research into the nature and extent of skills development at different stages, our theory remains inadequate. Practice cannot be helpfully informed by over-general theory.

Policy changes in education have been dramatic and unpredictable in recent years. It is unnecessary to point out that they have too been largely uninformed by research. EAL was subject to major policy change several years before the rest of the curriculum, and we might expect that it is, by now, ripe for evaluation, researching the nature and effectiveness of roles that EAL professionals are able to take in subject classrooms, researching the base line and achievement of pupils passing through the system, so that information is collected for future comparisons.

4. Moving towards a research-based profession

I acknowledge that educational issues are never simple; policy and practice are influenced by many different pressures, and research is just one dimension of professional life. We need to work pragmatically within the realities of education. However, the fundamental importance of active research that I have tried to underline, means that we must struggle to find it a solid and respected place in the professional lives of individuals, and in the values and structure of the profession.

As the professional organisation for EAL, NALDIC might move forwards in the following ways, some of which are long term, others of which can be implemented fairly quickly:

Helping individuals develop their research skills

Raising the profile of research within the profession and in contact with other agencies (TTA , OFSTED, SCAA etc)

Determining the EAL research agenda

I have tried in this article to set out some of the possibilities that could be generated by giving research a greater role in EAL, and in NALDIC. There are many other ways in which research can contribute to professional development, but I hope to have shown that being "research-based" could benefit classroom practice and pupils' achievement through the "researching minds" of individual practitioners, members of a profession that makes central use of research in driving forwards theory, practice and policy.


I would like to thank Professor Anne Edwards for comments on a draft of this paper.


1. Hargreaves, D. 1996. Teaching as a Research-Based Profession: possibilities and prospects. Teacher Training Agency Annual Lecture 1996.

2. Leung, C. 1993. The coming crisis of ESL in the National Curriculum. BAAL Newsletter. No 45. pp 27-32.

The author

Lynne Cameron is Lecturer in TESOL /Language Education in the School of Education at the University of Leeds. Before moving into higher education, she taught ESL in West Yorkshire at primary level and in f.e. With other colleagues, she has recently worked on the Leeds Mainstream Development Project, an INSET project with research spin-offs which was designed to develop mainstream teachers' language awareness and skills in language development.