An Action Research on English Intonation Teaching for EFL learners


My study aims at improving intermediate or advanced EFL learners' intonation (supra-segmental) using audio-video aids in combination with various activities. The main focus is on whether the training helps improve learners' intonation and if they can produce speech with intonation after the training or not. The goal can be obtained through the model of action research that involves actions and reflections. Action research, according to Whitehead (1989) and Mcniff (1993), constitutes a look at 'the questions in the class of things which disturb us' and tries to 'find out the solution'. The teachers can function as researchers. They develop their 'professional competence' and help enhance their students' learning through the research. Being a university teacher, I intensely desire to follow this approach not merely for this PhD study but also for my future research career. This approach enables me to investigate as well as evaluate my teaching and more ambitiously, I can create my own theory of teaching practice. Furthermore, it would be ideal if the research leads to some changes in my university policy about English teaching, for example, to launch an intonation course either as a separate compulsory course for English majors or an optional one for non-English majors. As can be seen, action research has obviously entailed a vast number of benefits for teachers in terms of career development, let alone for a nation's education advancement.

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Following on from the above mentioned reasons, one more reason rests on the characteristics of an action research itself which is to emancipate and empower participants who will take a leadership role in managing their learning methods for their learning benefits. Originating from the idea of learner-centred approach, I am more inclined to take learners' learning process seriously with the help of learners' research diaries that contain their reflections on the teaching and learning process, questionnaires and recordings so as to find out the best possible method to facilitate their learning of English intonation. I believe the best method lies in the learners themselves. Moreover, action research can enable me to spot problems in my teaching practice so that instant and timely changes can be made to better the practice.

The research involves two cycles with one ultimate goal that is to witness the learners' improvement of speaking with intonation. My students will act as participants who write their reflections on their improvement- about how it occurs and my teaching practice after every training session. I act as a trainer, an observer and a researcher at the same time. One native speaker will be needed for the assessment of my student's intonation through their pre and post-test recordings. Each six-week cycle includes 2 stages of training of which each session lasts 1 hour. The first 2-week stage focuses on theoretical knowledge of supra-segmental aspects including pitch, stress, liaison, elision, rhythm and intonation; and on awareness raising, the second 4-week stage on practice of speaking with correct stress, liaison, elision and intonation. Throughout the stages, student-centred activities such as conversations, role playing, peer-grading, learning and assessing/discussion/observation (identify partners' mistakes, give corrections, advice will called for. At the beginning of each session, students will listen to a conversation/dialog/text. The training will have recourse to audio-video aids made by English native speakers with a strong belief that they can help improve students' intonation hugely. Changes or adaptations will be made after each cycle to suit the situation.

1. Background and history of the development of action research

With regard to the progress of action research, McKernan (1991) mentioned five main movements that influenced Action Research (AR). The first one is the Science in Education Movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century when scientific method was first introduced into education. Next comes the movement of Experimentalist and Progressive educational work, notably the work of John Dewey, 'who applied the inductive scientific method of problem solving as a logic for the solution of problems in such fields as aesthetics, philosophy, psychology and education' (McKernan 1991:8). Another movement in the nineteenth century is called Group Dynamics which focused on social psychology and human relations training and addressed the social problems of the era through qualitative social enquiry (McKernan 1991:9). The movement was repeated in 1940s to address some of the problems like racial prejudice, inter-group relations and onslaught of WWII. Kurt Lewin who discussed action research as a form of experimental inquiry based upon the groups experiencing problems is widely known for this movement. The next movement is Post-war Reconstructionist Curriculum Development Activity when action research in education was used as 'a general strategy for designing curricula and attacking complex problems, such as inter-group relations and prejudice through large curriculum development projects (McKernan 1991: 10). However, action research was in decline and under attack by the end of the 1950s. The last movement with its influence on action research is known as 'The teacher-researcher movement' which originated in the UK. The work of Stenhouse (1971, 1975) was notable, he felt that 'all teaching should be based upon research, and that research and curriculum development were the preserve of teachers'. Other important developments are the Ford Teaching Project and the Classroom Action Research Network.

2. The fundamental ideas of action research

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The word 'action research' itself indicates the combination of both 'action' as 'practice' and 'research' as 'theory' which is at the same time the essential feature of the approach. This is also often known as an alternative social science research approach based on community for practitioners in the field as mentioned by Stringer (1996:9). The approach aims at testing out of ideas in practice as a means of improvement in social conditions and increasing knowledge (Kemmis & McTaggert, 1988:6). It is also defined as a "systemic inquiry that is collective, collaborative, self-reflective, critical and undertaken by participants in the inquiry" (McCutcheon and Jung, 1990:148) and "a form of collective self-reflective inquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own social or educational practices, as well as their understanding of these practices and the situations in which these practices are carried out" Kemmis and McTaggert's definition (1990:5). Also discussing about action research, (Rapoport 1970:499 as cited in McKernan 1991:4) "action research aims to contribute both to the practical concerns of people in an immediate problematic situation and to the goals of social science by joint collaboration within a mutually acceptable ethical framework"

3. Questions that action research seek to answer

An action research project seeks to create knowledge, propose and implement change and improve practice and performance (Stringer, 1996). Action research is often conducted to discover a plan for innovation or intervention and is collaborative. Action research identifies and clarifies the problems and area of focus, defines the factors involved in the area of focus (Mills, 2003), for example, English intonation teaching/learning, the teaching of English reading skill, etc. It suggests the intervention or innovation to be implemented and also develops a timeline for the implementation of research. Apart from that, it describes the data to be collected and develops data collection and plans analysis. Lastly, it carries out the plan and reports the results. The defining features of action research also reflect the qualities of leaders in collaborative cultures of change. These qualities include a deep understanding of the organization, vision and insight, a quest for new knowledge, a desire for improved performance, self-reflective activity and a willingness to effect change (Fullan, 2000a, 2000b).

4. The major stages of an action research cycle

Despite the difference of the terms, action research is under three main themes namely empowerment of participants, collaboration from participants, acquisition of knowledge and social change. In order to achieve these themes, the researcher needs to undergo a spiral of action research cycles with four main phases consisting of planning, acting, observing and reflecting (Zuber-Skerrit, 1991:2).

Figure 1 - The Action Research Spiral

(after Zuber-Skerrit, 1995:13)

The upward direction indicates the continuously extension of professional knowledge, an improvement of practice and experience (Zuber-Skerrit, 1995). The four crucial action elements in the spiral can be explained as follows

Plan. Develop a plan of critically informed action to improve current practice. The plan must be flexible to allow adaptation for unforeseen effects or constraints;

Act. The group members act to implement the plan which must be deliberate and controlled

Observe. This action is observed to collect evidence which allows thorough evaluation. The observation must be planned and a journal may be used for recording purposes. The action process and its effects within the context of the situation should be observed individually or collectively;

Reflection of the action recorded during observation is usually aided by discussion among the group members. Group reflection can lead to a reconstruction of the meaning of the social situation and provides a basis for further planning of critically informed action, thereby continuing the cycle.

These steps are carried out in a more careful, systematic and rigorous way than that which usually occurs in daily practice (Kemmis & McTaggert, 1988:10-14; Zuber-Skerritt, 1992:16).

In a similar vein, Lewin (1946) addressed a spiral of steps that involve planning, action and an evaluation of the result of the action. The AR process begins with a general idea that an improvement or change in the practitioner's area of work is desirable. A group then forms to clarify the mutual concern which has been identified. The group makes the decision to work together and focus its improvement strategies on the 'thematic concern' (Hart & Bond, 1995:54; Kemmis & McTaggert, 1988:8-9).

5. Characteristics and principles of action research

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The different definitions of action research themselves have entailed the six major characteristics which, to some extent, entail the principles of an action research as proposed by Holter & Schwartz-Barcott (1993), Zuber-Skerritt (1992:14). They include problem solving, collaboration, change in practice, theory development and public results respectively which can be easily distinguished from other models of research. Problem solving is the main aim of action research, they can be addressed from a specific situation and setting determined by the group or organization and identified by various methods of data collection such as questionnaires, interviews, observations, etc., (Holter & Schwartz-Barcott, 1993; Stringer, 1996:9). Collaboration means the interaction between a researcher (s) and a practitioner(s). In some cases the researcher is considered as a 'co-worker' with a practitioner. But in common sense, practitioners are individuals who know the field from an insider or an internal perspective, who understand the workplace meticulously and what are expected to be done to the local setting. The 'researcher' is an outsider who has limited knowledge regarding the setting but has expertise in theory and research. The collaboration between the two parties varies from periodic to continuous degree throughout the study (Hart & Bond, 1995:55; Holter & Schwartz-Barcott, 1993). Regarding 'change in practice', (Zuber-Skerritt, 1992:12) said action research aims more at practical improvements in the problem area rather than theoretical importance and (Holter & Schwartz-Barcott, 1993) asserted that the change in practice will depend on the nature of the problem identified. Theory development is also an important goal of an action research; it is interpreted by Holter and Schwartz-Barcott (1993) that the results assist the researcher in developing new theories or expanding scientific theories. By the evidence and the critical reflection gathered, researcher can create a 'developed, tested and critically-examined rationale' for the practitioner's area of practice (Kemmis and Mc Taggart, 1988:25). The final characteristics is also quite analogous with that of any research, that is all solutions or theories produced in the research should be publicized to the wider community who may have an interest in that work setting or situation (Zuber-Skerritt, 1992:14). All these above-mentioned characteristics are neatly summarised by Zuber-Skerritt (1992:15) in the CRASP model in which each letter stands for features as follows

Critical collaborative enquiry by

Reflective practitioners being

Accountable and making the results of their enquiry public,

Self-evaluating their practice and engaged in

Participative problem-solving and continuing professional development

6. Different Types of Action research

As said earlier, different terms are used for action research modes; nevertheless, three major types widely known among researchers are technical, practical and emancipatory. About the first type-technical, Holter and Schwartz-Barcott (1993) put it 'the goal of this type is testing of an intervention based on a pre-specified theoretical framework. The researcher is questioning whether the selected intervention can be applied in a practical setting'. In this type, 'the researcher acts as an outside expert who aims to gain the practitioner's interest in the research, and agreement to assist in the implementation of the intervention' (Holter & Schwartz-Barcott, 1993; Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988:12). The second type involves the collaboration of the researcher and practitioner to identify potential problem, underlying causes and possible solutions or interventions. The researcher encourages participation and self-reflection of the practitioner (Holter & Schwartz-Barcott, 1993; Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988:12). The third type known as 'emancipatory' involves all participants equally with no hierarchy, the researcher aims to decrease the distance between the actual problems identified by the practitioner and the theory used to explain and resolve the problems. The researcher also facilitates reflective discussion with the practitioner to identify underlying problems and assumptions. This assists the researcher to become a collaborative member of the group (Holter & Schwartz-Barcott, 1993; Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988, p:12).

7. My action research

After investigating action research for a long while, understanding its characteristics, its types, I choose the collaborative type for my PhD study which is a participatory small-scale action research. Why do I follow this type? For me as a teacher, the aim of doing an academic research is at developing, monitoring and discovering changes from the localized, contextualized educational setting of small scope for my own self-development rather than for initiating large-scale reform, this is also what Wallace (2000), Burns (1999) and Rainey (2000) asserted about research for teacher researchers. With this mode, I can access my students in my home university easily. As a full-time teacher for almost four years there, I have quite thorough insights into the English teaching context in the faculty and English teaching situation in Vietnam. That Gilmore, Krantz, & Ramirez (1986:24) emphasize on the importance of 'co-learning as a primary aspect of the research process' leads me to the ideas of being a participatory researcher, with an expectation that problems of teaching and learning English intonation can be identified and studied systematically.

7.1 The nature of data

This type of research allows me as a researcher to be rather flexible in collecting data, data can be in the forms of a test, questionnaire, diary, interviews, observations, etc. each of which bears its own particular nature, but generally speaking they will provide both subjective and objective nature of data when they are dug into meticulously. In my particular research, as discussed before, data are mainly in the forms of diary entries, the nature of this kind of data is personal-oriented. They are subjective experience, reflections and evaluations which vary depending on other factors such as psychological, social and affective factors (McDough and McDough, 2003:135). But they have a lot of advantages which can help me understand learners' needs and their learning process better to make timely changes or adaptation to get the best outcome.

7.2. Method of collecting and analyzing data; and epistemological foundations (the view of knowledge underpins the method)

Three forms of data in my research include questionnaires, recordings (test), diaries (reports), some of which are proposed for an action research by Brown (1995) (as tests, observations, interviews, meeting and questionnaires, etc) to gain reliable, valid and useful information to provide an insight into the teaching and learning practice. The forms of data can help learners realize their best learning method and better their English intonation outcome, which supports O'Brien (2001) ideas that asserted "action research is learning by doing that is when a group of people identify a problem, do something to resolve it, see how successful their efforts were and, if not satisfied, try again." This is also one of the general aims of an action research 'changes in practice are based on the collection of information or data which provides impetus for change' (Burns, 1999: 34)

The method of data collection and analysis will be basically a qualitative one which is to do with classification, descriptions, logic of descriptions, interpretation, interferences 'process-oriented' (Chaudron, C., 1988) though rarely in some place, it looks a bit like a quantitative one which deals with statistics, numbers, measurements, objective and product-oriented.

7.2.1 Questionaire (deliver twice- at the beginning and at the end of the training program)

The first questionnaire delivered at the beginning of the training centres on identifying students' problems or difficulties to learn to speak with intonation, their attitudes to intonation acquisition (whether it's important or not, do they really wish to improve), the second questionnaire (delivered at the end of the training) will be designed for evaluating the training program, getting students' feedback on the training.

7.2.2 Recordings (test)

The second kind of data are students' recordings in the pre and post-test assessment and analysis which will involve reading aloud a short passage; each of the recordings will be looked into thoroughly to identify their main problems in such supra-segmental aspects as whether they place correct English word/ sentence stress and intonation in a sentence? Do they use sound linking, elision, assimilation? A native speaker will be needed for the assessment of students' improvement and a comparison of students' improvement between pre and post training will be made.

7.2.3 Diary/students' reflections

Diary/log/journal is nowadays used widely in terms of research method, teaching and research. Many facets of teachers' roles as are said to reflect critically via these tools (McDough and McDough, 2003).

In my research, data (diary entry) will be collected before every session starting from the second session and then analyzed after every training sessions (this helps in 'observation' process)

How will I analyze the diary reflections? I take three key features into account following Bailey's suggestions (1990: 193), the features include the frequency of mention, the distribution of mention (across writers, when several diaries are being examined) and saliency that is the strength of the expression with which a topic is recorded. I will pay attention to interpreting the content of the diary text.

Before telling the participants about writing their reflections on their acquisition and improvement as well as my training, I give them a kind of outline or main themes such as Things they have learned, the most useful and interesting part/the most difficult part, the problems with the trainer/ training method, activities/knowledge that trainer should change about/add to/remove from the training program, their specific improvements (on what aspect), their feeling of about the impact/benefits of training on their improvement, their own strategies/tactics of learning it faster.

Most of my time will be spent on refining the methodological tools to suit the situation and on collecting, analysing and presenting data on an on-going, cyclical basis.

7.3 Selection of samples

The subjects for my research are 10 second year English-majored students (intermediate level) of Hanoi University of Technology (HUT), Vietnam. All of them have had at least 8 years of learning English and most started learning English from 12 years old and onwards. They are trained four and a half year at university mainly to be translators, interpreters, teachers of English or other jobs that need English.

8. Advantages and limitations of action research

Action research is selected in a wide range of areas for its multiple advantages. Its first strength is that it allows the researcher to use various forms of data and research methods. The next strong point lies in its attribute itself, that was clarified by O'Brien as something that differentiates it from other approaches, that is it creates opportunity for participants to act as researchers who can apply what they have learned when they learn it themselves, or it takes places in the real world situation with the researcher's aim to solve real problems and the initiating researcher makes no attempt to remain objective but openly acknowledge their bias to the other participants. However, aside from that, it has some limitations, for example, with different forms of data, it is indeed time consuming for the researcher to analyze, classify or transcribe, etc. Researchers may be confused and flooded with an enormous amount of data and do not know how to deal with data systematically and make the best out of them. Moreover, the data are subjective experience, they vary depending on other factors such as psychological, social and affective factors (McDough and McDough, 2003:135); students may forget or skip what have happened in class to reflect; or they can write too much, they may write things to satisfy the trainer, etc. that is why McDough (2003) added that 'we still need to add a cautionary reminder that introspection of the kind recorded in diaries is not universally suitable and not everyone finds such self-scrutiny illuminating' (2003:135), let alone some researchers' suspicion of the reliability and validity of the data. However, the data are not only under the forms of diary or questionnaires but also in the forms of recordings which are quite objective to assess. And this kind of research aims at discovering individuals' reaction to the learning process, therefore, the subjectivity (how one perceives the process, what one chooses to record, etc. (McDough, 2003) is not a big matter and not off the topic.

9. AR applications in Language Teaching- A brief outline of a couple of good examples in the literature-the selection of samples

As widely known, action research is adopted in social fields like in government setting, medical setting, recently action research has spread widely across education setting and more and more rapidly to language training. There are in fact innumerable studies which are successfully done under action research models. Many teacher researchers have launched their action research with an ultimate aim to improve the school and teaching service. Their research can call for or create an 'impetus for change' (Burns, 1999:34) in language learning policy or for the collaboration of teachers to create an impetus to enhance their teaching practice, to exchange teaching experiences, findings, etc. like the research of Varasarin (2007) on language learning strategies and speaking confidence with an aim to improve students' communicative competence; and Songsiri (2007) with an action research on promoting Thai students' motivation to speak English; or Julie Sormak (2008) with an action research on techniques of English language pronunciation in which she develops the Pronunciation Rhythm Control Method (PRCM) which proves to dramatically improve English speaking and listening skills for both students and teachers.

It is undeniable that an enormous number of action research are annually accomplished with exuberant success and made public in education section, which brings a more and more advanced education to many countries in the world. Nonetheless, as compared to other education fields, there are not as much action research in English pronunciation teaching in general and English intonation teaching in particular. After looking into the relevance of AR to my research area, I strongly believe in the success of an action research on improving EFL students' intonation of English. It will hopefully be a breakthrough in teaching English intonation for not just Vietnamese students of English but also EFL students.