Turning students into researchers: Introduction to research methods in Applied Linguistics

Author: Marjorie Lorch


The teaching of research methods to postgraduate students in Applied Linguistics presents a particular challenge. For the most part students will come to the course with a humanities degree. Their undergraduate study previously involved reading secondary sources, textbooks or review chapters that summarized large bodies of evidence and spelled out their theoretical significance. In postgraduate study and research, however, primary sources of evidence become crucially important. Students need to become acquainted with a variety of empirical approaches to research questions and must learn to pose questions in such a way that clearly specifies the type of evidence and analysis required to produce the answers being sought. In addition, there are general research skills which are essential equipment for academic pursuits. Training students to become researchers in Applied Linguistics presents a challenge: how to encourage the development and acquisition of the critical skills, conceptual and analytical tools as well as the practical knowledge to enable students to navigate the research literature and develop their own research agenda.

Table of contents


The introduction to research methods for M.A. students in Applied Linguistics is predicated on the needs of students with Arts backgrounds and little academic experience either in the subject domain of Applied Linguistics in particular or empirical research more generally. There are several competing objectives for such training:

  • To facilitate a theoretical understanding of what research is;
  • To provide an introduction to the research sub-disciplines of Applied Linguistics;
  • To survey the types of methodology used in practice and their rationales;
  • To develop practical skills needed to carry out research.

There is a need to satisfy these multiple and potentially incongruent objectives within a limited period of contact hours.

In providing training in research methods postgraduate students in Applied Linguistics need both theoretical training in the research process and skills training in how to carry out research. The aim is to provide teaching and learning experiences to facilitate the transition from student to researcher. There are two distinct phases to this training; one at the outset of their studies and the second at the time students begin to develop the plans for their own research.

Initial training

Initially students need to learn to locate sources, understand the text structure of the research literature and critically evaluate previous research. Later in their programme students need to learn to develop their own research proposal, select an appropriate research method or design, and interpret their findings.

A crucial aspect of the initial training course in research methods in Applied Linguistics is critical analysis in order to d evelop the ability to evaluate the strengths and weakness of research assumptions, data analysis and interpretation; identify inadequacies, fallacies, or lack of plausibility; and select the strongest elements of existing viewpoints to provide a synthesis.

At the same time students need to develop a theoretical appreciation of the research process and gain an understanding of the different benefits of pursuing formal research which includes training in:

  • A systematic process of inquiry
  • A set of procedural conventions
  • A method for organizing observations
  • A means of evaluating findings

Students also need to gain an appreciation of the variety of different motivations for research: to c haracterize phenomena, gain new insight, solve problems, verify applications or test models. Research methods training must equip students with an understanding of a multiplicity of methods, i.e., the process and the product of research. In the process of research one may define a problem, state an objective, formulate a hypothesis or test a prediction. The product of research may result in a description, analysis, evaluation or explanation.

It is important that students also gain an understanding what is researched and why? Students should be given an appreciation of the current state of the art in the various sub-disciplines of the field to enable them to contextualize their own research interests. In addition, consideration must be given to both the feasibility and ethics of pursuing research:

  • Some things do not get researched because the question is not of interest, in fashion, relevant to current models, etc.
  • Some things cannot get researched because of a lack of data or research tools.
  • Some things should not get researched because of ethical issues -- Dignity and welfare, consent, anonymity, risk.

Range of research

Students must become acquainted with the large range of different research designs employed by Applied Linguists, both qualitative and quantitative. Techniques are chosen in order to produce different types of products: observation; classification; measurement; control; prediction. The selection of a given technique and research design can be best appreciated through consideration of the current conventions used in the field. The research process is broken down into two phases: formulating the question, and seeking the answer. In formulating the question training is given to students in how to: identify a research problem, narrow the topic to focus on the relevant issues, review previous research literature, formulate an answerable question, and state hypotheses of expected outcome. In seeking the answer, training is given to students in how to c ollect data, analyse findings, interpret evidence, summarize and draw significant conclusions.

In summary, an understanding of research methods provides:

  • Critical skills for evaluating research
  • Conceptual tools for formulating questions
  • Techniques for planning investigations
  • Analytical tools for interpreting findings

An example research methods course

The course in Research Methods in Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck meets these multiple objectives. It provides:

  • A grounding in research theory through lectures, discussions, and classroom exercises;
  • Research skills through computer and library training on techniques for literature surveys, bibliographic research, use of databases and the internet;
  • An introduction to topics of research interest in Applied Linguistics;
  • A survey of current research in the field through a group project.

The group project, which is carried out throughout the course outside of class time, allows students to learn how to find specific research literature, become acquainted with it, and summarize and synthesize this group experience. The results of these group efforts are then presented to the rest of the students. In this way a number of research skills are acquired: the retrieval of information, management of that information, presentation skills and academic writing skills are drawn on for end of term reports. This group project also facilitates the development of student networking which is seen as extremely beneficial. It provides an opportunity for students to become acquainted with each other and develop academically supportive relationships. The group project fosters networking at the outset of the programme, and provides links which are maintained throughout the degree course. This is crucial when students' study patterns become progressively more independent during the later period of thesis work.

Students often come to the postgraduate study of Applied Linguistics with professional experience rather than an academic grounding in the field. The objective of introducing students to the domains of inquiry is achieved through the presentation of the findings of individual groups researching the sub-domains of the field to the whole class at the end of the project. The presentation of the results of the group projects to the whole class ensures that each student studies one sub-discipline in depth personally and gains knowledge of other sub-disciplines by listening to group presentations by other students. Feedback is given in class by both peers and the lecturer on the content and delivery of the presentations.

The assessment of this course is based on the final written reports each student submits as the culmination of their participation in the group project and class presentation. The content of these reports represents the opportunity to operationalise the theoretical themes addressed in class and extend them to an empirical domain of inquiry. This is a developmental experience in which students are asked to apply the principles that have been introduced and discussed in class to a particular field of analysis and to use them to synthesize a new body of information. These reports are marked and detailed feedback is given in writing, focusing on both style and content.

There are a number of measures of the success of this approach to introducing students to research in Applied Linguistics. Student feedback through course evaluations over the past 12 years consistently reflects a high degree of satisfaction with this approach. The students annually comment on the benefit of the course for both practical and theoretical aspects of research training. The students are well prepared for their own thesis work, as evidenced by their progression through the degree programme. The interpersonal benefits of student support can be seen in the networking which the group project work fosters. Students continue to meet with their fellow students from this group project for years afterwards.

After receiving this foundation at the outset of the programme, students then go on to initiate their own research for the M.A. thesis. In order to reap the benefits of peer learning and peer support, group supervision seminars are given to focus advanced training in research methods. Specialised research seminars orient M.A. students to their thesis topics as well as their academic careers in the context of group development.

Within the context of advanced research training for the thesis it is crucial that students accept the practical limitations of research carried out for the M.A. There are necessarily constraints of time, scale, access to data, availability of analytical tools, and adequacy of existing theories and models.


It must be acknowledged that while the M.A. in Applied Linguistics provides both an academic grounding in the subject and an experience of theoretical and empirical research most students' interests are primarily vocational. They come to the course with a professional interest in language, and after obtaining their M.A. degree they typically return to the workplace. A minority of students go on to pursue a Ph.D. and a career within the University sector. However, training students in research in Applied Linguistics does achieve the objective of providing these teachers, interpreters, translators, and other language workers of various vocations with reflective, critical and interpretive skills which enrich their own practice.


Larsen-Freeman, D and Long, M. (1991) An Introduction to Second Language Acquisiton Research . London: Longman.

Nunan, D. (1992). Research Methods in Language Learning. Cambridge: CUP.

Seliger, H. and Shohamy, E. (1989). Second Language Research Methods . Oxford: OUP.

Tarone, E., Gass, S. and Cohen, A. (1994). Research Methodology in Second-Language Acquisition . New Jersey: Laurence Earlbaum Associate.

Woods, A., Fletcher, P. and Hughes, A. (1986). Statistics in language studies . Cambridge: CUP.

Related links

Birkbeck, University of London - Applied Linguistics

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