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International Journal of Language and Applied Linguistics

2015; 1(1): 12-18

Published online March 15, 2015 (
ISSN: 2383-0514 (Online)
2015 Khate Sefid Press

A Naturalistic Inquiry into an Innovative

Teaching Practice of Establishing Students
Research Agendas
Igor Smerdov
Faculty of Foreign Language, Jiangsu Normal University, Xuzhou, China

Abstract The paper describes the 3 year history of the

undergraduate study/research group at a Chinese private
college where students research agendas were not heard of
before. The group has been concentrating on
classroom research at a Chinese private college. I discuss
the preconditions of setting up the group, analyze the
rationale for the group in the Asian educational context, the
guiding principles of the group, its modus operandi,
students' motivations, personal stories of successes and
failures. I summarize pros and cons of organizing such a
group, my experience as the supervisor of this group of
motivated students and teachers at a college of last resort
in the Chinese private educational system. The issues that
we addressed in this project are: Chinese (Asian) students
exam-orientedness; plagiarism; enhancing academic
quality; bringing variety to the ESL curriculum; reviving
students interest in academic literature; making students
voice heard internationally. The paper provides a unique
insight on functioning of ESL/EFL research activities in the
Asian context.

in newly opened private colleges, but many scholars

criticized the low quality of education there, poor
qualification of teachers and money-orientedness of these
institutions (Li, 1999; Dalby, 2006; Niu & Wolff, 2010).
Few researchers so far have analyzed the academic
atmosphere and research practices at those new colleges
across China, and research-based studies and teaching
methods have been largely missing there. My study
concentrates on the issue of improving the research
culture and academic atmosphere at these colleges and
provides the detailed description of a successful project
that can serve as an example, particularly in other Asian
countries where similar projects can be set up..
The traditional academic atmosphere of the established
Chinese universities like Tsinghua (Zhang, Liu, 2007) is
well-known, but their academic quality and researchbased agendas could not be quickly transferred to the
newly-opened institutions. In the newly found schools,
the EFL teaching and research practices lagged behind
the ones of key universities as library resources there
were not adequate for high-class research, the teaching
environment, academic traditions and atmosphere cannot
be introduced instantly as these components require many
years of development..
In this context of rapid growth of the Chinese
educational system, conducting naturalistic, observational
inquiries and action research (Bailey, 2005) based on real
teaching and classroom practices can be the only way of
introducing research agendas there. Academic and semiacademic observations typical for classroom research as
well as descriptions of students practices can be used as
research topics there in the newly formed academic
milieu of these institutions. The processes of research and
academic development there provide research interest and
are worth reporting on.

Index Terms EFL Naturalistic Inquiry, Classroom

research, Chinese learners, Chinese private college,
academic quality

This paper reports on the 3 year history of a
research/study group at a private college in China where
a research-oriented environment didnt exist before and
was partially established of the group activity. I describe
the details of setting up the students research agendas,
the topics and research themes students selected in the
limited research environment, the outcome of the group
In China, the college student enrollment has grown
exponentially since 2000 in public universities as well as
Received February 12, 2015;


Accepted March 6, 2015

Moore and Bounchan (2006) denoted the research

component of the teaching process in the Asian context
as the Ugly, described it as unwelcome intrusion, an
unnecessary luxury and backed their description with

2015 Khate Sefid Press


International Journal of Language and Applied Linguistics

2015; 1(1): 12-18
Published online March 15, 2015 (
ISSN: 2383-0514 (Online)
2015 Khate Sefid Press

the list of many reasons why a language teacher may not

be interested in researching such as it may be difficult
to see the relationship between research and actual ELT
classrooms, limited access to relevant research literature,
no voice of authority that values and promotes
research. Borg (2006) did not include any research
capability and potential in his characterization of a good
language teacher limiting his scope by knowledge,
skills and attitude towards the learners I assume that the
positive attitude towards possible research projects and
minimum qualification to meet the learners wish to
conduct some EFL research program may be added to
Borgs portrayal of a good language instructor as a result
of my exploratory study.
Moore and Bounchan concluded that researching too
has a distinctive and necessary role in improving
teaching, testing and ultimately language learning
(Moore, Bounchan, 2006). The reality is that this research
component of college studies that makes Western
institutions look so different from even good and
prestigious Chinese colleges cannot be set up
simultaneously with the college foundation. The problem
of transferring traditional Western methods of university
studies and academic inquiries based on research and
critical thinking into the Asian soil of university studies
has been raised recently, but apparently it is not the
biggest problem in the Chinese newly established
educational institutions as they struggle with money,
public recognition, poor quality and low motivation of
their students (Yuan, 2004). The status of research
programs, if they exist, in the newly founded Chinese
colleges is predictably low as they struggle with poor
English learning environment. (Cheng, Wang, 2004)
Gorsuch (2006) provided a detailed account of her
research project completed at Vinh University in
Vietnam, but she described the local difficulties for her as
a western scholar while the problem the local academics
face have not been described at all. My account falls into
the rubric of naturalistic inquiry which works with
naturally occurring settings and groups and the main
goal of it is to describe or explain systems or events
(Bailey, 2005) This journalistic element of the
observation is the novelty of my approach as well as a
potentially new research niche for the academics wanting
to undertake a research project in the Asian nonwesternized context..

1. How can students be involved in the research

process in institutions where the research culture has not
been established?
2. How can research projects be organized in new
B. Participants
The participants of this project comprise the Chinese
private college students majoring in English who have
been involved into the college research/study group since
the beginning of the project in 2009. Almost all of the
students entered this college because of their low scores
in the Chinese College Entrance Examinations. Most of
the students failed to perform well in the Chinese ruthless
academic system and ended up in this private college of
last resort; they have been taught by the author during
the academic years 2008-2013, so the participants were
directly influenced by my teaching and my reputation of
a foreign teacher who goes to international conferences
and writes academic and non-academic papers regularly.
This is also a limitation of the study and the whole
process as it was difficult to involve students not directly
affected by the author.
B. Settings
The tertiary colleges, private or public, are ranked
lowest in China's hierarchy of tertiary institutions (Gao,
2005). The private college where this academic
experiment has taken place was founded in 2005, up to
60 % of their curriculum and almost all English-related
courses like Writing, Reading, Comprehensive English
and Communication are taught by foreign teachers from
the English speaking countries. It has enrolled up to 300
English majors a year and six grades of students
graduated by 2015. It is one of the typical commercial
and financially sustainable project within the Chinese
education system that leads to the development of the
private college system in the country as the English
learning frenzy in China allows these colleges to exist.
I never considered the project focused exclusively on
learning of English by English majors. Instead, the focus
is on learning the basics of the general and EFL/ESLspecific research methods and practices through the usage
of English as well as uplifting students to the
international level within the EFL professional discourse
community of EFL/ESL experts.

A. Research Questions


The quantitative growth of the college system in the

Asian countries has been very impressive, but the quality
of the culture of learning (Cortazzi & Jin, 1996) and
educational services have been lagging behind. The
research questions that guided this study are:

Upon arrival in campus in China, foreign teachers of

English are often assigned volunteering students
(teachers assistants as they are called) out of good
local students who always wanting to practice their
English with foreigners. Normally, they are students who
want to study overseas later or at least to continue their

International Journal of Language and Applied Linguistics

2015; 1(1): 12-18
Published online March 15, 2015 (
ISSN: 2383-0514 (Online)
2015 Khate Sefid Press

English studies. My future research group began with one

teachers assistant, Richie (western name Chinese
students often take for the foreign teachers convenience),
who helped me with campus trivia. I found a good topic
he wanted to explore, Teaching Practices of Foreign
English Teachers in China and Students Responses. (The
Case-study of Xingjian College). I helped to work out
interview questions and questionnaires. So it partially
answers research question 1 the foreign teachers should
be able to help students with their research projects.
Richie expressed his wish to go with me as an observer
to the international conference Korea in August 2009,
even on his own money. The college did not mind and
even provided some funds for his eye-opening trip.
Richie presented his findings in the final 5 minutes of my
presentation on Chinese colleges academic practices and
answered a few questions addressed to him afterwards. I
realized that students who got low scores in the Chinese
college entrance exams and, as a result of this, have to
study at private or 3rd tier colleges can do presentations at
the highest international level. Richies next ordeal came
at the 6th Cambodian TESOL conference in Phnom Penh
in February 2010. This time he made his own
presentation on foreigners teaching practices for 45
minutes in a Cambodian university room. His final
conclusion was a bit questionable, but he wrote it
himself: The foreign teachers do not perform the
function of role models for the Chinese students well. At
the level of a non-ambitious student who is happy to be
enrolled at a higher education institution, it has worked
well. But at the level of ambitious students who want to
achieve more, it is still shallow.
Many western
professors and Cambodian teachers applauded him as he
finished his speech. He was the first ever student
presenting there at such a high level, before there were
Chinese key-school professors only. Richie has become a
role model for the other students who joined the research
group later, and it was an important part of the
development of the project.
The rationale for my students participation in
international conferences at any level was finally worked
out: the Chinese learners views on what is important for
their successful learning of English - students and
teachers motivation, teaching practices and techniques,
ways of teaching particular subjects in English, learners
anxieties, errors in English writing etc. The Chinese
students have much to say about how the global lingua
franca should be taught. In the end, they represent the
Chinese college student population of 25 million (China
has 25 mln college students, 2007). They annually
contribute billions of dollars to the English teaching
industry in China and foreign teachers salaries, so their
views deserve to be heard. The dean and the college
sponsors offered me a chance to develop the study group
project after Richies Cambodian presentation success,
media attention and college hype resulted in a few news

articles on the Xingjian website the copies of which I use

for recruiting new students.
The other students started joining later in 2010 and I
regularly consulted them face-to face since. In the
academic years 2010-2013, we have had regular seminars
on Friday afternoon as it is the only timeslot when the
group of undergraduates from grades two, three and four
can be gathered as their other weekdays are loaded with
classes up to 20.30. The seminar agenda was based on a
students individual presentation and Q/A session
afterwards. Originally, I had to supply most of the
students with questions related to the presentation they
just heard, but gradually the learners started formulating
their own questions to the presenter and seminars now
last for up to two hours depending on how many
questions have been raised. Seminars are conducted in
the student-centered framework as the students are the
presenters. Seminars help the student to find their own
topics and set up their research agendas.
My new students presentations range from relatively
simple case-studies like Student As project Textbooks
Evaluation at a Private College in China to the largescale longitudinal research projects on teaching Writing
in China: Student Bs Measuring Students Individual
Progress in English Writing within the Framework of the
Process-Product Teaching Approach.
The answer to research question 2: To date, the official
outcome has been: 1. The three grade 4 students have
been accepted by the conference organizers of the 31st
Thai TESOL Conference 31st Thailand TESOL
International Conference Transforming the Language
Classroom: Meeting the Needs of the Globalized World,
Chiang Mai, January 2011. Two students presented their
findings following my presentation on the processproduct approach to teaching English Writing.
2. Seven students were accepted by 7th CamTESOL
Conference on English Language Teaching English for
Mobility, Cambodia, 2011 and presented their papers
3. Ten new students joined the group in the autumn
term 2010. Four of them were accepted and made their
presentations at the 9th Asian TEFL conference Teaching
English in a Changing Asia: Challenges and Directions,
July 2011 in Korea. Four students have been accepted;
and made presentations at the 16th conference of the PanPacific Association of Applied Linguistics in Hong Kong.
Two students presented their papers at the 8th
CamTESOL Conference on English Language Teaching,
Language and Development, Cambodia, 2012.
4. More than ten students of grades three and two
joined the group in the autumn term 2011 and
participated in the TESOL and TEFL conferences in
Chinese students identities, learning strategies,
agendas, anxieties, problems related to exam14

International Journal of Language and Applied Linguistics

2015; 1(1): 12-18
Published online March 15, 2015 (
ISSN: 2383-0514 (Online)
2015 Khate Sefid Press

orientedness have been analyzed extensively for the last

15 years. Trent said that there is a need for further
contextualized, longitudinal research that explores
mainland Chinese learners identity construction within
educational settings around the world.(Trent, 2011) My
assumption was that the Chinese students examorientedness and test-taking focus can (and somehow
must) be overcome in the Chinese settings with some
new ways of teaching and instructing them. Giving them
a chance to participate in international conferences
conveying their messages directly to the international
audience seems to be one of the ways out of the examoriented vicious circle. My students motivation and
rationale to join the group include earthly items:
extending and developing their resumes beyond the limits
of the traditional college studies, getting extra English
speaking practice and some international experience in
the form of ESL/EFL/TESOL conferences. Responding
to these students expectations in the form of the project
involving them into international conference preparations
it will be the answer to research question 1.
These expectations were lived up. Student B said in
the evaluative questionnaire: Before joining the group, I
was thinking it would be much better if the teacher will
provide direction, will advise and edit our works. That
would help me finish my paper earlier and with quality. If
there is a chance to attend a conference, that just be
good. I have received naive messages with thanks like
this one (Student E): I'm so happy that I could have your
help to improve my English. Richie is pretty much my
role model in studies. Students mostly want to improve
their English, but it also can be a starting point of
academic careers, if they continue in the same way. Many
of my students think that if you are able to express
yourselves, tell foreign teachers in classroom about your
family, job prospects and shopping interests, you are
fluent. In reality, fluency in English is an ability to make
others (foreign English teachers as immediate
interlocutors) to listen, take notice and maybe even
change their minds, particularly regarding China and
Chinese students. This study/research group is an option
to teach Chinese students how to make this mysterious
effort that turns you from a passive listener of the
Chinese and foreign teachers classes and sometimes a
speaker/opinion presenter in a class of 25-30 colleagues
into a speaker presenting in a multilingual and
multicultural audience.
Distinguished features of research as a human activity
are well expressed in the statements like research
isconcerned with understanding the world, the
discovery of truth, a tool which develops during the
process of inquiry that provides us with information,
based on one or more paradigms, corroborating or
conflicting, upon which one may make an assessment
that is open to analysis by a third party inquiry.
(Robertson, 2002), but in the particular situation of a 3 rd
tier college in China, research can be considered the only

way of taking the whole local academic environment

seriously and even taking the teaching job seriously as
such. Otherwise, three or five original B.A. theses out of
a few hundreds at the end of each academic year make an
impression on students and teachers alike that the whole
process of studies has been falsified. Without an
international or, at least a broader Chinese audience in the
case of a TEFL/TESOL conference in China where
foreign guests are rare, most of the intellectual efforts of
Chinese learners of English at the 2nd-3rd tier colleges are
limited by chat rooms and local activities (classes, exams,
English corners, job interviews), so the students
participation in the international forums gives an
international perspective to the students growth and
provides external goals to the whole studying and
teaching process, for students - to outgrow the college
parochial limits, for teachers to train students for this
breakthrough towards international academic careers.
Chinese students needs have become the subject of
extensive research recently. (Xiao, 2006) Learners needs
analysis beside the obvious need to pass local and
national examination in Mainland China and establishing
what Tsui called legitimacy of access to practice.
(Tsui, 2007) is still underrepresented in academic
literature and further research is needed. (Trent, 2011)
My questionnaire may contribute to the corpus of
Chinese learners needs recorded in Gaos papers
recently (Gao, 2005, 2010) Students responses in the
form of replies to the open-ended questions regarding the
research group modus operandi have been regularly
collected to help me guide the group and organize new
activities for the students within regular weekly seminars
and conference preparations. I solicited the students
responses on what was their rationale for joining the
research group and whether their experience met their
Question 1: What did you expect from the research
group when you joined it first in 2010/2011?
Student C: I can finish my BA dissertation before
grade 4. Even though, I will not take part in the entrance
exams for postgraduate studies, I think it is a good chance
to improve my English (more time and more chances to
talk with foreigners.
Student D: First of all, the research group provided
me with a brand new stage to learn how to do a real
academic research in this college, which is what I have
been expecting; second, through this stage, I also
expected to make acquaintances with those who has
something in common with me and brainstorm together.
Last but not least, it may offer me an opportunity to
attend such a conference like TESOL.
Question 4: What have you learned from your own
work on presentations, your presentations and your

International Journal of Language and Applied Linguistics

2015; 1(1): 12-18
Published online March 15, 2015 (
ISSN: 2383-0514 (Online)
2015 Khate Sefid Press

participation in conferences? Was it worth doing and

Student E: First, I learned how to do a not-bad
presentation in front of scholars; 2nd, be confident and
speak out ahead of foreigners. Definitely, it is worth
doing in that it is one of the meaningful things we can do
in this college.
Student E:
I learned how to do an effective presentation
with scholars or even professors as the audience (e.g how
to control your time, communicate with your audience
and what to prepare beforehand). I can also meet many
researchers who have the same interested areas,
so conferences are quite worthy.
Question 5: Did it help you improve your study and in
what way? Why it helped or why didnt help?
Student F: Honestly, it doesn't help my exam-oriented
study but does help my thinking-oriented study. The
former you know needs a lot of exercises to get a higher
score while the latter requires much time to think, to read,
to rethink and to be dialectic, which is one of things we
Chinese students really lack.
Student C: I read more articles than before.
Students perceptions have not changed much during
their stay within the group; they conclude that this
research project is a part of their English language
training. As student F said in the questionnaire, his
participation in the research project helps with my
thinking-oriented study (compared to the exam-oriented
learning) which is an indicator of a major change in
purposes of studying.

accepted) help to ease exam-orientedness in their minds.

Also the group activities, being entirely new, or even
unique, in the Chinese college framework weaken the
students exam-oriented mindset. As student F put, it
does help my thinking-oriented study. The primary
example is: the two students of mine asked the college to
postpone their last semester exam as they had to go to the
ThaiTESOL-2011 conference instead and the permission
was readily granted.
B. Plagiarism Issue
Many scholars portrayed the situation with plagiarism
in China as very serious as academic fraud more
common in China than in any other country and
Chinese universities are facing the crisis of
credibility.(Mu, 2010) My own discouraging
observation during my career at Chinese universities: at
least 40 out of 45 BA graduates I supervised at a
university in Guangdong Province in 2003-2008
preferred to copy, paste and slightly modify their B.A.
dissertations on Literature and Cultural Comparisons or
to get full texts from a librarian instead of actually doing
a research and writing a 4000 word thesis in English.
Students B.A. dissertations, ideally, should serve as their
final goal and highest achievement during the 4 years at
college. In reality, the students dissertations, normally
flawless in terms of grammar, are too often plagiarised, at
best, concocted from various internet resources, and the
only original text written by the student is the
Acknowledgements at the front page, normally full of
grammar errors that shows the authors real level of
English. It doesnt mean that the original research
agendas of 10-15 college students and their dissertations
can turn the tide, but in the local situation, it can make a
subtle difference as the number of original texts in the
pool of grade four students theses will increase when 14
of my study group members graduate.


A. Exam-Orientedness of Chinese Students. Moving Out
of the Exam-Centered Vicious Circle


Gao (2005) drew his conclusion on the basis of the two

typical Chinese Mainland learners of English in Hong
Kong that their adopted learning approaches, as revealed
in their biographical accounts, seem to be extremely
exam-oriented. So even in the English speaking
environment of Hong Kong the students did not abandon
their traditional learning habits, so freeing Chinese
students from this burden of exams seems virtually
impossible within the Chinese Mainland context. The
obvious improvement so far has been the fact that the
Chinese college administrations often allow foreign
teachers to increase the value of the class performance or
continuous assessment from 30 % to 70 % n the final
score, otherwise 70 % of the Chinese students final
course scores are determined by their examination
presentations and group discussions, let alone the
international conference presentations (if students are





The presenter contingent at the TESOL/EFL/ESL

international conference across South-East Asia has
consisted of college teachers, professional language
instructors and teachers trainers. Students were mostly
represented as local volunteers helping participants find
their room and checking time of presentations. Chinese
students input as presenters and question/answer session
participants is bringing new blood to the established
forums and, more importantly, providing the students
perspective as a vital and interesting supplement to the
debates among the teaching professionals and trainers at
the TESOL/TEFL conferences. The voice of students, the
consumers of the ESL/EFL industry and objects of
teachers instructions, started being heard at the

International Journal of Language and Applied Linguistics

2015; 1(1): 12-18
Published online March 15, 2015 (
ISSN: 2383-0514 (Online)
2015 Khate Sefid Press

international forums aimed at improving the teaching

practices in Asia.

Bailey, K. (2005). Looking Back Down the Road: A
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Foreign Language Teachers. The Language Teaching
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Language classrooms in China. In Coleman H. (Ed.),
Society and the Language Classroom (pp. 169-206).
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Dalby, C. (2006). English Teachers Wanted: Who Is
Teaching China's Youth? Retrieved 15
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2(2), 1-20. Retrieved December 30, 2012 from
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Against All Odds. System, 38(4), 580-590.
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Research in a Developing Country. The Electronic
Journal for English as a Second Language, 10(2).
Retrieved December 25, 2013, from
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and Researching: The Good, the Bad and Ugly
Dimensions of ELT. The CamTESOL Conference on
English Language Teaching. Selected Papers. Vol. 2, 914.
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Run Amuck. China Holistic English. Retrieved October 1,
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The Asian EFL Journal, 4(4), 1-10. Retrieved December


The prime advantage of the research project is that the
students were involved into a new teaching framework,
so the fact that students joined the research group and
started their individual projects can be attributed to the
sheer novelty of the situation and the example of Richie,
the first students in the group. Adding to the answer to
research question 1, role-models are important and they
should be found first.
Regarding question 2, newly founded institutions are
better suitable for such a novelty as an undergraduate
student research group. A new, not very well-established
institution is always more flexible, responsive and
susceptible to novel approaches as in the old and
established schools local traditions and agendas
dominate. As White put it, in new institutions teachers
had extra time to spend with the student, as the
responsibilities that come with an established university
were not yet entrenched.(White, 2011)
All students come from relatively wealthy families that
can afford sending their children to a neighboring country
or a distant part of China for an international conference
and paying the fee. In many public schools, this will be
impossible due to a lower profile of students families.
Preparations for international forums and participation
there motivate students to work on their presentations
harder than they would have worked on their routine
assignments they have got used to do. We are opening the
new Asian EFL research protocols (Robertson, 2002)
as we analyze the academic situation and study
environment in the places that represent the vast majority
of Chinese learners of English at college level. The
results of the students research projects can be spread
around the Chinese (Asian) academic milieu with
numerous university journals and college websites.
Finally, the only obvious disadvantage of the project is
that propelling the 3rd tier college students to the
international level of conference presenters requires a
huge amount of time for error-correction.


International Journal of Language and Applied Linguistics

2015; 1(1): 12-18
Published online March 15, 2015 (
ISSN: 2383-0514 (Online)
2015 Khate Sefid Press

Trent, J. (2011). Mainland Chinese Students

Perceptions of Language, Learning, and Identity in an
English Language Teacher Education Program in Hong
Kong. The Journal of Asia TEFL, 8(3), 243-270.
Tsui, A. (2007). Complexities of Identity Formation: A
Narrative Inquiry of an EFL Teacher. The TESOL
Quarterly, 41(4), 657-680.
White, J. (2011). A Case Study of Unique Input to
Produce Spoken English Output. The Asian EFL Journal.
Professional Teaching Articles, 56, 30-42.
Zhang, W., & Liu, M. (2007). Students Perspectives
on a School-based English Proficiency Test. The Journal
of Asia TEFL, 4(3), 213-240.

Dr. Igor Smerdov, Russian, is a
foreign teacher of the Faculty of
Foreign Languages of Jaingsu
Normal University, Xuzhou, China.
He got his Ph.D. in Philosophy in
2002 from Radboud University
Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He has
taught Conversational English and Russian, Writing,
Literature, Western Culture, Comprehensive English,
Extensive Reading in Chinese universities since October
2002. Also, Dr. Smerdov has published books, academic
papers and magazine articles on modern Chinese lifestyle
and academic environment in Russian and English.