Action Research In Literacy Teacher Inquiry Projects That

Action research in literacy teacher inquiry projects that

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Focus on Practice Action Research in Literacy 19
Action Research in Literacy:
Teacher Inquiry Projects That Answer Questions About
Mary Ellen Levin
This article presents ways that the author has been involved in action research, beginning with
student teachers for whom action research was a focus during the student teaching semester. With
brief descriptions of action research as a part of a professional practice school partnership, the article
concludes by presenting action research experiences of graduate students in a literacy certification

Mary Ellen Levin, Ed. D. is a former reading teacher and middle school principal. She holds a
doctorate from Teachers College Columbia University in Educational Leadership. She has been
working in teacher education since her retirement from the public schools in 1999, and is currently the
Chair of the Literacy Department at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. Her particular research
interests are in teacher action research and its role in the Professional Development School. She has
presented at several national conferences on related topics, and presented with a Manhattanville
colleague at the IRA in Chicago this spring

Action research, also known as teacher research or teacher inquiry, is an uncomplicated but
powerful initiative that teachers can take in their own classrooms to enhance their effectiveness and
improve student learning. Readers are likely to want to know “What is action research?” and “How does
it work in classrooms?” My aim is to answer these questions with a brief literature review, followed by
an account of a variety of investigations initiated and carried out by teachers, including a group of New
York State literacy teachers working in elementary and middle schools. Readers will probably recognize,
and perhaps be currently experiencing, many of the issues that these teachers chose for their research

Teacher action research is based in schools. The researcher is an “insider”, with a participant role
in the research. It is “intentional and systematic” (Bauman & Duffy-Hester, 2000; Lytle & Cochran-
Smith, 1992). Teachers who engage in it pursue action and research (or change and understanding) at the
same time (Dick, 1999). The process generally involves the teacher’s identification of a classroom issue
and the development of a research question. Ideally, the issue or problem is one “owned” by the teacher,
and change is within the teacher’s authority, should the research indicate that change is warranted

How broad a review of related professional literature the investigator carries out depends upon
various teacher-determined factors, including time constraints, interest, and availability of materials

There are studies large and small in books and journals on most literacy topics, and the teacher-researcher
often does some reading of the professional literature connected with the problem identified, but often not
the extensive literature review required for a university-based study. Since action research is formative, it
Focus on Practice Action Research in Literacy 20
is often not appropriate to pre-formulate the issue based on the literature (Stringer, 2004). It is “an
emergent process that takes shape as understanding increases” (Dick, 1999, ¶ 2)

Some would argue that all teachers are continually engaged in creation, investigation, and
development of their own practice. How does a teacher’s everyday practice that involves working to help
individuals and groups and trying out new methods and materials, for example, differ from action
research? To answer that question, Lytle and Cochran-Smith (1992) describe intellectual communities of
teacher researchers as networks of individuals who enter with other teachers into a common search for
understanding in their professional lives. They differentiate teachers who build curriculum through data
analysis, for example, from those who sit down together to write curriculum in the traditional way,
sharing ideas and experience but no data. Their meta-analysis of action research identified four categories
of teacher research, including teachers’ journals, essays that contain issue-oriented analysis, accounts of
teachers’ oral arguments and discussions, and “small and larger scale classroom studies based on
documentation and analysis, using procedures similar to those of university-based research” (p. 451)

Lytle and Cochran Smith categorize literacy questions that were pursued, including “What works?” (in
writing conferences and literature study groups) and “What worked?” (in a 12th grade writing workshop
and in “untracking” of Advanced Placement English at one high school)

Why should educational research be carried out classroom by classroom, school by school? It
appears that educational research doesn’t travel well. Teachers find that research done at another time
and in another place, often by university-based researchers, does not meet their needs, nor have they the
time, skills, or inclination to read it. Phil Jackson expressed a sea change in the outlook of educational
researchers in an AERA address in 1990 (Lytle & Cochran-Smith, 1992), “The dream of finding out once
and for all how teaching works or how schools ought to be administered no longer animates nearly as
many of us as it once did. In its place we have substituted the much more modest goal of trying to figure
out what’s happening here and now or what went on there and then” (p. 465)

Sagor (1992) describes five steps in one model for implementing an action research project:
Problem Formulation, Data Collection, Data Analysis, Reporting of Results, and Action Planning. The
fourth and fifth steps are particularly relevant to teacher inquiry, as contrasted with educational research
in general. Action researchers are in a position to let school leaders, parents, and colleagues know what
has been learned, and can plan and carry out improvements or next steps

A simple research project is designed by the teacher who develops hypotheses about the issue at
hand and identifies several ways to test each hypothesis. Topics are as diverse as school life itself,
including, for example, instructional methods and materials, uses of technology, social issues, attendance,
and relationship with parents. Data are collected during classroom intervention or observation. Data
collection may go on for a period as brief as one month or as long as an entire school year. Teachers use
test scores, report card grades, student work samples, observation, interviews (with parents, teaching
colleagues, and students), surveys, and questionnaires. Hubbard and Power (2003) describe additional
sources of data, including teaching journals and notes, classroom artifacts, audiotape and videotape
transcription, and photography. Their book features generic forms for use in data collection, interviewing,
and self-questioning

Once data are collected, analysis and reflection are crucial to the action research process, and it is
beneficial to have others, at school or outside of it, with whom to discuss findings. Colleagues and
parents are often eager to see and hear findings and to help plan for the “action” aspect of the research

Bauman and Duffy-Hester (2000) examined thirty-four teacher-research studies, to explore the
“nature of methodologies teacher researchers have employed in published classroom-based inquiries in
literacy” (p. 81). Topics included aspects of the reading and writing process that concern many teachers:
Focus on Practice Action Research in Literacy 21
motivation to read, topics to use for writing, and reading and writing groups’ functioning. Several were
carried out in university methods courses. They explored the general attributes, process, methods and
reporting of classroom inquiry, the process of teacher inquiry, teacher research methods, and teachers’
ways of writing and reporting classroom inquiry. Significant findings were that teacher research is
theoretically productive (over 90% of the studies), that it leads to collaboration with fellow teachers or
parents (over 90% of the studies), and that questions evolve and are modified as teachers implement a
classroom study (60% of the studies). The latter finding points up the formative aspect of teacher inquiry,
with questions and methods changing as issues arise and intermediate findings are produced

Action research can serve as a staff development tool, since groups of teachers that range in size
from pairs to an entire faculty can try new methods and materials and plan to examine the results. It can
serve as the focus of a university graduate course, or a district in-service course: teachers study the action
research process together, then plan, implement, and report on their classroom research. Action research
allows teachers to investigate what interests them, and to shape short-term projects to get answers and
make changes

Action research investigations
After decades of work as a public school teacher and administrator, I have recently spent several
years leading university courses and seminars on action research, supervising the implementation of
projects, and working in the field doing action research with classroom teachers. My early experiences
were with student teachers, who were required to make action research projects a focus of their student
teaching semester. In some cases the cooperating/supervising teacher became involved with the student
teacher in carrying out the research; in other cases the teacher was just an observer, but obviously an
interested observer. These projects addressed many questions at all school levels. It was interesting to
note in seminar how eager student teachers were to learn about each other’s results, since the group had
been discussing each group member’s topic from its inception

They reported great interest in their research at the schools as well. For example, one student
teacher reported on the impact on class achievement that included students with learning disabilities

Another, investigated techniques that a substitute might use to gain student cooperation. A third observed
twelve English teachers and categorized their methods of discussing literature. Yet another studied the
impact of an organizational initiative that paired heritage speakers of Spanish with monolingual English
speakers in eighth grade Spanish class

My next action research experiences were with the faculty of a middle school with whom I worked
to develop a professional practice school on behalf of a university in the northeast where I was employed

At this middle school it was convenient – and effective – for faculty members to work together in teams
of two or more to implement research projects. “Teacher inquiry groups that conduct action research can
help identify student learning issues and help share best practices” (Teitel, 2003, p. 148)

It was interesting for me, as a former middle school teacher and principal, to note the variety of
familiar issues administrators and teachers faced, and the research questions they identified. The principal
investigated the types of report cards used by other fifth and sixth grade programs, hoping to find one
more suitable to the educational philosophy of the school and herself than the one currently in use

Several counselors investigated the efficacy of a guidance program that involved service learning; through
the program, students became involved with seniors in their community. Teams of teachers got involved
in trying out spelling programs and writing programs. Another team decided to get floundering students
Focus on Practice Action Research in Literacy 22
organized—their desks, backpacks, time, and follow-through with assignments with peer models and

Literacy teachers in the action research process
More recently I taught eighteen graduate students (all teachers) in a literacy certification program
at a New York State private college. My first all-literacy action researchers, they faced the particular
problems faced by contemporary elementary and middle school literacy teachers in an era of increased
testing and a mandate to “leave no child behind”. I wondered what topics would be of most concern to
these young teachers. How would they choose to carry out their investigations? I decided to organize their
work into whatever categories emerged, hoping that other teachers, reading about the range of topics and
methods would be inspired to become action researchers, too

Problem finding
Following the recommendation of Sagor (1992), the teachers brainstormed about issues in their
own practice, and each engaged in a problem-finding dialogue with another teacher, who asked questions
and encouraged elaboration, but made no comments or recommendations. Many examined and discarded
as potential research topics, concerns over students’ home lives over which they could have little or no
influence. The questions took shape, as did ideas for investigating them. Particularly useful was a
collection of case studies (Cross & Steadman, 1996) that described university instructors’ action research
in their own undergraduate classes, where they faced issues of student motivation, preparation, and
student self-esteem that would sound familiar to any elementary or secondary teacher. The instructor in
each case study generated several hypotheses about each issue faced, and collected data about each in
several different ways. It was helpful for my students to read about each instructor’s problem analysis,
formation of a hypothesis, and methods of investigation

The teachers’ issues took shape, and over the course of several weeks they refined problem
statements and research questions. Some decided to observe a phenomenon passively; others investigated
through surveys and interviews. Some actively intervened, and changed one or more factors in students’
educational lives. Each teacher-researcher decided upon several ways of collecting data for each research
question. This sometimes meant inviting another teacher to become involved. The researcher’s
observations were then confirmed or contradicted by another set of eyes on classroom instruction,
assessment, or students’ journals

Trends and topics investigated
The teacher researchers’ questions addressed instructional technology, motivation, decoding,
fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, visualizing, and the writing process. A focus that they seemed to
arrive at naturally when thinking of troubling classroom issues is the challenge faced by students with
special needs or English language learners. In trying to help every child meet state learning standards,
and also to read for information and enjoyment, teachers tend to worry about their most challenged
learners. This was certainly true with these teacher-researchers, since a majority of the studies concerned
students with disabilities or students with special language needs and issues. I have chosen to describe
Focus on Practice Action Research in Literacy 23
individual research efforts that represent some of the recurring themes or categories. They represent a
variety of research methods and school levels. Perhaps the reader will recognize familiar issues here

The more experienced teachers, having taught three to ten years, identified issues of attitude,
motivation and interest, while those less experienced, having taught fewer than three years, were more
concerned with technique. (This observation was confirmed for me in a multi-school survey of literacy
teacher concerns taken by our college literacy advisory group in Spring 2005. There, too, the most
experienced teachers identified student motivation as their greatest challenge.)
It is interesting to note that as the literacy field’s methods and classroom organization change,
issues about our practice change with them. One example is a concern that we now experience about
children’s motivation to read books that they select, their ability to choose the right book, and their
commitment to stay with a book until it is finished. These concerns are possible products of the often
pervasiveness of independent reading time in classrooms, of the expanding supply of trade books found in
most classrooms, and of the freedom of children to choose their own books. The professional stance now
is that when independent reading doesn’t work action is needed. Several of these teachers had concerns
about the failure of boys to find satisfaction in reading. Although only two teachers focused specifically
on boys and motivation, others who worked on providing more variety in reading for their students
mentioned boys as a particular target of their efforts

A general education teacher was concerned that the boys in her third grade class did not read
books of their own accord, although the girls in the class spent happy hours with “series” books and other
chapter books. Observation and a review of her classroom records confirmed that the problem existed

Her literature review was discouraging: boys lag behind girls in reading for “fun” in every English-
speaking country. She did note that families have a strong impact and that boys who see their fathers read
are more likely to choose to read. The teacher decided to provide role models for the boys. She invited
men, teachers and other school employees, to visit the class and to discuss their own reading habits and
preferences. Some of the men were frank about their late discovery of reading for pleasure, sometimes not
until adulthood. One visitor talked about how much he likes cookbooks, and likes to try out recipes. The
teacher soon found the boys avidly reading the cookbooks that she had in the room. Hearing the sorts of
reading preferred by the men, the teacher realized she would need to expand the reading selection in her
classroom, to include more non-fiction

In another study, struggling elementary students were aided by one-to-one scaffolding by the
teacher in advance of lessons. In another, an at-risk ninth grader appeared to benefit from similar efforts
by a high school English teacher. Thus, similar problems were evident and similar solutions effective in
both situations, in elementary school and in high school

Several teachers used peer buddies or mentors to help students to focus and learn. Two used
audiotapes and listening activities to accompany silent reading. Others tried repeated readings in an effort
to improve fluency, a current, provocative literacy issue

Several of the teacher-researchers had no way to create two groups randomly, but wanted to
compare two methods. They alternated two or more treatments with the same children, or alternated one
or two-week periods of time, providing the treatment and withholding it. Some teachers used tests
provided by the textbook publisher to gauge the effects of these treatments. All of the teacher-researchers
learned about the potential of this kind of research from hearing their results

There is renewed use of commercial products in schools and school systems in response to No
Child Left Behind. Teachers are left wondering whether they really work and whether they work for all
children. Teacher researchers in my classes investigated the effects of several of them. Two teachers, one
at the eighth grade level and another at the second grade level, tested commercial programs that used
Focus on Practice Action Research in Literacy 24
visualizing as a major component. An eighth grade general education teacher wanted to test methods for
promoting student retention of vocabulary. He was prompted by disheartening vocabulary retention
statistics in his classroom and a negative attitude in his students toward vocabulary study. His literature
review confirmed his impression that vocabulary increase is related positively to both comprehension and

He decided to try an alternative, a multi-sensory approach called Vocabulary Anchors (Winters,
2001), to what he called the “memorize and forget” technique by which vocabulary is frequently learned
and soon forgotten. The teacher at first provided his 72 students pictures to connect with each of their
vocabulary words; later, the students found their own pictures. Before each weekly vocabulary quiz, the
teacher asked students to predict how well they would remember the week’s words. Although their
confidence was not great, their grades soared relative to their grades before the technique was used

The second grade special education teacher had been trained in a program called Visualizing and
Verbalizing (Bell, 1991) and decided to try it with four of her students to see whether this technique
would increase their comprehension, which was poor. Looking at a picture the teacher could not see,
students described it using a series of function words such as what, size, color, and shape (Bell, 1991)

They later developed pictures of their own with details about the “what” word. They gained vocabulary
knowledge and new concepts and their comprehension on tests and in everyday classroom situations
improved. This teacher discussed her results with her instructional team members, who all had students
as challenged as the four in the study. Since all of the teachers had not had the training for Visualizing
and Verbalizing, they decided to fit some semantic webbing into their everyday classroom program to
build concepts

Some teachers question the effect of classroom technology on learning and motivation, and also
about its possible detrimental effects upon children whose free time is largely devoted to technology. A
sixth grade special education teacher, teaching literacy in a departmentalized program, acquired a
SMART board for his classroom in September that he used enthusiastically for months. He found by the
second semester that his students were no longer motivated to participate in any classroom reading
activity that did not involve the SMART board. He hypothesized that there had to be equally appealing
activities for his students that did not involve technology and decided to investigate. His literature review
produced many articles that touted the positive effects of computer technology and internet exploration,
and he discovered a new term: The Miss Rumphius Effect (Leu & Karchmer, 1999), whereby students can
become world travelers through the internet like Miss Rumphius in the children’s book by Barbara
Cooney (1986). He did not find any research that would help him to wean students from the technology,
however. The teacher decided to use lessons at the overhead projector as a second method, and student
work with photocopied readings and different colored markers as a third alternative. This third method
tested his theory that students do better when they can write in the margins or highlight the text. He
developed a questionnaire for his students about their reaction to each of the three experiences, to be
administered at the end of each week. He then taught in series, one week at a time, lessons involving
SMART board activities, lessons involving the use of the overhead projector, and lessons involving
photocopied reading material that students were allowed to “mark up” with highlighter and write
comments and questions about in the margins

To his surprise, he found that students liked the highlighter sessions as much as the SMART board
sessions, because they enjoyed using the multicolored markers and writing on the text with pen, and
because they could take their work to where they were comfortable, unlike sessions where the overhead
projector or SMART board had been used. No students preferred lessons at the overhead projector,
complaining that it was too hard to see and too hard for them to write on

Focus on Practice Action Research in Literacy 25
An eighth grade science special education teacher wanted to improve her students’ comprehension
of science text. Their out-loud reading was halting, and their comprehension was poor. I encouraged her
to adopt listening to text while reading silently as one of the treatments she would try, on the assumption
that some of her learning-disabled students needed the combination of visual and auditory input. She
developed an experiment with three different treatments: student reads alone, reads with teacher support
and discussion, and reads while listening to the text on tape. She used each for two weeks. She
administered the weekly comprehension tests that the textbook publisher provided, but did not provide an
out-loud reading of the test. She found that the listening/reading combination was the most effective

Another teacher investigated the effect of repeated readings on the fluency of second graders’
“cold”, out-loud reading. She tried a four-step repeated reading intervention. First she modeled out-loud
reading of passages for students. Next she and the students read the passages in chorus. Then the teacher
and students re-read the text in chorus. Finally each student had the opportunity to read the text out loud
alone. Although students’ “cold” reading of new text was not much improved during the six weeks of the
intervention, the researcher did note an increase in confidence and an improvement in attention to
punctuation following the repeated readings. She planned to continue the repeated readings for the
remainder of the school year, to see whether a longer period of time yielded additional gains

Teachers thought the action research projects changed their practice permanently. They also
reported that the activity changed their outlook on classroom issues, and predicted that they would be
more likely to grapple with troubling issues, discuss them with colleagues, and think of ways to
investigate them. Whether teachers decided to supplement commercial programs, add a variety of reading
materials to their classrooms, try new methods, or help a struggling individual student, they were satisfied
with their work

I hope that teachers who read this will undertake their own action research, and hope to read
accounts of some of those efforts in these pages in the future or to hear their work presented at the New
York State Reading Association’s annual conference. To talk online about action research, readers are
invited to email me: [email protected]

Author notes
I know of no books or articles devoted to methodology in literacy action research specifically, but
The Handbook of Reading Research (Kamil, Mosenthal, Pearson, & Barr, 2000) contains a chapter,
“Making Sense of Classroom Worlds: Methodology in Teacher Research” (Bauman & Duffy-Hester,
2000) that features a 34-item list of journal articles that report teacher literacy research of all types carried
out at all grade levels (p. 80-81). Examples of titles from this list will allow the reader to see that they are
accounts of individual classroom studies carried out by practicing teachers:
“Antonio: My student, my teacher. My inquiry begins” (Murphy, 1994)

“Try Reading Workshop in your classroom.” (Swift, 1993)

“Appearing acts: Creating readers in a high school English class” (Cone, 1994)

Another chapter from the Handbook, useful for helping the teacher considering single subject
research, is “A case for single subject experiments in literacy research” (Neuman & McCormick, 2000)

Focus on Practice Action Research in Literacy 26
For a 31-page resource file of recent books on action research and related topics, go to: This annotated bibliography supports an on line
public program, Action Research and Evaluation Online (AEROL)

Bauman, J.F. & Duffy-Hester, A.M. (2000). Making sense of classroom worlds: Methodology in teacher
research. In M. L. Kamil, P. B Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr, (Eds.). Handbook of reading
research, Vol. III, pp. 77-98. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Bell, N. (1991). Visualizing and verbalizing for language comprehension and thinking, (Rev. ed.) San
Luis Obispo, CA: Gander Educational Publishing

Cone, J. K. (1994). Appearing acts: Creating readers in a high school English class. Harvard Education
Review, 64(4), 450-473

Cooney, B. (1982). Miss Rumphius. NY: Penguin Putnam Books

Cross, P. & Steadman, M. (1996). Classroom research: Implementing the scholarship of teaching. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Dick, B. (1999). What is action research? Available on line at
Hubbard, R.S. & Power, B.M. (2003). The art of classroom inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Kamil, Mosenthal, Pearson & Barr. (2000). Handbook of reading research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates

Leu, D.J. & Karchmer, R.A. (1999). The Miss Rumphius effect: Envisionments for literacy and learning
that transform the internet. The Reading Teacher, 52(6), 636 -642

Lytle, S. & Cochran-Smith, M (1992). Teacher research as a way of knowing. Harvard Education
Review, 62(4), 447-474

Murphy, P. (1994). Antonio: My student, my teacher: My inquiry begins. Teacher research. The Journal
of Classroom Inquiry, 1(2), 75-88

Neuman, S. B. & McCormick, S. (2000). A case for single subject experiments in literacy research. In M

L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.). Handbook of reading research, Vol

III, pp. 181-194. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Sagor, R. (1992). How to conduct collaborative action research. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Stringer, E. (2004). Action research in education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education

Swift, K. (1993). Try Reading Workshop in your classroom. Reading Teacher, 46, 366-371

Teitel, L. (2003). The professional development schools handbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Winters, R. (2001). Vocabulary anchors: Building conceptual connections with young readers. In
International Reading Association. (2002). Evidence based reading instruction: Putting the
National Reading Panel report into practice. Newark, DE: Author


Same time (Dick, 1999). The process generally involves the teacher’s identification of a classroom issue and the development of a research question. Ideally, the issue or problem is one …

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is action research in education?

framework grounds action research as one form of teacher-research, which has emerged as a methodology in educational research to help teachers engage in inquiry (Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009). Action research is emancipatory because it “demands that practitioners take a hard look at

What can action research teach us about collaborative learning?

A look at one school’s action research project provides a blueprint for using this model of collaborative teacher learning. When teachers redesign learning experiences to make school more relevant to students’ lives, they can’t ignore assessment.

What is action action research based inquiry?

Action research-based inquiry in educational contexts and classrooms involves distinct participants – students, teachers, and other educational stakeholders within the system. All of these participants are engaged in activities to benefit the students, and subsequently society as a whole.

How can action research based inquiry improve teaching and learning in mathematics?

The educator/researcher engaged in action research-based inquiry to improve an aspect of her pedagogy. She generated knowledge that indicated she had improved her students’ understanding of mathematics by integrating it with other subjects – specifically in the social and ecological context of her classroom, school, and community.