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Case study in second language teaching

Jenny Miller
Graduate School of Education
The University of Queensland
In recent years there has been an increased interest in case study as a methodological approach in educational research. However, case study has rarely been used to study second language teachers and classrooms. This article argues that case study provides important insights into the complexity and contextuality of language classrooms, and the work of language teachers. The author's study of primary school German teachers in Queensland will be used to illustrate the methodology of case study, and to demonstrate some of the understandings reached by this type of inquiry. Participants were all itinerant German teachers, teaching in several different schools. Methods of data collection included audio taped interviews, classroom observation, audio taped lessons, and teacher journals. The study revealed a very dynamic interplay between teacher beliefs about language teaching, the strategies they used to teach German, and the contextual factors surrounding and defining their work. It is proposed that the broad ranging data and complex interrelationships which emerged in the study are largely the result of the case study approach itself.

Case studies in education have the potential to reveal rich contextual findings of a personal, social and pedagogical nature which can not easily be obtained by other methods. While case studies have often been used in the second language field to refer to individual language acquisition, there have been relatively few studies which focused on teachers or classrooms (Johnson, 1993). In fact, the lack of genuine classroom based studies in the second language field has often been identified as a problem (Nunan, 1992). In a review of fifty studies which were ostensibly classroom based, Nunan found that only fifteen studies were carried out entirely in actual classrooms. In addition to this gap in the research base, many classroom studies rely on experimental, correlational or survey research, thereby missing a great deal of the key contextual information (Van Lier, 1988). In this article, I argue that case study, and specifically case studies of teachers at work, are one way to capture the rich contexts of language classrooms, and to provide valuable insights into language pedagogy and programs. In this sense, the 'case' is then not the 'teacher', but the 'teacher in the classroom', and indeed beyond the classroom. To do this, I will draw on my own study of three teachers of German in Australian primary schools, with particular reference to the data from one of the cases (Miller, 1996).


Traditionally, observation of second language classrooms has involved the use of focused observation schedules (Allwright & Bailey, 1991; Nunan, 1992) which called on the observer to tick boxes in predetermined categories or to code surface behaviour, following sophisticated schemes (e.g., Fröhlich, Spada & Allen, 1985). The rationale for such schemes rests heavily on the attempt to find an objective way to record classroom observations, which sometimes seem as chaotic as the lessons observed. However, Seliger and Long (1983, p. 10) stress that while the schemes may seem inherently non-judgemental, they are 'no less subjective than the impressionistic comments they were designed to replace'. The validity of such observation schemes in revealing what is really going on in language classrooms has also been seriously challenged by other researchers such as Allwright and Bailey (1991), Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991) and Long (1983). Allwright and Bailey (1991, p. 64) point out the following:
The problem is that human endeavours such as classroom language learning cannot simply be reduced to a set of incontrovertible facts without missing out on a great deal of what is humanly interesting and probably pedagogically important.
There are two points to note here. First, where teaching or pedagogy is the focus of the study, it can be argued that narrowly focused studies generally do not allow for the teachers' own accounts, which may help the researcher make sense of what is in fact being observed. Coding systems, in the words of Sevigny (1981, p. 68) 'quantify through the eyes of the observer, and they do not qualify through the screens of the participants'. In case study, teacher 'voice', often symbolically silenced by researchers and also policy makers, provides an important level of interpretation and provides the researcher with the opportunity and the challenge to present the participants as people rather than subjects (Wolcott, 1990). Second, while the strengths of focused observation are often considered to be limited scope and standardised observation procedures, these same features are also drawbacks of the approach. It has been argued that trained observation is not enough, and a recourse to the wider contexts of classroom interaction and talk will yield valuable insights not available in decontextualised coded data (Edwards & Westgate, 1987). Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991, p. 18) suggest that the findings of focused observation studies may not hold 'when the full context of second language acquisition is restored'. Context is crucial to case study, and the description of a teacher's work across two school sites will show some of the implications of context for language teaching and learning.


Case study has been defined in numerous different ways (Nunan, 1992) but the two definitions below contain several of the key features which recur in the literature on the genre (see also Adelman, Jenkins & Kemmis, 1976; Johnson, 1993; Stenhouse, 1981; Wolcott, 1988, 1990).
... the qualitative case study can be defined as an intensive, holistic description and analysis of a single entity, phenomenon, or social unit. Case studies are particularistic, descriptive and heuristic and rely heavily on inductive reasoning in handling multiple data sources. (Merriam, 1988, p. 16)

... the case study is a study of a 'bounded system,' emphasising unity and wholeness of that system, but confining the attention to those aspects that are relevant to the research problem at the time. (Stake, 1988, p. 258)

Given multiple data sources and the 'whole system' approach central to case studies, it is clear that they offer great potential to explore the work of teachers, in terms of what teachers actually do in classrooms, but also what they know, think and feel about their work (Richert, 1991). Dealing with the totality of any issue is impossible, but case studies allow much of the diversity and complexity of experience to emerge (Stake, 1988).

Adelman, Jenkins and Kemmis (1976, pp. 148-150) propose that there are several distinct advantages in selecting case study as an approach and mode of presentation. Briefly, these may be summarised as follows:

  1. the data are strong in reality;
  2. attention is given to the subtlety and complexity of the case;
  3. case study recognises the 'embeddedness' of social truths;
  4. case study admits 'subsequent reinterpretation';
  5. insights may inform teachers, institutions and policy; and
  6. the data are presented in an accessible form.
The final point is an important one, as the very notion of readability entails a specific role for the reader of case study. The active role of the reader in making up his or her own mind about the implications of a case, even when conclusions are drawn, has been emphasised by numerous writers (Adelman, Jenkins & Kemmis, 1976; Stake, 1988; Stenhouse, 1981). The reader thus brings to bear his or her own awareness and knowledge, a third account as it were, in response to the data and analysis as presented in the text.

Merriam (1988, p. 32) reiterates the usefulness of case study 'for studying educational innovations, for evaluating programs, and for informing policy'. She adds that cases reveal the processes or dynamics at work in the implementation of programs, capture situations and settings, and show patterns of factors relevant to the case. She also proposes that case studies may be descriptive, evaluative or interpretive, but are most often a combination of these (see also Stenhouse, 1981). Whichever combination is selected, the strength of the case relies on painstaking observation and data collection. Stenhouse (1981, p. 5) writes, 'The emphasis on case study can be seen as a return to close observation'. Such observation enables the researcher to disclose a process from within, and to understand how the participants make sense of their activities and settings. The potential of case study to reveal the complexity of classrooms is summed up by Richert (1991, p. 136).

Teaching trade-offs and dilemmas emerge in the text as do the strategies teachers use, the frustrations they experience, the brilliant and less brilliant decisions they make, the actions they take, the knowledge they bring to bear and so on. Additionally cases present teachers' work as relational.
The term 'relational' implies that cases may provide more than a description of what teachers do and think, for they are situated in a particular place and time, and cast light on the contextual complexities of such work. A clear feature of case studies as described above is that they entail rich description and detailed contextual information. This is what makes them highly readable, but also less easily reportable in a concise or tabulated way. Such findings cannot be summarised in a neat table or economical diagram, as the contextuality of the participants' accounts and the integrity of the data are best preserved within the cases themselves. This is not to say that conclusions cannot be drawn, or that the findings do not provide generalisable insights.


Although case studies are occasionally viewed as 'non-rigorous' (Johnson, 1993; Nunan, 1992), several authors suggest methodological rigour is dependent on certain criteria. Johnson (1993, p. 8) specifies that these should include:
  1. a flexible, working design involving productive refocusing;
  2. the use of multiple data procedures;
  3. collection of adequate amounts of data over time;
  4. the validity or credibility of the information;
  5. the data analysis procedures; and
  6. the typicality and range of examples.
Merriam (1988) relates such rigour to the researcher's presence within the case (see also Van Lier, 1988), interaction between researcher and participants, triangulation, the interpretation of perceptions and thick rich description. In relation to reliability and validity, she argues that the case increases in credibility by being grounded in supporting detail. From the perspective of academic rigour, therefore, reference in a case study must consistently be to evidence, rather than to authority, although case studies may draw on theory to support the evidence (Stenhouse, 1981; Guba & Lincoln, 1981).

The issue of external validity or generalisability often arises in discussions of case study methodology. There seems to be consensus that the primary goal is to understand the idiosyncrasies and complexities of the particular case, but that the insights gleaned may be generalisable to other cases (Adelman, Jenkins and Kemmis, 1976; Johnson, 1993; Stake, 1988; Wolcott, 1988). Wolcott suggests for example that the case may be particular, but the implications are broad. Adelman, Jenkins and Kemmis also argue that generalising about the case as well as from it is highly legitimate. Furthermore, multiple case studies, according to Miles and Huberman (1984, p. 152), provide 'much potential for both greater explanatory power and greater generalisabilty than a single case study can deliver', a view also argued by Merriam (1988).


In order to understand better the implementation of the curriculum innovation of compulsory foreign language learning in primary schools, this study focused on teacher perceptions, practice and contexts within the language program. Case studies were used to capture a naturalistic view of the complex situated world of teachers, who are the heart of any curriculum innovation. The participants included three Year 6-7 German teachers, all of whom were itinerant specialists, as is normal in the program.

A brief background to the program will provide a context for further discussion. Clyne (1986) specifies two different models for second language education: 'content-based' or 'language object'. Content-based programs are based on an immersion model, using the target language to teach new subject content, such as maths, music or social studies. Time allocation is crucial, with five hours per week being characteristic (Clyne, 1986). In 'language object' programs on the other hand, no subject matter is usually taught apart from the language itself. Acquisition of competence in the language is therefore the 'object' of such programs, and Clyne (1986) recommends a minimum of half an hour per day for this delivery model. The Languages Other Than English (LOTE) program in Queensland may therefore be defined as a limited exposure (90 minutes per week), 'language object' course, meaning that content is not taught through the language as in bilingual programs. The language itself is thus both the means and the goal of instruction (Clyne et al., 1995). The program is not integrated with other elements of the primary curriculum. It should be noted also that the time allotted is one hour per week less than the time recommended by Clyne (1986).

Primary LOTE teachers in Queensland are with few exceptions itinerant specialists who travel between schools in their area or 'cluster'. Their teaching load may include from two to five schools, and up to twelve different classes. Until the start of 1995, classroom teachers were required to stay in the room with the LOTE teacher and to provide follow-up lessons, irrespective of their proficiency in the language. In 1995, primary teachers became eligible for 'non-contact time', normally taken during LOTE, music and physical education lessons. The classroom teacher is therefore mostly absent from LOTE lessons, although some choose to remain in the room.

The three teachers selected for this study (Miller, 1996) worked in a range of schools in different socio-economic areas. Data sources included semi-structured interviews, classroom observation for one school term (10 weeks), audiotaping of some lessons, and teacher journals. These multiple sources provided insights into strategies, beliefs, thoughts and feelings, as well as the way these things were tied to particular classrooms contexts. The analysis of the data centred on established principles of qualitative field studies, an analysis grounded in the recorded data itself, and incorporating Johnson's (1993) notion of 'productive refocusing'. One teacher was observed in two different schools which contrasted dramatically, while the others were observed teaching different classes within the same schools. As themes in the early interviews and observations were coded and tabulated in the form of a giant metamatrix (Miles & Huberman, 1984), allowing the details to be read horizontally (on themes) or vertically (on teachers), it became increasingly clear that the language teaching issues were in many ways dominated by individual circumstances and teaching contexts. This alone validated the choice of case study as a methodological approach. Seeking the differences between similar cases and the similarities between apparently different cases (Stenhouse, 1981) was a fruitful line of inquiry and revealed the cases as particularistic, but also as having important themes in common.

In what follows I illustrate some of the methodological issues outlined by Johnson (1993), by focusing on one teacher in two different school settings. This teacher will be referred to as Joanna, and her two schools as Waldeck (school one) and Jena (school two). Case study allowed me to adopt a flexible working design, use multiple data procedures and productive refocusing, with adequate amounts of data collected over time. Although Johnson lists these and others as separate criteria, it will be seen that in qualitative research, they are interdependent and woven together throughout the duration of the research. That is, they are not separate categories. For example, a flexible design involving productive refocusing will affect the number and types of data procedures, based on the ongoing analysis.


Prior to the classroom observations, I interviewed Joanna concerning her beliefs about language teaching, her perspectives on the current program, the strategies she used and elements that she perceived as relevant to her teaching contexts. These were organised into discrete sections of my interview guide but as the study progressed I came to understand how closely these areas were interrelated. For example, beliefs about how languages are learned were sometimes enacted in a classroom approach but this depended on the particular school and the class. Joanna had stated in the interview:
My main emphasis for quite some time is talking myself in the target language and getting a lot of responses via the students verbally ... I guess my teaching strategies are mainly based on trying to use the target language as much as I can, acting and miming where that is possible, using a lot of props ...
In the class I was observing, Joanna certainly used the target language most of the time, along with a consistent reliance on visual and other cues. Large chunks of lessons were exclusively in German, which spoke both to her native proficiency and persistence but also to the degree of tolerance displayed by students in this class. She had said, 'Ideally I would just speak German all the time', a position long advocated for teachers by syllabus and program writers and second language experts. However, for another school (Jena), she gave a different account:
I would say that depending on the class that it varies a great deal, so I may find myself using less German in a class where there are more behaviour problems. In order to get through or cover the objectives of my lesson, I may retreat to explaining certain things in English rather than in German, knowing that the students would probably understand it but that they may not have the patience to bear with it in order to understand it.
At Joanna's suggestion, I included this second school in my regular observations, and the contrasts it provided with the first school became central to an understanding of her work. As researcher, I came to see her work as subtly different in the two schools, the 'embeddedness' (Adelman, Jenkins & Kemmis, 1976) of social working context being the key. The case shifted via productive refocusing from language pedagogical issues in the first school to management issues in the second school. This is developed more fully below.


Part of the refocusing at this point involved the ongoing analysis of my detailed field notes of the class observations. I had clear evidence of Joanna's use of the target language, lists of strategies, her 'tricks of the trade', resources, student responses and many other things. However, for a finer-grained analysis of the classroom talk, a new and more detailed source was needed. Consequently, I audiotaped and transcribed two lessons which provided a wealth of information about the ways Joanna supported her use of German. The main features of her classroom use of German included visual support, including body language and visual aids, different modes of repetition, paraphrase and reinforcement, context embeddedness (examples which were very obvious to students) and occasional code-switching to English. The vocabulary was also substantially simplified. These strategies combined to allow her consistent and flexible use of the target language at Waldeck. Below are some examples of these strategies which are from field notes and lesson transcripts at Waldock. Categories arose from a detailed coding of these notes and transcripts. Some excerpts have been translated and some of the strategies are self-explanatory.

Use of visual support - mime/body language and visual aids

Teacher: Das ist Frau Miller. Sie schreibt (mimes 'writes'). Sie hört zu (mimes 'listens') und sie schaut (mimes 'watches', with an animated expression).
Comment: When Joanna first explained my presence to the class, she did so in German, using mime to support the language, making it clear to the children who I was and why I was there. Also standard in every lesson were charts, pictures, maps and flashcards to support the introduction of new vocabulary.

Repetition and paraphrase

Teacher: OK also, wer kann mir mal sagen, was haben wir gestern gemacht? Was haben wir gestern gemacht? Haben wir gelesen, haben wir geschrieben, haben wir etwas gehört? Was haben wir gemacht? What did we do? Was haben wir gemacht?

[OK. So, who can tell me, what did we do yesterday? What did we do yesterday? Did we read, did we write, did we listen to something? What did we do?]

Comment: Both Joanna and I were surprised by the amount of repetition evident in the transcript (which we studied together). Yet as I watched and listened to the lessons, her classroom discourse sounded very natural. This is possibly due to the nature of foreign language teacher discourse, which comprises large amounts of repetition, often without appearing stilted. Lightbown and Spada (1993, p. 14) suggest teacher talk, like 'motherese', contains many of the features evident in Joanna's classroom use of German, such as 'a slower rate of speech, higher pitch, more varied intonation, shorter, simpler sentence patterns, frequent repetition, and paraphrase'.

Repetition with vocal variation

When practising lists such as months, times or numbers, Joanna varied the loudness, pitch and length of the words.

Comment: Vocal variation, which also included using 'funny' voices, added interest and captured the attention of students, who had to repeat the same way. It was an excellent device to colour the usual humdrum of choral repetition.

'Regressive' pronunciation drill

Longer words were practised backwards in syllables, e.g., Geburtstag - tag, stag, burtstag, Geburtstag.

Comment: A tried and true strategy I recognised from my own teacher training in the mid seventies, this facilitates the aural memory of longer or unfamiliar words.

Reinforcement in German

Joanna added some form of German reinforcement after every student answer. Positive terms used included 'fein', 'gut', 'gut gemacht', 'richtig', 'richtig, genau', 'klasse', 'das stimmt' and 'ja'.

Context embeddedness

Teacher: Also ich sage, Darwin liegt im N orden, Perth liegt im Western, Brisbane liegt im Ostern und Melbourne liegt im Süden. Also was habe ich gesagt, was habe ich in Englisch gesagt? Was habe ich über Darwin gesagt? Lee?

[So I say, Darwin lies in the north, Perth is in the west, Brisbane is in the east and Melbourne is in the south. So what did I say, what did I say in English? What did I say about Darwin? Lee?]

Student: Darwin is in the north.

Teacher: Richtig, Darwin is or lies in the north, ja. Was habe ich über Perth gesagt?

Comment: The above example was from a lesson on German geography, in which Joanna used a map of Australia as a reference point for directions. Raised hands and nodding heads indicated students were easily able to comprehend the directions used in this way. In addition, certain routines (i.e., highly contextualised activities), such as gluing sheets into their books, also involved instructions given in German.

Code switch

Teacher: Richtig. Jetzt möchte ich mal weiter machen, und zwar, müsst ihr etwas aufschreiben. Hier habt ihr ein Blatt mit den Uhrzeiten, also das ist relativ einfach. You will find that this is simple because we've done much more than that today, and we'll start with these ones. So, ich möchte gerne, dass ihr die Uhrzeiten hier als richtige Sätze aufschreibt. And of course in a complete sentence, you need to start with 'es ist', ja? Also, 'Es ist sieben Uhr, usw.'. Also, Bleistift in die Hand. Cameron du auch. Gareth, fang an.
Comment: Joanna did not systematically switch to English in the course of using German in this classroom. However this was a more extended utterance. She told the students the task was simple, and then elaborated why it was simple in English. Clearly this would have been complex in German. The 'of course in a complete sentence' was a formulaic reminder of her expectations.

These were then some of the strategies Joanna used to make the target language more transparent to students. It is not an exhaustive list. In addition to the strategies outlined above, the transcripts revealed more clearly her 'tricks of the trade' such as checking for understanding, greeting and closure routines, use of time limits, focus on form, question types and control techniques. As a native speaker she had complete control over the language, but she also had a repertoire of linguistic strategies which brought this resource within the students' reach, as evidenced by their response. Krashen's (1984) notion of comprehensible input was enacted in the Waldeck classrooms. The decision to tape and transcribe lessons was a fruitful one, and was evidence of the flexible working design suggested by Johnson (1993).


The first thing I noticed in observing Joanna at Jena was that she had to work much harder to be heard, to control the class and to get her message across. In the data, a number of contextual factors emerged which had an important bearing on pedagogical concerns. She described Jena as a school where she had 'hardly any support' from class teachers, which was evident in a lack of cooperation from teachers to get students to the LOTE lesson on time. In addition to the loss of time, which frustrated her over a number of months, the classes were more difficult generally. One strategy she adopted was to use more English, as a mechanism of control. In her words:
I would also say that I retreat to using more English in a class where there are behaviour problems, or where it's a very big class, and where I also have time limitations. In Waldeck, I always get my 30 minutes, in Jena I don't.
Field notes reveal much more frequent code-switching at Jena, for instructions and for management, as well as lengthy segments just in English. It is in this sense that use of the target language may be viewed as Joanna's own barometer of her effectiveness and personal satisfaction within a class. The students played a key role in this also. When she was permitted to use German, with positive response, things were going well. Students' refusal to allow extended use of the target language corresponded to a general breakdown in cooperation, with resultant stress for Joanna. Her use of the phrase 'retreat to English' revealed to some extent both the metaphorical and real position she was placed in.

Overall, whereas it is easy to highlight language teaching strategies and issues in the data from Waldeck, the data from Jena seems dominated by professional and contextual issues. Joanna put it this way:

Joanna: ... it was definitely less stressful to work in Jena, because there was never a discipline problem. Whereas in Waldeck I felt that I always had to keep them under my thumb in a way. I often spent a lot of time just disciplining them and trying to, yeah, keep them controlled. But I felt that the outcome of both of those classes was probably quite equal in a way.

Researcher: That was my next question. Just for second language acquisition, what are the implications for the quiet controlled group versus the rowdy unsettled group. You're saying to me 'not much difference'?

Joanna: No. I guess it's more, you know, from my teaching perspective, and for my work perspective, um, it was less demanding to work at Waldeck than at Jena.


Joanna had often pointed out contrasts between her classes and schools, and difficulties which were not able to be captured in the classroom, or through interviews. As the study progressed, I felt that a diary might provide important personal insights of a reflective nature, which are less accessible through observation and interview. Again, the flexible working design (Johnson, 1993) was helpful here. Bailey (1990, p. 215) defines a diary study as 'a first person account of a language learning or teaching experience, documented through regular, candid entries in a personal journal and then analysed for recurring patterns or salient events'. In second language acquisition research, diaries have often been used to document an individual student's language acquisition and student teacher reactions to their courses and practice, but less often to explore language teaching experiences (Bailey, 1990; Long, 1983; Nunan, 1992).

Based on relevant literature, the guidelines in table 1 were devised and issued to the three teachers, along with notebooks in which to make entries. Although proposed at a busy time towards the end of the school year, all three teachers agreed to make frequent diary entries over a one month period.

Table 1: Guidelines for diary entries

  • write about anything related to teaching LOTE or your role
  • write as soon as possible after teaching, so memories are fresh
  • write regularly (at least 3 times a week, ideally every day for a short time)
  • write on right hand side of diary only
  • remove or staple shut any pages which are confidential
  • forget style, grammar and organisation (it's not an assignment)
  • be candid, open and natural
  • try to support reflection with examples
  • diary remains your property, and will be returned. (May be photocopied, but all material will remain anonymous, and permission will be sought before use.)
  • feel free to raise questions, recount successes, raise doubts, express frustrations etc.

It was hoped that the diary entries might clarify and extend issues raised in the observations and interviews, but above all, that they would provide a window on the preoccupations of the teachers in their daily working lives. In her diary, Joanna gave full reign to her satisfactions, but mostly frustrations in regard to certain contextual constraints on her teaching in Jena. Compare the following data on the subject of the time allocated to German (3 x 30 minute lessons per week), first from the early interview, then from the diary.


... one Ge rman class may be from two Year 6 classes, so you lose a lot of time by simply the physical moving of students to your classroom and out of the classroom. .... Out of the one and a half hours that we supposedly have, I would say in most of my schools I end up with one hour 15 minutes contact teaching time because you lose it with the students not being on time, the PE teacher having them, their being on excursion and you not being told and that sort of thing, all those organisational hassles.


30.09.95: Half the class was yet again ten minutes late. So I had to go into my lunch break to make up the time. RRRRR!

7.11.95: One of the classroom teachers has a really strong bias against German and Japanese and keeps on sending his students late from his room. This has been an ongoing battle with even the Principal intervening. It works for a while and then they come 7-10 minutes late again. What a waste of time! I'm working hard on not getting angry but I've got to work something out because even talking to him directly has not borne fruits.

8.11.95: Half of them are still not being sent up on time. I feel cranky about these things that are out of my reach but which impact so much on my teaching.

14.11.95: Again some students came 10 minutes late into the lesson. Brrr!

15.11.95: It's so hard to work effectively and to the degree I want to if others are not supportive. At least it's good to go back to the base school and have a good 'bitch' but it does drain me nevertheless.

21.11.95: I'm quite fed up with the class and the blatantly racist non-support I receive from one of the teachers there. He tells me he has 'this thing' with Germans and Japanese and 'no' he won't come to the concert ...

Although this situation concerns only one class teacher out of five with whom Joanna worked, it overwhelms the 'positives' in her diary. Joanna's commitment to 'work effectively' was central to her dilemma. She knew how long it takes to learn a language and was dedicated to helping her students along the path, but the itinerant nature of her role, and one resistant class teacher in particular, precluded her control over the time allowed for her subject in one school. It is pertinent to note the immediacy and intensity of the diary entry in comparison to her interview statement. This shows the value of using multiple kinds of data. The teacher is sometimes calm and reflective, and at other times she is angry. This reflects the actualities of professional work. Once again, the refocusing of the analysis and design had helped to gain a more complete picture of the language teacher's work. The diary also showed the contrast between two of her schools, as shown in table 2.

Table 2: Quotes from Teacher Diary

Waldeck students worked very well independently. I could cover a lot of work and get them to copy down their interview/dialogue structure

Good rehearsal with the Waldeck students. They worked independently on posters and those who had finished revised weather by playing a board game.

Students take initiative and participate willingly.

The students are disruptive, unsettled, awful, ratty, distracted, rude and anti-social, need constant supervision, have poor social skills.

It takes a fair amount of disciplining and shouting to settle them down, rearrange pairs or get them to do something. That 30 minute lesson took a lot of energy.

Year 7's were restless and obnoxious as usual.

There are some incredibly rude and insolent girls in that class. Nagging and ranting and raving from my side plus at times sheer despair.

It's frustrating to work with students who won't shut up.

Allwright and Bailey (1991, p. 19) remind us that: 'In choosing to cooperate (or not, as the case may be), the learners make a significant contribution to the management of the interaction that takes place in the classroom'. Insights gleaned from Joanna's case indicate that 'in choosing to cooperate or not', students also have a dramatic effect on the professional and personal lives of their teachers. Numerous other frustrations, related to itinerancy, lie beyond the scope of this article but affected the 'ending' of Joanna's story (see Miller, 1997).


Case study may highlight facets of language teaching which are missing from the literature on second language acquisition, but which are vital to a full understanding of the language teaching process. This article has focused on just one teacher, but the triangulation of data deriving from interviews, classroom observation and teacher diaries, made it clear that in classrooms many contextual factors impact directly on the strategies used.

Specific classrooms also brought different relations into play, and different pressures to bear. Simply put, the classroom was a variable not a constant (Cook, 1991). All three teachers in the study claimed in interview that some classes could do in one lesson what other classes needed three lessons to achieve, even within the same school. This kind of perception is frequently recognised in the literature. Cook (1991) suggests that teachers select activities based on an informal assessment of each group and situation. In a similar vein, McLaughlin (1993, p. 81) writes, '... teachers discriminate their sense of personal efficacy on a period-by-period basis depending on their relationship with students in each class'. As one observes the working structure and routines within a class, the complexity of understanding such a dynamic process becomes apparent. Holliday (1994, p. 31.) writes, 'what can be seen of classroom interaction constitutes "epiphenomena" - mere surface manifestations of far more complex things going on under the surface'. The smooth running of German lessons predominantly in German at Waldeck is thus underpinned by a range of contextual factors. The same highly competent teacher may resort to different strategies in a context where different things are going on 'under the surface' and language teaching strategies which work wonderfully in a supportive environment may not automatically transfer to the next school or classroom. Case study, which follows the teacher across settings, allows anomalies and contrasting contexts to emerge.

Case study has a great deal of potential in the fields of second language acquisition theory and pedagogy. It allows us to go beyond the isolated and decontextualised issue of what is taught and learned, to questions of how and why languages are taught and learned differently in different interactional contexts and settings (also see Tarone, 1995). This study was the first to use multiple data sources to investigate the day to day lived experience of primary language teachers in Queensland. Its flexible design over one school semester involved productive refocusing (Johnson, 1993) and evolved to include analysis of lesson transcripts and teacher diaries. Cases may raise more questions than they answer sometimes, but this also is a valuable function of research, which should allow for problem setting, as well as problem solving (Wolcott, 1990). Larsen-Freeman and Long (1991, p. 8) remind us that the goal of classroom-centred research 'is to describe classroom processes, not to prescribe instructional techniques'. Cases are an ideal medium for doing just that.


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Author details: Jenny Miller tutors in the teacher education program and coordinates an academic writing program for postgraduate international students in the Graduate School of Education, The University of Queensland. Her PhD research is in the area of ESL and social identity. Other research interests include language and discourse, and teachers' work.

Please cite as: Miller, J. (1997). Case study in second language teaching. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 13(1), 33-53. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer13/miller1.html

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