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Using Action Research to Initiate an Innovation in Primary English Language Arts

Bruce Howden
Headmaster, Preparatory School of the Anglican Church Grammar School
Peter Orford
Chairperson, English Language Arts Steering Committee
Since the inception of compulsory schooling in Australia in the 1860s, the teaching of English (or English Language Arts as it is now called) has passed through quite distinct stages of development. Initially, in an attempt to achieve mass literacy, schools placed great emphasis upon traditional language skills. This was followed, in the first half of this century, by the inclusion of a stronger literature component in the syllabus, using the classic pieces of English prose and poetry as exemplars. Today, the focus has evolved towards a total language approach. Consequently, schools are becoming much more aware of the need for realistic reasons for talking, reading and writing to be part of the curriculum.

The following article examines the attempt by one school to change its English Language Arts syllabus. Beginning with a piece of descriptive research, the innovation developed as an action research project. This has resulted in a high level of involvement of staff as they engage with the new emphases of the curriculum.

In 1976, Sockett wrote of curriculum reform . . . 'to alter what is, we need to know what is.' (Sockett, 1976:88). By the beginning of 1991, the changing nature of teaching English Language Arts had determined that the school's previous syllabus, written in 1985, was in need of major review. It was therefore decided to try to define first the current position of English Language Arts in the school. Part of this project would involve obtaining the perceptions of those who might be considered stakeholders in the syllabus's well-being.

The first step, gauging of the present situation, fitted well within an action research model, defined by Elliott (1991:69) as . . . 'the study of a social situation with a view to improving the quality of the action within it'. The researchers agreed to adopt Elliott's revised version of Lewin's model of action research, as shown in Figure 1.

In effect, the current practices of the school as well as all the factors that impinge upon the operation of the English Language Arts syllabus were to be investigated. It was a recognition that in order to bring about curriculum change, consideration had to be given to the context in which it worked. The definition of Situational Analysis (or Reconnaissance), according to Print (1987:81), was accepted as the basis for this investigation. It was:

. . . a process of examining the context for which a curriculum is to be developed and the application of that analysis to curriculum planning.
A variety of tasks was undertaken. A profile was developed on the reading abilities of the students. Reports on resource levels were obtained by the teacher-librarian and the different perspectives of people who held an interest in the development of the syllabus were gathered and collated. It is the last mentioned item that is dealt with in Stage One of this report.

Stage One - The Reconnaissance (Fact Finding and Analysis)

Because of its efficiency in the use of time, the survey method was chosen as the means for collecting information. Those perceived as having an interest in the syllabus were primary classroom teachers, specialist teachers of subjects such as Art and Music in the school, English teachers of Years ~10 and parents of primary school students.

The sample contained:

Figure 1 (Elliott, 1991:71)

Figure 1

An instrument, containing six closed questions and two open-ended questions, was constructed. It was designed to be used with the four respondent groups. Although the brevity of the instrument meant that opinions on all aspects of the English Language Arts syllabus could not be obtained, the brevity did encourage a high response rate. The level of response is shown on the table below.

Figure 2

Respondent groupNumber of
response rate
Primary classroom teachers1090%
Primary specialist teachers5100%
English teachers of Years 8, 9 and 101861%
Parents of primary students2486%

Questions related to the following topics: the level of guidance that should be provided to children in the choice of their reading matter, the significance of grammar, assessment of students' writing and the relative importance of aspects of an English Arts syllabus. Respondents were also asked to identify the elements of the English syllabus from their student days that had subsequently proven most beneficial to them.

The teachers in the primary school were introduced to the survey at a 'pupil-free' day. It was explained that individual responses would be anonymous and confidential. To each survey was attached a 'self addressed' envelope. Within the next three days, 14 of the 15 teachers responded.

With regard to the secondary teachers of English, initial contact was made with the Head of English in the secondary school, who gave approval for the survey to be administered to the relevant staff. Furthermore, an invitation was extended for the topic to be explained at an English department meeting. At this subject meeting, the rationale for doing the research was explained and the surveys were distributed. For the sample of parents, an introductory letter was sent home, which indicated the importance of parental views. Several days later, the surveys went home by hand in neatly-packaged large manila envelopes. The researchers were encouraged by the strong parent response rate of 86 per cent.

The results revealed that primary teachers placed greatest focus upon reading. There was no difference in this regard between primary classroom teachers and primary teachers of specialist areas such as Physical Education, Art or Music. For English te achers in the lower secondary school, the ratings were relatively evenly distributed amongst reading, writing and speaking though the accent was upon writing. Parents, however, ranked as their highest priority the acquisition of a sound knowledge of the mechanics of language. This involved such elements as punctuation, spelling and the formal teaching of grammar. The relative positions are exemplified in Figure 3 which provides responses to Question 2. The results of other questions validated these findings.

Figure 3: The relative importance of aspects of an English Language Arts Syllabus

Q. 2 Imagine that each student in your English class this semester is to receive an assessment in the form of a percentage. How would you expect to allocate the 100 marks for the subject among its component parts?

Years 8-10
RSRankingRS RankingRSRankingRSRanking
Spelling, dictation100 4th153rd677th304 3rd
Handwriting and neatness60 7th77th378th202 7th
Reading (oral, comprehension) 2151st181st185 2nd3662nd
Creative writing165 3rd162nd2301st230 6th
Listening656th 106th1075th2595th
Drama158th 68th876th1388th
Knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, punctuation 1702nd153rd1504th 4401st
Oral expression855th 125th1823rd2764th
Other (specify)10*


* Book reviews
** Critical writing; Functional writing, research skills, structure in essays

For the researchers, it appeared that whilst there had been areas of agreement amongst the respondent groups, there were issues where quite disparate views were held. As well, it became apparent that many respondents were unaware of the new emphases proposed by Queensland Department of Education's draft English Language Arts syllabus. Syllabus building would need to begin from areas of common ground. Effective communication and the development of collective ownership would be important factors in determining the innovation's level of success.

Stage Two - General Plan

The researchers discussed the findings with the relevant respondent groups and made available copies of the situational analysis, including results of the survey. The procedure for initiation of the review was discussed. It was recognised that as change is a process not an event, then implementing a new program would involve recognising the process as being complex in its own right with . . . 'each potential situation representing a whole new set of "hows".' (Fullan, 1985:399). It was recommended that a strategy might be planned along the lines shown in Figure 4 below. To that end, one researcher, who was the school's senior administrator, asked for a Steering Committee to be established.

Figure 4

Figure 4

The plan was for the Steering Committee to develop a set of 'action steps' for the innovation. In part it was intended that committee members would engage in activities to determine . . . 'how the process of implementation and its effects are going to be monitored.' (Elliott, 1991:76).

As shown in Figure 4, the Steering Committee would work most closely with primary teachers, at the same time being careful to keep open communication with other groups. ..

Stage Three - Actions Steps

At a staff meeting late in first term, 1992, applications were called for interested parties to investigate a review of the school's English Language Arts program.

By the end of the meeting, four names had been tendered:

The group's first concerns were to seek to clarify the intentions of the administration in initiating the process of review. Difficulty was experienced by the steering group in establishing its goals. It resolved, not without some misgivings, that in initiating action, it should provide recommendations or guidelines for the development of an ELA policy.

At this point, the focus turned inwards as the group explored its own attitudes to the teaching of language. This process involved individual group members clarifying and articulating their beliefs and understandings. Further, these beliefs were being continually tested. Refinement and a common agreement of definitions were finally reached. It was generally recognised that these definitions were working agreements subject to modification and development.

The next task was to turn attention more directly to the material available through the development activities of the Queensland Department of Education. Increased reading of relevant material brought a recognition of the value of research in the preparation of these documents. The materials gave to the steering group a greater knowledge of the issues and a sense of empowerment over the situation. As an independent school, there was the opportunity to develop a particularly responsive and unique approach to the innovation, achievable through staff development and interaction.

Of major importance in the process was the recognition of the class teachers' understanding of the school's special environment and needs. As Sharan and Hertz-Lazarowitz (1982:187) have remarked, . . . 'teachers as individuals vary in their degree of openness to learning and using new experiences'. Further, the group was very much aware of the observation by Louden (1991:457) of Willard Waller's work (1932) that most programs involving the rehabilitation of schools have floundered on the rock of teacher resistance. It was also important for the steering committee to be cognisant of the point raised by Tyler (1988:172):

The most common factor in delaying the adoption of research findings is the practitioners' belief that research innovations are not relevant t o the problems of practice.
The group believed that it should not be unreasonable for teachers to insist that any program of educational reform start with them, that it be based on, and should include, their common sense and insight.

Gradually there was a sharpening of the committee's focus onto the implementation of the ELA innovation. In effect, the steering group had begun to accept responsibility for the initiation of the innovation and the implementation of a change process.

Whilst the reading of the curriculum materials may have been enthusiastic, it also proved frustrating for committee members. No program for sequenced presentation of the documents seemed apparent. The group wished to be working and planning with an eye to a tangible result.

The Steering Committee looked for a method of implementation that would encourage the development of a relevant and valued document. This needed to be achieved in conjunction with strong professional growth. Motivation and purpose were targeted as key elements and the preferred model for development needed to reflect these. The action research approach appeared the most applicable. The first 'Reconnaissance' exercise had already been undertaken. What was required now was a plan for action and the steps by which it would be undertaken.

It was decided to ask staff to begin developing the school document from a classroom based statement. Teachers would be encouraged to engage in the task of development and trialing an activity that related to the directions emphasised in the new Queensland curriculum. Contextual writing would be the focus. This was seen as important in gaining teacher involvement for as Fullan (1991:127) has stated:

One of the great mistakes over the past 30 years has been the naive assumption that involving some teachers on curriculum committees or in program development would facilitate implementation, because it would increase acceptance by other teachers.
The Committee members undertook to act as resource persons, providing the necessary references and materials. The hope was that the discussion subsequent to such activity would clarify understandings and develop beliefs which would ultimately lead to a statement of philosophy.

Stage Four - The Present and Future

The current stage involves the Steering Committee in helping the staff to enact the Action Steps from Stage Three. Monitoring will occur during this period of implementation. This will, in turn, be followed by a second period of 'Reconnaissance' where original perceptions can be refined. It is likely that the general ideas on the syllabus will be revised and an amended plan with new Action Steps will be developed. Action research has proven to be particularly pertinent because . . . 'its focus is on the process rather than the product of learning.' (Elliott, 1991:10).


Elliott, J. (1991) Action Research for Educational Change, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Fullan, M. (1985) 'Change Processes and Strategies at the Local Level, in Elementary School Journal, Vol.85, No.3, pp.391-411.

Fullan, M. (1991) The New Meaning of Educational Change, New York: Teachers College Press.

Louden, W. (1991) Understanding Teaching, New York: Teachers College Press.

Print, M. (1987) Curriculum Deuelopment and Design, Sydney: George Allen and Unwin.

Sharan, S. dc Hertz-Lazarowitz, R. (1982) 'Effects of an Institutional Change Program on Teachers' Behaviour, Attitudes and Perceptions', in Journal of Applied Behauioural Science, Vol.18, pp.185-201.

Tyler, R.W. (1988) 'Utilisation of Research by Practitioners in Education', in P.W. Jackson (ed) Contributing to Educational Change, USA, McCutchan Publications.

Please cite as: Howden, B. and Orford, P. (1992). Using action research to initiate an innovation in primary English Language Arts. Queensland Researcher, 8(3), 9-18. http://www.iier.org.au/qjer/qr8/howden.html

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Created 5 June 2006. Last revision: 5 June 2006.
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