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Adapting and Integrating Research Methodology into TESOL Teacher Education: Ethnographic Interviews

Adapter et intégrer la méthodologie de recherche dans la formation des enseignants d’anglais langue seconde : les entretiens ethnographiques
Katherine Nelson


Cet exposé fournit en bref une préparation de cours pour introduire l'utilisation des entretiens ethnographiques dans la formation des enseignants d’anglais langue seconde. En groupes de deux, ces éducateurs se préparent et s'interrogent sur un aspect culturel, une tradition, une expérience, un événement (etc.) dont l'interviewer ne sait rien (ou presque). Cette préparation de cours est conçue pour une seule période de soixante-quinze minutes, mais peut facilement être étendue à un projet plus grand. À la fin de la leçon, les éducateurs TESOL doivent mieux comprendre l’idée de culture et des différences culturelles, ainsi qu'ils ont un exemple concret pour comprendre la manière dans laquelle les gens forment des groupes culturels.

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Introduction and objectives for the activity

1Educators teaching English for a specific purpose, and students learning English for a specific purpose, will need to be prepared to navigate potential cultural differences, even if the language is being used as a lingua franca. This activity seeks to use linguistic, anthropological, and sociological research methodology to help TESOL educators better understand various cultures, their differences, and what defines a culture, as well as to strengthen both the TESOL educators’ and their students’ cultural voices. Morgan defines culture as “[…] the evolving way of life of a group of persons, consisting of a shared set of practices associated with a shared set of products, based upon a shared set of perspectives on the world, and set within specific social contexts” (24). TESOL classes can vary widely in the make-up of their student body, depending upon the background, language, country, and cultural origin of each student. An educator needs to be prepared to navigate such a potentially diverse student body and to introduce them to the varied cultures that use the English language.

2Researchers striving to understand and describe another culture need to have the skills and tools to conduct such research in a culturally sensitive way. In his book on interviewing, Briggs writes this:

Growing up in a given speech community presents the language learner with innumerable opportunities to discover the rules that relate form, context, and meaning. When a researcher leaves her or his own native speech community and establishes contact with another group of human beings, however, no such common body of experiences is available to smooth the initial encounters. (Briggs 39)

3TESOL educators and TESOL students “leave their native speech community” when entering a TESOL classroom and may not have a “common body of experiences.” Learning to bridge this divide is essential.

  • 1 It should be noted that Briggs’ discussion of ethnography is situated within a much larger discussi (...)

4Ethnography, though not easily defined, is a process through which a researcher can investigate, describe, and hopefully come to understand another culture as it is practiced by its people (Blommaert and Jie). This can be accomplished in part through the use of open-ended questions in an informal interview (Briggs 7-10)1. Ethnographic interviews are directly transferable to TESOL educators’ experiences in language teaching as they must navigate their students’ varied cultural backgrounds and provide their students with the tools to navigate the varied cultures that use the English language. Additionally, ethnographic interviews are directly transferable to TESOL students’ experiences in language learning as they must learn to navigate their new culture as well as the cultures of their fellow students.

  • 2 It is important to note that ethnographies require extensive time commitment, as their purpose is t (...)

5In the presented activity, TESOL educators conduct abbreviated ethnographic interviews2. They will identify and discuss with a partner some cultural aspect, experience, event (etc.) that the interviewer knows nothing or little about. Upon completion of the activity, TESOL educators should have a tangible example to understand how people form meaningful cultural groupings in all aspects of their lives and how these cultural groupings contribute to one’s identity. They should also better understand cultural differences and how to identify what various cultures value. Finally, TESOL educators can transfer the skills learned in this activity for use in their own classrooms with their students.

6This activity is of particular value for TESOL educators who have not been exposed to other cultures, ideas, views, or values, either through domestic or international travel or by meeting people from other regions of their own country or other countries. By completing an ethnographic interview, these TESOL educators should become more aware of culture, its scope, and its presence in all aspects of their and others’ lives, increasing their sensitivity to cultural differences. Finally, through this activity TESOL educators will be provided an opportunity to find and strengthen their own cultural voice.

Number of students

7This activity was designed for class of 25 students, thought it requires a minimum of two students. There is no maximum number of students, however, to allow for a more detailed, thoughtful discussion and debriefing at the end of the activity, a maximum of about thirty students is advised. If there is an odd number of students, the instructor may participate in the activity.


8Students will need something to write with and something to write on; paper and pencil or a computer would be sufficient.

In-class time needed for the activity

9This activity was designed to be completed in one seventy-five minute class, though it can easily be expanded to allow students to complete more in-depth interviews. (See the section “Expanding the Activity” for further information.) A breakdown of timing is provided below in the description of the activity.

Preparation time

10If the instructor knows and understands how to conduct an ethnographic interview, little preparation time is needed. However, if ethnographic interviews are a new concept, the instructor should take care to read and understand the information discussed above in the introduction and the abbreviated ethnographic interview directions below in the section “Description of the Activity.” As the activity is planned for a single seventy-five minute class, some steps, which would take place in a large-scale ethnography, such as finding people to interview, conducting background research on the topic of interest, and gaining permission from a community to conduct the research, are not completed or are not applicable. (If a more detailed discussion on ethnographic interviews is desired, see Allen and Sangasubana.)

Description of the activity

11The activity will consist of four parts: 1) Introduction to the activity, 2) Pairing up and preparing for the interviews, 3) Conducting the interviews, and 4) Summarizing and sharing.

Introduction to the activity (10 minutes)

12Definition: An ethnographic interview is an informal interview using open-ended questions through which the interviewer can glean first-hand information about a cultural practice or group of people (Blommaert and Jie; Briggs 7-10).

13Questions: After determining what the interview topic will be for both students, each student should compose a few questions to start their conversations. These should be thoughtful, open-ended questions, rather than yes/no questions. The goal is to encourage the interviewee to speak freely. As the conversation develops, the interviewer will formulate further questions based on the content of the interview. (Example questions are provided below in #2.)

14Taking notes/recording: A researcher would normally audio or video record an ethnographic interview after receiving consent from the participants. This activity will not be recorded, however, students should take notes as they need to be prepared to provide a short verbal summary of the interview and the experience.

15The observer paradox/researcher bias: Whenever researchers insert themselves into a culture/community/conversation they will be faced with the possibility of affecting the research. Researcher bias can take many forms, such as only asking questions that interest them, or participants being reserved, shy, lying (etc.).

16Results: At the end of the ethnographic interview, one should examine the notes and develop a summary about the culture discussed in the interview. (Prompting question are provided below in #4.)

17Relating this activity to TESOL teacher education: When working in a TESOL classroom, students can come from all over the world with a variety of backgrounds, experiences, and cultures. Understanding the scope of culture, and that it is present in every-day activities, will help TESOL educators to be open to the small, and seemingly inconsequential, differences. Educators will understand how to ask about culture in a sensitive way which will improve student-teacher interactions. Additionally, they will learn more about themselves and their own culture the more they explore other cultures, whatever shape that culture takes.

Pairing up and preparing for the interviews (10 minutes)

18Break the students into pairs. (Students can choose their partners or the instructor and randomly assign partners.) Each pair of students determines two topics to discuss in the interview. The interviewer should know little about the topic they will interview their partner about. Some example topics would be growing up in a large family, living in a small town, travel, playing a sport, playing an instrument, holding a certain type of job, etc. Once topics are chosen, take a few minutes to develop a couple of thoughtful, open-ended relevant questions to start the interview.

19The following are some example questions for an interview about playing the piano:
- How did you become interested in playing the piano?
- What appealed to you about playing the piano?
- How did you learn to play?
- What makes you feel that you are a novice / an expert at playing the piano?

Conducting the interviews (40 minutes)

20Each student should be allowed 20 minutes to interview their partner about their chosen topic. While students are interviewing each other, walk around the classroom to see if they need assistance and to provide guidance.

Summarizing and sharing (15 minutes)

21Before discussing the interviews as a class (10 minutes), have the students develop a short verbal summary about what they learned (5 minutes). Have the students consider:
- What did you learn?
- What was most difficult about conducting the interview?
- What would you do differently next time?
- How could you use this experience to better understand your students?
- How could you use this experience to help your students better understand each other?

Expanding the activity

22Written reflection: In addition to the verbal summary, have the students complete a one-page written reflection on the experience of conducting and participating in an ethnographic interview and consider how they could transfer what they learned for use in their own classroom.

23Short-term project: Using this brief in-class activity as a starting point, and after the interviewer has had time to further research the topic and develop more thoughtful questions, have the students meet once or twice again to continue the interviews. To conclude this short-term project, students could write a two-three page paper about the interview topic and/or a lesson plan incorporating ethnographic interviews for their current or future students.

24Long-term project: A similar, more in-depth version of the activity was discussed by Allen. Allen’s paper focused on French foreign language teachers, rather than TESOL teachers. Allen’s students conducted “a minimum of four to five hour-long meetings over a period of several days” (53). An in-depth project would be highly beneficial for future TESOL teachers, especially if they were interviewing students who succeeded or failed to learn English as a second language. Such an experience would provide them with a valuable understanding of their students and their students’ experiences.

Conclusion: Student reception of the activity

25I have only had the opportunity to use the activity once, but plan to use it again this coming year. I value the compact nature of the activity, as it allows students the opportunity to experience and use research methods. I know, however, that students would benefit from a more in-depth project and would like to incorporate the short-term project discussed above into the next class in which it fits.

26When this activity was completed in my class, student reception was generally positive. Overall, they appreciated the opportunity to engage with fellow students about a personal cultural experience and enjoyed sharing their findings with the class. They found it challenging to ask open-ended questions which would allow the interviewee to respond as they desired rather than yes/no answers. This activity also provides these future TESOL educators with an opportunity to develop some tools to discuss their students’ cultural backgrounds in a non-biased manner.

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Allen, Linda Quinn. “Culture and the Ethnographic Interview in Foreign Language Teacher Development.” Foreign Language Annals, vol. 33, no. 1, 2000, pp. 51-57. DOI: 10.1111/j.1944-9720.2000.tb00889.x.

Bloomaert, Jan, and Dong Jie. Ethnolinguistic Fieldwork: A Beginner’s Guide. Multilingual Matters, 2010.

Briggs, Charles L. Learning How to Ask: A Sociolinguistic Appraisal of the Tole of the Interview in Social Science Research. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Morgan, Patrick. Teaching Culture: Perspectives in Oractice. Heinle & Heinle, 2001.

Sangasubana, Nisaratana. “How to Conduct Ethnographic Research.” The Qualitative Report, vol. 16, no. 2, 2011, pp. 567-573.

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1 It should be noted that Briggs’ discussion of ethnography is situated within a much larger discussion of interviewing in general and interviewing as a speech event.

2 It is important to note that ethnographies require extensive time commitment, as their purpose is to describe another culture. This cannot be completed in one interview, however, the methodology of informal interviews and open-ended questions can be utilized to ask thoughtful questions in order to open a dialogue and better understand another person, their culture, and their background.

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Référence électronique

Katherine Nelson, « Adapting and Integrating Research Methodology into TESOL Teacher Education: Ethnographic Interviews », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité [En ligne], Vol. 37 N°2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2018, consulté le 17 août 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/apliut.6386

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Katherine Nelson

Katherine Nelson is currently an independent scholar and has taught at Illinois State University and Rice University. Additionally, she was the Language Curriculum Developer for a Native American Tribe. She has teaching and researching experience in language, culture, and identity. Previous publications include Fast speech phenomena in Asante Twi and The Nez Perce vowel system: a phonetic approach.

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