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Narrowing down a topic (aka problem statement)

Narrowing down a topic

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Selecting a topic: Move from an everyday problem that you would like to investigate (stage 1) to define a specific subject, perspective, and vantage point that defines your research topic (stage 2). The final stage (stage 3) is to remove yourself from the personal domain of refining the topic of interest to the formal world of academia. In this final stage, switch from everyday language to technical terminology used in a particular academic discipline (e.g., applied linguistics) (Machi & McEvoy, 2012).

Refer to the list of possible research topics in applied linguistics below as a guide.

Merge your topic with an area of linguistic focus: a) individual skills (i.e., reading, writing, listening, speaking), b) grammar, c) vocabulary, d) or some combination of the aforementioned (e.g., reading and writing, listening and speaking, speaking and vocabulary, etc.).

Moving from a topic to questions

When thinking about your entire thesis paper, pose a general question that applies to the entire research. A question at this level is not the same as more specific research questions that relate directly to your results and discussion. Developing research questions comes later after you have determined the researchable topic.

  • Historical context
    • Ask questions about how your topic has changed over time.
  • Structure
    • Ask questions about the structure or composition of phenomena, a situation, etc. that relate to your topic.
  • Categorization
    • Ask questions about how your topic compares and contrasts with other similar categories.
  • Negative questions
    • Shift positive questions to negative ones: Why have English language learners in Mexico not been able to achieve…?
    • Questions from sources
      • Find a question from other studies, either verbatim or modifying it to your own research context.

Moving from questions to a problem statement

A problem statement – expressed as one sentence – for the purposes of developing a researchable topic includes 1) a topic, 2) an indirect question, and 3) a significance [or purpose].

Topic (general idea)

Here are a few examples of topics (in red).

  • I wish to learn more about **teachers' beliefs about formative assessments and related teaching techniques**.
  • I wish to learn more about **English language teachers who teach English grammar covertly to their English language learners**.
  • I am working on **why students are reluctant to speak English in class**.
  • I am trying to learn about **teaching covert grammar and how students feel about different related teaching techniques.**

Indirect question (a more specific idea that relates directly to the thesis statement of the paper)

Now, extend your topic by adding an indirect question (in red) to indicate what you don’t know or would like to understand better more specifically. What follows are a few examples.

  • I wish to learn more about [a topic] because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how _________.
  • I am studying teachers’ beliefs about formative assessment because I want to find out how students feel about related teaching techniques.
  • I am working on why students are reluctant to speak English in class because **I want to find out what authentic materials primary English language teachers use to promote better interaction among students.**
  • etc.

Build research questions specifically around the indirect question (in red) that you have created above.

Significance (So what?)

Your topic must be interesting to you, the researcher, but must also be interesting to others in the field. Your research should be an extension of what other researchers have already done. For this reason, it’s best to replicate someone else’s study (i.e., base your instruments, data collection protocols, analysis, etc. on what other researchers have already done while applying your method to a different set of participants related to the purpose of your own particular study). The significance and problem that you are researching are integrally linked. Add the significance after your indirect question. Here are a few examples.

  • I wish to learn more about [a topic] because I want to find out [indirect question] in order to __________.
  • I am studying teachers’ beliefs about formative assessment because I want to find out how students feel about teaching techniques used to assess written texts in order to **demonstrate the role of formative assessment when motivating English language learners to improve grammar in the classroom community.**
  • I am working on why students are reluctant to speak English in class because I want to find out how authentic materials might be used to promote better interaction among English language learners in order to **avoid having English language teachers in public schools use the coursebook as a syllabus.**
  • etc.

Moving from a topic to questions involves a three-part process: 1) expressing what you want to learn more about, 2) tagging an indirect question to your topic (beginning with a because clause), and 3) stating the significance of your research (beginning with an in order to clause).

In summary…

Reflect on your topic-to-question statement:

  • Topic: I wish to learn more about…
  • Indirect question: because I want to find out what/why/how etc….
  • Significance: (Reflect on the reader’s point of view.): in order to…

First, distinguish between a practical problem and a research problem…

  • Practical problem: Students are afraid to speak in class.
  • Research problem: How can I provide feedback to students in such a way that they feel more confident to speak English with their peers?
  • Research solution: Provide individual feedback when requested during the task, and group feedback once the task has been completed.
  • Practical solution: Avoid overcorrection or providing too much feedback to students.

A problem consists of a condition and a cost or consequence.

  • (topic) I am studying teacher feedback (question #1 & condition) because I want to find out when giving feedback allows students to feel more confident when speaking L2 with their peers (significance, question #2, & cost or consequence ) in order to answer the bigger question of how teacher intervention can either promote or discourage student’s oral production in class.

The first question (the condition) helps answer the second question (the cost or consequence).

Example: Knowing when to give feedback that allows students to feel more confident when speaking with their peers (question #1 or condition) addresses the bigger question of how teacher intervention can either promote or discourage student’s oral production in class (question #2 or cost/consequence).

Here are additional tips when searching for a problem to research:

  • Ask teachers, students, administrators, and other experts in the field about problems they face related to teaching and learning an additional language.
  • Search primary research articles for related problems to find relevant examples.
  • Begin with a problem at the onset of your research, but understand that research problems may morph or emerge in different forms as one conducts a study.

Searching for a topic

Consider the sources and techniques you use to find articles online. Check out DuckDuckGo, using Bangs to streamline the search process!

Situational Questions

Possible research topics in applied linguistics

45 Linguistics Research Paper Topics – 2020 | TopicsMill

  • Grammar
  • Bilingual education
  • Classroom discourse
  • Corpus linguistics
  • Cognitive linguistics
  • Discourse analysis
    • Grice and Implicatures (part 1 (Links to an external site.), part 2 (Links to an external site.), & part 3 (Links to an external site.))
    • L1 use in language teaching
    • L2 transfer
    • Learner autonomy
    • Interactive/collaborative language learning.
    • Task-based learning
    • Problem-based learning
    • Performance-based learning
    • Language learning strategies
    • Language exchanges (Links to an external site.)
  • English for Academic Purposes
  • English for Specific Purposes
  • Generative grammar
  • Language and culture
  • Language and Gender
  • Language and Identity
  • Language Emergence as a complex adaptive system
  • Language learning and technology
  • Language teacher education
    • Professional development or professional learning among (English language), in-service educators
    • Professional development or professional learning among (English language), pre-service educators
  • Language testing
    • Formative assessment in the language classroom
    • Formative vs. summative assessment in the language classroom
    • Dynamic assessment in the language classroom
    • Language exchanges
    • Task-based learning
    • Problem-based learning
    • Performance-based learning
  • Lexis
  • Linguistic Imperialism
  • Multilingualism
  • Phonetics and phonology
  • Systemic functional linguistics
  • Multimodality
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Sociocultural theories
  • Sociolinguistics
    • Motivation
  • Translation

Additional reading

Six steps for conducting a literature review

(Machi & McEvoy, 2009)

  1. Select a topic. (See above.)
  2. Search the literature.
  3. Develop an argument.
  4. Survey the literature.
  5. Critique the literature.
  6. Write the review.

References

Booth, W., Colomb, G., & Williams, J. (2008). *The craft of research* (Links to an external site.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Machi, L. & McEvoy, B. (2009). The literature review: Six steps to success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.