Narrowing down a topic

Let’s get started!

Selecting a topic: In order for a study to be worthwhile, a problem needs to be addressed.  A study that fails to address a problem is simply a study not worth doing. The last thing any researcher wants to happen is to present one’s findings only to have the audience/readers ask, So what? Having a problem provides value or significance to the study - in other words, purpose. Why should one spend hours analyzing and synthesizing the literature, collecting data, analyzing the date, and present findings?  The reason is to better understand a real-world problem.

When you are thinking about your study, reflect on past experiences as both an English language learner and your experiences thus far in teaching (e.g., teaching practicum classes, professional experience, etc.).  What problems or issues have you faced? Which experiences provided questions to you that you found interesting? What drives your curiosity? Asking yourself these kinds of questions is always a good start when beginning the process of narrowing down a topic… but it’s not everything!

Once you have a problem that you are curious about, one that you perhaps have faced in the real world, the next step is to see if this idea is worth researching.  How can you make this determination? Read… read… and read some more! The only way to know whether a topic is worth researching is to see what other researchers (called, the literature) have said about the problem.  What do others know about the issue you want to research?  Your study should complement what others have said and not “recreate the wheel”.  In other words, there is nothing wrong with replicating someone else’s study.  In fact, many learners confuse replicating a study as plagiarism. It’s not! It’s actually a good thing to search for studies that are very similar to what you want to do and replicate, modify, and/or adjust them to your own research context.  Now, let’s get to the nitty gritty as they say. Let’s get to the heart of the matter. The following steps (adapted from Booth, Colomb, & Williams, 2008) are meant to assist you in narrowing down your topic.

Move from topic to questions

Brainstorm a set of questions from a variety of perspectives, beginning with asking who, what, when, where, etc. but focusing on how and why. Then continue brainstorming through the following types of questions:

  • Topic history

    • Ask questions about development context.  How has this problem, technique, method, material, etc. changed over the years?  Why has it changed over the years? Googetc.

  • Structure and composition

    • How does your topic relate to a bigger context?  What is the composition of your topic? How do the pieces fit together?

  • Categorization

    • How can your topic be grouped together?  How does your topic compare and contrast with topics within the same or similar category?

  • Positive to negative questions

    • Turn positive questions to negative questions.  Why have wikis not become a prevalent web tool in today’s language classroom?

  • What if… questions

    • What if all language teachers had to use wikis with their learners?

  • Questions from sources

    • Search primary research articles and find questions for further research.  Or tailor research questions from primary research articles to local research topic interests.  Find questions from outside sources that allow you to fill the literature gap so that what you investigate adds to the body of knowledge that currently makes up the field.

Move from questions to a problem

To move a question to its significance, consider the following prompt:  I will to learn more about… because I want to find out (how, why, etc.)... in order to (do/perform some action)... Now, let’s break this one sentence down into three vital elements. Print pages 3-5 (steps 1-4) and bring to class on January 29, 2019.

Applied Research Problem (option #1) - Step 1

  • Topic: I wish to learn more about…


  • Indirect question: … because I want to find out (how, why, etc.)...


  • Practical significance: … in order to (do/perform some action)...


Note: When doing applied research, your practical significance will be mentioned as a discussion in the Results and Discussion section, and should be significant for the reader and not just the researcher.


Pure or Basic Research Problem (option #2) - Step 1

  • Topic: I wish to learn more about…


  • Indirect conceptual question: … because I want to find out (how, why, etc.)...


  • Conceptual significance: … in order to understand…  


  • Potential practice application: so that (readers/teachers/students/administrators, etc.) might (do/perform some action)...


Note: When doing pure or basic research, your potential practical application will be mentioned briefly in the conclusion only (and not in the Results and Discussion section).

What do you wish to examine? - Step 2

Determine what you wish to examine: behaviors, attitudes/opinions/perceptions, knowledge, emotions and values, culturally shared meaning, social structures and relationships, processes and systems, or environmental context (Guest, Namey, & Mitchell, 2013).

I wish to examine ______________________________________________________________________.

What is your unit of analysis? - Step 3

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Determine your unit of analysis based on a particular level of analysis as they relate to teaching or learning an additional language (i.e., applied linguistics): national curriculum or activity, statewide school systems, city schools, an individual school, an academic department, teacher groups (or cliques) within a department, individual teachers, individual teacher practices, etc. The aforementioned levels may also be applied to learners. Choose one unit of analysis.

My unit of analysis is ____________________________________________________________________.

What’s your research design? - Step 4

State your anticipated research design, understanding that this could change over the next four weeks as you solidify your literature review.  

Qualitative inquiry includes phenomenology, content analysis, case study approaches, and discourse/conversational analysis. Indicate below in the notes section your research question(s) if you are considering a qualitative study.

___________________________________________________ best describes my qualitative research (if applicable).

Quantitative research is either descriptive (central tendencies, etc.) and/or inferential or using statistics (e.g., multivariate analysis, etc.) that sets out to statistically prove a hypothesis. Describe the type of quantitative research design that most appropriately addresses the problem under investigation.  Also state a hypothesis if applicable. Indicate N/A if design is qualitative.


Mixed methods will be some combination of qualitative and quantitative research designs and is typically either sequential or conconcurrent.  If mixed methods is being considered, explain whether it’s sequential or conconcurrent: otherwise, indicate N/A.


Moving from questions to a problem

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

  • General: Practical problem: Learners are afraid to speak in class.

  • Specific: Research problem: Teachers fail to provide timely feedback using WhatsApp to shy students in a way that gives them more confidence to speak and interact with peers.

  • Specific: Research solution: Teachers correct shy learners along with all students  in written and verbal form both in and outside of class by using WhatsApp.

  • General: Practical solution: Avoid singling out shy learners in class when providing feedback on their speaking.

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

(topic) I wish to learn more about learners being afraid to speak in class when called upon (indirect research question - condition) because I want to find out how English language teachers use WhatsApp to provide written and spoken feedback to English language learners (broad question - cost or consequence) in order to answer the bigger question of how teachers motivate shy learners to speak in class.

When doing your own research, you want to be specific - you need to have a specific researchable problem and through your study, present your research “solution” or findings.  Think in terms of presenting a possible solution or working towards a possible solution.

Possible research topics in applied linguistics

  • Grammar

    • Overt/cover

    • Implicit/explicit

    • Chomsky's Universal Grammar

  • Bilingual education

  • Classroom discourse

  • Corpus linguistics

  • Cognitive linguistics

  • Discourse analysis

    • Grice and Implicatures (part 1, part 2, & part 3)

    • 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

  • English for Academic Purposes

  • English for Specific Purposes

  • Generative grammar

    • Chomsky's Universal Grammar

  • Innatism

    • Krashen's monitor model

  • 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.

  2. Search the literature.

  3. Develop an argument.

  4. Survey the literature.

  5. Critique the literature.

  6. Write the review.


Booth, W., Colomb, G., & Williams, J. (2008). The craft of research. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Guest, G., Namey, E., & Mitchell, M. (2013). Collecting qualitative data: A field manual for applied research. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.

Machi, L. & McEvoy, B. (2012). The literature review: Six steps to success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.