September 2006
Volume 10, Number 2

Contents  |   TESL-EJ Top

Doing Language Education Research in a Developing Country

Greta Gorsuch
Texas Tech University, United States


This is an account of an American language education researcher doing two research projects (a case study and a quasi-experimental study) in a developing country (Vietnam), outside of her U.S.-based research context. During a five-month period, the researcher encountered a number of contextual features present in the provincial university and community where she conducted the research which constrained (and supported) her choice of topics to investigate, the breadth of those topics, and her gathering and analysis of data. Salient among these were her role as a temporary sojourner, availability of interpreters, schedule miscommunications, transportation, physical condition of the classrooms and other resources, source of her financial support (and her resulting lighter teaching schedule), and differences in grouped student ability due to prevailing institutional placement test practices. The sum of her experiences led her to reject the notion that language education research could not be done in resource-poor developing nations. Rather, the central question is how those local contexts (and the local contexts in the U.S. and other "inner circle" countries as well) shape language education research, and what implications these local contexts have on the generation of global knowledge and transnational research partnerships.

Purpose of the Report

For nearly five months in 2005, I lived and did language education research in Vietnam, a country in the throes of rapid economic and social development (Lamb, 2002). I had the incredible luck to have a Fulbright Visiting Lecturer grant and was sent to Vinh City in north central Vietnam, where I worked at Vinh University, a comprehensive teacher education institution with an enrollment of 15,000. There were two items on my research agenda for my stay: Complete a situation analysis (a case study) of foreign language education in Vinh (e.g., Richards, 2001), and conduct a full scale quasi-experimental trial of a reading fluency methodology called repeated reading, which I had done in Japanese contexts with my research partner, Etsuo Taguchi (Taguchi & Gorsuch, 2002; Taguchi, Takayasu-Maass, & Gorsuch, 2004), and which he had been working on since the mid-1990s (Taguchi, 1997).

The purpose of this report is to describe what it was like to do research in north central Vietnam. I will detail features of the context that became salient in the process of doing the research, and speculate on how these features likely shaped my planning and execution of the research. I will also comment on how the context changed my thinking as a researcher, and my future research plans.

A Sojourner on the Outside

A description of my role in Vinh University is warranted. How I saw myself and how others saw me likely influenced what information I had access to, and my awareness of what features of the contexts became salient in terms of the research I undertook. I write this report from the point of view of an outsider. No matter how much I respected and identified with my Vietnamese colleagues and friends, I was still a temporary sojourner who enjoyed the benefits of having monetary and professional resources not necessarily available to others in that context. I also enjoyed substantial personal gifts: A first rate doctoral education in applied linguistics from Temple University Japan with a strong grounding in research methods, 15 years of experience living and teaching and doing research in Japan plus another six years in the United States at a research university (where there are significant inducements to do research but not necessarily the help to do it), a committed and generous research partner in Japan, and a supportive spouse back in the U.S. who is also a language education researcher.

Although I did not see this at the beginning of my first visit, being externally funded (and not on the payroll of the school) was also a gift. For the first time in my 21-year teaching career I could limit my teaching schedule and be more free to do research. At the same time, this freedom put me firmly outside the circle of my English teaching colleagues. They taught far more than I did and had much less free time. At first I felt left out of the Foreign Language Department and wondered whether I would even have colleagues. But gradually, by using the interviews with teachers stipulated by my case study and through chance and then later, more intentional meetings, I crept closer to that line dividing insiders (my colleagues) and outsiders (me). From my sojourner point of view I could see (but still could not know) what it was like to teach eight hours a day, be unable to obtain personal copies of teachers' reference books or see only borrowed third hand bootleg copies of such titles, and watch the dream of getting a master's degree in Hanoi drift ever further away when the monthly $45 salary is never enough to keep the family going.

That said, being an outsider allowed me to do things, such as bring materials not available in Vietnam (graded readers and teachers' reference books, audiotapes, tests, stopwatches) to use and then donate to the school. I had the funds to buy a tape recorder, and hire translators and interpreters to help with research. I also had a new and powerful laptop computer with a statistics program and Internet capability. I was able to move relatively freely in Vinh City (but not elsewhere) and collect documents and conduct interviews (although mostly off the record at the request of the interviewees), and was allowed access to students without many questions asked. Beyond initial permission-getting discussions, no one remarked on my activities, no matter how strange they may have appeared (interviewing a French language teacher who usually sat silently in a corner of the teachers' room, or having students read a passage five times in a row using stopwatches). Perhaps because I was an outsider, I was allowed latitude.

Being a sojourner also allowed me to make some connections an insider might not make. For instance, it was clear to me that even though Vietnamese teachers of English spend most of their waking hours teaching English (often in English), they have few opportunities to keep their English abilities for personal use alive. Few of my Vietnamese colleagues seemed to see maintaining their English abilities for personal use as a need. They were very good at improving students' English but, having few ideas for maintaining their own abilities apart from classroom needs, had fewer ideas to offer their students to develop their English abilities once they left school and became English teachers themselves, even though most students I knew were deeply concerned about the issue. One colleague pointed out that more priority is placed on teaching as many private, test-preparation type classes as possible to make money. Because English is used for work, and because work takes so much time and energy, worrying about personal English use is not worthwhile. As an outsider I did not immediately appreciate the extra-teaching-for-money angle, but I did see how teachers' beliefs about personal English proficiency could be propagated from one generation of teachers to the next.

Before Departure: Choosing What Research to Do

Pre-departure information about Vietnamese higher education, Vinh City, Vinh University, and English learners at Vinh University was limited. About Vietnamese higher education: My reading (e.g., Dao, Thiep, & Sloper, 1995) suggested that Vietnamese higher education was strongly influenced by remnants of French colonialism, and that as a result schools were under central government control in terms of funding and curriculum. My sources also noted that opportunities for higher education were limited to Vietnamese under the age of 25, suggesting to me either a young population, or underdeveloped educational infrastructure, or both. I also learned that Russian and French language study had given way to English in recent years. About Vinh: Vinh is located is located in Nghe An Province about 200 kilometers south of Hanoi and faces the Tonkin Gulf. The population is currently 200,000. Nghe An Province has been one of the most impoverished provinces in Vietnam for decades as the result of wars with France and the U.S., and poor weather and soil (Florence & Jealous, 2003). As Vinh was the head of the famed Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. bombed the city and nearby port so thoroughly that in 1975 the population was only eight and only one building (as it happens, a dormitory at Vinh University) was left standing in the entire city (Lamb, 2002).

About Vinh University: I was the first Fulbright scholar to be sent to the university, although not the first foreign teacher, as the university had been hosting volunteer native English speaking teachers sent by a Christian organization for several years. About English learners at Vinh University: In the course of researching language development of international teaching assistants (ITAs) in the U.S. I interviewed a Vietnamese graduate student from Hanoi and learned that many young Vietnamese do not begin foreign language study until age 14, and then only in once- or twice-a-week classes with 40 or more students. From e-mails from the university, I surmised I could work with one or two intact classes of undergraduate students at Vinh University and that classes had approximately 30 students in them. I knew that the students planned to be English teachers in Vietnamese secondary schools once they graduated. The chair of the foreign language department kindly e-mailed me three reading test passages and average student scores on comprehension tests associated with the passages. Analysis showed the passages to average 9.37 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level, which is on the high side (I think) for an English as a foreign language context with limited opportunities for L2 input. A look at the test results data showed that only a few students were able to get high scores on test items based on the passages.

My conclusions and resulting choice of research projects are in Table 1 below:

Table 1

Little has been published about language education in Vietnam, much less provincial Vietnam. Therefore, little is likely known globally about current teaching methodologies used, historical and current priorities and trends, current foreign language needs, and foreign language teacher and learner characteristics.
Situation analysis (case study) of foreign language education in Vinh City, using interviews, documental retrieval, and questionnaires.
Vietnamese learners of English likely lack opportunities for L2 input and opportunities for fluency building. This is likely even more pronounced for Vinh, a provincial city in a poor region.
Repeated reading study using a quasi-experimental design (experimental versus control groups) using multiple pre-and post-test measures and pre-intermediate graded readers for the repeated reading treatment.
Vinh University is willing to let me teach one or more intact classes of 30 students each. Based on a difficult reading test few did well on, students can probably comprehend pre-intermediate reading materials easily.  
The Vinh University test passages and items suggest a curricular focus on intensive reading.  

In choosing research projects to do I focused on possibilities presented by what I knew of the context, my needs, and probable needs of learners. As I prepared boxes of textbooks and teaching materials to send ahead I was acutely aware how little I knew about language education in Vinh, and how few contacts I had there. This suggested a situation analysis: "an analysis of factors in the context of a planned or present curriculum project that is made in order to assess their potential impact . . .these factors may be political, social, economic, or institutional . . ." (Richards, 2001, p. 91). While Richards defines situation analysis in relation to proposed curricular innovations (a basis which did not necessarily apply to my planned sojourn), the kinds of data and the breadth of the data collection plan presented in his situation analysis model was suggestive of a case study, which I felt would help me understand more, and quickly, about foreign language education in Vinh. Due to a lack of published reports from Vietnam, I felt the field would be open to information about foreign language education in Vinh. Further, I believed that to do the situation analysis, I would need to interview a wide variety of people: students, teachers, administrators, parents, employers. I felt this would propel me out into the community, thus increasing the breadth of my contacts, which I believed would be a positive move professionally and personally. The main point is that the context determined my choice of one project: The fact I was being sent to a little known region in a country just reopening to the West probably accounts for my doing a situation analysis. It is not something I would have ordinarily undertaken unless considering a major curricular innovation in the U.S., something which was not then on my radar.

The context also helped determine a research design (quasi-experimental) I had wanted to try on a reading project my Japanese research partner and I had been discussing for several months, but with American Japanese language learners at my university in the U.S. as the participants. The fact that I had been told I could work with two intact classes at Vinh University suggested we could try a true, robust quasi-experimental design with experimental and control groups of substantial size. We had used the design with very small groups in Japan, but in all cases, both groups had still done some kind of reading instruction. With the students at Vinh University, the control group could be assigned to another teacher and not actually be taught reading, while I would be teaching the experimental group using repeated reading as the methodology. What information I had suggested students at Vinh University would benefit from repeated reading (RR), an established methodology for fluency development (see the National Reading Panel, 2000; Kuhn & Stahl, 2003 for extensive reviews of studies on RR in English L1 settings), and thus increasing L2 input exposure and development of word recognition skills which seem to underpin reading fluency (Anderson, 1999; Jensen, 1986; Segalowitz, Poulsen, & Komoda, 1991). I surmised that if Vietnamese English learners read, it was likely for assignments involving intensive reading, in other words processing sentences for the teaching of grammar and vocabulary (e.g., Bamford, 1993; Day & Bamford, 1998), not sustained silent reading.

Planning the Research

In choosing the two projects, I focused on possibilities present in the context, not potential negatives. As I prepared my research plans and boxes of materials I needed, however, I worried about whether I would be able to get around, physically and socially, to do the interviews for situation analysis/case study, as I did not know the transportation situation, nor the physical size of the city, nor whether people would talk to me as an outsider, a foreigner, and dare I say, an American. I worried whether the graded readers my research partner had ordered and the four comprehension tests I was developing were at an appropriate level for the participants in the reading study (with repeated reading, it is important to choose texts that are not too difficult in order to maximize the fluency building effects of the treatments). I worried how long the batteries for the stopwatches I had ordered from an office supply store would last (I ended up buying 30 spare batteries and taking them with me). After reading about frequent, prolonged power outages in regions outside major Vietnamese cities online, I wondered whether I would be able to make photocopies for the tests I had made or whether I would be able to play the audiotapes for the listen-while-reading stage of the repeated reading methodology. I dealt with my concerns by assuming each of these negatives were true and then solving the problems associated with them. For instance, with my concerns about the match between student level and the comprehension tests, I decided to administer the tests with instructions in Vietnamese, the items in Vietnamese, and with students answering in Vietnamese, reasoning that having learners operate in their L1s on the tests would at least allow us to capture some idea of participants' comprehension of the test texts (which would be read in English) if their level was much lower than I anticipated. The testing-in-L1 decision was confirmed shortly thereafter in my perusal of resources on reading comprehension test construction (for a comprehensive resource see Weir, 1993).

Intense preparation also helped. I wanted both projects to be ready to go upon arrival because I knew from experience that overseas living (cooking, shopping, getting around, teaching) took up a lot of time and energy. For the situation analysis, preparation meant drafting an overall plan, a document retrieval plan, and interview protocols. See Appendices A, B, and C. Additional interview protocols were written for teachers (47 items), higher education specialists (deans and other administrators) (36 items), parents and citizens (27 items), and employers (8 items) with items arranged under the categories, societal, institutional, and teacher factors (e.g., Richards, 2001). Partial results of the situation analysis and examples of formative evaluations and other data collection instruments for the situation analysis can be requested from the author (Gorsuch, 2006).

For the repeated reading project, our preparation focused on developing and validating two types of reading comprehension tests: Two forms each of a short answer test and a recall test (details of test development can be requested from the authors, Gorsuch & Taguchi, 2006). Etsuo Taguchi ordered class sets of two graded readers (we ordered two titles because we were not sure how many treatments we could administer in the four and a half months of my stay-we did not know how often classes with the participants would meet, nor for how long) and had them air shipped to Vietnam (they still took six weeks to arrive from Japan, all incoming foreign parcels are unabashedly and unhurriedly opened and inspected).

Doing Research in Vinh

As with any research project, unexpected things happened while I gathered data in Vinh. Some of the things could have happened anywhere (a surprise local teachers' conference which offered many insights on current teacher morale and concerns), but some were, I think, specific to the context of Vinh. For the situation analysis, two issues concerning interpreters for interviews became salient. First, my interpreters were, by and large, my English teaching colleagues. There was little demand in the commercial sector for English speakers in Vinh when I was there in 2005. Visits to two local travel and tour agencies failed to produce any English speakers, and it became apparent that the only English speakers with any proficiency were teachers at Vinh University. While this fact does the university a lot of credit, having my colleagues interpret for their students (or potential students) and supervisors raised the issue of power relations influencing the willingness of interviewees to speak frankly. Second, because my interpreters were my colleagues I felt constrained to make many demands for their services, and sometimes interviews had to be delayed, or held at odd times and in odd places, or not held at all. English teachers in Vietnam are relentlessly busy with their public and private teaching. As one of my colleagues (and most able interpreter) noted "teaching at universities is barely making a living" and so intensive, semi-clandestine tutoring and translation obligations to private parties and companies becomes necessary (T. Tran, personal communication, March 2, 2005). Even though I paid my interpreters, asking them to interpret at the intensity needed for the full scale situation analysis I wanted to conduct became difficult. I had to scale back the ambitious scope of the situation analysis (foreign language education in Vinh) to focus only on Vinh University.

Many interview subjects insisted on speaking off the record, which made me wonder whether I ought to include their responses in my analyses. I also found that classroom observations I had planned were not possible. Colleagues were either resistant or insisted on welcoming me to class as the main attraction. Some of my colleagues could not understand why I wanted to see "boring" classes taught by "non-native English speakers." However, I was able to participate in a local teachers' conference and learned what teachers would say when asked what concerns them about using unscripted speaking activities in class ("students are too shy to speak" "syllabus cannot be covered when time is spent on games" "students prefer to work in groups, not in pairs or individually"). Finally, I found it impossible to visit local or national education ministries for interviews or document retrieval. Local ministries would not respond to my queries, and I could not easily get to Hanoi with my teaching schedule and transportation difficulties (Vinh City is accessible to Hanoi only by a six hour train ride (difficult to buy tickets for and often hours late) or an eight hour bus ride (NOT recommended)).

The repeated reading project was influenced strongly by the context. For the first month, it was never clear where my class was to be held, which resulted in many missed repeated reading treatments: From my research log:

I would go to the classroom pointed out by the departmental secretary only to find that another class was in there, taking an exam. I used different means to find my students (who always seemed to know where to go) such as asking a teacher to telephone a student in the class who had a mobile phone to find out where they were. This cut into classtime, sometimes in serious ways.

Despite my best efforts to keep the treatments regular, I was only able to administer 16 treatments in an eleven week period. A two week teaching internship caused the participants to be absent from classes, creating a noticeable gap in the treatments, possibly weakening potential increases in learners' fluency and comprehension (treatment duration and intensity was a real concern in our earlier studies conducted in Japan, e.g., Taguchi & Gorsuch, 2002). Because class location changed so much, quite a large number of participants in both control and experimental groups did not take the two pre-tests that had been set for them and thus had to be dropped from the study (experimental group n = 8 participants dropped; control group n = 6 dropped). Pre- and post-testing also cut into repeated reading treatment time for the experimental group. Testing took much longer than anticipated due to test photocopying issues. Yes, photocopying service was generally available and cheap. However, the only paper available for use was tissue-paper-thin. This made handling the test question and answer sheets for a group of 35 students a real challenge in classrooms with no glass windows. Papers flew everywhere no matter what I or students did, and I ended up more than once creeping up to my flat with tension headaches I cannot even now adequately describe. Rather than completing pre- and post-testing on two total occasions for two groups, it took four occasions of 90 minutes each. From my research log:

I will say, that as I swatted mosquitoes away and saw the cigarette butts on the floor and as the flimsy little papers eluded my grasp and I struggled to get a working outlet for the tape recorder and I realized a student had taken my only pen, I hated what I was doing.

Finally, an artefact of the school's organization of students into classes influenced the analyses I did for the repeated reading study. The basic problem was that at the outset of the study, the experimental and control groups were not equal in ability. On the basis of a placement test administered in their first year, students are placed into three different levels: A (the highest), B, and E (the lowest). They are assigned to a class in which they remain for their entire undergraduate career, such as 43A2 (the experimental group) and 43A1 (the control group), which means they matriculated in the 43rd year after the founding of the university (they were juniors), are level A, and are groups one and two within level A. By the time the study took place in their third year, the two groups had diverged in ability, meaning the experimental group had statistically significantly lower reading comprehension and fluency than the control group at the beginning of the study. Quoting from the manuscript (Gorsuch & Taguchi, 2006):

Therefore, the experimental and control groups' pre-test scores on the two test types and occasions were averaged into a single omnibus pre-test variable and then treated as a covariate for the purposes of further analyses being conducted at the end of the experiment. In this way, pre-test differences between experimental and control groups could be removed as a confounding factor when considering possible post-test differences.

In essence, the adjusted analysis put the two groups on an equal playing ground. This is a perfectly acceptable statistical adjustment to make, but it does make the findings harder to interpret for consumers of the research and raises questions about other, more subtle and hard-to-detect effects of different group ability.

Research: Not If But How

As the world becomes ever more interconnected, "a strong, more professionally connected international community of scholars" has arisen (Boyer, Altbach, & Whitelaw, 1994, p. 1). Doing and publishing research, long the dominant yardstick of academic success (Boyer, 1990; Curry & Lillis, 2004), remains a potent goal for many international scholars in academe in general, and also in language education (Braine, 2005; Canagarajah, 2003; Ling, Wang, & Xu, 2005). This is also true for Vietnam, where foreign language department heads must report the research productivity of teachers to the government annually (N. Phuong, personal communication, March 12, 2005). Wherever language education research is done, it is done in local contexts, and constitutes local knowledge. At the same time it has the potential to bring "a different perspective on the field as a whole, not just on a few topics of special relevance" (Canagarajah, 2005, p. 746). Context binds and guides everyone who does research, just as it did me in Vietnam and wherever else I have worked on projects.

That research can be done anywhere is not in question. A more pressing question is how context influences choice of research to be done and how research is done. I think context has a lot to do with what research people might choose to do. For many of my Vietnamese colleagues, research meant to them writing reports on linguistic analysis, which is learned at the M.A. level. Curricular innovation is not considered research, nor is it rewarded (only 20% of a curriculum can be changed per year, and this subject to government approval, N. Phuong, personal communication, March 12, 2005). Potential research on teaching methodology is undercut by local attitudes which equate principled teaching methods with a disparate collection of new and exciting techniques to keep students motivated (to be fair, I also found this attitude among mainstream teachers being asked to teach K-6 ESL in New Mexico a few years ago). It was interesting to talk with colleagues in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) just this spring after a presentation I gave on the Vinh repeated reading project, and to observe the depth and direction of their skepticism: They claimed that students would be bored reading one passage five times and that at any rate, by the fifth time, "they would just be skimming anyway." No amount of explanation about automaticity or attentional resource emancipation theories could persuade them that skimming on a fifth reading was a good sign, especially if students were comprehending propositions in the text they had not even noticed during a first and close reading. It is probably fair to say that reading fluency research might not be on the top of Vietnamese teachers'/scholars' lists of potential research topics. And this slighting of reading fluency is not at unusual in foreign language education circles globally where reading is seen as a vehicle for the study of lexis and grammar (Bernhardt, 1991) and test preparation (Carr & Pauwels, 2006).

Working in Vinh also made me focus on how research procedures might be altered by context. Certainly, linguistic analysis of existing texts would lend itself to the horrifically busy schedules my colleagues keep. Such work could be done in interstitial time and at a flexible pace, a little here and a lot there. Planning classroom research, or any research tied to daytime or early evening business hours (such as interviewing colleagues), would be daunting and likely to become a very long-term project indeed. I observed wistful interest in using quantitative data collection and analyses among my colleagues but with limited means to learn more or use them (few computers for personal use are available, and even fewer spreadsheet and statistical programs and resource materials), I did not see them venturing far into quantitative data collection techniques.

Having been an outsider in the context of Vinh forces me to ask the question of how can my world and the world of my colleagues meet? Our worlds did meet for a brief time in 2005. I know their context influenced me in a lasting way: I now think about how I can work with my colleagues in Vinh and Saigon long distance. I wonder how I can describe the reasons for students' progress using repeated reading in ways that are more meaningful and useful to teachers. I wonder what students in my experimental group think about repeated reading as they begin their own careers as teachers next month. I think about areas of research I do not even know about now that my international colleagues might draw me into. One Vinh colleague and I are looking at a possible study on the content validity of final exams in language classes, for example. I look forward to finding new (to me) statistical techniques to more clearly illuminate data that I have little control over when I collect them.

But I still wonder if the context I carry with me (my background, my circumstances, my will) influenced my colleagues? The only way I can know this is to continue my relationship with them long distance, and when we can, face to face.


I wish to thank Suresh Canagarajah for using reason and persistent honesty to promote, in his words: meaningful international scholarly collaboration. Thanks also to my colleagues and students in Vinh, for letting me share their lives in all the small and large ways. To see photographs of resurgent Vinh and its people, see "photo album" on

About the Author

Greta Gorsuch (Ed.D., Temple University Japan) is an associate professor of applied linguistics at Texas Tech University. She has taught EFL in Japan and Vietnam, and ESL in the U.S. She is interested in language learning in academic settings, EFL reading, and curriculum and testing.


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