Research Statement

Research Statement

The three overarching themes of my research agenda are: 1) second language acquisition by adult emergent readers; 2) reflective practices and professional learning opportunities for teachers of refugee-background students; and 3) activity theory as a tool for educational research. Within these three areas, effective and successful research will make significant contributions. It will begin to fill a gap in the research on both second language acquisition and second language (L2) teacher development related to adult emergent readers and refugee-background students. It will also highlight activity theory as an educational research tool, which is currently used widely in Europe and Asia but has yet to emerge as a prominent framework in the United States.

Second Language Acquisition by Adult Emergent Readers

Adult emergent readers in the English as an additional language (EAL) classroom have typically experienced interrupted formal schooling and as a result, have yet to develop literacy skills. They are immigrant and refugee-background populations that often come from experiences in the home country that have been colored by war, trauma, nomadic lifestyles and extreme poverty. I became interested in second language acquisition (SLA) by adult emergent readers when I began working as an EAL teacher with this unique learner population. I came to this teaching experience with an MA TESOL and a strong background in teaching academic EAL at the university level; however, neither had prepared me for teaching these students. My approaches were based on techniques that implied literacy among all learners.

I chose to explore SLA by adult emergent readers in a research class during my doctoral program because it had become clear that there was virtually no research in the field that could inform teaching practices for this learner population. The vast majority of studies in SLA were conducted with literate participants, which means that many of the theories that emerged from this research have little relevance to teaching learners who have yet to develop literacy and academic skills. For this research project, I did a partial replication of a study by Bigelow, delMas, Hansen & Tarone (2006), which explored the oral language processing of second language learners to measure the effect of literacy. The study was small and results cannot be generalized, however, my findings did align with those of Bigelow, et al. reflecting that literacy level does play a role in oral language processing abilities.

I hope to continue with this line of inquiry for two key reasons: 1) to contribute to the gap in research on this learner population; and 2) to generate theories from which to develop effective instructional approaches for working with adult emergent readers. Based on my own experience, involvement with professional organizations devoted to working with adult emergent readers (e.g., LESLLA; and conversations with practicing teachers, I am acutely aware of the desire in the field to gain a better understanding of what works in this context. I hope to create materials and professional development opportunities to support these endeavors.

Reflective Practices and Professional Learning Opportunities for Second Language Teachers of Refugee-Background Students

As a teacher educator, I have always been very interested in exploring how to effectively mentor and support new and experienced teachers. In 2007, I had the chance to supervise a contextualized EFL teacher-training program in the Czech Republic, which led to a TESOL Quarterly publication with my colleagues (Tomas, Farrelly & Haslam, 2009) on the design and implementation of the TESOL practicum abroad. Having the opportunity to teach, mentor and observe teacher learners in the field provided great insights for all involved (e.g. teacher educators, teacher learners and cooperating teachers). Combining both my interest in adult emergent readers and my passion for L2 teacher education, my doctoral dissertation explored the practices of L2 teachers of adult emergent readers. I employed a qualitative case study to make sense of teachers’ practical knowledge and explore how they navigate the challenges inherent to this context.

One of the dominant themes uncovered in my study was the sense of isolation and disempowerment experienced by the teachers. These feelings of marginalization are not unique to L2 teachers of adult emergent readers; however, as one participant reflected, she often felt as though she were in an ‘echo chamber’ because the students’ oral proficiency level was such that they would often just repeat after her, even when she was asking a question. The challenge facing these teachers is compounded by the fact that for many teachers of adult immigrant and refugee-background populations, there is insufficient time and money dedicated to professional learning opportunities. In certain regions within the US, there are strong programs in place to support this teaching community and their strength often lies in the creation of ongoing professional learning communities or communities of practice.

I am interested in continuing my exploration and innovation of approaches to professional development that best target the needs and desires of L2 teachers of refugee-background adults and youth, and specifically those with emerging literacy and/or interrupted formal schooling experiences. In particular, I am interested in investigating and cultivating teachers’ reflective practices and approaches to teacher-led inquiry. I seek to build the knowledge base of teachers working with refugee-background students to reflect what we have learned in recent years (Farrelly 2014; Vinogradov, 2013). I hope to work closely with teachers to create communities of practice that engage in action research, theorize practice and challenge existing literature on language learning and teaching. I am invested in promoting teacher engagement in the field by encouraging teacher involvement in dissemination of new knowledge through joint publications and conference presentations.

Activity Theory as a Tool for Educational Research

My doctoral research employed activity theory (Engeström, 1999), which is a theoretical framework that can be applied to analyze and make sense of human practices within a given culture and context. In my study (Farrelly, 2013), I employed activity theory as a conceptual framework for considering the activity of teaching as situated in a particular context (i.e. teaching adult emergent readers) and impacted by various other entities in the larger activity system (e.g. community, rules, tools, division of labor, objective). Activity theory originated in sociocultural theory through the early work in the 1920s and 1930s by L. S. Vygotsky (1978), A. N. Leont’ev (1981) and A. R. Luria (1976). It is ideal for educational research because it promotes context-embedded inquiry and researcher involvement. Additionally, it operates from the standpoint that research should be transformational, not only transactional. In other words, research should involve the participants and ultimately give back to the community in a meaningful way (Engeström, 1999).

Activity theory promotes going beyond situated teacher practice to seek out and identify relationships and tensions within the larger system in order to recognize opportunities for expansive learning. In keeping with the epistemology of the interpretive research paradigm, it allows for a holistic view of the situation being explored, making context paramount to the inquiry. “Human life is fundamentally rooted in participation in human activities that are oriented toward objects. Thus, human beings are seen as situated in a collective life perspective, in which they are driven by purposes that lie beyond a particular goal” (Sannino, Daniels & Guitierrez, 2009, p. 2-3). Exploring the human activity of teachers and learners within the greater context of the school demands an approach that allows for this ‘collective life perspective.’

I aim to follow up on the ‘what now’ from my research findings. As a result, I have created unique professional development opportunities (e.g., study circles for teachers of L2 adult emergent readers, workshops for teachers in Tanzanian village schools, and teacher education workshops for speakers of indigenous languages in the Southwest). I have also designed courses to target gaps in curricula, such as a course entitled Teaching L2 Adult Emergent Readers, which I offered at the University of Utah and Saint Michael’s College (SMC). In addition, I have worked to encourage course designers to take risks to effect change (e.g., mentoring Armenian graduate students to design content-based language courses around important issues such as civic action, global citizenship, environmental justice, and women’s rights). I have also given talks in the US, Armenia, Guatemala, Rwanda and Sudan promoting the role of social justice in TESOL, the need for a focus on global citizenship in education, and the potential gains to teacher-led professional development in the absence of institutional support.

I aim to embark on new studies through the lens of activity theory as it allows for the holistic, qualitative perspective that I personally find to be the most effective for capturing lived experiences and personal truths of participants, as well as for engaging as an agent of change.

Research Questions

There are many research questions that interest me with relation to SLA by adult emergent readers, L2 teacher development, reflective practice and educating refugee background students in K-12 settings. The following specific questions are related to the overarching themes covered in this research statement. They offer another perspective on my research interests.

  • Which instructional strategies promote learner engagement in adult EAL literacy level classes?
  • To what extent are communicative, collaborative approaches effective in EAL literacy classes?
  • How do refugee-background students perceive the value and/or effectiveness of instruction in the EAL classes?
  • To what extent can activity theory give voice to refugee-background students in EAL classes?
  • How do teachers use informal, in-class assessments to track the academic success of refugee-background students?
  • To what extent do teachers value SLA research? How do they contribute to the knowledge base?
  • What are the perceived opportunities and obstacles for involvement of teachers in the research agenda?
  • How do L2 teachers theorize practice when working with refugee-background students?
  • To what extent do teachers recognize and build upon the cultural, social and linguistic capital of refugee-background students?
  • What tensions and contradictions in the actual classroom influence the practices of teachers of adult EAL literacy classes and refugee-background students in K-12 contexts?
  • What factors promote successful professional learning communities?


Bigelow, M., delMas, B., Hansen, K. & Tarone, E. (2006). Literacy and the processing of oral recasts in SLA. TESOL Quarterly 40, 4: 1-25.

Engeström, Y. (1999). Innovative learning in work teams: Analyzing cycles of knowledge creation in practice. In Y. Engeström, R., Miettinen & R. L. Punama ̈ki (Eds.), Perspectives on Activity Theory (pp. 371–405). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Farrelly, R. (2014). Exploring tensions in the mediated activity of teaching L2 adult emergent readers. The European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL (5).

Farrelly, R. (2013). Converging perspectives in the LESLLA context. Apples – Journal of Applied Linguistics 7(1), 25-44. Retrieved from

Leont’ev, A.N. (1978). Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Luria, A.R. (1976). Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sanino, A., Daniels, H., & Guitierrez, K. D. (2009). Activity theory between historical engagement and future-making practice. In A. Sannino, H. Daniels, & K. D. Gutierrez (Eds.), Learning and Expanding with Activity Theory (pp.1-15). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tomas, Z., Farrelly, R. & Haslam, M. (2008). Designing and Implementing the TESOL Teaching Practicum Abroad: Focus on Interaction. TESOL Quarterly, 42, 4: 660-664.

Vinogradov, P. (2013). Defining the LESLLA teacher knowledge base. In T. Tammelin-Laine, L. Nieminen, and M. Martin (Eds.), Low-educated Adult Second Language and Literacy Acquisition. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Symposium, Jyvaskyla, Finland, (pp. 9-24).

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.