Selecting a Researchable Problem: Some Research Worthy Issues in EFL Reading

*Madhu Neupane


Selecting a researchable problem or a research topic is usually a daunting task for novice researchers, especially postgraduate students. This article aims to support such researchers. The article is divided into two sections. The first section presents the considerations for selecting a researchable topic and modifying if required while the second section presents some issues worthy of exploration in English as a second or foreign language (ESL/EFL) reading research.

Consideration for selecting a researchable topic

A research problem is not a ‘problem’ as such. It is a question that we want to answer or it is a topic that is worthy of exploring. In this regard, Phakiti ( 2014) writes, “It (a problem) can be about the lack of understanding of the effects  of the independent variable on the dependent variable of interest…a limited body of knowledge or conflicts in previous research findings can be considered a research problem” (p. 326).  Kandhway (2015) suggests three steps for selecting a research problem: deciding on the broad area on which to work, choosing a subfield within that broad area, and finding a specific unsolved problem. Once we have identified a broad area to work on (such as translation, second language acquisition, teacher professional development, etc.), we should do exploratory reading by “skimming relevant contributions in subject encyclopedias, academic textbooks and articles in journals”(Henning, Gravett, & Van Rensburg, 2005, p. 5). This exploratory reading helps us to choose a subfield within the field, choose alternative research question (s) or refine the ones which we have already posed. In the phase of exploratory reading, encyclopedias might be useful for identifying authoritative authors and/or researchers in the field along with their key publications. We can follow these key publications for having more knowledge. Similarly, books written by top authors/big names in the field provide us with detailed and trustworthy knowledge while journals articles are of great importance for current empirical research and areas in need of further exploration (Henning et al., 2005). The Internet can provide all sorts of materials but we should be careful with the credibility of such sources, part of the Internet literacy. The term ‘web’ itself implies that we can be ‘a fly’ or ‘a spider’ in it. Once we have decided the subfield, we should do “in-depth reading by focusing on a few key sources that you have identified while doing exploratory reading” (Henning et al., 2005, p. 5) which implies taking notes, summarizing, paraphrasing and making bibliographical notes of all the sources used. Making a bibliographical note is very important because we need to provide references of all the works that we cite in our work. Different soft wares such as Zotero and EndNote are available for managing bibliography. Even the reference section of Microsoft word provides this support. It is highly desirable to be familiar with such systems as they help us save our valuable time.

Anderson and Arsenault (2000) discuss three approaches to begin thesis research. The first approach “involves a prescriptive method that follows established models adding some small nuance of difference to previous work” (p.38). In this approach, we go through the research already carried out in the field, familiarize ourselves with the procedures and follow similar procedures adding up something new. This approach provides a comparatively safe road for the novice researchers to walk on. As we see, this approach starts with the review of literature. The second approach is “to address a topic of individual interest” (p.38) based on our experience and review the literature to support our interest. However, the problems with this approach, according to Anderson and Arsenault (2000), is the lack of clear boundary and focus, which may, at times, lead to frustration to the novice researchers. The third approach is muddling-through approach which “takes a general topic area, begins doing research and collecting data, and probably does not define the problem sharply until after the study is almost complete” (p.39). However, the problem is that it takes a lot of time because of the lack of clearly defined problem. Therefore, it seems to be wise to start with literature review for selecting a research topic.

Paltridge and Starfield (2007) seem to agree with Anderson and Arsenault (2000) in suggesting that for identifying a research problem, we can begin with  drawing up a shortlist of topics by talking to or asking other students, colleagues, potential supervisors, or reviewing related research. In the next step, from the short list of topics, we can select a topic for investigation and formulate general as well as specific research questions that are worth asking (significant) and answerable (feasible) in terms of our ability to carry out the research, time and resources required and availability of data.  Once we have decided on the topic, we should read widely to decide if the research is in right track. Reading previous research such as journal articles, research reports, and other theses and dissertations in the same area might be of great help.

Without in-depth reading, we can never make informed decision about our research topic. Often the research problems that we have selected might be wider and ambiguous. Therefore, they need to be shaped into ‘narrow and deep’. This may lead to the change of the initial research topic or questions in the light of further exploration of literature and/or discussion with our supervisors. We should not worry about this as it is a natural process, and also desirable if the original questions are not specific enough.

Paltridge and Starfield (2007) suggest the following steps to select and/or refine our research problems so as to make them research worthy and answerable:

  • Read broadly and widely to find a subject about which you are passionate. Immerse yourself in the literature, use your library, read abstracts of other recent theses and dissertations.
  • Narrow your focus to a single question: be disciplined and not overambitious.
  • Be prepared to change or modify your question if necessary.
  • Be able to answer the question ‘Why am I doing this project?’ (and not a different one).
  • Read up-to-date materials – ensure that your idea is achievable and no one else has done or is doing it.
  • Consult other students who are further down the track, especially those who have the same supervisor as you.
  • Discuss your ideas with your supervisor and lots of other people.
  • Attend specialized conferences in your area – take note of the focus of research and learn from the experts in your field.
  • Work through the implications of your research question: consider existing materials and ideas on which it is based, check the logic, spell out methods to be used.
  • Condense your research question into two sentences; write them down, above your work area. Change the question if needed.
  • Ask yourself: What will we know at the end that we did not already know? (p. 59)

Issues worthy of exploration in EFL reading

Reading comprehension is usually defined as the readers’ understanding of the message expressed by the writer as “the overriding purpose is to get meaning from a text” (Nuttall, 2005, p. 4). However, meaning is not there in the text for the readers to absorb rather it depends on the readers’ background, shared understanding with the writer and their active involvement in the reading process. From this perspective, reading comprehension  is a cognitive process (Koda, 2005; Nuttall, 2005) involving the integration of skills, strategies, attentional resources and meaning resources for creating meaning from the skeleton of the text  (Duke & Carlisle, 2011; Grabe and Stoller, 2011). This cognitive process is the interaction of top-town (drawing on previous knowledge to make meaning) and bottom-up (recognizing letter and words and working out sentence structure) processes (Nuttall, 2005). However, reading in first language differs from reading  a in a second (or a foreign) language because of second language readers’ linguistic and processing abilities; individual and experiential differences; and different sociocultural backgrounds and institutional demands (Grabe & Stoller, 2011). Despite these differences both teachers and researchers need to consider the ways for promoting successful reading in second or foreign language (Casanave, 1988) because reading comprehension plays very important role in EFL setting as it is the main source of exposure for the learners. Besides this, it is highly important for academic as well as professional success of the learners.

Some of the aims of teaching EFL reading to the learners are to enable them to read purposefully; to use different approaches (top-down, bottom-up and interactive) as required for understanding a text; to identify and tackle problems that arise during reading; to utilize lexical, syntactic as well as discourse level resources for making meaning of a text; to realize that it is not important to understand each and every word to understand the overall meaning of the given text, and to understand not only what is explicitly stated but also make inferences (Nuttall, 2005). Fulfilling these aims requires making informed decisions based on research based evidences.  Some of the areas that are worthy of exploration in ESL/EFL research (Grabe & Stoller, 2011; Koda, 2005; Nuttall, 2005) are: 

Experimental research

  1. Role of extensive reading in developing reading comprehension.
  2. Pre-teaching vocabulary and its effects on reading comprehension.
  3. Role of translating words into mother tongue and their effects on reading comprehension.
  4. Role of pre-reading questions in developing reading comprehension.
  5. Role of group discussion in reading comprehension.
  6. Role of different tasks (fill in the blanks, multiple choice questions, rearranging jumbled sentences or paragraphs, information transferring exercises, students’ question formation, etc.) in developing reading comprehension.
  7. Role of reading for pleasure in reading comprehension.
  8. Role of cognitive strategy instruction in reading comprehension.
  9. Role of metacognitive strategy instruction in reading comprehension
  10. Role of teacher motivation in reading comprehension
  11. Role of keeping a word diary in reading comprehension
  12. Role of morphological awareness in reading comprehension
  13. Role effect of vocabulary instruction in reading comprehension
  14. Role of background knowledge in students reading comprehension

 Correlational studies

  1. Relationship between ability to recognize words and reading comprehension
  2. Relationship between learners skills in using dictionaries and reading comprehension
  3. Relationship between motivation and reading comprehension
  4. Relationship between self-efficacy and reading comprehension
  5. Relationship between attitude and reading comprehension.
  6. Relationship between learners vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension

These areas might just be starting point and reading previous theses, dissertations and research articles would provide guidelines about research design, methodology and the analysis of data. I would like to underscore the fact the reading is of paramount importance for conducting research in any areas. There is no point in doing a research if we do not know what we are looking for. Though reading in the initial stage of research is important for selecting researchable topic as we have discussed here, the reading process continues until the end of the research.

Followings are some of the journals that are dedicated to reading:

  • Journal of research in reading (available online)
  • Reading and writing (some articles are available online for free download)
  • Reading & writing quarterly
  • Reading in a foreign language (articles are available for free download)
  • Reading research quarterly (articles are available for free download)
  • The reading teacher
  • Scientific studies for reading
  • Australian review of applied linguistics (articles in the archive of the website are available for free download)

Journals are very important sources for identifying the issues that are research worthy.


The importance of research cannot be overemphasized in making informed decision in any field and English language education is no exception to it. Research requires in depth reading not only for selecting a research worthy topic but also for defining the construct that we want to investigate, selecting appropriate methodology to answer our questions and analyze the data that we have collected and interpret the findings. This article has presented some guidelines for selecting a topic, some research worthy issues in EFL reading and some journals that are dedicated to reading. The bitter truth is that our access to resources required for research is very limited.  However, we have no choice but to start from where we are and make the most of whatever is available with the hope we will be able to take agency in bringing change in the existing plight.


Anderson, G., & Arsenault, N. (2000). Fundamentals of educational research (2. ed). London: Falmer.

Casanave, C. P. (1988). Comprehension monitoring in ESL reading: A neglected essential. TESOL Quarterly, 22(2), 283–302.

Duke, N. K., & Carlisle, J. (2011). The development of comprehension. In Handbook of reading research (Vol. 4, pp. 199–228). New Delhi : New York, NY: Routledge.

Grabe, W., & Stoller, F. L. (2011). Teaching and researching reading (2nd ed). Harlow, England: Longman/Pearson.

Henning, E., Gravett, S., & Van Rensburg, W. (2005). Finding your way in academic writing. Pretoria: Van Schaik.

Kandhway, K. (2015). Finding a Research Problem: Tips for New Ph.D. Students. IEEE Potentials, 34(3), 25–29. http://doi.org/10.1109/MPOT.2014.2313072

Koda, K. (2005). Insights into second language reading: A cross-linguistic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nuttall, C. E. (2005). Teaching reading skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Macmillan Education.

Paltridge, B., & Starfield, S. (2007). Thesis and dissertation writing in a second language: a handbook for supervisors. London ; New York: Routledge.

Phakiti, A. (2014). Experimental research methods in language learning. London: Bloomsbury.

(*Madhu Neupane Bastola, lecturer at the Department of English Education, Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, Kathmandu is an Executive member of NELTA Central Committee. She has done her M.Ed in English Education and M.A. in English literature from T.U. There are few books and articles to her credit. Her research interests include second language acquisition, World Englishes, professional writing. )


2 responses

  1. Scdcgopal Argha | Reply

    Dear Sir Good evening Thank for it. Gopal


  2. Thank you Madam for this piece of article. Many of us who want to start our research work but get stuck will be benefited form it.


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