The Design of the Study
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This chapter is mainly about the nature and design of the study. It starts with the justification for using a qualitative multi-case study approach in this study. It then introduces the selection of the research setting, target curriculum materials and teacher and student participants. Data collection procedures and the methods of data analysis are presented. In the end, the strategies for trustworthiness and the ethical concerns of the study are illustrated.
3.1 Qualitative Multi-case Study
How are the prescribed College English textbooks being used by Chinese EFL teachers at a university in China?
What are the underlying relationships among teachers, students, curriculum materials and the context in higher education in China?
As outlined in Chap. 1, this study aims to explore an under-explored and under-theorized area of teaching, namely materials use. A qualitative approach is generally used when researchers endeavour to explore and understand a central phenomenon where there is little existing research and where there are multiple context-bound realities (Creswell, 2014; Merriam, 2016). Therefore, the character of this study fits the objective of a case study. Moreover, a case study can provide precious insight and reveal a high degree of completeness and in-depth analysis when describing a complex social issue in a cultural context (Merriam, 2016; Stake, 1995; Yin, 2018). The research questions in this study focus mainly on ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions, which are typically qualitative in nature and appropriate in the case study methodology (Yin, 2018).
A multitude of existing studies also supports the selection of the case study methodology . Remillard’s (2005) extensive review of over 70 empirical studies on teachers’ use of curriculum materials shows that in the past three decades, case study methodology has been frequently used to examine the teacher–text relationship in mainstream education (e.g. Brown, 2002; Remillard, 1999; 2000; Sherin & Drake, 2009). In the most recent research collections of teaching and learning with the help of artefacts, almost all the studies are case studies (e.g. Fan, Trouche, Qi, Rezat, Visnovska, 2018; Gueudet, Pepin & Trouche, 2012; Remillard, Herbel-Eisenmann & Lloyd, 2009). In the field of ELT, among the slim body of empirical studies of teachers’ use of textbooks, Guerrettaz and Johnston (2013) and Grammatosi and Harwood (2014) deployed case study approaches, while Shawer (2010, 2017) and Humphries (2014) conducted qualitative research. In this sense, qualitative case study methodology is valid in examining materials use across disciplines and contexts.
In this study, each teacher and a pair of students (n = 2) from one class is treated as a case or an entity of analysis, and in total, four teacher participants and eight student participants were selected. Four teachers plus their eight students constitute four cases. As each teacher is unique in terms of their background and experiences, it aligns with Yin’s (2018) definition of multiple case study concerning emphasizing the individual difference in each case. The selections of the settings, participants and materials will be introduced in the following sections.
3.2 Selection of Setting, Participants and Materials
3.2.1 The Target University
As mentioned in Chap. 1, this study was set in China, where there are currently more than 26 million university students (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2018). Set against the background of Chinese CE curriculum reform, this target university was regarded as a typical institution of Chinese higher education concerning its social status (i.e. it is one of the key universities in China) and its endeavour to promote CE reform (i.e. its participation in the showcase of CE reform). The target university can represent an average instance of the phenomenon of interest (Patton, 2015; Merriam, 2016). This university is affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China and located in the central part of China. The target university was a ‘world-class’ institution under the government’s ‘Double First-Class’ project1operated since 2015. Additionally, in early 2011, the School of Foreign Languages at the target university was chosen along with the other 34 universities in China by the Ministry of Education to showcase the CE teaching reform. This is a 2-year project co-funded by the Ministry of Education and the target university and designed to shift the CE teaching modality from teacher-centred to computer- and classroom-based.
The other reason for recruiting the target university is due to the feasibility of conducting the research, as I used to be a CE teacher and taught the CE course from 2005 to 2012 at the target university. This insider’s role might affect the findings of the study; measures to weaken this bad effect will be illustrated in the section on trustworthiness.
Demographics of teacher and student participants
Year (s) of teaching
MA in Translation
MA in Applied Linguistics
MA in English and MA in law
MA in TESOL obtained from abroad
Students (n = 8)
Non-English majors at the intermediate level
College English course
New Standard College English
3.2.3 The Target Textbook
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, five new textbooks were widely used in higher education in China to cope with the newly issued CE curricula in 2004 and 2007 by the Ministry of Education: namely, New Era Interactive English published by Tsinghua University Press, New Perspective English Learning System by Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, New Horizon College English and New Standard College English by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press and Experiencing English by Higher Education Press. Among them, New Standard College English (NSCE) was chosen as the target textbook in this study because it was the prescribed textbook in the target university. NSCE was designed and published collaboratively and cooperatively by Chinese and British writers in 2008. Although this is not the only set of CE textbooks used in Chinese colleges and universities, according to a publishing house report, it has been adopted by more than 200 universities and colleges in China, nearly 10% of the tertiary institutions. A brief introduction to the features and compiling principles of the textbook is as follows.
The salient features of NSCE
The NSCE series contains two sets of coursebooks, namely, reading & writing, and listening & speaking coursebooks. The publishing house provides vocabulary books and CDs (containing recordings of the passages and new vocabulary in each unit) for each reading and writing coursebook. Teacher’s guides, teaching course wares designed by CE teachers from two other universities (i.e. auxiliary PPT slides), a testing platform and an online teaching and research forum are available for each user.
The structure of the Student’s Book
The outline of one unit in the target textbook
Sections of each unit
Content and designer’s pedagogical intentions
This section includes one or more activities to raise the topic in students’ mind and develops a focus on the theme of the unit. They may involve a short discussion about a photo, a common experience, some questions or perhaps a questionnaire. Students are encouraged to share ideas, interpretations and opinions. Later units encourage students to give reasons for their opinions
Active reading (1) (AC1) and Active reading (2) (AC2) (followed by four activities)
Two main reading passages with pre-reading activities which, through prediction and discussion, will lead students to reading the main passages
1. Reading and understanding
This section helps students to understand the main ideas and details of the passage through multiple choice questions, true or false questions or other comprehension questions, and activities that ask students to identify the best summary or functions of sections of the passage. These activities are for learning, not testing
2. Dealing with unfamiliar words
The activities in this section ask students to match words with given definitions based on the word meaning in the passage, to complete sentences by using words in their correct form or to replace underlined words in sentences or paragraphs with some target words. New words should not be given before students read the passage. Thus they encounter and learn about the words in context. The vocabulary activities also feature the words in context, so students develop skills in handling unfamiliar words and expressions
3. Reading and interpretation
In this section, students develop and apply their understanding of the passage in activities that go beyond literal meanings to explore features of the passage style or genre or to consider the writer’s purpose and attitude
4. Developing critical thinking
This section uses questions to help students to develop the ideas presented in the passage and to encourage them to think independently. The key to handling this activity in class is to encourage students to go beyond short answers so that they think through what they are saying and give more extended or elaborated responses
This section provides students with an opportunity for less intensive discussion and interaction to express opinions. The activities are related to the theme and students’ life. They are more open-ended activities than the ones in Developing critical thinking
Language in use
This section explores aspects of grammar and complex sentence patterns in the two main reading passages. There are information boxes that give extra information about words or expressions, sentence patterns or common collocations. The section finishes with translation from and into Chinese. The translation activities are designed to develop students’ translation skills using language they have encountered in the passages
Reading across cultures
Here students read a passage extending the theme of the two main reading passages to show aspects of cultural life, traditions or customs in different counties or cultures. There are comprehension questions to develop students’ understanding of the passage. There are also questions asking students to compare the culture(s) shown in the passage with the Chinese culture
This section takes the unit theme further into writing practice. Aspects of language which are commonly found in written English, especially academic writing, are explored. The section finishes with an activity designed to help the students write a piece of writing which practices the aspects of language explanation earlier
Structure of the Teacher’s Guide
Sections in the Teacher’s Guide
Sections of each unit
Content and designer’s intentions
A brief note on the unit organization to help teachers identify the nature of the passages. It also highlights the primary language and cognitive skills identified in the unit. Suggestions are given to help teachers organize their teaching by considering timing and prioritization in class
Background information on the passage, e.g. information on the writers and their writing styles
Explain some proper names, terms and cultural concepts that arise in the passages
Detailed notes on the new words, expressions and complicated sentences in the passages
For some speaking activities, useful vocabulary and expressions are provided to help students express themselves
Additional notes about how to use a particular activity are given in clear steps
Offers specific guidance on how to conduct activities in class
Practical techniques for teaching are introduced in relation to specific contexts
Offers teachers an alternative way of conducting an activity from the one given in the Student’s Book
Offers teachers additional activities not mentioned in the Student’s Book
Provides answers to the closed exercises
Further teacher development
Helps teachers think in more detail about the aspect of teaching
The outline of the auxiliary PowerPoint slides
To further facilitate teachers’ use of the target textbook, two sets of teaching courseware (i.e. the auxiliary PPT slides) are available online. The PPT slides were designed by two teams from two universities in China. The content of the PPT slides is closely related to the target textbook. Five sections are designed to facilitate the teaching of passages (i.e. active reading 1 and 2) in each unit, namely, mapping (i.e. teaching objectives), embarkation (i.e. lead-in activities), navigation (i.e. text structure, exploration and evaluation), destination (i.e. a summary of the text, oral and written output) and resources (i.e. explanations of new words, expressions and complicated sentences). Reading across culture consists of three subsections in the PPT slides: text understanding (i.e. reading comprehension exercises), cultural awareness (i.e. comparisons among different cultures) and talking points (i.e. oral activities). Guided writing section resonates the same section in the Student’s Book, but provides more samples. Unit task offers more opportunities for students to reflect on their learning of the whole unit by explicating keys to the exercises of the Student’s Book and supplementing cognitive practices.
3.3 Data Collection
The data sources for this study are composed of semi-structured individual interviews with teachers and students, classroom observations and documents. In the following sections, the procedures of data collection will be demonstrated in detail.
3.3.1 Data Collection Schedule
Schedule of data collection
Phases of inquiry
1. Design the semi-structured interview protocol with teachers
2. Evaluate and refine the interview questions
3. Generate research questions
1. Design semi-structured interview protocol with students
2. Evaluate the data collection processes and methods
3. Refine teacher interview questions
1. Enlarge the population of teacher participants to four teachers and conduct the study at the target university
2. Conduct recursive data analysis and interpretations
3. Theorize teachers’ use of curriculum materials
4. Compare and contrast findings in previous research with the current study
5. Determine and present implications for good practice in using curriculum materials in ELT
3.3.2 Data Collection Strategies
Overview of the research instruments
Baseline interviews with teachers
Teachers’ perceptions of the CE curriculum, CE course and curriculum materials
The ways in which teachers used the textbook to design and enact instruction
The ways in which students used the textbook in and out of class
To capture teachers’ understanding of the CE course and the CE curriculum
To unveil teachers’ use of the new textbook in their lesson planning and delivery phases
To capture teachers’ perceptions of students’ use of the textbooks
Pre-observation interviews with teachers
Teachers’ planning decisions and rationales in terms of materials use
To explicitly link curriculum design decisions to their underlying rationales
Post-observation interviews with teachers
Teachers’ reflections on the use of textbooks and the rationales for their pedagogical decisions
To explicitly link curriculum enactment decisions to their underlying rationales
Baseline interviews with students
Students’ perceptions of the CE curriculum, CE course and curriculum materials
How they used the textbook in and out of class
How their teachers used the textbook during the lesson
To capture students’ perceptions of the textbook and the ways of using it
To capture students’ views of their teachers’ teaching and use of the textbook
Observations of teachers’ enacted instruction
To unveil the on-the-spot materials use and demonstrate the role of the textbook in instructions
The content analysis of the Student’s Book, Teacher’s Guide, PPT slides, supplementary materials and teachers’ notes on the textbook
To provide readers with a thorough picture of what the teachers were working with and uncover the designer’s pedagogical intentions of compiling the materials
In the following sections, the rationales for employing each research instrument in this study will be explained together with data collection approaches.
In this research, semi-structured teacher interviews served as one of the major means of data collection to understand how and why teachers used the curriculum materials. Semi-structured interviews were chosen owing to the nature of the study and the background of the researcher. First, the semi-structured interview is the most popular form of interview and is used in a great deal of applied linguistic research (Drever, 2003; Yang, 2015), which aligns with the character of the current study. Second, since I taught CE for 15 years and had rich experiences with the use of curriculum materials, I knew the circumstances well to ensure informed conversations with the interviewees (Brinkmann & Kvale, 2015).
Three types of semi-structured interviews, namely, baseline, pre-observation and post-observation teacher interviews, were designed to uncover teachers’ perceptions of the curriculum materials, how they use them to design and enact instruction, and why they made particular curricular and pedagogical decisions in the lesson planning and delivery phases. The protocols are included in Appendices A and B. The baseline teacher interview consisted of three sections. Section 1 gathered teacher participants’ teaching and learning experiences both as teachers and students. Section 2 captured teacher participants’ perceptions of the CE curriculum and the CE course. Section 3 collected teacher participants’ attitudes towards the prescribed textbook and how they used these materials in and outside of the classroom. The pre-observation teacher interview focused on how teacher participants planned the lessons with the assistance of the curriculum materials. The post-observation teacher interview elicited teacher participants’ thoughts and decisions regarding their actual use of the curriculum materials for planning and delivery of lessons.
Durations of the teacher interviews
Type of teacher interview
1 h 23 m
38 m + 16 m
32 m + 24 m
6 × 2 m = 12 m
5 × 2 m = 10 m
6 × 2 m = 12 m
4 × 2 m = 8 m
3 × 5 m = 15 m
3 × 5 m = 15 m
2 × 3 m + 2 × 5 m = 16 m
2 × 3 m + 2 × 5 m = 16 m
Durations of the student interviews
Types of students’ interviews
9 + 10 m
Individual student interview
7 m (male student)
29 m (female student)
In this study, classroom lessons were video-recorded and detailed field notes were taken. As the primary weakness of observation is that it cannot provide any evidence as to why events in the classroom unfold as they do, post-observation teacher interviews were designed and conducted in this study to elicit teachers’ explications of pedagogical and curricular decisions concerning materials use.
Summary of lesson observations
Teaching content (Books/Units)
Units 3, 4, 7
2 + 4 + 4 = 10
Units 3, 4, 7
4 + 4 + 4 = 12
Units 4, 7
2 + 2 = 4
Units 4, 7
2 + 2 = 4
In this study, all the curriculum materials, including the Student’s Book, Teacher’s Guide and auxiliary PPT slides, and all the teacher-designed materials, were collected to form the documentary base. Since the Student’s Book defines the scope of the daily teaching, particularly in ELT in China, the content analysis of the Student’s Book will show a picture of what teachers and students are working with. The analysis of the PPT slides will demonstrate teachers’ plans for the lesson. The analysis of the Teacher’s Guide will uncover the pedagogical and curricular intentions of the designers and compilers, which could be used to compare and contrast teachers’ interpretations of the pedagogy embedded in the textbooks.
3.4 Data Analysis
Qualitative analysis is broadly characterized by an iterative process of coding, reduction, displaying and verification of data (Marshall & Rossman, 2016; Miles & Huberman, 2014; Corbin & Strauss, 2015). In this study, I followed a stepwise process of data representation and reduction, the goal of which was to provide empirical evidence of the claims made regarding the research questions: (1) to delineate the holistic picture of how Chinese EFL teachers use curriculum materials in language classrooms in higher education in China, (2) to unveil the underlying rationales for teachers’ curricular and pedagogical decisions through using the curriculum materials and (3) to theorize the teaching phenomenon from a socio-cultural perspective through unpacking the underlying relationships among teachers, students and curriculum materials.
Data analysis procedures
Data analysis and analytical frameworks
1. How are the prescribed College English textbooks being used by Chinese EFL teachers at a university in China?
Teacher’s baseline interviews; student’s baseline interviews; lesson observations; curriculum materials
Open coding, axial coding and selective coding of the raw data (Corbin & Strauss, 2015)
Writing up lesson segments
Documentary content analysis
2. What are the underlying relationships among teachers, students, curriculum materials and the context in higher education in China?
Teacher’s baseline interviews, pre-observation interviews and post-observation interviews; students’ interviews; curriculum materials
Instrument-mediated activity model (Rabardel & Bourmaud, 2003)
3.4.1 Analysis of Interview Data
As mentioned earlier, I adopted Corbin and Strauss’ (2015) coding scheme to analyse all the interview data by following the open, axial and selective coding procedures. There are three major steps in fulfilling this task. The first step was to familiarize myself with the data. I transcribed all the interview data verbatim and translated them from Chinese into English. The second step involved the open coding of the raw data and categorizing codes according to the themes that emerged from the data (Corbin & Strauss, 2015). Although Remillard (1999, 2005) pointed out that at the core of the teacher–curriculum relationship was teachers’ interactions with curriculum materials, the series of interactional activities were not delineated exclusively. Therefore, coding was guided by my interest in capturing how teachers described and understood their use of curriculum materials in the form of activities and tasks, particularly for the purposes of designing and enacting instruction. By looking for commonalities and discrepancies in the ways in which teachers used the curriculum materials, the interview data were grouped into three general categories: teachers’ interaction with curriculum materials during class, teachers’ interaction with curriculum materials after class and the relationships among teachers, learners and curriculum materials. In the third step, Rabardel and Bourmaud’s (2003) instrument activity model was used to interpret the mediated relations between teachers and their goals, between teachers and other subjects, including students, other faculty members, designers and administrators, and between teachers and themselves. A holistic view of teachers’ use of curriculum materials was generally portrayed to conceptualize the teaching phenomenon.
3.4.2 Analysis of Observational Data
The observational data were analysed by adopting Remillard’s (1999) strategy of writing up lesson segments to demonstrate teachers’ materials use inside classrooms. According to Remillard (1996), the observational write-up is itself an analytic process. First, each teacher’s lesson was broken down into lesson segments according to the boundaries of the activities and tasks. Then, each teacher’s lesson was categorized in terms of teaching steps and procedures. The origins of materials that teachers used in classrooms were labelled accordingly. By comparing and contrasting the write-ups of the four case teachers’ lesson observations, six themes, namely, pedagogical goals, instructional strategies, intended learning skills, students’ responses or reactions, the origin of materials and duration of the lesson, emerged to categorize each teacher’s lesson. The emphasis of the observational data analysis was on capturing teachers’ adaptations and improvisations during the class. This involved looking for and describing patterns and changes in teachers’ designed and enacted instruction. Additionally, the observation data would be triangulated with the interview data to verify what actually happened in the classroom among teachers, students and curriculum materials. In the end, processes of materials use were generalized.
In addition, all the observational data were transcribed verbatim to uncover teachers’ enacted instruction via classroom discourse. The employment of classroom discourse analysis was inspired by Guerrettaz and Johnston’s (2013) study about one L1 teacher’s use of a grammar textbook in a university in the USA. They broke the boundaries between classroom activity and classroom discourse and demonstrated the dynamics among the teacher, students and materials in language classroom ecology. This study showed the legitimate role of teaching materials at the discourse level and shed light on the current study in terms of data analysis. The classroom discourse was analysed using Sinclair and Coulthard’s (1975) initiation–response–follow-up model. As the purpose of analysing the classroom discourse was to capture teachers’ modes of enacting instruction, patterns of teachers’ enactment of curriculum materials also emerged through comparing and contrasting four teachers’ classroom discourse through using the same materials.
3.4.3 Documentary Analysis
The purposes of presenting and analysing these documents are twofold: (1) to provide readers with a picture of what the teachers and students are working with and talking about, (2) to compare and contrast the given materials with teachers’ designed and enacted instruction. In this study, documentary data mainly involve the Student’s Book, Teacher’s Guide, auxiliary PPT slides, syllabus, all the materials disseminated by the institution and all the teacher-designed materials. The analysis of the Student’s Book and Teacher’s Guide entailed the original structure of the textbook with detailed illustrations of the pedagogical functions of each section. The content analysis involved writing a detailed description of the text’s content, its means of communicating with teachers, and what it communicated about. Teachers’ adapted PPT slides and supplementary materials were also collected. The analysis of these teacher-designed resources was mainly concerned with identifying changes from the prescribed textbooks, including deleting, replacing, supplementing and revising of the slides.
A number of measures were deployed in this study to address the issue of trustworthiness (Guba, Lincoln & Lynham, 2018): namely, triangulation, thick description, member checking and self-reflexivity. These strategies will be further discussed in the following sections along with the ethical considerations of the study.
The current research used methodological triangulation to collect a chain of data resources. The rationale for methodological triangulation is that the flaws of one method are often the strengths of another, and by combining methods, researchers can achieve the best of each while overcoming their unique deficiencies (Denzin, 1997). As mentioned earlier, audio-recorded interviews, video-recorded lesson observations and documents constituted the main instruments of the study. Each of them gave different sources of interpersonal and intrapersonal information pertaining to the research questions. No single method could elicit complete data; as a result, a combination was used. The data collection methods could capture what participants said (interviews and observations), what participants wrote (revised PPT slides and notes), what participants thought (interviews) and how participants used artefacts that could not be captured by the audio transcriptions (observations). The data gathered through these triangulated means were then cross-analysed to obtain an in-depth understanding of materials use. Triangulation allows me to interpret findings in order to test alternative ideas, identify negative cases and point the analysis towards a definite conclusion based on the data collected (Braud & Anderson, 1998).
3.5.2 Thick Description
Detailed and thorough descriptions of the participants, settings, research instruments, research design and the findings allow me to provide a more holistic picture of the teaching phenomenon. Additionally, thick description can help transfer the research findings to contexts outside the study setting (Firestone, 1993). As language textbooks are ubiquitous in language classrooms around the world, the design and findings of this study are externally valid in different contexts due to the utilization of thick descriptions (Merriam, 2016; Guba et al. 2018).
3.5.3 Member Checking
To enhance the credibility or dependability of this study, interpretations and tentative findings of this study were continuously presented to all the teacher participants throughout the research. Three domains of questions were formulated and sent to the teacher participants in the midst and at the end of the study through emails or online social media for the verification of results: teachers’ ways of using textbooks to plan lessons, teachers’ ways of using textbooks to enact instruction and their rationales for so doing. Teachers’ responses to these questions were proved coherent and consistent with the findings of the interview and observational data.
3.5.4 Management of Subjectivity
As the researcher acts as the key research instrument for both data collection and analysis in qualitative studies, the researcher’s theories, beliefs and perceptual lens may cause researcher bias and reactivity (Maxwell, 2013). The key concept of managing subjectivity in a qualitative study is to acknowledge the threats to validity and to maintain integrity (Maxwell, 2013). In this study, two measures were adopted to mitigate subjectivity. First, I continuously and critically reflected on my role in the research and my stance on the study to make the researcher’s perspective, biases and assumptions clear to readers. Second, the relationship between the participants and I was clearly elucidated, and the possibly extraneous effects of the study on the participants were explained at the beginning of the study to rule out reactivity. Finally, the above strategies of triangulation, thick description and member checking were all effective in reducing the negative effect of chance associations and systematic biases (Maxwell, 2013).
3.5.5 Ethical Considerations
Before collecting the data, I followed the ethical guidelines recommended by the University of Hong Kong and obtained approval for this study. When conducting this research, four ethical issues concerning participants were taken into consideration. First, the purpose, significance and procedures of this study were explained explicitly to the participants to make sure that they could make decisions based on a clear understanding of what the research was and why it was being conducted. Second, during the data collection, all interviewees were anonymous. The transcriptions of the interviews and lesson observations were given to participants for member checking. Third, all information collected in this study was treated with high confidentiality. No participants were identified by name, and pseudonyms were used in all reports of this study.
In this chapter, the methodological processes followed throughout the study were outlined. The chapter illustrated why a qualitative case study approach was adopted and how the data was collected. Data analysis approaches were introduced to address the research questions. The chapter concludes with measures undertaken to ensure the trustworthiness and the ethical consideration of the study. The findings of the study will be delineated in Chaps. 4 and 5. Chapter 4 shows teachers’ interactions with the curriculum materials inside classrooms. Chapter 5 describes teachers’ use of curriculum materials outside classrooms.
The “Double First-class” project is a tertiary education development initiative conceived by the People's Republic of China government in 2015, which aimed at comprehensively developing elite Chinese universities and their individual faculty departments into world-class institutions by the end of 2050.
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