Writing a Dissertation: Tips From Former PhD Students (Part 1)

Thinking back to the beginning of my doctoral studies, I remember having an enormous fear of writing a dissertation. Everything appeared to be intimidating: choosing a topic, collecting data, analyzing and interpreting results, writing chapters, and, of course, defending the complete project. I remember asking my fellow graduate students who were ahead of me in the process about tips and suggestions for writing a dissertation.

I know that I am not alone in my fear and uncertainty, as I often hear graduate students asking the same questions that I once had. So in my next two blogs I’d like to feature six young scholars—second language writers—who have recently graduated with their doctoral degrees from Purdue University and who are now working in various educational contexts both in the United States and abroad. I asked each of them to share their experience in writing a dissertation and provide a piece of advice to current students pursuing their doctoral degrees in the language teaching field. The suggestions from three of them are below, and the other three will be introduced in my next blog.

Aleksandra Kasztalska (Linguistics)

“Even though I was happy with the finished product, I couldn’t wait to put it down and ‘move on’!”

  • Current position: Assistant Professor of English; Southern Arkansas University
  • Year of graduation: 2015
  • E-mail: AKasztalska@saumag.edu

My professors always told me that “a good dissertation is a done dissertation,” and I think that single sentence is one of the most important pieces of advice I received while in grad school. When working on research, I—like many other graduate students, no doubt—tended to set unrealistically high standards for myself, which meant that I was always a little too ambitious about what I could accomplish in the time I was given. Above all, I always felt that there was so much more literature “out there” that I needed to familiarize myself with and as a result I had a hard time putting away all those articles and actually starting on my own papers.

I feel like I approached my dissertation in a similar manner. My original goals and scope were rather broad, and my dissertation committee immediately asked me to narrow down what I wanted to research and write about. Although a little uneasy at first (I wanted to do ALL THE THINGS!), I quickly realized just how right my committee members were. As I started reading the literature and then collecting and analyzing my own data, I found that several months had passed like a blur and that there was still so much more to get done before the defense date! Clearly, my professors were right: This was taking me much longer than I had expected. Sure, I’d done research before, but the dissertation was a whole new ballgame because there were more steps to follow, more unexpected problems to figure out, and because there was a lot more at stake than just a class grade. I was thus extremely relieved that I had narrowed my scope because it allowed me to deal with a more manageable data set and gave me more time to actually write up my findings and make all the necessary revisions without pulling all of my hair out.

Was my dissertation perfect? Of course not. But I gave it my best and I was proud of my work. And, above all, I was able to graduate on time. Which was probably for the best, because, even though I was happy with the finished product, I couldn’t wait to put it down and “move on”!

Ksenia Kirillova (Hospitality & Tourism Management)

“If I have something interesting and new to think about, then I have something to write!”

  • Current position: Assistant Professor, School of Hotel and Tourism Management; The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
  • Year of graduation: 2015
  • E-mail address: ksenia.kirillova@polyu.edu.hk

From the start, I have been a good writer in my native language, Russian. Somehow I always knew what to write and how to write it. Continuing my education in the USA, however, proved that my writing skills were not very relevant in the U.S. academic discourse. Particularly, I struggled with the organization of a logically coherent argument and sentence structure. Although I had improved my writing by the beginning of the PhD program, I had also developed tremendous anxiety about the very act of writing in English. When I inquired with one of my PhD teachers, for whom English is also not a native language, I received an unhelpful piece of advice: “Just keep writing, and it will get better,” ultimately leaving me (and many others) in a swim-or-sink situation.

In this context, writing a dissertation seemed a formidable endeavor. Yet, somewhere in the process I learned a couple of useful lessons. First, no matter how much I dislike writing, I had better get it on with and do it. I made it a personal goal to write at least 500 words a day, and I did not allow myself to go to bed until this objective was fully achieved. Second, writing is thinking: If I have something interesting and new to think about, then I have something to write! I also carefully studied my advisor’s (who is a successful second-language writer herself) published work in attempts to imitate her writing style.

I personally have never been able to benefit from free writing or many other techniques normally suggested by writing teachers. Choosing a dissertation topic that inspired my thinking and fueled the passion was the best writing technique for me.

Masakazu Mishima (Second Language Studies/ESL)

“Are you committed enough to break through all the obstacles to achieve your objective?”

  • Current position: Adjunct Instructor, Language Center; Rikkyo University
  • Year of Graduation: 2015
  • Email: mmishima@live.jp

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.” This is a well-known quote from an established American business professional and prominent writer, Paul J. Meyer. As I now look back, all the struggle and joy of writing my dissertation as a second language (L2) writer, his words precisely encompass the particular mindset that I maintained throughout the process of dissertation writing.

Writing a PhD dissertation in the language that is not your own sounds daunting, but I have never really paid attention to the fact that I am an L2 writer. In fact, I have never felt that I am at a disadvantage by any measure. Having been in the field long enough and read many scholarly works, the most obvious fact to me is that quality work is never really about your language status. Look around you! How many of the now-established scholars in our field are L1/L2 writers? And who really cares about their language status? I never really hear people asking at a conference, “Your recent publication was phenomenal. You are not an L2 writer, are you?”

What we (should) care about is whether or not your work contributes to the field and whether or not it demonstrates your in-depth knowledge with keen insight that thrusts into and fills “the gap” in the field. Of course, the quality of writing matters, too. But writing a quality piece for any purpose is a challenging task, and this challenge applies to anyone regardless of his or her language status. That is why it boils down to the question: Are you committed enough to break through all the obstacles to achieve your objective? There are a number of practical tips that I can offer as a former PhD student, but they are all subsumed by the single word—commitment. From finding resources to concocting ways to deal with obstacles of any kind, it is all within you waiting to be discovered.

from TESOL Blog http://blog.tesol.org/writing-a-dissertation-tips-from-former-phd-students-part-1/

Problem (Tech) Solved: Comprehension Checks 1

For as long as I have been teaching, I have witnessed a similar pattern occurring time and time again in my various classrooms. Regardless of whether it was 40 Japanese high school students, 20 Chinese university students, or even just 5 ESL students from different countries in my classroom, when a question is posed to the entire class, the comprehensible response comes from just a small portion of students.

Sometimes students who want to answer will raise their hands and wait to be called on, or I may even call on students to answer. Then I have one response. Other times, the whole class more or less answers at the same time, and I have a majority or perhaps simply the loudest response. Sound familiar? The traditional call and response format cannot give educators a clear picture of what each individual student understands. After making it through a whole class review session where every single question was answered correctly, it may be surprising when some students score poorly on an assessment. Depending on the type of review, that could be due, at least in part, to the call and response format presenting an inaccurate representation of student understanding and knowledge. This is a problem that I have struggled with in the past but have now solved with the help of a student response system.

Student response systems, which used to be characterize by infrared clickers, have come quite a long way in recent years. There are many options to choose from, with Socrative and Kahoot! being two that I would recommend for one-to-one classrooms, where each teacher and student has a device, and Plickers being the best option I have seen for one-device classrooms. All three of these and many others are free and easy to use for both teachers and students.

Personally, I have used Socrative the most because it was the first one I stumbled upon and I have not found a reason to switch to another yet. In Socrative, I primarily use the multiple-choice or true/false questions in the “Quick Question” feature. With each student on his or her own device, I open up a quick question and ask every student to respond. I can watch the percentages change and see how many students have responded in real time. With this information, I can immediately determine if students need more practice or are ready to move on to the next topic. It is truly eye-opening to see a true/false question I perceived to be an easy question divide a class right down the middle. Other features like the Quiz can also be useful for gathering information about student comprehension, and Socrative’s reporting format makes it easy to see patterns in the data, too.

If you have ever wondered what your introverted, shy, off-task, quiet, or lower-level learners are really comprehending, start using a student response system. The 10–15 minutes it might take for students to adjust to whatever resource you choose is well worth the investment. Honestly, they will probably catch on even faster than you do, and that is 100% okay! You may even find other instructors at your school start using it, too—and why not? As teachers, don’t we want to know how ALL of our students are doing?

from TESOL Blog http://blog.tesol.org/problem-tech-solved-comprehension-checks-1/

Corpora in Adult Ed

What Is a Corpus?

Corpse, marine corps, corporation, and corpulent all derive from the Latin word corpus, meaning body. That Latin word corpus also exists, intact, in English, but rather than an anatomical body, it refers to a body of language. A corpus is a large collection of language, traditionally written, but nowadays, corpora (the Latinate plural) of spoken language can be found.

Corpora in Language Teaching

The big benefit of using a corpus is that it’s data driven, and that data is based on actual language usage. It’s pretty much descriptivist heaven.

When a professor was first explaining to me the value of corpus data, he used this example: if asked to define the phrase par for the course, you’ll find “what is normal or expected in any given circumstances.” But if students depend only on definitions like that, from textbooks or dictionaries or teachers, they’re likely to miss some crucial information. Though that definition may be accurate, a quick corpus search reveals that the phrase is almost always used with a negative connotation, as in, “These tantrums are par for the course.”

As corpora have become more readily available and more representative of spoken, day-to-day language, they have become valuable tools for those in the field of TESOL. Most often, it’s researchers and materials developers, but there are some classroom applications for the corpus as well. Let’s look at the basics of how to use a corpus and check out a couple of introductory techniques for incorporating corpus data into your classroom.

Using a Corpus

When you use a corpus, you’re generally performing a search, just like you would in Google. The difference is that when you Google “kitten in a tree” you’re most likely looking for pictures of kittens in trees or information for getting kittens out of trees. If you search for the phrase “kitten in a tree” in a corpus, what you’re looking for is instances of that actual phrase in use. The language is your end goal.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is my go-to. Search a phrase just like you would anywhere else:


Your results will be every instance of the word tree found in the corpus. You could do the same for a string of words.


Along the left you have the year, type of source, and specific source, and then along the right is the actual context in which the word was found. This isn’t terribly helpful yet, though.

Let’s say I’m an English learner, struggling with prepositions. I want to know which prepositions commonly precede the word table. Let’s select the Collocates tab:


We’re also going to select “prep.ALL” from the [POS] dropdown next to “Collocates.” What this means is we’re searching for the prepositions that most commonly occur with the word table.

The scale of numbers below tells the engine where to search. By selecting the 2 on the left, I’m searching only for prepositions that occur one or two words before the word table. Any prepositions outside of that range or after table will be ignored.

Here are the results:

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-12-45-09-pmThe frequency at the right tells us that on is by far the most common, with 12,830 hits, and in and at come in second and third.

That’s just a very brief primer, but corpora are extremely powerful tools for getting loads of language data. There are some tutorial videos out there to get you more familiar with using corpora.

Introducing ELs to the Corpus


With beginners, I recommend doing the work for them. When presenting students with new vocabulary words, print out the results you get, and help them to notice important patterns related to syntax and collocation.


As students progress, show them how the corpus works, perhaps using an LCD projector while you search, narrating the process as you go.


Once students can do some limited searching on their own, give them assignments that they can use the corpus to complete. For instance, design a cloze activity based on simple corpus searches that you have performed.

from TESOL Blog http://blog.tesol.org/corpora-in-adult-ed/

Public School Teachers of ELs: A Look at the Legal Requirements

I’d like to introduce you to guest blogger Sandy Nahmias. I met Sandy through NJTESOL/NJBE where we are both on the Executive Board. She is an experienced ESL/bilingual teacher who has also been active on projects for WIDA and has consulted with the N.J. Department of Education on numerous projects. Here is Sandy’s blog.

There was recently a query on the NJTESOL/NJBE discussion list in which a participant asked, “Are mainstream teachers with ELLs in their classrooms legally required to modify lessons for them?” I answered the question on the discussion list and would like to elaborate in this blog.

A good place to start would be the “Dear Colleague” letter of 7 January 2015  that was issued jointly by the The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the USDOE and the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). These agencies share authority for enforcing Title VI in the education context. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (EEOA) confirmed that public schools and state educational agencies (SEAs) must act to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students in their instructional programs. The Departments issued the joint guidance in the “Dear Colleague” letter “in order to assist SEAs, school districts, and all public schools in meeting their legal obligations to ensure that EL students can participate meaningfully and equally in educational programs and services.” The bottom line is that a school district’s programs must enable EL students to acquire both English and content knowledge, and there are several ways a district may choose to go about providing the equality of instruction that is required by law throughout the United States.

What Could Have Prompted the Question?

I asked myself what could have prompted this question and took a look at the research. Between 1980 and 2009, the number of school-age children in the United States who spoke another language in the home increased from 4.7 million to 11.2 million. ELs are found throughout the United States in growing numbers. They are represented in every socioeconomic level and speak more than 470 different languages, although Spanish is the home language for at least 75% of these students (Linan-Thompson, & Vaughn, 2007). In “Teachers’ Dispositions and Beliefs about Cultural and Linguistic Diversity,” Vázquez-Montilla, Just, and Triscari (2014)  cite that ELs “represent the fastest growing student population in the U.S.; of the estimated 5 million ELLs currently in American classrooms, approximately two-thirds (66%) are in at least one course taught by mainstream teachers” (p. 577).

Attitudes of Teachers Toward ELs

In a blog by and about mainstream teacher attitudes towards ELs, A. Athas reviews an article entitled “‘Not in My Classroom’: Teacher Attitudes Towards English Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom.” He cites a study where 422 K–12 teachers and 6 EL teachers were surveyed about attitudes concerning ELs in mainstream classrooms. The authors of the study, Walker, Shafer, and Liam (2004), found considerable negative to neutral attitudes held by mainstream teachers toward ELs. They broke down these attitudes into five categories. Here are the factors that the authors cited:

  1. Time and teacher burden. The authors report that many teachers feel overwhelmed with already existing demands placed upon them and view the taking on of demands concerning ELs an additional burden.
  2. Lack of training. Although the vast majority of K–12 teachers nationwide have no training in ESL, leading to feelings of failure and frustration on the part of these mainstream teachers when working with ELs, these same teachers welcome ELs in their classrooms and the diversity they bring with them, and want to accommodate these students’ needs in their classes.
  3. The influence of negative administrator attitudes. Administrators’ negative attitudes carry a great deal of weight; malignant misnomers effect EL education.
  4. The belief in various myths about effective EL education. The ever-present myth that preserving ELs’ heritage language causes confusion between that language and their learning English, and therefore “English-only” should be the language acquisition methodology of choice; the longstanding belief that ELs should attain fluency in English after a year of ESL instruction.
  5. The ideology of common sense. The oft heard statement that specialized training is not required to instruct ELs and that common sense and good intentions suffice, when in fact a broad range of knowledge about second language acquisition, linguistics, pedagogy tailored toward ELs, and a multicultural prospective are of paramount importance.

Clearly the rapid escalation of linguistic and cultural diversity in the United States over the past 30 years poses challenges for schools, districts, and school systems. However, these challenges are not insurmountable. Professional development on making content accessible for ELs; resources including websites, blogs, and texts; and collaborative efforts between mainstream teachers and teachers of ELs are several of the many ways to effect a positive change in attitudes.

I will end here in the hope that this will help in the future to continue the conversation about working with ELs in mainstream classrooms. Please write a comment below if you have additional ideas about this topic.


Linan-Thompson, S., & Vaughn, S. (2007). Research-based methods of reading instruction for English learners, grades K-4. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Vazquez-Montilla, E., Just, M., & Triscari, R. (2014). Teachers’ dispositions and beliefs about cultural and linguistic diversity. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 2(8), 577–587.

Walker, A., Shafer, J., & Liam, M. (2004). “Not in my classroom”: Teacher attitudes towards English language learners in the mainstream classroom. Wheaton, MD: NJRP.

Sandra Nahmias is a bilingual/ESL teacher in Linden, New Jersey, and has been an educator of ELs for 19 years. She is the Bilingual Elementary SIG Representative to the NJTESOL/NJBE Executive Board and a World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) Certified Trainer. Sandra has consulted for the NJDOE on a number of projects involving the CCSS and WIDA’s English Language Development standards.

from TESOL Blog http://blog.tesol.org/public-school-teachers-of-els-a-look-at-the-legal-requirements/

The TESOL Affiliate Speaker Program: Reflecting on the Last 3 Years

A guest post by Luciana C. de Oliveira
In this blog, Luciana de Oliveira reflects on the eight worldwide conferences she’s attended in the past 3 years as a participant in the TESOL Affiliate Speaker Program.

This past March, I ended a 3-year term on the TESOL Board of Directors. Those were a very busy 3 years in my professional life, and among the best in my career. Part of what made them the best was my participation in the TESOL Affiliate Speaker Program. I was invited to and participated in eight conferences led by eight affiliates: Uruguay TESOL (URUTESOL), Louisiana TESOL (LaTESOL), Yakut TESOL, California and Nevada TESOL (CATESOL), North and South Dakota TESL (Dakota TESL), Illinois TESOL (ITBE), Sunshine State TESOL of Florida, and Asociación Costarricense de Profesores de Inglés (ACPI-TESOL).


In March 2013, I went to my first conference in Uruguay, hosted by URUTESOL, where I met amazing scholars and teachers. My plenary “Using audio feedback in EFL/ESL classes” opened the conference, which occurred in beautiful Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. I also had a chance to go around the city and explore its monuments, city life, and—of course—amazing food. That was the beginning of a wonderful experience through the program!

2014: LaTESOL, Yakut TESOL, and CATESOL

In 2014, I had the privilege of doing plenary and featured workshops at LaTESOL, Yakut TESOL, and CATESOL.

At LaTESOL, I presented the plenary “Navigating the waters of the Common Core State Standards: Expectations for writing” and the featured workshop “A genre-based approach to writing instruction for ELLs: Addressing the demands of the CCSS.” Plenary and workshop participants were specially appreciative of the ideas I presented about how to address the demands of the CCSS with ELLs by focusing on writing through a teaching/learning cycle that leads students through three phases (deconstruction, joint construction, and independent construction) and provides the kind of scaffolding that is so crucial for second language writers (more about this approach can be find in my CCSS and ELLs TESOL Press series).

Yakut TESOL in Yakutsk, Russia, was next, and it was my first time in a country where I didn’t speak the language! (I wrote about my experiences in a TESOL blog post). There I presented a plenary “A genre-based approach to writing instruction” applied to teaching English as a foreign language and a follow-up keynote “A genre-based approach to writing instruction: Tips for implementation,” in which I described what EFL teachers can do when teaching writing in their respective contexts. I led teachers in jointly constructing an informational report to model how they can focus on genres with their students. Lastly, I presented the session “About TESOL” and spoke about what a TESOL membership can offer.

Luciana leading a workshop with Yakut TESOL 2014 conference participants.

Luciana leading a workshop with Yakut TESOL 2014 conference participants.

At CATESOL, I presented the plenary “Thinking about Common Core Standards: Connecting, creating, and sharing insights” in which I discussed the expectations and demands of the CCSS English language arts standards and connecting these to the new English language development standards that were released in California in 2012. I also participated in a discussion session put together by the Non-Native Language Educators’ Issues Interest Group in which we discussed issues related to professionalism, discrimination, and the job market for multilingual teachers.

Luciana on a panel at CATESOL.

Panel about nonnative English speaking professionals’ issues at CATESOL 2014. Featured from left to right: Stefan Frazier, Luciana de Oliveira, Lia Kamhi-Stein, Tünde Csepely, Julia Schulte, Scott Phillabaum.

2015: Dakota TESL

At Dakota TESL, serving both South Dakota and North Dakota, I presented the plenary “College and Career Readiness Standards for K–12 and Adult Education and ELLs: Expectations for writing” and the featured workshop “A genre-based approach to writing instruction for ELLs: Addressing the demands of the new standards and beyond.” The conference organizers requested that I speak about both the CCSS and the College and Readiness Standards for Adult Education, as many of their conference participants and members work in adult education programs. This was a new area for me, but one for which I am grateful as I was able to discuss similarities and differences between these standards.

2016: ITBE, Sunshine State TESOL of Florida, and ACPI-TESOL

Luciana and an ITBI conference atendee who received one of Luciana's books as part of a raffle.

Luciana and an ITBI conference atendee who received one of Luciana’s books as part of a raffle.

At ITBE, I presented the plenary “Planned and interactional scaffolding: Six Cs of support,” in which I discussed and provided examples of planned scaffolding and interactional scaffolding used by K–12 teachers in real classroom situations.

Sunshine State TESOL of Florida—now my home affiliate—came next. I presented the plenary “Academic language in WIDA, the Florida Standards and beyond.” This session provided examples of academic language in various standards documents. Participants analyzed texts in mathematics and science and identified the different ways that academic language presents challenges and possibilities for ELLs in K–12 and beyond.

My last conference was ACPI-TESOL in Costa Rica, where I met a number of wonderful colleagues who immediately became friends! My workshop, “A genre-based approach to writing instruction,” led teachers to experience the joint construction of a descriptive report. We deconstructed a descriptive report about Spain that served as a mentor text by looking at its stages of “positioning” and “description” and identifying how the text started, moved sentence from sentence, and made connections to other parts of the text. We then moved on to the joint construction of a similar text, with me as the “teacher” and the workshop participants as my “students.”

The TESOL Affiliate Speaker Program provides affiliates the opportunity to have TESOL Board or staff members at their conferences. I am so thankful for the opportunities this program afforded me as a board member, for the contributions I was able to make, and for all of the amazing people I have met. Affiliate leaders, please take advantage of this wonderful opportunity!

Luciana de OliveiraLuciana C. de Oliveira, PhD, is chair and associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami, Florida. She was a member of the TESOL Board of Directors (2013–2016).

from TESOL Blog http://blog.tesol.org/the-tesol-affiliate-speaker-program-reflecting-on-the-last-3-years/