Action Research: It Was Never About Me!

Tina Alderson reflects on the transformative project she led as part of the OTLA programme.

Action research is not about what the teacher wants to develop, it is about what the learner can develop.

We need to look through the learners’ lens and see what is familiar to them, what they have knowledge and understanding of and then build upon that to build back better. It should be based on something familiar, fun, and relatable that can engage, inspire, and develop progression.

I am very proud to have been sponsored by The Education Training Foundations (ETF) Outstanding Teaching Learning and Assessment Project 7 (OTLA7).

a thinking emoji with words, pens, a book, speaking icon and hearing icon

Image designed by Summer Boden, a learner at Kendal College.

The journey over the last eighteen months has seen me soul searching, reflecting in and on all my previous practice and that of the learners: my journey from the floor up, where I saw reluctant learners in GCSE and functional skills classes struggle to engage with learning as I supported as a learning assistant, breaking down barriers of structure of a text and the author’s point of view, to name just a few examples, to forty one educational health care plan (EHCP) learners, but also others who had not achieved GCSE grade 4 in English at their secondary school.

Eighteen months ago, under Sue Lownsbrough’s ETF mentorship, I unpicked my practice. I looked through the learners’ lens at a collaborative ‘Share Good Practice’ meeting with another college and reflected later that evening that action research and collaboration should not be about our journey, but the journey of our learners, and not only their gaps in learning, but also their strengths.

I questioned how I could motivate and engage learners with text, how I could promote discussion, how I could link what was familiar to them to writing to encourage them to re-engage with learning. How could they motivate each other through discussion and develop their reading and writing skills?

Then in a flash, a light bulb moment: ‘they demonstrate their skills every day as they communicate with their friends on their mobile phone, online, on different platforms to demonstrate how they feel about something, to clarify their response, rather than finding the right words’. The question I then asked myself was ‘how do I link this to Pre-Entry, Entry Level, Levels 1&2 Functional Skills and GCSE learners, while also addressing awarding body examiners reports …’ Then the learner led inclusive approach of ‘Emojis in English and ESOL’ Assessment For Learning began:

  • Reluctant readers began to read
  • Learners made road maps when planning a piece of writing
  • Learners developed vocabulary skills, progressing to standard English
  • Learners used the emoji as a used tool to develop their ESOL vocabulary, understanding and body language
  • Refugees used the emoji to help them integrate into the United Kingdom

… by using the universal language of emojis learners felt included, motivated, and progressed.

Would you like to know how? Visit the ETF website to see the published report and I also encourage you to watch the national demonstration on YouTube to find out first-hand what the learners and teachers involved in the project said. I hope it engages your learners too.

One moment … the journey through OTLA7 does not stop there: I am super proud to have been invited to share my research at the Collaborative Action Research Network (CARN) annual event on the 6th October 2021, to an international audience. Believe in your abilities as facilitators, collaborate with your learners and your team, and drive forward together.


Together, let’s address the UK Literacy Gap and drive learning forward!

Tina Alderson


Tina is a Functional Skills teacher at Kendal College. She is also a project lead for her OTLA 7 practitioner action research project: ‘Emojis in English


Outstanding Teaching, Learning + Assessment

Practitioner action research projects facilitated by ccC on behalf of the ETF. Access OTLA 3, 4 (digital), 6 (English) resources and appendices, here.

Follow updates from the projects on Twitter #OTLA and read the latest mailout on Wakelet.