How to integrate language skills into subject learning: NU postdoctoral scholar’s research

Today we will be talking with Laura Karabassova – postdoctoral scholar of the Graduate School of Education. Laura did her Ph.D. in Education at Nazarbayev University, and after she defended her thesis, she continued doing her research at the University. 

  1. What was the topic of your research?

The topic of my doctoral thesis was predetermined by my previous work experience. I worked as a specialist in trilingual education at Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools (NIS). My job was to coordinate the development and implementation of a trilingual education model, apart from that, I was organizing training sessions for teachers. 

As many people might know, NIS students study different subjects in a non-native language. At NIS students are grouped together into homerooms classes, which have either Russian or Kazakh as their primary language of instruction. These groups then take different subjects together with instruction in another language. For example, homeroom classes with the Kazakh language of instruction study some subjects in Russian and English, and classes with the Russian language of instruction – study subjects in Kazakh and English.  Despite studying languages for several years, many school graduates still struggle to maintain a basic conversation in Kazakh or English. This is the reason for using a trilingual methodology of language teaching, which is based on the method of grammatical translation – translation of texts and the explanation of grammatical rules. 

Trilingual education aims to improve students’ language knowledge by teaching them school subjects in different languages. Its introduction has redesigned teaching completely – teachers are now responsible not only for teaching subjects but also for developing the language skills of their students. How do teachers perceive this responsibility?  Do they understand the need for integrated teaching of the subject? How does classroom teaching work? All these questions formed the basis of my research, which was built around particular case studies. To solve these research problems, I analyzed documents and guidelines for teachers, conducted in-depth interviews with them, and observed their lessons. The research took 3 years, after which I successfully defended my dissertation in 2018. I continued to work on this research after the defense as a postdoctoral student.

  1. What are the results of your project implementation or are they expected in the near future?

My doctoral dissertation is the first work in Kazakhstan on the topic of subject-language integrated learning pedagogy. The research has an applied nature. Its results were published in international journals (including Q1 journals) and presented at different conferences.

Based on my thesis, I wrote a book chapter. In addition, I shared the results of my study with NIS teachers. I also used some of the main conclusions of the work for my training sessions that I conducted for more than a thousand teachers of secondary schools.  In 2019, I was awarded a research grant to continue studying these issues in a new context – in general, education schools, which have recently begun their transition to teaching in English. The work is ongoing, and I am constantly looking for various research grants.

  1. What are the most important things when working on a dissertation?

In my opinion, doing a Ph.D. to some extent means loneliness and isolation. If in the 1st year you attend classes and you are surrounded by your groupmates and professors, then, starting in the 2nd year,  the proportion of independent work on your research increases. When that happens, it is very challenging to maintain the previous level of social activity. Therefore, the moral support of the family is very important. My parents and family were very supportive of me: their endless faith in my abilities and knowledge helped me to complete my dissertation work and successfully defend it.

  1. Tell us about your future plans. 

I really enjoy academic work: doing research, publishing results in top international journals, teaching, and sharing my experiences on various platforms. Therefore, in the future, I want to continue my academic career, but I am also considering positions in leadership and management of education and science.  I regularly receive job offers from various educational projects, both in higher education and in secondary education. Wherever I decide to work in the future, I want to be able to do my research.

  1. What would you recommend to future doctoral students?

I regularly share my recommendations for future doctoral students on my Instagram page. It has already become a tradition to speak to new doctoral students who have entered our school on the topic “Introduction to Science: My Doctoral Journey”. I am a mentor for several doctoral students at national universities. I share my advice on choosing a research topic, collecting data, adhering to ethics, interacting with a supervisor, publishing, and building a scientific career.

Future doctoral students should not take the decision to apply to programs lightly.  Pursuing a doctorate should be a conscious decision, not just another academic step. As my supervisor would say, there must be a passionate desire to do research. I recommend that future doctoral students should seriously and carefully consider their choice of a research topic since they will have to “live” with it for 3-4 years. And of course, any research should be beneficial to society. Practical work experience is essential. And finally, one of the most important skills of a doctoral student is the skill of effective reading. I recommend reading a lot of scientific literature on relevant topics before entering the Ph.D. This way, future doctoral students will have a good command of the discourse and terminology of their topics, they will be able to develop effective reading skills and be ready for their first literature review tasks.