ELT Research Proposal Writing Guidelines

ELT Research Proposal Writing Guidelines

Parlindungan Pardede


Universitas Kristen Indonesia


To undergraduate or post-graduate students, writing a research proposal is compulsory because it is the main academic document used to justify their ability to present a case converted into an idea and the plan proposed to resolve it. The quality of a research proposal will determine whether or not the students will gain approval to conduct the research required to complete their study. This article aimed to discuss a research proposal components and provide some tips for writing a sound proposal. Although all research proposals basically have a generic nature, different disciplines, advisors, and committees can expect to vary. Thus, the research proposals are various from one discipline to another and from one committee to another. This article focuses on the undergraduate research proposal for ELT. The style and examples used in the discussion are typical of ELT field.

Key words: research proposal, ELT, introduction, literature review, method,

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Based on my several years supervising students in writing research proposals and reviewing the proposals some other students had written, it seemed that most students encountered difficulties in comprehending and meeting the necessities of the academic work. Many of them were found it hard to organize proper content for specific sections of the proposal and to position arguments in relation to those of the literature. To critically evaluate theories, methods, and models; to develop arguments and counter-arguments, to use evidence to support arguments were also common hindrances for students. These problems could probably cause by their inadequate knowledge for writing such works and inappropriate mastery of English academic writing skills. As an attempt to help students overcoming the problems, this article discusses the nature of the research proposal and offers some practical suggestions to write the proposal sections.


What is a Research Proposal?

A research proposal is essentially a written plan for a project that will be submitted to others for evaluation. At most university, before conducting a study, anyone conducting research must write a proposal which specifically describes he/she will do and why it should be done, how he/she will do it, and how he/she will interpret the results. In short, the proposal specifies his or her plans before the study can be conducted. And since it is the plan for conducting a study, writing a research proposal is the first step in conducting and publishing research.

Although it constitutes only the first step in the research process, writing a research proposal is very important for two reasons. First, a proposal describes the process and procedures that will be used by the researcher. In the proposal, the whole project crystallizes into a concrete form. The researcher’s ideas and insights are translated into step-by-step plans for discovering new knowledge. Sharing it to colleagues or a committee will provide an opportunity for the researcher to obtain feedback before implementing the study. This feedback can be used to improve the proposed study. Second, a research proposal is the only means a prospective researcher can use to ask for recognition and funding of a particular project. Since his proposal is the only document through which a researcher demonstrates that he knows what he is seeking and how to successfully complete the planned project, it is the only instrument he can use to get approval for conducting his/her project. In a university context, for instance, students are required to obtain approval of their proposals from a committee of supervising professors. In industries, a proposal is a main (if not the only) document one should submit to funding agencies to obtain grant money to pay for the costs of his research.

Anatomy of a Research Proposal

All research proposals use roughly a generic format. Whether it is prepared by a student to fulfill the requirements of a research course, a formal undergraduate project, thesis or dissertation proposal presented to a committee, or a funding request to a foundation or governmental agency, the general format is much the same. No matter what research to be conducted, be they are a student satisfaction survey, an action research, an experimental study on teaching reading strategies, or an error analysis on students’ paragraph writing, the proposal has the same basic structure and format. The main point is that readers of research reports (i.e., examiners, decision maker, etc.) will know exactly where to find the information they are looking for, regardless of the individual proposal.

Despite the generic format, research proposal may vary due to the different expectations of different disciplines, advisors, and committees. Some departments oblige students to present a detailed proposal, while some others require a general preliminary outline only. Some departments necessitate students to present their proposals at a seminar, other departments are satisfied by circulating proposals among staff and ask each student to have an interview with one or two potential supervisors. In spite of these different practices, it is a must for every student to have a comprehensive knowledge of the sections of a research proposal, what to put in each section, and how to write them in an acceptable academic style.

As it is previously mentioned, a research proposal is a plan for a project. Later, when the project is finished the researcher should report it in what is called with research report or research paper. A research paper usually has five chapters with well-established sections in each chapter. The use of such a standardized format will enable readers to easily find specific types of information they look for in the chapters and sections.

In general, all research reports begin with the information provided in its proposal. That is why the proposal is similar to the first three chapters of the research paper; except that it is written in future tense. In the proposal, the researcher might write something like “A set of questionnaire and semi-structured interview will be used to collect the data “, while in the report, it would be changed to “A set of questionnaire and semi-structured interview were used to collect the data.” In other words, with the exception of tense, the proposal is identical with the first three chapters of the research report.

Since a research proposal is identical to the first three chapters of the research report, it will be a significant help for a researcher to report his study. He needs just to convert the materials in the proposal (to write the first three chapters), add the “results and discussion” section (in which the results of the completed study are presented and analyzed), and put the conclusion and recommendation at the end.

Research Proposal Models

Research proposal could be generally classified into two major models: the preliminary model and the standard model. The preliminary research proposal, as suggested by the name, is typically written before creating the longer standard one. Thus, writing a good preliminary proposal opens the doors to proceeding with the project and digging deeper into the planning.

Although a preliminary proposal is very brief (usually written in five to six paragraph, in two pages) it typically contains much of the same information as the standard version. The difference lies just in the fact that it a lot less detail than the standard one. The preliminary research proposal is generally used to attract other people’s interest, the members of the committee. To evaluate a new research proposal, a faculty sitting in a committee often prefers reading a preliminary proposal for its brevity.

As shown by Figure 1, a preliminary proposal includes only the main points of what the author will do, why it should be done, how he will do it, and how he will interpret the results with minimum supporting detail. Written in a brief paragraph, the introduction section describes the general topic area to be studied, the background to the research problem, the research purpose and problem, and justification for studying the problem. The literature review, written in one or two paragraphs, presents the major schools of thought on the topic a brief review of the relevant current main findings reported on the chosen topic, and restatement of the research problem (question) to show how it fits into this larger picture. Next, in a short paragraph called “Conceptual Framework”, the writer’s ideas and findings in the literature are linked to show how the research problem will be handled and what the research results will contribute to the topic under study. This paragraph is ended with the hypotheses to be tested. In the last two paragraphs, the research design, population, sample, instruments, and data analysis techniques are briefly described. The last paragraph is used to outline the expected results, how they will be interpreted, and how they will fill the gaps or enrich literature. In the standard proposals the expected outcomes subsection is placed in Chapter I called Research Significances (see Figure 2). This subsection focuses on the implications of the proposed study, such as how the study’s results will affect future research, theory, counseling, policy, etc. Thus, this section is written focusing on how the results of the study will benefit others. This subsection is also used to pinpoint any weaknesses to the proposed research and why they were not addressed.

Some institutions may expect the description of the timeline and budget. The proposal is ended with the reference, in which all sources cited in the proposal body are listed using a certain style, e.g. APA, MLA, Harvard, etc.

The content of a standard research proposal is essentially similar to those of a preliminary proposal (see Figure 2). The only difference is that the points in the standard research proposal are supported with more factual data, relevant citations, and arguments. Therefore, if a preliminary proposal is commonly two pages length, a standard research proposal could cover more than ten pages.

Outline of Chapters and Sections

In the following subsections, each element of a standard research proposal is described briefly to provide a more comprehensive idea.

1. Title

In a standard research proposal, the title is written on the title page (together with the name and other required information of the author). The proposal title should be short and explanatory. A good title gives a clear and concise description of the scope and nature of the research. A title could be stated in one of the four types: nominal, compound, full sentence, and question, but the most usual used is the nominal title. The title should not exceed 16 words and must include keywords which allow bibliographers to index the study in proper categories. As a general guide, the words forming the title should indicate (1) major variables or theoretical issues to be considered in the study; (2) nature of research (descriptive, correlational, experimental, survey, or action research); and (3) target population. Pardede (2015), for instance, titled his study using the nominal type: “Pre-Service EFL Teachers’ Perception of Edmodo Use as a Complementary Learning Tool”. This title indicates that the study focuses on pre-service EFL teachers’ perception of Edmodo use as a complementary learning tool (major variable), it could be a descriptive survey because it deals with perception (research nature), and concerns with pre-service EFL teachers (population).

2. Table of Contents

The table of contents should locate each section and major subdivision of the proposal. In most circumstances the table of contents should remain simple; no division beyond the first subheading is needed. If the body of the proposal contains illustrations, graphs, or tables, they, too, should appear in the list of tables/graphs/illustrations which is incorporated into or follows the table of contents.

3. Chapter I – Introduction

The Introduction section consists of four subsections: (a) background; (b) statement of topic area, covering the problem in a broad scope; and (c) specific problem to be studied, reasons why it was important to study (e.g. by showing gap in research), and how it applied to the larger field of research, (d) research objectives, (e) significances of the study, (f) research scope, and (g) definition of operational terms.

The background information is used to identify and describe one or more of the contexts (philosophical, historical, social, economic, temporal, political, technological, gender, etc.) required by the reader to understand the research problem and its significance. Sufficient background information reflects the author’s understanding of the research problem to be studied and stimulates confidence in the overall quality of the analysis and findings.

A research topic is “the broad subject matter addressed in a study” (Creswell, 2012, p. 60). Thus, the statement of the topic area is the statement problem in a broad context. To make this statement convincing, it is usually supported with a summary of previous research. Pardede (2018), for instance, identified “the use and effectiveness of Edmodo as a complementary learning tool in EFL classes” the topic of his study. This topic is supported with various a précis of several previous studies (see Appendix 1).

A research problem is “the educational issue—a difficulty or conflict to be eliminated; a condition to be improved; a concern to handle; a troubling question, a theoretical or practical controversy (or a gap) that exists in scholarly literature—addressed in a study. For instance, continuing with the topic he identified, Pardede (2015) looked at the perception of pre-service EFL teachers towards the use of Edmodo as a complementary learning tool in EFL classes. The problem is that very little attention has been given to students’ perception of the use and effectiveness of Edmodo as a complementary learning tool in EFL teacher education so that there is no appropriate empirical data to prepare the ground for a more reasoned use of the online learning tool in pre-service EFL teachers’ classroom. By researching this problem, such necessitated data could be obtained.

The research problem is then stated specifically in the form of questions. In this subsection, a qualitative study and action research usually uses the term ‘research question’ while quantitative research uses the term ‘problem statement’. This sub-section is the focal point of a research proposal because this is the place where writer identifies and clearly and precisely states the specific problem to be investigated. The question(s) should be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely).

The objective (or purpose) is a single statement or paragraph that explains what the study intends to accomplish. The objective statement should be directly based on the identified and formulated problem(s) in the previous section so that readers are able to realize immediately that the purposes are directly related to those problem(s). The objective statement should be phrased in line with the nature of the problem. This is done by communicating the purpose using ‘action verbs’, such as describe, compare, develop and investigate, which accurately indicate your research objectives.

The significance of the study sub-section creates a perspective for looking at the problem. It points out how the study relates to the larger issues and uses a persuasive rationale to justify the reason for the study. It makes the objective worth pursuing. The significance of the study points out the benefit(s) to get if the study is done and to whom it is important.

The next subsection of the introduction, research scope, describes the limitation and finite scope of the study which is often imposed by time and budget constraints. The limitation could also be caused by administrative, geographical, ideological, and other restrictions. The boundaries cover the issues (or variables). The limitation of the study precisely describes the sample/participants and the method and data to be collected and describe the extent to which he believes the limitations degrade the quality of the research.

The operational definitions sub-section is used to clarify the meaning of special terms used in the research. Thus, this section is included in a proposal only if it uses terms that are unique to the field of inquiry or that might not be understood by the general reader. A common example is: “For the purpose of this research, improvement is operationally defined as posttest score minus pretest score”.

The introduction (Chapter I) is essentially a ‘mini-version’ of the much larger review of the literature (Chapter II) and can be thought of as highlighting certain segments or pieces of it. That is why some researchers prefer to write the introduction after they have actually completed much of their literature review. This section can certainly be written early in the research process, but the researcher should revisit it after he has completed his literature review to ascertain that both sections are consistent one to another.

The length of an introduction depends on the complexity of the research topic. The introduction section of an undergraduate research proposal should ideally be shorter than those of a post-graduate research proposal. However, it is generally around 400-500 words. Thus, it must avoid unnecessary background information and repeating the same information. Exaggerating the importance of the work and claiming novelty without a proper literature search should also be avoided. Appendix 1 on which Pardede (2015) conducted his study reported in the research article, illustrates an introduction section of a research proposal.

4. Chapter II – Literature Review Conceptual Framework and Hypothesis

Chapter II of a research proposal includes three sub-sections, i.e. literature review, conceptual framework, and specific research questions and hypothesis.

A literature review is a search, summary, and evaluation of the available past and current literature related to the research problem. Thus, a literature review should not only list a number of cited information and ideas. It should evaluate and synthesize the information obtained from current studies and link them to the topic to be addressed so that it places the research being planned on the stage of what is already known about a topic and what others had done in the research area. The literature can include articles, abstracts, reviews, monographs, dissertations, other research reports, textbooks, and electronic media, and since ELT is very dynamic due to the progressive accelerating number of publication, the sources included in a literature review should be quite recent so that the research article will not become out-of-date when it is published. In general, the reviewer should include sources published in the last 10 years. The only exception here is in situations when authors literally cannot access recent texts.

Literature review have some types, e.g. narrative, historical, integrative, argumentative, methodological and systematic literature review. Among those types, integrative or systematic review seems to be the best choice to use in an ELT undergraduate thesis. It should be note that whatever type is used, It should be structured like an independent essay by organizing it into three main sections: introduction, body, and conclusion.

In a research, the conceptual framework describes the researcher’s consideration of how the interconnection of the particular variables in his study. In other words, the conceptual framework identifies the variables required to address the research question. In relation to this, McGaghie et al. (2001) stated that conceptual framework contributes to a research report in at least two ways because it (1) identifies research variables, and (2) clarifies relationships among the variables. Linked to the problem statement, the conceptual framework ‘‘sets the stage’’ for presentation of the specific research question.” The conceptual framework is placed between the literature review and the research question and hypothesis subsection, because the identified variables should first be clarified by the conceptual framework before they are used to state the research questions and to formulate the hypothesis.

The research question stated after the conceptual framework is essentially similar to those stated in Chapter I, part C. However, since the question stated after the literature review has been enlightened by a greater number of current research findings and the relationship between the variables has been clarified in the conceptual framework, it must be more precise than the one previously stated in Chapter I. In this case, the research question in part C of Chapter I should be replaced by the one obtained after the conceptual framework.

A research hypothesis is a prediction of the expected outcome of the study. The presence of this section depends of the research method proposed. Only experimental researches, causal-comparative, correlational studies, and some action researches have hypothesis. In those researches, this section states the hypothesis in the form of null hypothesis and alternative hypothesis. The hypothesis section is placed comes directly after the review of literature because hypotheses are based on and consistent with the findings reported in the literature review.

A good hypothesis contains two variables, i.e. the “independent” and the “dependent.” The independent variable is the one the researcher controls, and the dependent variable is the one he observes and/or measures the results. In an experimental study, the hypothesis is written this way: “If ____  [the independent variable is provided] _____, then _____ [the dependent variable] _____ will happen.” For examples: “If my reading class is taught using SQ3R method [teaching using SQ3R is the independent variable], it will significantly increase the class reading achievement in reading comprehension [reading achievement is the dependent variable] will increase. Based on this, the hypotheses are formulated as follow:

Ho: The use of SQ3R method will not significantly increase the class reading achievement in reading comprehension

Ha: The use of the SQ3R method will significantly increase the class reading achievement in reading comprehension

In a correlational study, the hypothesis is written this way: “There is a significant correlation between ____ [the independent variable] and _____ [the dependent variable]. For example:

Ho: There is no significant correlation between the time-length of using the internet with the level of the students’ interest in using blogs to develop writing

Ha: There is a significant correlation between the time-length of using the internet with the level of the students’ interest in using blogs to develop writing

Appendix 2 on which Nazara (2015) conducted his study reported in the research article, illustrates the literature review (Chapter II) of a research proposal.

5. Chapter III – Research Method

This chapter or section describes the basic plan of the proposed research. It usually begins with a few short introductory paragraphs that restate purpose and research questions. The phraseology should be identical to that used in Chapter I. The wording of the research questions should be kept consistent throughout the document. After that, research design, participants (population and sample), materials (including settings, equipment, and data collection instruments) and procedures (treatment, testing, and data analysis) are described.

This chapter begins with the restatement of the research purpose and research question (problem) because they are the most essential elements of a study so that all other elements should be in agreement with them. By placing them at the beginning of Chapter III, readers will be able to easily relate the research purpose and research questions to the research method.

Research Method (Design) subsection briefly but concisely describes the research design to be used. One or two sentences will suffice for this. The subsection of Participants (Population and Sample) describes the population accurately and explains what technique is used to determine the sample. Usually, one sentence is sufficient to define the population, but the sampling procedure needs to be described in extensive detail. Describe in minute detail, how you will select the sample. Use specific groups, places, times, etc. Don’t omit any details. This is extremely important because the reader of the paper must decide if the sample will sufficiently represent the population.

Materials subsection describes the place and time setting, the equipment (e.g. Edmodo, short stories, etc.) and the instruments to be employed to collect the data. Each of these elements needs to be described in details so that future researchers willing to do the same study will find no difficulty with the specifications. While describing the data collecting instruments, include their feature and how they will be administered. Describe also how their reliability and validity were measured. If the instrument to be used was designed by someone else, then describe the previous validity and reliability. In qualitative research and action research, this section is entitled with triangulation.

The Procedures section briefly but concisely describes the treatment, testing, and data analysis technique. If the study is an experiment of using song to develop students’ pronunciation, describe what songs and how they are used in the experiment. Describe also how many times and when tests are administered. Finally, describe what analysis technique will be used to analyze the obtained data, descriptive analysis or the statistical analysis (e.g. t-test. This subsection also describes any special procedures that will be followed (getting permission to enter the research site from the authority, presentation of an informed consent form, conducting the research, and writing the report).

To see how these elements are included in a real proposal, see Appendix 3 and 4. The first one belongs to Pardede (2011) which represents a mixed methods study, while the second belongs to Nazara (2015) representing experimental research.

Timeline and Budget

Some institutions may expect the description of the timeline which shows how the author plans to complete the study by the due date. It is important to make sure that the timeline is realistic, flexible, and allows extra time for the diversions and changes that often take place in a study. If the study will be financed by an institution, the budget description is also necessary. But if the study will be financed by the author, a budget description is not necessary.


The proposal is ended with the reference, in which all used factual material that does not belong to the author is listed using a certain style, e.g. APA, MLA, Harvard, etc. ELT field generally employs APA Style for citing and referencing.

Editing the Research Proposal

Just like the production of other pieces of writing, the writing of a research proposal is a process involving a series of steps to follow up to the production of the final work. When the first draft of the proposal is finished, it is necessary to make sure that the followings are fulfilled: (1) the proposal has the chapter of Introduction, Literature Review, and Methodology, plus the section of Timeline and References; (2) the quality of writing is appropriate, thus, edit the common errors by breaking very long sentences into some shorter ones, dividing a very long paragraph to one or three shorter ones, correcting and replacing awkward and informal expressions, appropriately paraphrasing citations and mentioning the sources to avoid plagiarism, and adopting the citation and referencing style using the suggested style. Finishing the first editing, it is still necessary to make the second and third editing to make sure the proposal is of high quality.


To undergraduate or post-graduate students, writing a research proposal is compulsory because it is the main academic document used to justify their ability to present a case converted into an idea and the plan proposed to resolve it. At most university, writing a proposal specifying his or her plans before a student conduct a project or a study to write a thesis is a must. Despite its high importance, many students encountered difficulties in comprehending and meeting the necessities of writing a good proposal. Some of them found it hard to organize proper content for specific sections of the proposal and to position arguments in relation to those of the literature. Some others seemed to have problems to critically evaluate theories, methods, and models; to develop arguments and counter-arguments, and to use evidence to support arguments.

This article discusses the nature and anatomy of the research proposal. Discussions are focused on what to put in each chapter/section (i.e. Introduction, Literature Review, and Method) and subsection of the proposal. Suggestions on how to put the materials are also provided. To make the explanations more realistic and easier to perceive, real examples taken from real researches are provided. A better understanding of what and how to write in each section of the proposal will hopefully able to help the readers overcome the problems while writing a proposal.

Last but not least, it is worth noting that writing of a research proposal is a process involving a series of steps to go through. Drafting, editing, rewriting, proofreading, revising, and rewriting are the steps everyone should follow in order to produce a sound research paragraph. 


Creswell, J.W. (2012). Educational researchPlanning, conducting, and evaluating quantitative and qualitative research. (4th Ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

McGaghie, W. C.; Bordage, G.; and J. A. Shea (2001). Problem Statement, Conceptual Framework, and Research Question. Retrieved on March 2014 from https://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/Fulltext/2001/09000/Problem_Statement,_Conceptual_Framework,_and.21.aspx

Nazara, S. (2015). The Effect of Using Short Stories on Secondary School Students’ Critical Reading. A paper presented at UKI English Education Department Collegiate Forum held on Friday, June 12, 2015. Retrieved April 2015 from https://eeduki.com/2015/04/15/https-eeduki-com-the-effect-of-using-short-stories-on-secondary-school-students-critical-reading/

Pardede, P. (2015). Pre-Service EFL Teachers’ Perception of Edmodo Use as a Complementary Learning Tool. A paper presented at UKI English Education Department Collegiate Forum held on Friday, June 12, 2015. Retrieved August 2015 fromhttps://eeduki.com/2015/06/20/pre-service-efl-teachers-perception-of-edmodo-use-as-a-complementary-learning-tool/

Pardede, P. (2011). Short Stories Use in Language Skills Classes: Students’ Interest and Perception. In Zacharias, N.T. & Manara, C. (Eds.) Bringing Literature and Linguistics into EFL Classrooms: Insights from Research and Classroom Practice. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 101-108.


  • This article was presented in the ELT Research Workshop organized by the English Education Department of Universitas Kristen Indonesia Jakarta, held on Friday, February 20, 2015.
  • Some revisions have been made to this article on August 2015, particularly by adding examples from real research articles, in order to make the guidelines easier to implement by the readers.
  • The four appendices of this article are available in the PDF version which could be downloaded here.


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