Chapter 3: Reviewing the literature

Steward, B. (2014) ‘Writing a literature review’, British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67(11): 495–500.

This is an accessible text which stresses the difference between writing a literature review that underpins a piece of primary research and writing a literature review summarizing the state of play on a particular topic. You may be lucky and find a good, up-to-date, secondary literature review on your topic. Note, particularly, the bullet pointed list on page 498. The last item is: ‘What ordinary people are doing and whether practice matches theory.’ It is common for early childhood students to be conducting a practically focused piece of research. This is a reminder that one should look at ‘trade’ journals, such as Nursery World in the UK for articles that are relevant to the topic you are interested in.

Hu, J., Torr, J. and Whiteman, P. (2014) ‘Australian Chinese parents’ language attitudes and practices relating to their children’s bilingual development prior to school’, Journal of Early Childhood Research, 12: 139.

This article describes a study of the attitudes and practices of Chinese parents of preschool children in Australia relating to their children becoming bilingual in their home language and English.

  • Read the abstract and the discussion to get an overview of the content of the article.
  • Now read the whole article, making a note of the headings used. You will discover that there is no heading for ‘literature review’. This is not uncommon in journal articles. Each publication has its own house style and when writing for a specific journal, authors are expected to structure their articles to conform to this style. The literature review can be found in two sections: ‘Bilingual development in immigrant children’ and ‘Chinese parents’ language attitudes and practices’.
  • The literature review starts with a general introduction to the topic, giving definitions and stages of bilingual development. The section then goes on to describe the importance of the home environment in maintaining first-language development and the benefits to children and families of being bilingual.
  • The second section becomes more specific (less general) and looks at studies that report on the attitudes of immigrant parents. First of all, this section looks at immigrant parents in general and across a variety of countries. Then the authors become even more specific, looking to see what the literature tells us about Chinese parents and in particular Chinese parents in Australia. As in the first article, you can see we have a ‘funnel’ shape appearing. The authors look at a variety of research studies and discuss findings that indicate that (not surprisingly) parents exhibit a variety of attitudes, expectations and practices.
  • Note how the final paragraphs narrow the field down even more so that the research questions follow on logically from the literature review; it is as if the research questions have dropped out of the funnel. A well-constructed literature review, such as this, gives the impression that it took no time at all to write. In reality, it often takes several attempts to structure a literature review so that the ideas flow logically one from another.