Students' and Teachers' Beliefs About Language Learning

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  • Students and Teachers Beliefs About Language Learning

    Richard G. Kern University of California, Berkeley

    ABSTRACT This study compares one group o f students beliefs about language learning with those of their teachers and with those o f their peers at another institution. It furthermore exam- ines change in students beliefs in relation to those of their instructors in an effort to develop hy- potheses about the potential influence of teachers beliefs on students beliefs. Beliefs were assessed by means of the Beliefs About Language Learning Inventory, developed by Horwitz (1 985, 1988) . Results were found to be significantly affected by the type of analysis: global analyses of group means and percentages showed overall similarities between teachers and students beliefs as well as between students pre- and posttest responses, while analyses of in- dividuals and course section groups revealed much greater differences. The findings of the study suggest that teachers beliefs are but one o f many factors that affect students beliefs about language learning and that multivariate research designs are needed to explore with greater precision the complex interrelationships between learners and teachers belief systems.

    Popular conceptions of language learning have a profound influence on all aspects of the language teaching profession. Insiders (learners, teachers, teacher-trainers, materials developers, researchers, specialized agencies, consultants) as well as outsiders (learners peers and families, administrators, lawmakers, government officials) all bring their unique sets of beliefs and attitudes to bear in situa- tions and decisions related to language learn- ing and teaching. Learners and teachers belief systems are of course particularly im- portant to our understanding of language learning in institutional settings. The aim of this study is to consider the beliefs of one group of first-year French students and to compare them to those of students at another institution as well as to those of their teachers. The purpose of this comparison is to assess the degree of variation in beliefs about lan- guage learning within and across two institu- tions and to identify potential mismatches in students and teachers views on language learning.

    Richard G. Kern (Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley) is Assistant Professor of French a t t h e University of California, Berkeley.

    Background Research on students beliefs has evolved

    out of a more general interest in learner char- acteristics (including factors such as personal- ity, motivation, learning styles, and language aptitude) as they relate to language acquisi- tion. Rather than treating language learners as a monolithic, homogeneous group, scholars in this area of second language research ex- amine differences among learners, hoping ulti- mately to determine what kinds of instruct- ional environments might best suit different types of individuals. Research on learners b e liefs generally seeks to identify learners pre conceived notions about what is involved in learning a foreign language in order to predict expectational conflicts that may contribute to student frustration, anxiety, lack of motiva- tion, and, in some cases, ending of foreign lan- guage study (e.g., Schumann and Schumann 1977; Schumann 1980) .*

    During the late 1970s and early 1980s Yorio (1986) conducted a series of surveys of Inten- sive English students in the University of Torontos Continuing Studies Program. Exam- ining students beliefs about the efficacy of various aspects of language instruction, Yorio reported that while students indicated a

    Foreign Language Annals, 28, No. 1, 1995


    marked preference for courses stressing com- municative competence, they showed obvi- ous reluctance to abandon very traditional teaching techniques (672). Widdows and Voller (cited in Nunan 1993) found that Japanese university students views o n the content and manner of instruction conflicted with the official university curriculum. Hor- witz, in her 1988 seminal study of Spanish, French, and German students beliefs about language learning, found that many begin- ning level university students held conflicting beliefs that might b e inconsistent with the principles underlying the instructional prac- tices they would likely encounter in the for- eign language classroom. For example, she reported that while a substantial number of students agreed that it was okay to guess if you dont know a word in the foreign lan- guage, over half of the French students be- lieved that mistakes made in the beginning would be difficult to get rid of later on. And even though the majority of students dis- agreed with the statement you shouldnt say anything in the language until you can say it correctly, over half thought it was important to speak with an excellent accent and felt self- conscious speaking the language in front of other people. Honvitz pointed out that while certain of these beliefs are consistent with practices associated with communicative teaching methods (for example, students will- ingness to guess), other beliefs (such as the importance of correctness) may affect stu- dents level of comfort with certain commu- nicative techniques and activities currently used in many foreign language classrooms.3 In her 1990 report, Horwitz illustrates the poten- tially anxiety-producing tensions that can arise from such mismatches in students and teachers beliefs about language learning:

    Many teachers using communicative ap- proaches have encountered students who complain if their every mistake is not corrected, or if the teacher requires them to say something they have not practiced. At the same time, students who value the communication of mean-

    ing over grammatical accuracy may bristle when their utterances are cor- rected constantly. This sort of clash of expectations between students and teacher about language learning can lead to a lack of student confidence in and satisfaction with the language class (1 990, 24-25).

    Honvitzs suggestion that students and teachers may view classroom reality quite dif- ferently raises the question: to what degree do foreign language students beliefs about lan- guage learning correspond to those of their teachers? Preservice and inservice foreign lan- guage teachers beliefs and attitudes have been assessed (e.g., Horwitz 1985; Wolf and Riordan 1991), but to my knowledge no stud- ies have directly compared foreign language teachers and students beliefs. A number of studies from ESL and international settings, however, have addressed this issue. Lutz (1990) explored culture-specific expectations about the respective roles of students and teachers in general instruction among Amen- can students, Japanese graduate students, and American faculty at Georgetown Univer- sity. He found that the American students and teachers responses were on the whole quite consonant with o n e another, while mis- matches between the Japanese graduate stu- dents and the American faculty were widespread. McCargar (1993) studied student and teacher role expectations among FSL stu- dents from a wide variety of linguistic back- grounds. He found significant differences in expectations not only across nine student cul- ture groups but also between student groups and American FSL teachers on most expecta- tion categories. Kumaravadivelu (1991) ex- amined differences between teachers intentions and intermediate ESL students in- terpretations of a skill-integrative language task and found ten potential sources of teacher-learner mismatch. Nunan (1993), re- porting the findings of an earlier comparative study of learning preferences of learners and teachers in the Australian Adult Migrant Edu- cation Program, found contrasts in students



    and teachers priority ratings of eight instruc- tional components. Students and teachers dis- agreed most in three areas: error correction (rated very high by students and low by teachers), student selfdiscovery of errors, and pair work (both rated low by students and very high by teachers).

    Considering that ESL students come from a very wide variety of language and cultural backgrounds, and only rarely share a com- mon heritage with their teacher, the above findings are perhaps not surprising. In foreign language classrooms, however, students are commonly from similar backgrounds and often share both native language and culture with their teacher. Lutzs finding that Ameri- can students and faculty gave very similar re- sponses to questions about general instruc- tional issues raises the question of whether American foreign language students and teachers have more in common than d o their ESL counterparts.

    Previous research in students beliefs also raises a question of teacher influence: be- cause students are likely to view their lan- guage teachers as experts in language learning matters, and since teachers presum- ably convey through their classroom practices many of their own assumptions about lan- guage learning, to what degree might teach- ers beliefs influence those of their students?

    The present study examines the relation- ship between students and teachers beliefs about language learning within a foreign lan- guage setting and within a limited context: one language department at one university. Given the particular nature of beliefs about language learning and the myriad factors that can affect students and teachers beliefs, no attempt will be made to generalize the find- ings of this study beyond the local institutional context, although comparison data will be presented that suggest the feasibility of finding general trends across institutions through replicated studies. The questions to b e ad- dressed in this report are the follow


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