Scholarly article on topic 'The Emergence and Development of Language Learning Strategies through Mediation in an EFL Learning Context'

The Emergence and Development of Language Learning Strategies through Mediation in an EFL Learning Context Academic research paper on "Educational sciences"

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Abstract of research paper on Educational sciences, author of scientific article — Sorayya Behroozizad, Radha Nambiar, Zaini Amir

Abstract Most Iranian English classes follow traditional methods of teaching. The teacher sets the goals for any class activity, instructs the whole class, determines the learning content and teaches the required strategies. The students sitting in rows are trained as passive consumers of a pre-designed classroom procedure. This leads to minimum interaction and makes students the recipients of the teacher's knowledge. Clearly, such a learning context prevents students from developing language learning strategies in the process of communicating in English. In an attempt to change the status quo, the present study uses sociocultural theory as an alternative through which learners’ strategy use and development can be mediated. Specifically, the study aims at investigating the role of classroom context as a mediating agent in the development of language learning strategies in a listening-speaking classroom. Employing a qualitative case study, the study collects data using observation, learner-diary and student and teacher interviews. The findings revealed that the construction of a socioculturally-designed classroom context by the teacher provided the participants with the opportunities to develop strategies in relation to interaction and self-confidence. The results of the study contribute to the reconfiguration of EFL classroom culture. The study also encourages teachers to create a simulated real-life context for learners and provide them with different opportunities to participate in class activities to improve their strategy use and development.

Academic research paper on topic "The Emergence and Development of Language Learning Strategies through Mediation in an EFL Learning Context"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 118 (2014) 68 - 75

SoLLs.INTEC.13: International Conference on Knowledge-Innovation-Excellence: Synergy in Language

Research and Practice

The Emergence and Development of Language Learning Strategies through Mediation in an EFL Learning

Context

Sorayya Behroozizada *, Radha Nambiar b , Zaini Amir b

a Islamic Azad University, Maragheh Branch, Iran b School of Language Studies and Linguistics, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities,National University of _Malaysia(UKM)_

Abstract

Most Iranian English classes follow traditional methods of teaching. The teacher sets the goals for any class activity, instructs the whole class, determines the learning content and teaches the required strategies. The students sitting in rows are trained as passive consumers of a pre-designed classroom procedure. This leads to minimum interaction and makes students the recipients of the teacher's knowledge. Clearly, such a learning context prevents students from developing language learning strategies in the process of communicating in English. In an attempt to change the status quo, the present study uses sociocultural theory as an alternative through which learners' strategy use and development can be mediated. Specifically, the study aims at investigating the role of classroom context as a mediating agent in the development of language learning strategies in a listening-speaking classroom. Employing a qualitative case study, the study collects data using observation, learner-diary and student and teacher interviews. The findings revealed that the construction of a socioculturally-designed classroom context by the teacher provided the participants with the opportunities to develop strategies in relation to interaction and self-confidence. The results of the study contribute to the reconfiguration of EFL classroom culture. The study also encourages teachers to create a simulated real-life context for learners and provide them with different opportunities to participate in class activities to improve their strategy use and development.

© 2013 The Authors.PublishedbyElsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer-reviewunderresponsibilityofUniversiti KebangsaanMalaysia.

Key words: language learning strategies; Sociocultural theory; Activity theory; Genetic method; Mediation; Listening-speaking classroom; EFL

* Sorayya Behroozizad. Tel.: +989144068494 E-mail address: sorayyabehroozi@yahoo.com

1877-0428 © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and peer-review under responsibility of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.02.010

1. Introduction

To create a clear image of Iranian English language classes, it can be summarized that most university English classes conducted in Iran, reflect many principles and characteristics of the Grammar-Translation-Method (G.T.M.) or in some cases a combination of G.T.M. and the Audio-Lingual Method. The instructional material is limited to the textbook and the use of this material is scheduled by the teacher. The teacher instructs the whole class, and determines the learning content. The students have very limited opportunity to talk about their learning processes and experiences. So, they are highly passive and dependent on the teacher. This leads to minimum interaction and makes students recipients of the teacher's knowledge.

In recent years, experts in the field of ELT have extensively studied the sources of the EFL learners' communication problems. Vaezi (2008) discussed that this problem is partly due to the L2 learners' weaknesses in general English, which influence their academic achievement. Rahimi and Abedini (2009) considered low general aptitude as the source of low achievement of Iranian EFL learners. In identifying the sources of EFL learners' problems, some other Iranian researchers believe that the programmes presented in schools and universities do not provide the students' with opportunities to use English communicatively.

Eslami-Rasekh and Valizadeh (2004) believe that in Iran, the traditional teacher-centered curriculum dominates the teaching and learning process in both schools and universities. Teachers and lecturers transfer knowledge and experiences to students with the aim of helping them pass examinations. A similar view was expressed by Hayati (2008) who states that most Iranian English classes still follow traditional methods of language teaching. He maintains that the general goal of the system of education in Iran regarding English language teaching is confined to reading and translation of the English materials containing scientific information. In emphasizing the sources of the EFL learners' problems discussed above, the researcher believes that one reason is teachers' teaching style which does not encourage the learners to have and improve their sense of self-regulation and self-assessment. Also evaluation techniques by some teachers hinder real communicative interaction and indeed interrupt the emergence of functional strategies. A colleague asked his students to memorize seven words daily as a vocabulary learning strategy without providing sufficient practice on contextual use. This means the learner is incapable of using the words in a realistic communicative context such as communicating with a foreigner. Thus, such a situation makes the learner only satisfy the teachers' expectations which in turn reduces the learners' need to develop communication strategies.

In such a setting, the learners are passive consumers of the teacher-planned lesson. In order for any learning to take place in listening-speaking classroom, the learners memorize the dialogues of their textbooks, fill-in-the-blanks exercises and are expected to understand all the words and sentences they receive as input. There is scant attention on speaking. Speaking activities are pursued in the form of dialogue memorization with a very restricted chance of interaction. Furthermore, the teacher's mediating role is limited to the presentation of language materials and her classroom management. Finally, the students are assessed and evaluated on the mastery of language forms at the end of the semester. Basically, such a classroom culture might reduce the possibility of developing learning strategies and improving communication abilities. Additionally, in such a context as Donato and McCormic (1994) state, the learners are deprived of any sense of self-assessment and self-regulation necessary for strategic learning.

Socio-cultural experts (Lantolf and Poehner, 2008; Lantolf, 2000a) claim that the emergence of learning strategies in socio-cultural settings can be one way of overcoming the EFL learners' difficulties to some extent. This is evident in the basic claim of socio-cultural theory by Vygotsky (1978:26) who believes that "higher forms of human mental activity are mediated by culturally auxiliary means". Considering this view, language learning strategies (LLSs) which are one kind of higher mental functions can be constructed from the primary social practice in the classroom culture.Ultimately, social practice in the classroom can be mediated by multiple

factors. These factors are defined by Mitchell and Myles (2004) and Lantolf (2000a) who believe that the culture of a classroom consists of mediating tools, mediating objects and mediators which can be generalized under the title of mediating agents. It is obvious that any learner's strategy use is to a great extent dependent on the social life of the classroom, as is evident in Vygotsky's sociocultural theory (1978) in which the social process, interactions and the use of signs and tools as vehicles for constructing knowledge are emphasized. One of the outstanding features of sociocultural theory is considering learning as social where meaning is derived through language use within the social context. So, it can be concluded that the classroom is a social place where learning is formed by increasing and improving the learner's participation in classroom interaction which results in the emergence of learning strategies. In order to contextualize this description of a classroom, constructing a different classroom context at the expense of EFL traditional discourse format is necessary. In this respect, using sociocultural theory promotes a learning context in which teacher acts as a facilitator in constructing meaning. Thus, there will be a reciprocal relationship between students and teacher in learning process. The socioculturally-organized context is assumed to enrich the current listening-speaking classroom which suffers from the following principles:

a) The listening-speaking classroom is a formal setting with an authoritative teacher in front and the students in their carrels listening to the teacher and doing her instructional commands.

b) The common teaching method consists of a traditional framework with a preference on developing grammatical and lexical knowledge of textbook materials.

c) Interaction between the teacher and the learners and with the whole class is not emphasized.

d) The learners are trained as passive consumers of a pre-designed classroom procedure.

e) The teacher's role can be summarized as decision maker, strategy trainer and mere transmitter of knowledge.

f) The learners are persuaded to do activities such as dialogue memorization, fill-in-the-blank exercises, retelling the complete listening text, etc. to enhance their listening-speaking abilities.

g) The learners' exam mark is regarded as the evaluating yardstick for their development and eventually learning.

In contrast to the framework of the current listening-speaking classroom presented above, the classroom culture based on sociocultural theory has the following characteristics:

a) The teacher postulates listening-speaking classroom as "a sociocultural setting where an active participation in the target language culture is taught, promoted, and cultivated" (Johnson, 2004:180).

b) The teacher implements Eclectic Methodology: a blend of Task-based Language Teaching (TBLT, e.g. performing different tasks by the students), Communicative Language Teaching (CLT, e.g. role-plays, language games, discussions), and Notional Functional Syllabus (e.g. being student teacher) to make the learning context more interactive, and communicative.

c) For the construction of new knowledge, the interaction between peers and peers and teacher is considered the keystone for learning and teaching. Listening and speaking skills develop through interaction.

d) The learners are collaborative participants who are being asked to keep a learner-diary which is one part of sociocultural instruction to mediate and assess their learning and reflect their functional learning experiences.

e) Teacher's scaffolding is an important aspect of the learning process and for diary writing in particular.

f) Learners are exposed to interactive instruction. For instance, they are encouraged by the teacher to do communicative tasks such as panel or group discussions, picture description, role play, student teacher, language games etc. within sociocultural environment. Therefore, based on her interactive teaching techniques, she is considered an interactive facilitator or mediator in the process of learning.

g) The learners are encouraged to assess themselves through diary keeping. Accordingly, the teacher evaluates her students based on some tasks which the learners should carry out every few session as the evidence of their listening-speaking progress.

Following the discussions above, this study aimed to explore how EFL learners' strategy development can be improved through activity theory. Bearing this in mind, the study is crystallized around the following main question: "What is the role of classroom context in Iranian EFL learners' strategy development?"

2. Methodology

2.1 Context of the study

This study was conducted in an undergraduate EFL listening-speaking classroom in the English Language Department, Azad University, Iran. The listening-speaking course referred to as Language Laboratory is one of the courses that students reading for a bachelor degree in English have to complete. The basic goal of this course is to provide the students with the opportunity to improve their communication skills.

2.2 Participants

The participants in this study were six second year students (sophomore) both males and females. The students' ages ranged from 21 to 24 years old. All the names in this study are pseudonyms.

2.3 Instruments

This study triangulated the methods. The triangulation of data was achieved by utilizing multiple sources of data including focus-group and group interviews of the learners, teacher interview, document writing (learner-diary), and observation field notes.

2.3.1 Learner-diary

In this study, diary writing was considered compulsory in the listening-speaking course by the teacher, to ensure students were completing the diaries. Due to the agreement and consent of the participants in the training session the language of the diaries was English. However, they were allowed to enter any word, phrase or sentence in their native language (Persian) when necessary. A structured format was used to make diary writing as convenient and user-friendly as possible. To address the problem of forgetfulness, the students were asked to take notes at the end of every session. In general, the students were required to submit two sets of diary entries, one at the end of session 15 and another one at the end of the semester.

2.3.2 Interviews

Two focus-group interviews and a group interview with the students were utilized to lend breadth and richness to the data. The interview was carried out in three stages at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the semester. The aim was to examine and compare the students' whole experiences before being exposed to newly mediated classroom discourse, during this situation, and their final perception of the sociocultural setting in which language

learning took place. As the last stage of data collection, an interview was conducted with the teacher about her teaching philosophy. In this interview, the teacher of the listening-speaking classroom was asked to provide some information concerning her teaching, common listening-speaking practices, different ways of providing feedback, and her viewpoint on the reasons for the current seating layout.

2.3.3 Observation field notes

The class was observed three times a week during the semester to ensure the observation of all details of learning context focused in this study. No observational scheme was used in the process of observing as some experts believe that observational schemes though effective in some studies hinder the capturing of the interaction-based activities in the context. For instance, Nunan (1989), cited in Sharpe (2003:100), claims that in spite of the fact that observational schemes are the provider of 'a sharper focus' in the process of data collection, they also "blind the researcher to aspects of interaction and discourse which are captured by the scheme and which may be important to our understanding of the classroom or classrooms we are investigating" . Thus, to gauge how mediating agents affect the students' activities and strategy development, the researcher took informal field notes emphasizing the most central categories, which were developed by the major objective of the present research as a kind of checklist.

2.4 Data analysis

Data obtained from observation field notes and interviews were analyzed through the analytical procedures in thematic analysis (Braun & Clark, 2006). In so doing, observation field notes and all the interviews including the teacher interview, the first and second focus-group interviews and group interview were transcribed. And the transcripts were read and re-read many times to identify the role of classroom context. Then in the next phase the data identified was then put into meaningful groups or codes based on what could be possible roles of the mediator. In phase three the codes were analysed and combined to form themes. Phase four involved reviewing and refining the themes identified to develop a satisfactory thematic map to use for the study. In the next phase the themes were defined and further refined to ensure each identified theme is able to capture and analyze the data. The final phase enabled a detailed analysis to be worked out including examples from the data itself. This way facilitated the process of linking the analysis to the research question. In addition, the students' diary entries were analyzed through content analysis. Therefore, the diaries were read several times and the categories and subcategories regarding the role of classroom context were extracted from the problems and solutions they had reported in the diary entries.

3. Findings and Discussion

As Figure 1 illustrates, within classroom context five main factors influenced strategy development and use and these are seating layout, interaction, motivation, exposure to real-life situations and the teacher. All the participants reported experiencing a different classroom context compared with the one they had experienced in their previous listening-speaking course. The participants highlighted the seating layout, interaction, motivation and exposure to the simulated real-life situation as the main issues that defined the new classroom. For instance, to expose the students to a simulated real-life situation, the teacher asked them to watch a short movie about bargaining. Then she decorated one part of the classroom as a shop, identified the related roles such as a customer, a shopkeeper, etc. to the students and asked them to imagine themselves in such a situation to practice bargaining in an actual shopping. Completing this task, the students could easily learn how to handle such a case when encountered.

Three of the participants -Ali, Kaveh, and Pooya- reported that seating layout opened a new gate for their learning. In the light of some cultural restrictions, they hadn't experienced any opposite-gender interaction in

their previous classes. As such, the students lost their self-confidence. Ali stated that one of the reasons for his poor achievement in listening-speaking course 1 and 2 was the absence of the interaction "especially opposite gender" (the first interview). Whereas, in the new seating design the students from the two genders -girls and boys- shared all phases of the speaking activities and received the teacher's support simultaneously.

In the group interview, the participants repetitively mentioned how the new layout benefited their learning as they could direct each other, share and reflect upon their leaning problems, and seek help from each other. Kaveh's consideration of his new classroom is a good example to illustrate how the participants were affected by the seating layout. Kaveh recalled his memory from the first session when he felt he has entered a totally different world. As such, he said, "I think I catch or I got the things that I need to improve my goal" (group interview). Pooya also noted that in face-to-face interaction "we share our ideas with each other" (the second interview). Sara explained how this context affected her. She remarked that she was previously shy and faced a set of problems while speaking and the previous classroom context hindered her speaking. However, in this class in addition to her self-expression she could even question the others' views by posing her own idea. Leila expressed that such a context with that kind of seating layout maximized the potential for the progress, as they could consult about their problems, do plenty of pair-work and group-work activities, listen to the text together, and exchange assignments and diaries. Hence, the general context of the classroom called for the students' extra activities and the attentive interaction. Based on all the reports, a change in seating layout from side by side arrangements to a circle or semicircle arrangement and creating a very intimate atmosphere by the teacher appeared to positively influence the EFL learners' listening-speaking abilities.

Another emerging category which affected the participants' strategy development was exposure to real-life situations through a variety of opportunities for individual or group activities by the listening-speaking tasks. Depending on the condition, the participants performed different actions in doing the tasks. For instance, when they were assigned to do a picture description task as a group work, they were sitting around a semicircle table and described the picture which was displayed in a laptop screen. So, this task encouraged team-work or group-work. In a different situation, when they were in university campus, they tried to describe a picture in the form of pair-work. In addition, the participants carried out the same task as an individual activity within the classroom when they were attempting to describe their friend's personality. Whether individual, pair-work or group-work, tasks could expose the participants with the situations they had never experienced before in this classroom. The examples of these situations provided by tasks were, bargaining in a shopping center, doing online shopping, conducting interviews, discussing superstition, entering an American chat room and so on.

Finally, the teacher was found to be the establisher of all the changes the participants encountered. To clarify, it was the teacher who made a social cultural revolution in the context of the listening-speaking classroom. The radical change from the participants' viewpoints was operationalized by teacher in different ways. Implementing new teaching techniques, incorporating diary writing into the course objectives, introducing communication-based tasks, and absence of any formal final exam occupied the participants' minds as the most important categories. Compared to the participants' previous listening-speaking courses in which final exam was a heavy burden, in this classroom the teacher preferred a kind of ongoing evaluation and self-evaluation by the participants by prescribing diary-keeping as the essential part of the class activities. In short, the teacher could contextualize the listening-speaking classroom as described by the sociocultural principles and tried to define learning as a socially situated activity in which learners work in collaboration with each other (Wigglesworth & Storch, 2012). Figure 1 presents the results:

Fig.1 the relationship between classroom context and strategy development

4. Conclusion

The purpose of this study was to examine the role of classroom context in the emergence and development of language learning strategies from a sociocultural perspective. The present study sets the scene for a reconceptualization of the Iranian EFL classroom to a socioculturally-mediated setting. This reconceptualized classroom is contrasted to the traditional classrooms in which interaction is not emphasized and the strategies are taught by teachers without providing learners with the opportunities and tools to develop, self-assess and regulate their learning. The study has highlighted 4 categories which affect learners' strategy development. It is proposed that in order to help students develop learning strategies, teachers can reconfigure the culture of their classroom by implementing Eclectic methodology (a blend of TBLT, CLT, & Notional Functional Syllabus) and applying sociocultural principles to their classroom. Teachers can raise students' initiative by making them aware of the advantages of mediated learning, as Donato and McCormick (1994:459) state, "individuals are active transformers of their world rather than passive recipients of input (including strategy training)".

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