Naoya Shibata, Nagoya University of Foreign Studies, Japan
Shibata, N. (2019). The impact of students’ beliefs about English language learning on out-of-class learning. Relay Journal, 2(1), 122-136. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/020117
*This page reflects the original version of this document. Please see PDF for most recent and updated version.
Learner beliefs are “the beliefs that language learners have about what is involved in learning a language, how to learn it and their own language-learning ability” (Ellis & Shintani, 2014, p. 340). Although learner beliefs are considered as one of the most influential factors in utilising language strategies, and (de)activating motivation as well as autonomy, the clear relationships between learner beliefs and engagement in learning has rarely been investigated or indicated (Ellis & Shintani, 2014). In this illustrative case study, qualitative research utilising a survey with 12 open-ended questions and semi-structured interviews were conducted with two first-year students (one successful learner and one less-successful learner) at a Japanese private high school in the 2017 school year. The researcher aimed to explore the effects of learner beliefs about language learning on their out-of-class learning. Results indicated that although both learners had similar learning beliefs, their engagement in out-of-class learning and their use of learning strategies differed. Therefore, in this case study, learner beliefs and their engagement in the out-of-class learning did not demonstrate a direct relationship.
Keywords: learner beliefs, out-of-class learning, learning strategies, Japanese high school
Learners’ beliefs can have a significant role in developing learner autonomy and be an essential factor in successful language learning. As learners’ beliefs are considered as one of the individual difference variables, each learner has different points of view and sometimes changes them according to his or her experiences and circumstances. This variation can also motivate and demotivate students to learn the target language beyond their language classes. Consequently, while some learners succeed in developing their language skills, others have difficulty improving them. In order to help students to become successful and autonomous language learners, it is essential to delve into the influence of learner beliefs in out-of-class learning. Therefore, this paper explores how two first-year high school students’ beliefs in English learning influence their out-of-class learning at a private senior high school in Japan. For this case study, two following research questions were formed.
- Which learning strategies do successful and less-successful learners believe can be effective for their out-of-class learning?
- To what extent do successful and less-successful learners take actions outside classes based on their learning beliefs?
Ellis and Shintani (2014) define learner beliefs as “the beliefs that language learners have about what is involved in learning a language, how to learn it and their own language-learning ability” (p. 340). Therefore, learner beliefs can be considered as requiring “strong factual support and open to change through rational explanation or persuasion” (Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015, p. 186). McCombs (1990) also mentions that they are one of the most significant factors in influencing learning strategy use, effort, and developing learner autonomy. Moreover, research in this field indicates that there are various beliefs about language and language learning, which may have an impact on learners’ learning engagements (Benson, 2011). Therefore, extensive research on learner belief types and the sources of learning have been undertaken (e.g. Ellis, 2001; Horwitz, 1999). However, the relationship between learner beliefs and strategies has rarely been investigated (Ellis, 2008a, 2008b). Hence, while some scholars (e.g. Barcelos & Kalaja, 2011; Navarro & Thornton, 2011) state that there is a significant positive relationship between learner beliefs and actions, the direct relationship between these two factors has rarely been indicated (Ellis, 2008a, 2008b, Ellis & Shintani, 2014).
Language learner motivation
Language learner motivation (LLM) is the mental energy that students utilise to learn the target language in order to fulfil their need or wish (Ellis & Shintani, 2014). As Dörnyei and Ryan (2015) highlight, “it provides the primary impetus to initiate L2 learning and later the driving force to sustain the long, often tedious learning process,” and thus all learners need to have sufficient LLM so as to achieve their longitudinal learning objectives (p. 72). Furthermore, while LLM as one of the decisive factors can help to learners’ successful learning, successful learning experience can also raise LLM (Ryan, 2018). Therefore, LLM can play a significant role in assisting students’ language learning and activating their autonomy.
A learning strategy is a method that a student chooses to use in order to achieve his or her learning objectives and develop his or her language proficiency more effectively and more efficiently (Oxford, 1990; Oxford, 2011). Therefore, depending on many variables, including learners’ learning styles and aptitudes, the effect of a learning strategy can vary.
Gan, Humphreys and Hamp-Lyons (2004) undertook research in two Chinese tertiary contexts to reveal how different successful and unsuccessful Chinese EFL students engage in their learning, including their motivation and learning strategies. They revealed that successful language learners tended to create more opportunities to use various resources including teachers and learning strategies actively and to practise the target language more than unsuccessful learners. However, such research in Japanese secondary education contexts has rarely been conducted, and thus the influence of learner beliefs on learning strategies should be examined within such a setting.
The researcher conducted this study with two female first-year students (one successful learner and one less-successful learner) at a private senior high school in Japan in the 2017 school year when he took care of an English Communication class with 26 first-year students (12 males and 14 females). In the first class of the school year, the researcher informed all students about the research on the relationship between learner beliefs and engagement in learning outside class and asked them to submit the consent form to him. In the next class, 20 students handed in the consent form to the researcher. At the end of the school year, the researcher selected two students, based on their survey answers and their learning outcomes during the school year, including paper-based term-test scores, English proficiency qualifications, and essays. Then, the researcher asked them to take a survey (see Appendix) in order to gain knowledge about their background, including their beliefs in English language learning.
Concerning the learning background, before entering their high school, both the SL and the LSL had never taken any English proficiency tests, such as STEP EIKEN, which is one of the predominant English proficiency tests taken in Japan. In addition, neither had been abroad or taken classes conducted only in English. Therefore, their learning background had no significant differences.
However, while the SL acquired Grade 2 of STEP EIKEN after her first attempt in autumn 2017, the LSL passed Grade Pre-2 after her third attempts. In essay assessments, the SL wrote more extended passages with fewer grammatical mistakes and more explicit content; conversely, the LSL wrote shorter passages with many incomprehensible sentences. Therefore, the researcher determined that these two participants were suitable for this study.
Survey. In order to find out individual differences, concerning learning beliefs and learning behaviours, the researcher conducted a survey (see Appendix), based on Gan, Humphreys, and Hamp-Lyons (2004). There were 12 open-ended questions to reveal information about participants’ learning histories and beliefs in English language learning in their junior and senior high school years. Although all the questions were written in plain English, both learners chose to write their answers in Japanese in order to clarify their learning beliefs and history, as well as their out-of-class learning activities, because Japanese is their first language, and they were encouraged to answer the questions in the language they preferred.
Follow-up interviews. Interviews can help researchers to comprehend interviewees’ experiences, views, understanding and incentives, and semi-structured interviews can aid interviewers in realising which topics to cover and letting respondents contribute to the interviews more successfully (Richards, 2009). In order to collect further qualitative data, therefore, semi-structured interviews with the two participants were administered. These interviews were conducted in Japanese in order to make them less burdensome for both participants and to collect more in-depth data. All the questions were based on those in the survey, and follow-up questions were formed based on their survey and interview answers. Furthermore, the interviews were voice-recorded, and the important points were written down as the researcher’s notes.
The qualitative data collected from one survey with 12 open-end questions and follow-up interviews were analysed and coded in order to find patterns between these two participants. As the researcher gathered all the data in Japanese, he translated them into English and asked an expert English speaker to check the translations for accuracy. Following on from this, similar ideas were categorised into groups and considered in terms of the relationship between participants’ learning beliefs and their out-of-class learning activities.
In this research study, data were collected from one successful learner (SL) and one less-successful learner (LSL) through a survey with open-ended questions and follow-up interviews. In this section, the data are categorised into three sections: learners’ beliefs about language learning, their motivations, and their learning strategies for out-of-class learning.
Learners’ beliefs about language learning
Both the survey and interview data indicate that the SL and the LSL had similar language learning beliefs. They believed that communicative activities and essays were useful activities for developing English ability as they found class activities useful gradually. Both reported that although they found it very challenging to communicate with their classmates and write essays in English in classes in April, they gradually became able to make themselves understood and understand others in English; thus, they thought interactions and essays in English were important to develop English skills. They also emphasised the importance of patience. For example, “I think communicative activities in English will help me to develop my communication skills in my daily life even though I need to keep making efforts to learn English” (SL); “I think perseverance is essential to develop both my English oral and written communication skills as it takes a long time to be able to use it practically” (LSL). Therefore, regarding learners’ beliefs in English learning, the qualitative data did not indicate noticeable differences between both the SL and the LSL.
Motivation to learn English outside class
Both of the participants emphasised the importance of out-of-class learning to develop their English skills. Furthermore, both the SL and the LSL claimed that they studied English mainly for their future career, to acquire high marks on tests and to pass entrance examinations for universities. Therefore, the research findings suggest that, for their out-of-class learning, both had extrinsic motivation, which comes from external pressures, including rewards and threats, (Noels, Pelletier, Clément, & Vallerand, 2003), and instrumental motivation–motivation to achieve practical goals, such as to career promotion (Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015). However, as the SL states that “I study English outside classes because I would like to acquire better English proficiency qualifications and use English in my future career” (SL), she had a clearer long-term goal than the LSL: “I study English to get high marks on tests” (LSL). Furthermore, the follow-up interviews also revealed that the SL aspired to be able to speak English fluently in order to make friends with people from other countries, which indicates that she also had integrative motivation–the motivation to be interested in the target language and culture and desire to be engaged in a global community (Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015; McClelland, 2000). Accordingly, while the SL had three types of motivation–extrinsic and instrumental motivation and integrative motivation, the LSL had only extrinsic and instructive motivation to conduct out-of-class class learning.
Metacognitive learning strategies used for out-of-class learning
Both the SL and the LSL stated that they conducted vocabulary learning outside classes, using a vocabulary book and writing down English words recursively because their teachers valued such activities. The LSL declared that she had a pre-determined number of words to learn and write down per day, learning ten words and six idioms per day; conversely, the SL mentioned that she decided to study as many words as possible every day. Furthermore, both also revealed that they read easy English books to develop their reading skills during their out-of-class learning because the researcher emphasised the importance of comprehensible input activities in his class. Moreover, the qualitative data indicate that both the participants also listened to podcasts and watched films in English. However, they used different learning strategies for this activity. For example, the SL stated:
I always write down as many English expressions I can catch as possible while watching films and listening to podcasts in English and consult the dictionary to look up the meaning of English expressions I do not understand. Furthermore, I also sometimes shadow the speakers. (SL)
On the other hand, the LSL stated that “I watch American films with Japanese or English subtitles, depending on the difficulty of the stories. However, I rarely dictate or shadow what speakers say” (LSL). This suggests that, compared to the LSL, the SL integrated more effective learning strategies in her outside class learning.
The first research question addressed which learning strategies learners believed would be sufficient for their out-of-class learning. The data did not indicate an obvious difference in learning beliefs between the SL and the LSL. Both students stated that using a vocabulary book and conducting extensive reading and listening activities were beneficial to develop their English abilities as their teachers valued such input activities. This indicates that instructors can have a significant influence on students’ learning beliefs (Ellis, 2008a; Oxford, 1990).
The second research question concerned how the SL and the LSL took actions by following their learning beliefs. Both emphasised the importance of perseverance to develop their language abilities (see Gan, Humphreys, & Hamp-Lyons, 2004), and conducted out-of-class learning by following their beliefs; for example, by following the belief that reading easy English books is effective, the SL decided to read books outside the classroom. However, while the SL tended to be more engaged in learning by creating more opportunities to learn and practise the target language with various strategies, the LSL tended to use fewer learning strategies (see Gan, Humphreys, & Hamp-Lyons, 2004; Green & Oxford, 1995; Wen & Johnson, 1997).
Therefore, as Ellis (2008a, 2008b) and Ellis and Shintani (2014) highlight, the findings illustrate that learner beliefs do not necessarily influence learners’ engagement in learning.
The research findings indicate that although both learners had similar learning beliefs, their engagement in out-of-class learning and their use of learning strategies differed. Therefore, in this illustrative case study, it seems that learner beliefs and their engagement in the out-of-class learning did not show a strong relationship. However, various limitations in this case study, including the research design as well as the data limitation, need to be considered.
In a larger scale project, mixed methods research would be preferable in order to articulate the factors within individual differences (Ellis, 2004; Spolsky, 2000). Therefore, collecting quantitative data through the Beliefs about Language Learning Inventory (BALLI), developed by Horwitz (1988), and further qualitative data through learning diaries and integrating them would be useful to comprehend the relationship between learners’ beliefs about language learning and engagement in out-of-class learning. In this illustrative case study with two learners, on the other hand, the researcher collected only qualitative data through a survey with open-ended questions and semi-structured interviews. These two methods helped him to understand two learners’ beliefs and out-of-class learning strategies beyond what he could observe and find only in classrooms. The findings were also useful for the researcher to reconsider his teaching approach and class activities in order to help all students, including the two participants, to facilitate their strategy use during the 2017 school year.
Overall, the research findings indicated the importance of knowing about learners and thinking of ways to activate their autonomous out-of-class leaning. The case study provided the researcher with opportunities to know about students more deeply and to think about ways to activate their autonomy more effectively. Moreover, as a language teacher, he also realised the importance of considering other individual differences variables, including motivation and aptitudes, in order to help learners be successful. As instructors have can influence learners’ language learning significantly (Ellis, 2008a; Oxford, 1990), he also determined to keep developing his teaching approach in order to foster learners’ learning strategies which they utilise to achieve their learning objectives and develop their language proficiency more effectively and more efficiently (Oxford, 1990; Oxford, 2011).
Note on the contributor
Naoya Shibata is a part-time lecturer at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies and Aichi University and a part-time learning advisor at Meijo University in Japan. He is also a doctoral student at Anaheim University. His research interest includes EFL writing, content-based instruction, language testing, and learner beliefs about language learning.
Barcelos, A. M. F., & Kalaja, P. (2011). Introduction to beliefs about SLA revisited. System, 39(3), 281–289. doi:10.1016/j.system.2011.07.001
Benson, P. (2011). Teaching and researching autonomy (2nd ed). Harlow. UK: Person Education.
Dörnyei, Z., & Ryan, S. (2015). The psychology of the language learner revisited. New York. NY: Routledge.
Ellis, R. (2001). The metaphorical constructions of second language learners. In M. Breen (Ed.), Learner contributions to language learning: New directions in research (pp. 65–85). Harlow, UK: Pearson Education.
Ellis, R. (2004). Individual differences in second language learning. In C. Elder & A. Davies (Eds.), Handbook of applied linguistics (pp. 525–551). Oxford. UK: Blackwell.
Ellis, R. (2008a). Learner beliefs and language learning. Asian EFL Journal, 10(4), 7–25.
Ellis, R. (2008b). The study of second language acquisition (2nd ed). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, R., & Shintani, N. (2014). Exploring language pedagogy through second language acquisition research. New York, NY: Routledge.
Gan, Z., Humphreys, G., & Hamp-Lyons, L. (2004). Understanding successful and unsuccessful EFL students in Chinese universities. The Modern Language Journal, 88(2), 229–244. doi:10.1111/j.0026-7902.2004.00227.x
Green, J. M., & Oxford, R. L. (1995). A closer look at learning strategies, L2 proficiency, and gender. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 261–297. doi:10.2307/3587625
Horwitz, E. K. (1988). The beliefs about language learning of beginning university foreign students. The Modern Language Journal, 72(3), 283–294. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1988.tb04190.x
Horwitz, E. K. (1999). Cultural and situation influences on foreign language learners’ beliefs about language learning: A review of BALLI studies. System, 27, 557–576. doi:10.1016/S0346-251X(99)00050-0
McClelland, N. (2000). Goal orientations in Japanese college students learning EFL. In S. Cornwell & P. Robinson (Eds.), Individual differences in foreign language learning: Effects of aptitude, intelligence, and motivation (pp. 99–115). Tokyo: Aoyama Gakuin University.
McCombs, B. L. (1990). Putting the self in self-regulated learning: The self as agent in integrative will and skill. Educational Psychologist, 25, 51–69. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep2501_5
Navarro, D., & Thornton, K. (2011). Investigating the relationship between belief and action in self-directed language learning. System, 39, 290–301. doi:10.1016/j.system.2011.07.002
Noels, K. A., Pelletier, L. G., Clément, R., & Vallerand, R. J. (2003). Why are you learning a second language? Motivational orientations and self-determination theory. Language Learning, 53, 33–64. doi:10.1111/1467-9922.53223
Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston, MA: Heinle.
Oxford, R. L. (2001). “The bleached bones of a story”: Learners’ constructions of language teachers. In M. P. Breen (Ed.), Learner contributions to language learning: New direction in research (pp. 86–111). New York, NY: Longman.
Oxford, R. L. (2011). Teaching and researching language learning strategies. Harlow, UK: Person Education.
Richards, K. (2009). Interviews. In J. Heigham & R. A. Croker (Eds.), Qualitative research in applied linguistics: A practical introduction (pp. 182–199). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Ryan, S. (2018). Motivation. In J. Richards & A. Burns (Eds.), The Cambridge guide to learning English as a second language (pp. 55–62). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Spolsky, B. (2000). Anniversary article: Language motivation revisited. Applied Linguistics, 21(2), 157–169. doi:10.1093/applin/21.2.157
Wen, Q. & Johnson, R. K. (1997). L2 learner variables and English achievement: A study of tertiary-level English majors in China. Applied Linguistics, 18, 27–47. doi:10.1093/applin/18.1.27