Since the arrival of the communicative approach to teaching and learning a second language in the late 1970s, a greater number of learners have been exposed to communicative activities considered to promote fluency, in which the emphasis is on meaning as opposed to form or grammar (Alderson & Steel, 1994; Germain & Seguin, 1995; Hammerly, 1991; Masny, 1987; Mitchell & Hooper, 1991). One of the prevalent theories that led to de-emphasizing grammar- but which is no longer embraced by all - claims that providing comprehensible input, defined as language that is within the learners’ grasp of comprehension, is the only prerequisite for acquisition of a second or foreign language (Krashen, 1981).
However, the lack of linguistic accuracy of some second language learners has some researchers (DeKeyser, 1995; Ellis, 1993; Long & Robinson, 1998; Norris & Ortega, 2000; Wong, 2002) now reconsidering grammar's role in mastering a second language. The literature now suggests that some grammar instruction is widely accepted as part of second language classroom practice (Adair-Hauck et al. 2000, Pacsani, 2005). Germain and Seguin (1995) claim that grammar knowledge can help students perform better on language tests such as placement exams, and that grammatical awareness enhances learners’comprehension because it provides information required for deciphering input. In a similar vein, Swain and Lapkin (1995) state that learners who lack explicit grammar knowledge will have difficulty understanding the structure of a language (e.g., sentences may follow a subject, verb, object order or a subject, object, verb order).
Similar claims exist regarding grammar knowledge and precise aspects of second language learning. For example, in a study that examined the relationship between grammar knowledge and reading in an ESL context, Alderson (1993) found significant correlations between the variables. Although Alderson is quick to point out that the correlations should not be interpreted as indicating a causal relationship, they do point to grammar knowledge as being an important component of L2 reading. Eskey and Grabe claim that "reading requires a relatively high degree of grammatical control over structures that appear in whatever readings are given to ESL students" (1988, p. 226), while others contend that knowledge of grammar is important to second language reading (Urquhart & Weir, 1998, Grabe & Stoller, 2002). In a study with adult ESL learners, Yim (1998) examined to what extent grammar knowledge is related to the four language skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking)and found that grammar was most strongly related to reading, although the findings were not statistically significant.
In a larger study (reference to be added), I was able to show that French L2 learners’ grammar knowledge was significantly correlated to L2 proficiency (r = .33, p<.01) which was operationalized through a placement test made up of reading, cloze and listening subtests, but that it was not significantly correlated to the reading comprehension subtest when taken separately (r = .18 p<.05). This finding led me, in the current study, to examine subjects’ questionnaire responses pertaining to their reading practices in the L2 and to their perceptions of their second language reading abilities.
I was interested in determining whether student beliefs about reading and the time they had invested in L2 reading could be linked to their ability to read. Because the scope of the study reported here did not permit me to measure students’ reading ability in their mother tongue (English), this variable was not considered. While the findings stem from the examination of self-reported data pertaining to the target language and French L2 reading scores, this does not detract from the results or the study’s ability to promote a more in-depth study.
The present study addresses the following research questions which stem from the questionnaire:
Sixty-four (59 females/5 males) University of Ottawa advanced-level French L2 learners whose native language is English participated in the study. They came from intact classes and ranged between 20 and 26 years of age with a mean age of 21. The French classes in question focussed either on vocabulary acquisition, grammar, oral expression, or listening and reading comprehension.
Students enrolled in these courses are considered by the Second Language Institute (SLI) of the University of Ottawa to represent a high-intermediate to advanced-level of proficiency. This classification stems from the fact that they have either successfully completed certain prerequisite courses, or in the case of new students, placed at the advanced proficiency level according to the French Proficiency Test of the SLI (see section on Instruments for more information).
Participants completed a questionnaire (see Appendix A) as part of the larger study which provided information about the L2 learning approaches to which they had been exposed in junior high and high school (e.g., experiential versus analytical), the amount of time they had spent reading in French in junior and high school, their perception of their ability to read and their satisfaction with the emphasis that had been placed on reading in junior and high school. Although subjects were almost evenly divided between having come from an experiential or an analytical approach, due to the sample size, it was decided for the purposes of this study that analyses would be carried out on the sample as a whole.
The French Proficiency Test of the University of Ottawa was developed as a placement test for the university population, and its standards were used in the larger study as a means of determining the advanced proficiency level of participants. The skills tested are listening comprehension (three texts with 18 items), reading comprehension (three texts with 18 items), and general knowledge of vocabulary, grammar, and structure as measured by a cloze text (28 to 32 items). The test has proven to be an excellent measure of L2 proficiency in that it effectively places students in an L2 academic language learning environment where they have been shown to function and meet course demands successfully. It has a KR20 of 0.95+ as a measure of internal consistency.
The French Proficiency Test requires that learners first listen to and read different texts in French, and then select from a multiple-choice format appropriate answers to the questions presented in writing. This is followed by a cloze text using a multiple-choice format.
Subjects completed the questionnaire in class along with a grammaticality judgement test that was required for the larger study, but which is not part of the present study. The French Proficiency Test was administered on campus to groups of 3-8 participants.
In order to examine whether a relationship exists between subjects' responses on the questionnaire and test scores from the reading comprehension test, I first ran Pearson Product Coefficients and then carried out regression analyses.
|Reading subtest score||24.81||4.12||64|
|Category of hours/week spent reading in junior high||1.83||1.35||63|
|Category of hours/week spent reading in high school||2.11||1.31||63|
Note: The maximum score on the reading subtest is 30. See Appendix A for the categories of hours on the questionnaire. The mean of 1.83 category of hours refers to whether the first (1-3) second (4-6), or third etc. category was selected and corresponds to an average of 4.49 hours of reading completed per week in junior high. The mean of 2.11 category of hours for high school corresponds to an average of 5.33 hours of reading completed weekly.
With respect to the first question - Is there a relationship between students' perceptions of their ability to read and their scores on the reading sub-test of the French Proficiency Test, Pearson Product Coefficients show a positive and significant relationship between student perceptions of their ability to read and their scores on the reading sub-test of the French Proficiency Test (r =.324, p = .005). With the confirmation of a positive correlation between the variables, I then examined whether student perceptions could predict reading test scores. Student perceptions were related to their scores on the reading subtest by simple regression. The regression analysis produced an R Square of 10.5 which means that student perception explains 10.5% of the variance in the reading test scores, F (1,62) = 7.144, p< .05. The Beta value indicates that students' perception of their ability to read positively predicts their score on the reading subtest, B = 1.674 t. = -2.673 p<.05.
With respect to the second question - Is there any relationship between how much time students spent reading in junior high and their scores on the reading subtest of the French Proficiency Test, Pearson Product Coefficients did not show a significant relationship (r = -.079 p >.05) . However, when I carried out a regression analysis of the amount of reading students did in junior high and their perception of how well they read, time devoted to reading was a significant predictor of how they perceived their present reading ability. The amount of reading done in junior high explained 7% of the variance in the perception of their reading ability, F = 4.37, p <05. The Beta value indicates that the number of hours students devote to reading positively predicts their perception of their reading ability, B=1.52 t. (61) = -2.091 p<.05.
When I examined question three - Is there any relationship between how much time students spent reading in high school and their scores on the reading subtest of the French Proficiency Test, Pearson Product Coefficients again did not show a significant relationship (r = -.005 p >.05). A regression analysis of the amount of reading students did in high school and their perception of how well they read showed that time devoted to reading was again a significant predictor of how they perceived their present reading ability; the amount of reading explained 13% of the variance in the perception of their reading ability, F= 9.750, p<.05. The Beta value indicates that the number of hours students devote to reading positively predicts their perception of their reading ability, B=.225 t. (61)= -3.123 p<.005.
With respect to the fourth question: Is there any relationship between students' satisfaction with the emphasis placed on reading in junior and high school and their reading ability, Pearson Product Coefficients indicate that there is no relationship between whether a student is satisfied or not with the emphasis placed on reading and their score on the reading subtest (r =.118 p>.05.).
At first glance, these results do not reflect findings from earlier studies (Guthrie, Wigfield, Metsala & Cox, 1999; Allen, Cipielewski & Stanovich, 1992). Guthrie et al. carried out two studies on elementary and high school students which examined how well the amount of reading could predict reading comprehension, and found significant results. In a similar vein, Allen et al. showed that the amount of exposure to print significantly predicted reading ability differences with a group of elementary school learners.
In the present study, although the hours spent reading in junior high and high school could not predict the reading score, the amount of time spent reading was a significant predictor of how students perceive their ability to read which in turn is a significant predictor of their scores on the reading test.
A review of the literature on learner perceptions shows an increased interest in their perceptions of teaching techniques, teaching outcomes and classroom activities, but no studies were found that deal concretely with the question of student perceptions or beliefs in relation to their ability to read. For example, Block (1996) and Wright (1987) looked at learner perceptions of classroom tasks, while Slimani (1989) and Horwitz (1987) investigated learners' views about what resulted in learning. Others (Barkhuizen, 1998; Breen, cited in Block, 1996) have examined learner perceptions of teaching techniques that they found to be helpful.
In light of the increasing emphasis on the importance of getting learners to reflect on their learning, examining learner perceptions of what they know in relation to its manifestation (e.g., test results) is an area to be more fully explored. More research would help ground the debate over the value of investigating learner perceptions about their learning and knowledge. Nunan (1989) claims that learner perceptions must be taken into account in any truly learner-centered curriculum.
The importance of reading and the extent to which our students feel they do or do not read well is an issue that we can and should discuss with them. Here lies an opportunity for us to promote reading and to motivate our students to become more engaged in the process of reading which will benefit other language learning skills. For example, reading has been shown to be important for its role in the development of overall L2 proficiency (Horst, 2005), for its positive effect on the development of L2 learners' writing skills (Grabe, 2001; Belanger, 1991) and also because it provides the learner with authentic communication (Krashen, 1993). Furthermore, for learners who want to progress beyond basic oral communication skills, research suggests that reading is instrumental to the development of their lexicons (Horst, 2005). Knutson (1997) claims that using texts, an excellent source of input, is a way to draw learners’ attention both to form and to meaning.
Consequently, it seems reasonable to claim that helping learners develop their reading skills by activating their world knowledge, providing them with a reason to read and showing them how to monitor their comprehension would help build their confidence and ultimately their ability to read - a view for which this exploratory study provides support.
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1. Circle the grades in which you have participated in some form of French Immersion:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Circle the grades in which you have been part of a Core French Program which refers to having studied French for approximately 200 minutes per week (i.e. one 40 minute lesson per day)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
3. Circle the category of hours which you think you would have spent reading in French on an average per week in junior high school.
1 - 3 ; 4 - 6 ; 7 - 9 ; 10 - 12 ; 13 - 15
4. Circle the category of hours which you think you would have spent reading in French on an average per week in high school.
1 - 3 ; 4 - 6 ; 7 - 9 ; 10 - 12 ; 13 - 15
5. In grades 7 or 8, teachers devoted the following amount of time to French grammar ( tick one of the following)
6. In grades 9-13, teachers devoted the following amount of time to French grammar - (tick one of the following)
Below are statements which refer to your French Second Language learning experiences after elementary school as well as statements about how you feel about your knowledge of French. Select 1. if you strongly agree with the statement ; Select 2. if you more or less agree with the statement; Select 3. if you disagree with the statement ; Select 4. if you strongly disagree with the statement.
7. Outside of the time-span selected in question (5.) and regarding the same grades, my French classes and/or classes conducted in French focused on meaning and (e.g. little or no correction of speakers’errors), group work, speaking in the French language, student involvement.
8. Outside of the time-span selected in question (6.), and regarding the same grades, my French classes and/or classes conducted in French focused on the teacher drawing attention to the structure of the French language, correction of errors, speaking in English, not much student involvement.
9. I feel that enough emphasis was placed on reading throughout junior and high school.
10. I feel that I read well enough.