Vietnamese College Students Engagement In Reading Activities Cultural Studies Essay

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At any time in the human history, reading has always been considered as an essential need of human life. It is also undeniable that despite the rapid advance of technology with the inventions of televisions, video, audiotapes and quick transmission of information, reading materials of all kinds is still of great significance. Moreover, the demand of getting needed, fresh and latest information calls for proper reading skills with appropriate materials and tasks. That is the very first reason for me to choose to do research on teaching reading.

The second reason for my research is the demanding requirement of my students' future jobs - to work with English reading in most of their future working time as engineers of Information Technology. However, it is the fact that in most of my reading classes, many students are not deeply engaged in the lessons, which leads to their low level of assigned tasks' completion and small improvement of skill proficiency. Some of them even say to me that the lessons are boring and not interested enough for them to engage in. One of the problems they listed is inappropriate or irrelevant tasks. Then, an issue emerges: how to improve those reading tasks to encourage the students to engage in my reading lessons. To my point of view, the answer lies in "meaningful" tasks which might be the cai dich ma moi gv deu co gang thuc hien.

The last but not least reason is that it is not easy to find a research on "meaninful tasks". Researchers have done researches on "meaningful learning" (Yelland, 2000; Mayer, 2002 and Ashburn & Floden, 2006), "meaningful assessment" (Johnson & Johnson, 2002; Brantley, 2005 and Musical et al, 2008), "meaningful contexts" of learning (Kramsch, 2000 and Almasi, 2003), etc and some have mentioned the term "meaningful tasks" (Nunan, 1989; Foertsch, 1992; Ohashi & Ohashi, 1993 and Richards & Rodgers, 2001). However, it is hard to find any previous studies which do research thoroughly on meaningful tasks, especially in the context of English teaching and learning in Vietnam in general and in the reading classes in particular.

All the above-stated reasons have given me the motive to choose the topic "Using meaningful tasks to increase Vietnamese College non-major students' engagement in extensive reading activities".

Statement of research questions

This study aims at finding answers to the following research questions:

What do "meaningful" reading tasks look like in a Vietnamese college non-major classroom?

How can such tasks be implemented to increase Vietnamese non-major students' engagement in extensive reading activities?

Both the questions are addressed to one of the reading classes that I am teaching this term in College of Technology, Hanoi National University with the aim to find the tasks that are more meaningful and appropriate for my students to engage them more in the extensive reading activities.

Structure of the report

This research report is divided into three main parts. Part 1, Introduction, introduce the reasons why I chose this topic and present the research questions of the study. The second part, Literature review, provides the background knowledge for the study which is summarized and synthesized from the previous studies related to the topic. The next two part, Context and Methods and methodology, describe the language situation and the procedure in which the study is carried out. Part V presents the results of the study analysis and part VI is about its strengths and weaknesses. Finally, part VII ends the report with a review of the whole study and suggestions for further research.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Overview of reading process

Reading is a very natural and common habit which plays a very important role in human's modern life. People read everyday, everywhere and for many reasons. Some may read in order to obtain information, some just read for pleasure, some read for language improvement and some may read to complete some certain task (Foertsch, 1992). Consequently, to teach reading in a language class means to teach learners how to obtain the information they need in a foreign or second language, how to entertain with what they read, how to learn the language components through reading and lastly how to complete a task by reading.

Definitions of reading process

'Reading' is defined mostly based on its importance to human life.

Smith claims that reading is "the most natural activity" that people use to "encounter" everything in the world (2004, p.2). Differently, Holden (2004) considers it as an important gateway to personal development, to social, economic and civic life. From this perspective, it is seen as a bridge between human and the world without which people cannot become active and informed citizens.

Anthony & Richards look at reading process in a more complicated way when they define reading as an "active, interactive, productive and cognitive process" in which the reader is actively searching for and later, interacting with the information by deeply involving or engaging in the process of reading (1976).

Reading in language classes

In language classes, especially foreign language classes, reading is among the four most important skills that learners need to improve for the language building and improvement. Learners in those classes are expected to read so that they can firstly practice by experiencing the language they are learning in texts. Furthermore, they are expected to learn how to make sense of texts, for example by learning to extract, summarizing or synthesizing the information they need from them as what they do to texts in their real life (Williams, 1984). In other words, besides the first and foremost purpose of language development, reading classes target at all other reading skills that students need to know in their real life reading.

For such those different goals, reading are taught differently in different contexts. It can be taught by sub-skills (for example, skimming or scanning) or by types or reading (extensively or intensively) or by techniques (receptively or responsively). In this study, I just do research in my extensive reading classes.

Extensive reading

Extensive reading is one of two kinds that are used in language classes to teach students to read. Different from the other kind - intensive reading - which involves a close study of reading texts, extensive reading is the kind of reading which mainly aims at the fluency and motivation of students. Extensive reading is also different from intensive reading in that the main purpose of extensive reading is for pleasure (Waring, 1997). It is necessary to note that reading for pleasure does not solely mean reading for fun or entertainment. Reading for pleasure in extensive reading also refers to reading that we do of our own free because we are interested in it and thus we read with satisfaction (Clark & Rumbold, 2006). In other words, extensive reading is a learner-driven activity in which learners are the ones who decide what to read, where to read, when to read and how long to read (Davidson, 2005). Thus, it is said to improve learners' attitudes and motivations towards reading.

Even though extensive reading is primarily for out-of-class activity, it is also used potentially as an in-class activity in a flexible way to make reading more "meaningful". However, it is different from out-of-class activity which require readers few or no task to complete after reading (Davidson, 2005). In those in-class extensive reading activities, students are often asked to complete some kinds of tasks that facilitate firstly their understanding of texts and then their language learning improvement.

Tasks

Definitions of tasks

'Task' has been defined variously in different researches. It is defined generally as "a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward" in everyday life (Long, 1985, p.89); or more specifically and more linguistically as uses of language in the real world beyond the classroom (i.e. real world tasks or target tasks) and those that occur pedagogically in the classroom (i.e. pedagogical tasks) (Nunan, 2006). Pedagogically, it is defined as any structured language learning "endeavor" or simply any activity or action with a particular objective, appropriate content, a specified working procedure, and a range of outcomes (Richards, Platt & Weber, 1986, p.289 and Breen, 1987, p. 23). All in all, tasks are used in language classrooms in some ways, for some reasons just to foster language learning and practice.

Meaningful extensive reading tasks

Although many language educators and teachers (Nunan, 1989; Foertsch, 1992; Ohashi & Ohashi, 1993 and Richards & Rodgers, 2001) have mentioned the term 'meaningful tasks' with its great advantage of stimulating learners' interest and increasing their level of involvement in learning, it is not an easy to find answer for the question: 'What are meaningful tasks?'

'Meaningful' is a "difficult" adjective that is 'rarely' used because of its abstract and flexible meaning. In general, 'meaningfulness' refers to 'usefulness', 'seriousness' or 'importance' (Brown et al, 2000) and those can only be meanings of 'meaningfulness' in certain situations. For example, a one-cent coin may mean everything to a poor person but nothing to a person who is rich. Then we can say that this coin is "meaningful" to the poor one and "meaningless" to the rich.

In the light of language teaching and learning, the situation is a little bit different. Ohashi and Ohashi parallel "meaningful" to "communicative" (1993, p.59). In their opinion, any aspect in language teaching and learning that is considered 'meaningful' must have a reason itself for the exchange of information in communication. For example, in real-life communication, we communicate because we want to, we have to or we need to. Similarly, in class activities, students should do things that they really want to or should be required to do things that they may have to or need to do in their future communication. That is the meaningfulness of language learning as well as language teaching.

After more than ten years, Ashburn & Floden (2006) has a more detailed idea of "meaningful" learning when they characterize the term with clearly and intentionally articulated learning goals, learning aspects centralized to content, learning tasks focused on authenticity, active learning, construction of cognitive models of content embedded within learning tasks and finally collaborative work in learning tasks. All the above features are claimed to be interdependent and related to the design of learning tasks.

To conclude, to make the language learning and teaching more meaningful, firstly, it is necessary to make the learning tasks, in this case the extensive reading tasks, more meaningful. This can be done by putting into the centre of teaching process (1) the learners themselves (including learning purposes, level of proficiency, learning attitudes and preferences, etc.) and (2) the learning contexts.

Engagement in learning

Engagement in learning is one of the most important conditions that lead to the success of learning and teaching. It is defined as the frequency of students' participations and involvement in learning activities both in and outside the classroom and counted by the amount of time and effort students spend on the activities in order to achieve some certain experiences and outcomes (Barkley, 2010). In this work, Barkley also discusses more specifically on engagements of college students, according to which, engagement means (1) the thorough care of students about what they are learning, excessive expectations and further working on what they are required to learn and (2) the involvement of students in academic tasks by using higher-order thinking skills such as analyzing information or solving problems. The two meanings are closely related respectively to students' "motivation" and "activel learning". He concludes that "student engagement is a process and a product that is experienced on a continuum and results from the synergistic interaction between motivation and active learning" (p.8) and illustrated by a diagram as follows.

This means that student engagement is generated in the overlap of motivation and active learning without any of which, students are not said to be engaged or to have possibilities to be engaged in learning. Therefore, in general, in order to increase students' engagement, it is necessary to increase both students' motivation and active learning which are said to be influenced by each other.

Engagement in reading classes

The engagement of reading classes depends on more detailed aspects of reading teaching and learning which are discussed thoroughly by Guthrie & Cox (2001) and Edmunds & Bauserman (2006). According to those, in order to engage learners more in reading classes, we need to take the followings in considerations: learners' learning and knowledge goals in close relations with real-world interactions, learners' interests and levels (chances for personal choice of topics/ tasks), learning attitudes and strategies and also the methods of text and task exploitation based on all above conditions.

CONTEXT

Broad contexts

Like in other English classes in Hanoi and some other parts of Vietnam, English classes at College of Technology where I am teaching have witnessed great changes of English teaching and learning.

English: An essential preparation for future vs. A school subject

Nowadays, English becomes more and more popular in all fields of works, especially in the area of Technology, the major of the research participants. Being well aware of this, the College has promoted a priority policy for English teaching and learning (20 periods per week for English) thanks to which most of the students are fully conscious of its importance and consider English learning a necessity for their preparation for their future careers. Actually, many of them have their own practical purpose for learning English which is no longer just a school subject that they have to "suffer".

Communicative approach vs. grammatical approach

In recent years, English is taught communicatively instead of grammatically as ten years ago when the focus of English teaching and learning was on grammar and vocabulary. What students had to do was to learn by heart all the meanings of words and structures so that they could complete the required exercises or pass some obligatory exams. Sometimes their teachers asked them to translate sentences from English into Vietnamese and vice versa just to ensure that they had learnt all the words and structures well.

In our College English classes in recent years, it is difficult to find any class in which the teacher just teaches the students the structures of English sentences all the time like that. Instead, we try to teach our students the skills of communication, i.e. speaking, listening, reading and writing. Grammar and vocabulary are now taught as the essential materials for the smooth of communication.

Learner-centered Approach vs. Teacher-centered Approach

As teaching approach has been moved from grammatical one to communicative one, the centre of teaching and learning are also moved from the teachers to the learners as well. In the past, when we focused on grammar and vocabulary only, most of the class time was for the teachers' mono-talk to deliver the meaning of new words or the theory of new structures. The students were not given chances to discover the new things themselves. But in the new approach of teaching and learning, we place the students at the centre of the process in which the learners' purposes of learning, their level of proficiency, their learning attitudes ad preferences, their learning methods and strategies, etc. are all taken into considerations. We give them more chances to explore and to practice the language they learn by putting them in communicative situations in which they use the language to communicate with the teachers or with each others in pair or group works.

Use of multi-media in teaching

The last but not least innovative change that we try to make in recent years is to utilize multi-media facilities in our English teaching and learning. We use not only the tape or CD players to play pieces of recordings in listening lessons but other high technology equipments like laptops and head projectors to display other multi-media presentations. The Internet is also exploited as the valuable and unlimited source of information and language materials for language lessons.

With so many innovative changes in just more than one decade, we, teachers of English are now trying our best to improve our own skills and qualifications in order to meet the demanding requirements of learning and teaching.

Narrow context

The research is held an English class at College of Technology, Hanoi National University. It is a class of 30 students at low pre-intermediate level of English proficiency. As they are in an international-standard program (as it is called by the College), the students are expected to get band 6.0 of IELTS after 900 periods of studying English at college. English, then, is one of the only two obligatory subjects (the other is Math) that the students study during this first semester at college. Actually, they study 20 fifty-minute periods per week which are divided equally for 4 skills (i.e. reading, listening, speaking and writing) and pronunciation.

As in the curriculum, the four lessons for reading are allocated in two separate afternoons. One is for topic and vocabulary introduction with an intensive reading in the course book New Cutting Edge Pre-Intermediate. The other is for free or extensive reading practice and a reading test. In those extensive reading classes, students are asked to find texts related to the topic of the previous class and then in turn (actually assigned) to present their readings in front of the class. In the presentation, students are required to give a short summary of what they have read, introduce some new words (at least five), and finally ask their classmates some questions, gap-filling or True - False exercises to check their understandings. A mark will be given as a part of learning assessment. The result is that most of them do the task as an obligation to get the needed mark. Some put much attention and effort to do the task while most of the others do it reluctantly. Some even asks their friends who are better at English to do the task for them. The situation is even worse from the perspective of the audience in every presenation lesson.

From the light of such above-mentioned innovative changes in English teaching and learning in Vietnam, it is realized that the activity has given the students some tasks to complete and actually has already put the learners in the central position of the learning process. In fact, the activity has given them the opportunities to choose the texts of their interest and at their level of proficiency. At this point, the texts sound meaningful to them. However, the final task of giving questions or exercises to the audience to check understandings and the outcomes of marks put the presenters in pressure and a fake situation to complete. As above-mentioned, they are studying English to facilitate their career of IT engineers in the futures, not presenters or lecturers. So checking the audience's understanding by asking questions or exercises has no meaning to them. As a result, they seem not to engage in the activity but do it reluctantly as an obligation.

Aware of all those problems and acknowledged the advantages of using "meaningful tasks", I would like to propose some tasks that I think might be 'meaningful' to my students in order to engage them more in my extensive reading class. Instead of asking only two students to find texts a week, I ask all the students to find texts that are related to the given topic and must be of their interest. They all have to summary the readings and send the summaries to me two days before the class. Then, my task is to look through all the summaries and choose five of them to be the materials for the class. Based on those five summaries, five forms of information gap-filling are designed for students to complete. In the class, instead of asking the students whose summaries are selected to present in front of the whole class, I ask them to present in groups of 6 students (grouped randomly). The other members of the groups are given gap-filling forms to fill in the needed information. After 10 minutes, all the forms are handed in to be marked or not (it depends). Then, in my point of view, the task become more meaningful because the presenters have the reasons to present and the audience have the reason to listen and consequently may engage my students more.

METHODS AND METHODOLOGY

Methods of research

The research is done qualitatively in the context of a 30-student English class as above-mentioned and two research methods, i.e. observation and interview, are chosen to collect the needed data.

I choose observation since it is proved to be a useful tool for data collection from actual processes of language teaching and learning (Hopkins, 1985 and Peacock, 1997). With the technique of note-taking (both during and after the lessons) and a voice recorder, I plan to observe extensive reading activities in two of my reading lessons. In the first lesson, I use old tasks as usual and in the other one, I implemente new tasks which I think might be more meaningful to my students. I choose note-taking and voice recorder instead of using video recorder to avoid the presence of another person, which may affect the usual process of learning and teaching.

The second method I use in this research is interviews with students via yahoo messenger which I suppose to reveal more about the students' opinions and attitudes towards the two kinds of tasks. I choose to chat with them via yahoo messenger firstly because I often chat with them before to help them with their learning. Moreover, in my experience, when we chat, we talk as friends and they can easily express what they really think about the lessons. This seems to be difficult to happen when we talk face to face as the teacher and students or as the researcher and participants. As they are just low pre-intermediate students of English, it is not possible for them to express their ideas about the lessons in English. Thus, we chat in our mother tongue - Vietnamese. The interviews are then recorded and translated into English.

Procedure

As a matter of ethics, the whole procedure of teaching and learning is implemented similarly to all students of the class after all of them give consent to be part of the research. However, due to the limit of the study, I only focus to observe and record the learning engagement of four students (who I call anonymously in this report as A, B, C and D as a matter of ethics) in the two lessons as the data for analysis. Those four students are chosen because of their performance in the chosen lessons as well as the previous one. In the first lesson, A and B are in turn the presenters as assigned at the beginning of the course while C and D are the audience in the whole lesson. In the second lesson, they were assigned the same tasks.

The interviews are also conducted with only those four students to explore the reasons for their different performance in the lessons. However, the interviews are carried out at different time depended on the online time of each student.

ANALYSIS AND FINDINGS

Data analysis

In general, there is great difference of my students' engagement in reading activities of the two lessons.

Analysis of data from the first lesson

As I observed, the level of students' engagement is not very high in the first lesson. Actually, only A and B are recorded to be engaged in the lesson when they present in front of the class. However, their engagement decreases when they are in the position of the audience. Low engagement of C and D as the audience is also easily observed during the presentation.

More specifically, A seems to work very hard to read his text and tries to summarize it creatively in his own ways by using pictures and the help of Microsoft PowerPoint Software to facilitate his explanations. He moves around class, asked his classmates questions during and after the presentation to make his friends involved in his presentation. The result is: many of his classmates are totally involved in his presentation by asking and answering questions. However, some of them, including B, C and D, seem to ignore him and his presentation by focusing on something on their desks and talking to each other. Their low engagement is more clearly revealed when they cannot answer my question related to the content of the presentation.

When B presents, the situation is slight different. This time, B shows higher engagement than he did some minutes ago. He tries his best to read, summarize and present the text to his classmates although his reading presentation is not as good as A's. A still has a relatively high engagement during the presentation. However, sometimes he has some personal talk with the student next to him. During this second presentation, C and D does not talk to each other as in the previous presentation, but their engagement is still low because instead of talking to each other, they say nothing, just sit there, ask nothing and answer nothing.

Besides the above problems of low engagement, this activity gives no or just little chances of reading (reading of slides or questions given by the presenters) to most of the students except for the presenters who were already assigned to present at the beginning of the semester. Instead, what most of them mainly practice in the lesson is listening.

Analysis of data from the second lesson

In this lesson, it is noted that most of students are highly engaged in the activity. This is revealed by the forms handed in from the students. Most of them are filled although in some forms, there are still some Vietnamese words. Regarding the four selected students to be focus on in the analysis, it is noticed that their engagement also generally increases.

A still keeps a high level of engagement as usual as the result of high learning motivation which is later revealed from the interview. In fact, he talks (actually asks) most of the time, even more than the presenter of the group in order to complete the task of filling required information. He sometimes helps the presenter to express his ideas.

According to the observation, B, C and D are also more engaged in the activity. As they are forced to complete the task in only 10 minutes, they spend all that given time asking and talking about the reading in their groups (B and D in the same group and C in another). The forms they hand in also reveal their increased engagement in the tasks. They complete most of the questions even though one or two answers are similar to those of some members' in their groups. All in all, it must be noted that they did make a great improvement of engagement in the lesson.

Analysis of data from the interview

The information from the interviewed reveals the reasons for the different engagement of four students in the two lessons. In fact, among the four, only A's engagement is high because he is the only one who really wants to learn English and has high motivation to learn English. He says that he learns English firstly to prepare for his future career in which he knows that he will have to read much in English. He also knows that he will have to do research and present different topics in his major in the later part of the university program, thus, he always tries his best in all tasks he is assigned.

For B, C, D, even though they know the importance of English in their future careers, they just learn English with a short-term target: to pass the final exam of the semester in which they have to do no task like reading summarization or presentation. Consequently, their engagement is hard to be high in such previous kinds of tasks.

The interviews also reveals that all four students like the new tasks more because all of them have to choose something to read every week which may help them to improve their English faster. It is different from the other lesson when assessment is only for the two presenters in the lesson but not for the audience. They also like the new tasks more because in those tasks they work in small groups where they feel more confident and thus, more comfortable to communicate with each other. Then, the task to get needed information, discuss or share ideas related to the reading has more possibility to be completed. And because of this, they say that the tasks are more meaningful for all of them than the previous lessons when one has to stand in front of the class and present and the others do nothing.

Through the interviews, the students also suggest me some of their ideas that can make the tasks more meaningful to them. For example, they say that it would be better if this kind of task is located in the last lesson of the four lessons of the week. In the other lessons, they want to learn the vocabulary of the topic, the reading skills and in-class reading activities so that they can prepare well for the tests at the end of the semester.

Findings

According to the data analysis from the two lessons, it can be personally concluded that

the most important feature that makes my students to engage more in the lesson is the kind of assessment which forces them to learn although the meaningfulness of tasks also more or less affect the level of engagement

the most meaningful tasks to my students are tasks that can help them to pass the tests at the end of the semester not tasks that give them reasons to communicate as I expected

REFLECTIONS

This study has given me a chance to know more about my students, about what goes wrong with them when they are not engaged in my reading class. In the study, I also have chance to access a number of researches of many experienced language educators and teachers, from which I obtain new knowledge of language teaching and learning in general and knowledge of meaningful tasks in teaching extensive reading in particular.

During the research, I also learn more about the methods of doing research in a scientific way. Firstly, I learn to look at the situation of my English teaching and learning critically and make research questions with the hope of improving it. I also learn to arrange and organize my ideas and my work systematically to fit the timetable of the research procedure. But the most important thing is that I learn how to put my background knowledge into the knowledge repertoire of related previous studies to have a broader view of the situation and to make my research skills (such summarizing and synthesizing) useful by activating them creatively and critically.

However, the research still has some drawbacks regarding the methods of data collection and analysis that I might change in my next research if I have more time. Firstly, instead of just doing the research on 2 lessons, I intend to do research from the beginning of the semester so that my students not only have chances to choose the texts themselves but also have chances to choose the topics they are interested in. Moreover, when I observe them in the whole semester, the effect of other aspects like the pressure of testing, the emotion of learners, etc. can be avoided and thus, the data I collect may become more reliable. Secondly, instead of interviewing my students after the research, I will interview them during the research, which may give me more chances to adjust my lessons to be more suitable and meaningful to them.

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