The Role Of Portfolio Project In Teaching Compliments Education Essay

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Adopting Allen's (2004) constructivist seven steps, this study investigates the effect of cultural portfolio on students' awareness and performance of speech acts. More specifically, the paper is interested in the applicability of culture as process theory to teaching of compliment responses. Data were collected from 19 upper-intermediate students of a language school during a seven-week semester. Pretest-posttest design informed the study in assessing the performance of participants. To measure the students' pragmatic competence, an oral DCT was administered for each student before and after portfolio treatment. Weekly reports were employed to qualitatively examine students' awareness of compliment responses in their own and English cultures. Results revealed the effective role of portfolio project on cultural learning regarding compliment responses in both performance and awareness of participants. Paired sampled t-tests revealed that the portfolio project had positive effects on the students' speeches with regard to 'appropriateness of amount of speech and information given', 'level of formality', 'directness' and 'politeness'; while, it had negative effects on their performance in terms of 'typicality of expression'. These findings imply the significant role portfolio may have in students learning when used in EFL classrooms.

1. Introduction

Learning about culture of other languages has always been a significant goal in language learning process. It is a well-established fact that learning grammar or acquiring linguistic accuracy is not enough in intercultural communications. To avoid misunderstanding and confusion in international communications, it is necessary to improving intercultural understanding. Due to the importance of culture learning, finding an effective way to teach culture is also of considerable value.

This study starts with a brief introduction on culture, culture-learning and culture as a process theory which informed the framework of the research. It continues to explain about portfolios and their role in teaching culture. After the framework has been established, the study describes methodology in which Allen's (2004) steps are employed as the procedure of this research. It then followed by results, discussion and conclusion.

2. Establishing the framework

Culture has been considered as "the etiquette" of a society (Prodromou, 1992, p. 41), the "observed behavior ... a manifestation of a deeper set of codes and rules ... what the individual needs to know to be a functional member of the community" (Saville-Troike, 1993, p. 7). Generally it has been defined as a set of values, ideas, beliefs, expectations, attitudes and rituals that are shared among members of a community. The importance of culture learning lies in the awareness individuals gained about their own native culture and the appreciations they get for other cultures and different cultural perspectives (Robinson-Stuart & Nocon, 1996). However, mastering a culture may not be as easy and straight forward as learning a language of a group of people. The literature on cultural studies reveals three main theoretical perspectives regarding the acquisition of culture. In the first perspective, culture learning was viewed as a "magic-carpet- ride-to-another-culture" (Robinson, 1978). It was believed that target language study automatically will lead to the acquisition of target culture and eventually to intercultural understanding without any specific teaching. The second approach defined culture as a set of cognitive facts to be mastered (Brooks, 1975). This approach viewed culture as a static product. Therefore, culture was composed of classifiable phenomenon and facts which were learned passively by learners during cultural studies. The most recent approach, inspired by constructivists, looks at culture learning as a process. A process of perceiving, discovering, meaning making and social interactions in which learners become aware of different cultural perspectives, come to terms with differences and variations and integrate those differences positively into their own cultural perspectives (Paige, 1993).

An effective way to "help learners recognize their own complex cultural microcosmos, and to offer learners ample opportunities to develop skills to investigate cultural complexity (how to ask questions, what questions to ask), and to promote cultural curiosity (the desire to ask questions)" (Abrams, 2002, p. 142), might be the use of culture portfolio project in class. Portfolios as a portrait of students' current knowledge and potentials, present a multidimensional view of what students have gained over time; emphasizing on self-reflection and participations, portfolios combine the context of instruction and assessment (Allen, 2004). Portfolios are said to encourage collaboration, discussion, critical thinking, evaluation and employment of several sources of evidence (Schulz, 2007). The benefits of crafting a portfolio project in EFL classrooms have been proved in various subject areas: reading and writing skills (Gentile, 1992; O'Malley & Pierce, 1992 ; Valencia, McGinley, & Pearson, 1990) cultural awareness (Lee, 1997; Schulz, 2007; Su, 2011a, 2011b), attitude (Robinson-Stuart & Nocon, 1996), stereotypes (Allen, 2004; Byon, 2007). Valencia, McGinley, & Pearson (1990) took a portfolio based approach in assessing reading and writing of students in middle school years. They found that the records of students in functional and contextualized tasks of portfolio were of more value to both teachers and students than those of normal testing.

In her study, Lee (1997) employed a portfolio project in order to improve students' Hispanic cultural awareness while they were developing the four communication skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Students were required to choose a topic of their interest related to Hispanic culture, search for information regarding their topic in different cultural sources such as internet, TV, magazine, newspapers, videotapes and audiotapes, write a journal entry about their findings and finally share their results by an in-class presentation. The study revealed that portfolio had an effective way in improvement of students' cultural knowledge as well as linguistic abilities. In another study, Su (2011a) designed a culture portfolio project to develop students' cultural awareness of their own and foreign culture as well as improve students' attitude toward cultural learning. The findings showed that the active process of constructing knowledge experienced in portfolio project instead of old way of memorizing cultural facts could improve students' cultural learning. It seemed portfolio project was effective in promoting students' attitude since the move from ethnocentric to non-ethnographic attitude, embracing cultural differences, was evident in students' comments.

Employing ethnographic interview technique to improve positive attitude toward speakers of Spanish, Robinson-Stuart & Nocon (1996) indicated the positive effect of teaching culture through portfolio assignment. They reported that the project promoted students' attitudes and cultural awareness of their own and local Spanish speakers. In addition, implementing a constructivist seven step portfolio project toward cultural understanding, Allen (2004) enhanced students' perception of stereotypes in their own and a foreign culture. Students were required to identify their own stereotypes regarding culture of French speakers, conduct researches and investigations in order to test their hypotheses, reject or affirm hypotheses by the evidence they gained and finally share their results by an oral presentation in class. According to Allen (2004) these processes assisted students' critical thinking to the extent that they obtained an ability to view other cultures with respect.

Byon (2007) took Allen's (2004) seven steps and Jorstad's (1981) hypothesis refinement activity as basic frameworks in his study. His purpose was to investigate how culture portfolio project could influence the knowledge of American college students about Korean culture. The result of a semester long portfolio project revealed students' enhancement of intercultural awareness and their recognition of the dynamic nature of culture. The study also assisted students to perceive the possible effect of their own first language perspective on their interpretation of a foreign culture. Therefore, they became watchful in viewing and learning about a new culture.

Even though a lot of studies have been done regarding the role of portfolio project on cultural understanding, the role of portfolio on the communicative competence of EFL learners has remained untouched. To fill this gap, this study was designed to examine the applicability of culture as process theory to teaching of speech act. Furthermore, the study was interested in the effect of portfolio project on students' performance and awareness of compliment responses. The following research questions were proposed:

Does portfolio project have a positive effect on the students' performance in compliment responses?

Does portfolio project have a positive effect on the students' awareness of compliment responses?

3. Methodology

3.1. Participants

Nineteen intermediate students of upper-intermediate English participated in the study. The participants were all female with an average age of 22 in Kish language school in Iran. All students had a background of studying English for at least two years in the language school and none of them had an experience of living or visiting an English speaking country.

3.2. Procedure

The cultural project was held during a seven-week semester. The class met three times a week for 270 minutes. The cultural project was worth 20% of students' final exam. To measure the students' pragmatic competence regarding compliment response, an oral DCT (appendix A) taken from Lorenzo-Dus (2001) was administered for each student on the first session as a kind of pretest. Their responses were transcribed and rated with the score range of 1 to 10 for each of the following scales: a) ability to use the correct speech act b) typicality of expressions c) appropriateness of amount of speech and information given d) level of formality e) directness and f) politeness (Cohen., 2004, p. 309). After the seven-week portfolio project the same DCT was administered as posttest and the same scoring procedure was taken for each of the 6 items mentioned above.

In order to qualitatively examine the students' awareness of compliment responses in their own and English cultures, weekly reports were employed in the last session of each week. Students were asked to write a report describing what they went through during the week for their completion of portfolio. Also they were required to write about their new findings concerning cultural aspects of compliment responses.

3.3. Portfolio project

This study adopted Allen's (2004) steps in improving students' competence of compliment responses by means of portfolio projects. The project is explained below.

Step 1. Students perceive an aspect of the culture (here compliment response) through learning materials, teacher presentation, or other source.

During the first 2 weeks students were required to identify their perception of compliment response and its function in interpersonal communications. Following Schmidt (1990) noticing hypothesis, students were asked to give their definition of compliment responses. Some of their responses concerning the completion of the sentence "Compliment response is…" are presented below:

a response to a compliment!

something we say to please the person who compliments us

is a 'have to' to a compliment.

is an extension to a compliment.

is another compliment.

is a polite way of telling a lie back to someone.

The function and different forms compliment responses can get in English speech were also discussed. Therefore, students could get a better concept of speech acts. Since "Language and society are so intertwined that it is impossible to understand one without the other " (Chaika, 1989, p. 2), Sapir-Whorf or linguistic relativity theory was presented in the class. The possible effect of culture on individual thought and on the formation and expression of speech act was explained and some broad examples were offered.

Step 2. Students make a statement about the speech act of compliment response as a result of this perception.

Participants in groups wrote some possible compliment responses to series of compliments presented by the teacher. Since hypothesis making is primary goal in culture learning as a process (Damen, 1987, p. 62), students then asked to form some hypotheses regarding the possible responses of compliment and its different strategies in different situations. The majority of hypotheses stated by students were as follow:

English people accept most compliments.

English people prefer short replies to compliments.

'Thanks' is the most comment response to a compliment in every situation.

Compliments are mostly about appearance in English society.

English men and women compliment each other on their appearance even when they do not know each other well.

There is not much detail in responses to compliments.

Step 3. Students seek multiple sources of information about the statement such as newspapers, movies, slides, books, as well as other media, realia, and native speaker informants.

Students were encouraged to watch several English movies and animations, search into stories, newspapers and magazines in order to find examples of compliment responses in different situations. They were also introduced to some English chat rooms and forums which enabled them to have some e-mail exchanges with key pals.

Step 4. Students question and compare their sources, examining them for potential limitations, such as publication date, intended audience, and purpose.

Every week students were required to report what they had done so far in a one-page report. In the fourth week they had a discussion about their different sources of information and their limitations. In groups, they also shared what they had gained through the sources regarding their hypotheses. As in Allen (2004) this step involves critical thinking since students evaluated each other's sources of information and made decisions about the reliabilities of sources. Moreover, they examined their hypotheses in the light of their data in order to support or reject them.

Step 5. Students modify the statement in step 2 and continue to seek additional information that can refine the statement further.

In groups, students were mainly engaged in their evaluation or modification of their hypotheses according to their obtained data. By scrutinizing the results, students could get additional information to direct more their research regarding the hypothesis. The weekly report, as Allen (2004) stated, involved students in critical thinking which is a requirement of this step.

Step 6. Students examine a related feature of their own culture using the same process.

As understanding a foreign culture requires comparison and reflection on the two cultures (Zawadzka, 2004, p. 191), students were asked to rewrite the hypotheses regarding their own speech community. Therefore, a hypothesis like "English people prefer short replies to compliments" changed into "Iranians prefer short replies to compliments". After gathering all hypotheses, their truth and validity were put into a discussion among groups in class. Students were then required to take notes of the results and look for more information in online magazines, weblogs, newspapers, books and movies to be able to reject or affirm their hypotheses by bringing some examples.

Step 7. Students compare their refined statements about their own culture and the target culture, describing similarities and differences they found.

At this stage, considering the amount of information students have gained, they were able to reject or affirm their hypotheses and indicate similarities and differences regarding compliment responses in both their own and English cultures. To share the result, students prepared some lectures accompanied by some role plays demonstrating compliment responses in different situations in Persian and English cultures. This leaded to acceptance or rejection of their hypotheses. Some of the results are as follow:

English people accept more compliments than us Iranians.

English people prefer short replies to compliments in comparison to Iranians.

'Thanks' is one of the strategies used in compliment responses.

Compliments can be offered about anything in English society just like Iranians.

It is not common that English men and women compliment each other on their appearance when they do not know each other well.

There can be some details in responses to compliments in English especially when two people are close friends.

4. Results

4.1. Students' performance in compliment responses

As indicated earlier, this study was designed to investigate the role of portfolio on the communicative competence of Iranian EFL learners. In order to examine the effect of portfolio treatment on the students' performance of compliment responses, paired sample t-tests were run on each of the 6 scales of: A) ability to use the correct speech act B) typicality of expressions C) appropriateness of amount of speech and information given D) level of formality E) directness and F) politeness (Cohen., 2004, p. 309). Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics for each of the six scales and the participants' scores which range from 1 to 10. In addition, Table 2 shows the results of the paired sample t-tests.

Table 1 shows that there was not a special difference between the mean scores of pretest (M=6.21) and posttest (M=6.05) with regard to the first scale which is the ability to use the correct speech act (A). Moreover, t-test results reported in Table 2 reveal no significant difference between pretest and posttest scores (t = .766, p > 0.05) of this scale. Therefore, there was no change in the 'ability to use the correct speech act'.

With regard to the second scale which is typicality of expression (B), Table 1 shows a decrease in the students' scores from pretest to posttest which revealed to be significant in Table 2 (t = 2.73, p < 0.05). As a result, 'typicality of expression' had a decrease after the portfolio treatment and students employed more varieties in their responses.

As reported in Table 1, students' scores increased after the treatment in all other 4 scales (C, D, E, F). Additionally, t-test results revealed that all these changes were statistically significant (p < 0.05). Consequently, portfolio project had a positive effect on the learners' performance in terms of 'appropriateness of amount of speech and information given', 'level of formality', 'directness' and 'politeness'.

All in all, the analysis of the data from oral DCTs administered before and after the portfolio project revealed that, and there was no statistically significant change in the 'ability to use the correct speech act', however, 'typicality of expression' reduced and students employed more varieties in their responses. On the other hand, students' performances were improved with regard to 'appropriateness of amount of speech and information given', 'level of formality', 'directness' and 'politeness' after the portfolio treatment.

4.2. Students' awareness of compliment responses

In order to study the students' awareness of compliment responses in their own and English cultures, they were asked to give a repot each week. These weekly reports which were evidence of students' critical thinking process were compiled in display books. Each group display books were rated according to: due dates, appropriateness of contents, sources and references, organization and appearance of portfolio and lectures. In this way, the notion of culture learning as a process was observed. Moreover, on the last day of the class, students were asked to comment on their experience: what they enjoy or did not enjoy about the project. Some of their comments are presented below:

I really liked the project because before it I had no idea English compliment responses could be different from us. During these years we have studied just English language and we had no discussion about culture and more specifically about differences between our ways of talk with that of English people. I really enjoy the project.

I enjoyed the portfolio a lot because it made me more aware of my own culture. At first, I found the portfolio project hard and confusing but gradually when we compared our findings to our language it became more meaningful for me. I could understand it better when we compared our results. It motivated me to do some research on my own about my language.

Even though I liked the project, finding information for it was very hard. Portfolio was a good idea in general but we encountered some difficulties finding our information because some of the websites denied our access to them. Also, finding a patient native speaker online was very hard.

This experience made me familiar to different ways of doing a research and I liked that. It was both fun and educational. I learned a lot from it. I now know how to find information on the web easily and quickly.

5. Discussion

This study was set to find out if culture as process by means of culture portfolio project is applicable to teaching speech acts specifically to teaching compliment responses. In doing so, a pretest- posttest design was adopted. An oral DCT was implemented before and after portfolio project. To assess the results, the oral DCT as well as weekly reports were utilized.

As for first research question concerning the effect of culture portfolio project on students' performance, portfolio proved to be a contributing factor in improving students' performance in their utterance of compliment responses. This finding is consistent with the results of the studies in which portfolio is used to improve general cultural awareness (Allen, 2004; Byon, 2007; Lee, 1997; Su, 2011a, 2011b). The fact that portfolio could effectively influence students' learning might be due to its characteristics. Each portfolio project involves students practically; therefore, students actively take part in the process of learning. It also makes evaluation and reflection of process and product of learning available. And finally, the learning process is stretched over time and happens gradually; consequently, students have an extended amount of time to reflect on and sink in new information.

Regarding the second research question, it was found that portfolio could broaden students' visions and improve research skills. During the discovery process of learning, students became more aware of their misconceptions about English compliment responses and developed an insight into various possible ways of responding a compliment. The requirement of writing a report every week explaining what they had understood and what information they had gained so far was a spring board for students to think critically. As students commented about their portfolio project experience, they explicitly mentioned the positive effect the project had on their opinion about English culture and their research skill. This is in long with Lee (1997) and Su (2011a, 2011b) findings. It is said that portfolio evokes students' interest and leads them to a much deeper investigation than teacher-centered classrooms. In addition, crafting a portfolio requires higher order mental activities as well as language and research skills (Lee, 1997; Moore, 1994).

6. Conclusion

The present study indicated the effective role of portfolio project on cultural learning concerning compliment responses. It also examined the positive effect of portfolio on students' performance and awareness. The findings imply the significant role portfolio may have in students learning when used in EFL classrooms. Given the limited time for teaching culture in EFL classrooms, portfolios provide more opportunities to learn about target culture in a creative and learner-centered atmosphere.

In addition, this study suffers from some limitations. First, considering the small number of participants in the research, generalization of findings should be done with care. Future studies may take more participants to verify the merits and demerits of adopting a portfolio approach in teaching speech acts. Second, due to limited scope of this study, only one speech act had been selected. Future research may investigate the effect of portfolio on the performance and awareness of EFL learners in several speech acts. It is also recommended that further research investigate the possible aspects of culture and language that could be conducted through portfolio projects.