Cross Cultural Variations On Conception Of Learning English Language Essay


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Culture provides means, customs, and approaches that can influence human thought and behavior. Furthermore, it is shown that learning could also be influenced by culture (Bruner, 1996; Brislin, Bochner & Lonner, 1975). The individual understanding of the world and the way in which meaning is derived from what is perceived is determined largely by the dominant values and beliefs of the society in which one lives. These values and beliefs sometimes may be similar across different cultures and at other times may be distinctive to a specific culture (Purdie, Pillay & Boulton-Lewis, 2000). Each culture engenders its own particular style of thoughts and values, consequently perceptions of learning and their use of reading strategies vary accordingly. Cross-cultural research has assisted to develop an improved understanding of different aspects of students learning process. Through such research we can identify both uniformities and consistencies in learning beliefs and behaviors.

For several decades, research into students conceptions of learning has indicated that students conceive learning in qualitatively different ways. There has been a consistent and persistent message that these conceptions can be categorized in such a way as to reflect two predominant positions: (1) some students have a surface understanding of learning that involves the acquisition, storing, reproduction, and using of knowledge; (2) some students have a deep understanding of learning that involves the construction of meaning (understanding) and personal change.

Saljo (1979) concluded that people thought about learning in five distinctly different ways. He described these different conceptions as: (a) the increase of knowledge; (b) memorizing; (c) the acquisition of facts, procedures etc., which can be retained and/or utilized in practice; (d) the abstraction of meaning; and (e) an interpretative process aimed at the understanding of reality. The first three of these conceptions represented a surface understanding of learning; the fourth and fifth conceptions represented a deep understanding of learning.

Learners of a second or foreign language may rarely find chances to communicate with native speakers orally, but they can read different texts in different subjects with varying degrees of detail and difficulty. In the contemporary world, technology provides the scientific findings appear in the form of written texts. So, the need for reading and extracting information from these texts seems to be vital. As stated by Bernhardt (1991), the ability to read is the most stable and durable of the second language modalities.

Rivers (1981) propounds that a reading is a most important activity in any language class, not only as a source of information and a pleasurable activity, but also as a means of consolidating and extending ones knowledge of the language (p.259). Strevens (1977) also emphasizes the great importance of reading to the learners for two reasons: first of all this skill provides the learners with access to a great quantity of further experience of the language. The second reason is presenting a window onto the normal means of continuing the learners personal education by reading skill. Through reading, the learners would be able to develop a sufficient language base that enables them to produce the spoken or written messages which they are eager to communicate to others. Chastain (1988) believes that without this knowledge, students are not likely to be successful in the typical language class in which all four language skills are stressed (p.218).

To recreate the writers message, the application of a number of reading comprehension models seems to be essential for any reader. The concepts of top-down and bottom-up processing as strategic models of reading comprehension have always been on the focus of researchers for many years. The top-down model includes skimming, scanning, activating background knowledge, predicting, thinking of the authors main idea, finding clues, contextual guessing, and associating image which have specified this model/processing as conceptually driven. Bottom-up processing, on the other hand, mainly stresses on literal comprehension, surface meaning, translation into L1 and use of dictionary which have specified this model as data driven (Madden & Nebes 1980, Dubin & Bycina 1991, Carrell 1991, Stanovich 1980, Chastain 1988).To Hayashi (1999), most of the students in an EFL setting are apt to focus on bottom-up processing (data driven) particularly at an early stage of learning while the need for engaging in Top down processing is not deemed seriously in the views of these learners.

Language pedagogy has got at the point that language and culture are interrelated, that is, it is not possible to teach language without culture. In order to recreate the writers intended meaning, a set of reading comprehension strategies appears to be necessary. On the other hand, Therefore, Culture learning is necessary for the students to become familiar with the aspects that help them in better understanding the people and their way of life (Chastain, 1988).

Parry (1996) in a study on two separate groups of language learners, the Nigerian and Chinese, claims that the reading model which each group used depended on their language background and culture. She also adds that Nigerian students showed a preference for top-down method of solving comprehension [questions] whereas the Chinese group reported a strong tendency to use bottom-up processing (p. 665). Parry (1996) concludes that cultural background is an important factor in the formation of individual reading strategies (p. 665).

Apart from conducting research on quite two separate groups of subjects e.g. Chinese and Nigerian- by Parry (1996), the present study will focus on Iranian EFL and Chinese(originally from China) ESL learners. The main goal is to investigate the impact of different culture orientation on Iranian EFL and Chinese ESL learners tendencies to use top-down or bottom-up models of solving reading comprehension questions.

1.2 Statement of the Research Problem

In recent years, there have been a growing number of students studying abroad. To meet the demands and requirements of these students, teachers and researcher have to put their best effort together to facilitate and solve difficulties in student academic affairs which may be caused by socio-cultural and educational differences. Hofstede (1986) states that interactions between teachers and learners from different cultures are fundamentally problematic and cross-cultural misunderstandings often occur because classroom interaction is an archetypal human phenomenon that is deeply rooted in the culture of a society (p. 303). Therefore, there is a need for cross-cultural awareness for educators and practitioners to employ appropriate educational methods and improve their intercultural communication skills to support the learning process.

Although both the Iranian and Chinese students share the same alternative language (English) after their mother tongue as a foreign or second language, their beliefs about learning and their choice of reading comprehension strategies could be different because of the different socio-cultural and educational environments that they have lived in. It has been shown that a lack of experience with the target social and cultural settings can simply lead to misunderstandings between teachers and students and make the learning process problematic (Chamberlain, 2005; Garcia & Guerra, 2004; Horwitz, 1999). Available researches suggest that, in this situation instructors need to look for differences in thinking and behaving of their students when they interact with socially and culturally different people.

Based on this perspective, this study attempts to provide information on learners perception about learning to minimize misunderstanding between instructors and students and to prevent academic failure of students. In addition, as will be discussed in the review of the literature in chapter 2, many researchers emphasize the efficiency of teaching reading strategies for improving students performance on comprehension. According to Brown (1994), more proficient readers find their own way, taking charge of their learning and use various types of strategies effectively whereas others do not use strategies effectively even though they are taught how to do so. With regard to the importance of reading comprehension models, this study attempts to investigate the Iranian EFL and Chinese ESL students preferences on applying strategies to comprehend reading texts to provide insights to facilitate second or foreign language instruction and help learners choose strategies that better suit them.

1.3 purpose of the study

Given that considerable inconsistencies still exist in our interpretations of cross-cultural conceptions of learning, this study intends to investigate cross-cultural variation in conceptions of learning, the use of reading comprehension strategies and any interactions between conceptions of learning and the use of reading comprehension strategies between Chinese and Iranian undergraduate students.

1.4 Objectives

1. To identify reading comprehension strategies used by Iranian EFL and Chinese (Originally from China) ESL students in Malaysia.

2. To identify the conception of learning of Iranian and Chinese students.

3. To identify the relationship between conception of learning and the choice of reading comprehension strategies.

1.5 Research Questions

1. Do Iranian EFL student use the same set of reading comprehension strategies as ESL Chinese students?

2. Is there any similarity or difference in the use of reading comprehension strategies between Iranian and Chinese students?

3. Do Iranian and Chinese learners differ in their conception of learning?

4. Is there a significant difference in their conception about learning?

5. Is there any relationship between conception of learning and the use of reading comprehension strategies?

2 Literature Review

Purdie & Hattie (2002) said that conceptions of learning refer to the beliefs and understanding held by the learners about learning. Some studies on students conceptions of learning indicated that students conceive learning in different ways, commonly categorized into two broad categories-quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative conception of learning involves the acquisition and reproduction of knowledge. The qualitative conception of learning involves abstraction of meaning and personal change.

Conceptions of learning have been explored mainly in terms of cognitive processes, motivation, and behavior changes. Approaches to learning have been studied with reference to how students tackle specific learning tasks and deep and surface approaches have been identified as two different levels of processing (Marton & Soljo, 1976). Deep learning implies the analysis of new ideas, linking them to already known concepts and principles, thus leading to understanding and long-term retention of concepts. In contrast, surface learning is the memorization and tacit acceptance of information as isolated facts. The deep approach correlates with an intention to understand, whereas the surface approach refers to task completion or meeting task requirements, focusing on memorizing information. A third learning approach, labeled strategic learning is defined as a well-organized form of surface approach, with a focus on attaining good marks.

Learning approaches seem to be context-dependent (Case & Marshall, 2004). Chinese students often see memorizing and understanding as interlocking processes (Biggs, 1996; Marton & Booth, 1997), whereas other research stresses that memorizing is clearly distinct from understanding and should be considered as unconnected learning conceptions (Sachs & Chan, 2003).

Studies conducted by Salili, Chiu and Lai (2001) showed that culture and context of learning influence students motivational orientation and achievement. As different cultures value different achievements and different ways of attaining and demonstrating those achievements, it would be reasonable to expect that the same goals may not represent the adaptive approaches to achievement for students of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. For example, the goal of demonstrating ones ability to others (generally defined as an ability goal orientation) may represent a competitive goal for students from cultures with competitive and individualistic worldviews. In contrast, the same goal may represent a social responsibility or social solidarity goal for people from cultures with a more unified and collectivist worldview (Urdan, 1997).

Since the rise of the mentalist model of language learning in linguistics and cognitive psychology, the dominant approach in language learning and teaching has become a learner centered one. More attention has been paid to what the learner actually

does while involved in the learning task. In other words, the process of language learning has become as important as its product. As Ellis (1985) put it,

a complete account of second language acquisition (SLA) involves both showing how the input is shaped to make it learnable (an inter-organism perspective) and how the learner works on the input to turn it into intake (an intra-organism perspective). (p. 163)

So, procedural knowledge that consists of the strategies and procedures employed by a learner to process second language (SL) data for acquisition and use has proved to be an important part of the second language (L2) knowledge. Many studies have been conducted on different factors that affect learning to read (Adamson, 1991; Block, 1992;

Carrell et al., 1989; Doyle & Garland, 2001; Grabe & Stroller, 2002; Li & Munby, 1996; Margolis, 2001; Salataci & Akyel, 2002; Setiadi et al., 2005; Wa-Mbaleka, 2002).

To map the strategies used by SL or foreign language readers, researchers have tried to develop different taxonomies (Anderson, 1991; Block, 1986; Pritchard, 1990). As an example, Block (1986) categorized these strategies into general comprehension, considered as top-down or teacher-centered strategies, and local linguistic strategies, which could be regarded as bottom-up or text-centered strategies. In an attempt to ?nd the roles of the L1 and L2 in the reading comprehension of L2 readers, Upton (1997) used the same taxonomies to ?nd out the strategies his students used.

2.1 OMalley and Chamots Taxonomy for Reading Comprehension Strategies

According to Block�s taxonomy (1986) and O�Malley and Chamot�s framework, metacognitive strategies are �higher order executive skills that may entail planning for, monitoring, or evaluating the success of a learning activity . . . cognitive strategies operate directly on incoming information, manipulating it in ways that enhance learning� (O�Malley & Chamot, 1990). Similar de?nitions have been given by other researchers in this ?eld (Salataci & Akyel, 2002; Yin & Agnes, 2001). This category consists of some strategies like

1. Selective or directed attention: focusing on special aspects of learning task, planning to listen for key-words or phrases.

2. Planning: arranging in advance for the organization of either written or spoken discourse.

3. Monitoring: reviewing and attention to a task, comprehension of information that should be remembered, or production while it is occurring.

4. Evaluating: checking comprehension after completion of a receptive language activity, or evaluating language production after it has taken place (p. 3).

Cognitive strategies involve interacting with the material to be learned, manipulating the material mentally or physically or applying a speci?c technique to a learning task (O�Malley & Chamot, 1990). Prokop (1989) de?ned cognitive strategy as related to the �task at hand and the manner in which linguistic information is processed� (p. 17). This category includes strategies like

1. Rehearsing: repeating the names of items or objects to be remembered.

2. Organizing: grouping and classifying words, terminology, or concepts according to their semantic or syntactic attributes.

3. Inferring: using the information in the text to guess the meaning of new linguistic items, predicting outcomes or complete missing parts.

4. Summarizing: intermittently synthesizing what one has read to ensure that information has been retained.

5. Deducing: applying rules to the understanding of language.

6. Imaging: using visual images (either general or actual) to understand and remember new verbal information.

7. Transferring or inducing: using known linguistic information to facilitate a new learning task.

8. Elaborating: linking ideas contained in new information, or integrating new ideas with old information.

Socio-affective strategies represent a broad group that involves either interaction with another person or ideational control over affection. They involve interacting with another person to assist learning or using affective control to assist a learning task (O�Malley and Chamot, 1990). This category consists of strategies like

1. Cooperation: working with peers to solve a problem, pool information, check notes, or get feedback on a learning activity.

2. Questions for clari?cation: eliciting additional explanation, rephrasing or using examples from a teacher or peer.

3. Self-talk: using mental redirection of thinking activity to reduce anxiety about a task or to assure oneself that a learning process has taken place (p. 46).

Several other studies have been conducted on poor and good readers� use of these strategies, demonstrating that go od readers use more metacognitive strategies as they read (Dhieb-Henia, 2003; Swanson & De LaPaz, 1998; Zhang, 2001). In the EFL context, in an attempt to examine the metacognitive knowledge and the use of such strategies by good and poor readers, Yin and Agnes (2001) found that good readers were more aware of metacognitive knowledge and used metacognitive strategies more frequently than poor readers.

As Rubin (1975) pointed out, �Our knowledge of what successful learners do�strategies they employ�can help us teach those techniques to weaker students and consequently enhance their learning � (p. 11). In this regard, Zhang (2001) stated that if strategies are understood as learners� conscious efforts toward language improvement or comprehension, then there is a need to address reading with regard to L2 readers� metacognitive knowledge and to conceptualize their reading processes for meaning making in order that L2 readers� successful and effective reading strategies can be elicited and imparted to less successful readers. In his study conducted on EFL learners� metacognitive knowledge of reading strategy use at two different universities in China, he found 12 types of strategies about which the readers were metacognitively aware. According to him, there was a difference between good and poor readers, with the high scorers being more strongly aware of their use of strategies for processing L2 written input (80% vs. 20%). In this regard, Schmidt (1993) pointed out that research into the use of strategies provides a means of language learners� awareness about language learning. For a review of the strategies used by L2 learners, refer to Zhang (2001).

The present study focused on reading comprehension strategies as a branch of learning strategies and tried to compare the strategies that have been found to be the most helpful ones. Moreover, there are some strategies that not only do not help readers, but also cause some problems in the foregoing paths of understanding, instead. Obviously, it would be bene?cial to familiarize readers with various types of reading comprehension strategies and to instruct them on how to use positive strategies and avoid negative ones. By knowing the strategies predictive of language or, more particularly, reading achievement and the behaviors of good language learners, pedagogical guidelines and implications can be provided.

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