Effects of EAL Learners’ Actual and Perceived Oral Production Skills on In-class Oral Participation at SFU

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Murray Munro, Department of Linguistics

Project team: Tracey M. Derwing, Department of Linguistics, and Dasha Gluhareva, research assistant

Timeframe: April to November 2019

Funding: $6000

Description: In a 2018 report prepared for the Linguistics Department by CELLTR it was determined that, as a group, “international, FIC, and/or FAL-required students [in Linguistics] generally do not perform as well academically… as their peers” (p. 5). This is consistent with anecdotal observations by Linguistics instructors that some EAL students do poorly on written assignments and may have difficulty understanding spoken lecture material. Although the Department has begun to actively address concerns about writing skills (through a Linguistics writing centre), not much attention has yet been given to another concern expressed by faculty members: that some students may choose not to participate in class discussions or to interact individually with instructors and peers because of fears about their proficiency in spoken English. On the one hand, some aspects of second-language speech can indeed hamper intelligibility and, therefore, detract from successful communication. On the other, the research literature indicates that EAL learners can be prone to overly harsh self-evaluation of their oral skills. Some falsely believe that speaking slowly or with a foreign accent is a sign of low language proficiency. Because they inaccurately believe that they are unable to speak fluently or intelligibly enough, they choose not to participate in discussions or ask questions.

In light of the above concerns, the broad aims of the study are to:

  • determine whether EAL students in Linguistics wish to participate more than they currently do in class discussions and in oral interactions with faculty and peers. Comparative data will be collected from non-EAL students to determine whether there is a discrepancy.
  • assess the degree to which EAL students attribute reduced participation to limitations of their English speaking skills, especially to concerns about speech fluency and intelligibility.
  • assess the degree to which attributions are accurate vs to what degree they reflect distorted impressions about their own language proficiency. Proficiency will be assessed in a recorded oral task.
  • survey Linguistics instructors for their concerns about EAL student participation and any strategies they use to promote participation.
  • identify changes to instruction and possible interventions that might increase oral participation of EAL students in LING courses.

Questions addressed:

  • Do LING EAL students wish to participate more than they currently do in class discussions, peer interactions, office hours with instructors? To what extent do they value class discussion and interaction with classmates and instructors outside class?
  • What are the students’ self-perceptions of oral proficiency and how are these implicated in their class participation and interactions outside of the class?
  • How do self-identified native English students’ perceptions of their own participation compare with those of the EAL students?
  • To what degree do Linguistics instructors consider limited oral participation by EAL speakers to be a concern, and what strategies, if any, do they use to address the issue?
  • What instructional choices do students perceive to be helpful in promoting their oral participation in class?
  • To what degree does EAL students’ performance on an assessment of fluency and intelligibility correspond to their perceptions of difficulties?
  • In what ways (if any) does receiving feedback on their assessment change students’ perceptions of their oral fluency and/or their willingness to participate in class discussion in the future?

Knowledge sharing: Findings will be presented orally at a scheduled Departmental research colloquium during the Fall Semester of 2019 or Spring Semester 2020. The written report will be distributed to Linguistics instructors.

The project fits closely with the Linguistics Department’s plan to modify curricula and instruction so as to enhance EAL students’ English communication skills for academic purposes. A Linguistics writing centre is now in operation and other initiatives are underway to meet this goal.

The results of the study may well be of interest to instructors in other departments and at other institutions.