Researching ab-initio language learning: an update on useful sources

Ab-initio language learning is widespread in UK universities and is offered in a broad range of languages, including those languages which are available in school, such as French, German and Spanish. This is an update on my earlier post on 10 useful sources for researching ab-initio language learning at university.

Two papers from LLAS Language Futures: Languages in Higher Education Conference 2012 held at the University of Edinburgh in July 2012 are available on the conference web pages and represent new areas in ab-initio language learning research:

  • A case study: writing a Spanish dictionary as a collaborative task among beginner students (Nuria Lopez, Newcastle University)
  • Working towards theory: the accelerated ab-initio language learning experiences in Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Southampton (Julia Kelly, University of Southampton)


Reflections on an inspiring Modern Languages research in progress workshop

Research in and for Languages was jointly organised by the LLAS Centre for languages, linguistics and area studies at the University of Southampton and Scottish CILT, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages at the University of Strathclyde It was held at Strathclyde on 27 April 2012.

As one of the workshop organisers, I was overwhelmed by the large number of high quality proposals that were submitted following our call for papers. We were quite literally spoilt for choice. Presentations on the day were really wide-ranging in content and theme:

  • Research on Languages, Cultures and Systems in an era of Complexity – Professor Richard Johnstone (University of Stirling)
  • An innovative approach to teaching Chinese to beginner teachers – Dr Jane Medwell and Katherine Richardson (University of Warwick)
  • Is English enough? Language Management in the UK financial sector – Dr Mary Fischer (Edinburgh Napier University)
  • A study of young learner motivation: adding an affective dimension to the ‘younger = better’ debate – Louise Courtney (University of Southampton)
  • Translation in intercultural health settings – Teresa Piacentini (University of Glasgow)
  • One of us’ – a case study of language and identity in two mixed-race (white and South Asian) Britons – Sheena Kalayil (Manchester Metropolitan University)
  • Teaching successful spoken requests in an EAP context Christian Jones & Nicola Halenko (University of Central Lancashire)
  • Crowdsourcing research and corpus planning for lesser-resourced languages – Mark McConville (University of Glasgow)
  • Assessing the work placement abroad – Laurence Giraud-Johnstone (University of the West of Scotland)

All these speakers were reporting on really interesting findings. We were also fortunate enough to have three excellent poster presentations at lunch-time:

  • E-learning methodology in Austrian adult education based on English e-grammar for adult ESL learners – Christina Auerbach
  • Creating resources for the development of reading skills in Polish at ab initio level – Marta Becquet (University of Glasgow)
  • Introducing students to methods of digital humanities and text analysis – Richard Whitt and colleagues (University of Strathclyde)

It was great to get a flavour of the wide variety of research that is going on in languages and was a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking day. Presentations are now available online at the above link.

12 useful sources for researching attitudes to reading in languages in higher education

The following is a selection of research publications, reports and conference papers, which cover attitudes, motivation and anxiety in reading in languages (it’s not an exhaustive list). These are mainly, although not entirely, focused on higher education. Numbers 1-6 are openly accessible online.

1      Mono- and Multilingual Reading Circles – Shannon-Little, Brock & Martiarena (2003)

This paper reports on an experimental project designed to increase motivation in reading among students on university-wide language programmes. The study initially involved a pilot group of EFL students for whom a reading circle was established which met once a week for 4 weeks. The pilot was subsequently extended to include multilingual groups, monolingual groups of UK students working in Spanish and Spanish students of EFL. Feedback from students revealed both improvements in attitudes to reading and an increase in reading. There were additional social benefits for students in the multilingual groups.

2      Reading attitudes in L1 and L2 and their influence on L2 extensive reading –Yamashita (2004)

The author describes a small study which investigated the following issues:

  • the relationship between attitudes to first language (L1) and foreign language (L2) reading;
  • the relationship between reading attitudes and performance in extensive reading in L2;
  • the relationship between reading attitudes and proficiency in L2.

59 EFL students at a Japanese university took part in the study, which obtained data from questionnaires, L2 proficiency tests and performance in extensive reading. Evidence emerged to support the idea that L1 reading attitudes are transferred to L2. Surprisingly, foreign language competence was not found to be significant but positive reading attitudes appeared to motivate students to read more extensively. The author concluded by suggesting that learners’ affective responses to reading do need to be taken into account by teachers.

Reading in a Foreign Language, 16 (1), 1-19

3      Hard-going but worth it: a snapshot of attitudes to reading among languages undergraduates – Gallagher-Brett (2006)

This questionnaire study involved 600 undergraduates in 7 UK universities and investigated:

  • Pre-university reading experience in languages;
  • attitudes to reading in modern languages and in L1;
  • difficulties in ML reading.

Findings showed that most students had positive attitudes to reading in their first language and in the target language. However, attitudes varied depending on the genre of reading involved. Newspapers and magazines were a lot more popular than academic reading. Students in their final year were found to be more confident and had more positive attitudes to reading than first year students. Students with prior target language knowledge were more confident in all year groups than ab initio students.

Southampton: Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

4      Affective variables and Japanese L2 reading ability – Kondo-Brown (2006)

This study examined the relationship between motivational variables, reading comprehension and kanji knowledge in Japanese. Participants were 43 advanced university students with English L1. The methodology consisted of a reading comprehension test, a kanji knowledge test and a motivation questionnaire measuring a range of affective variables.

Findings indicated a link between reading ability in Japanese and motivational intensity. For example, students who performed less well in reading comprehension evaluated their reading ability more negatively and were less likely to show motivational persistence. Students with more determination to learn Japanese also seemed to be more extrinsically and intrinsically motivated to read. The author concluded with a number of recommendations for teachers, including stressing the need for teachers to find texts that are interesting to read and at an appropriate level of difficulty.

Reading in a foreign language, 18 (1)

5      Teaching Literature with Film – Davies (2005)

Rhian Davies described a module which is taught at the University of Sheffield and which uses a film version of a Galdos novel in order to overcome barriers to reading Spanish literature in an age group of students who have not had much (if any) experience of foreign fiction, even in translation. In this module, students read extracts from the book alongside the film so that the text is not lost. Davies’ experience shows that using film to support the teaching of literature helps to promote enjoyment and also stimulates more discussion in class.

Presentation at LLAS Workshop, Routes into Reading, University of London, 2005

6      Anxiety about L2 reading or L2 reading tasks? A study with advanced language learners – Brantmeier (2005)

Brantmeier’s study involved advanced university learners of Spanish and set out to investigate anxiety about L2 reading, anxiety about post-reading oral and written tasks and the relationship between anxiety and reading comprehension. She was concerned that so few studies have addressed links between affect and L2 reading.

Research methods involved an anxiety test, background questionnaire, selection of reading and comprehension tests. Results showed that advanced learners were not particularly anxious about reading Spanish. However, anxiety was found to exist about tasks that follow reading, especially oral tasks.

The Reading Matrix, 5 (2), 67-85

7      Foreign language reading anxiety – Saito, Horwitz & Garza (1999)

Anxiety has most often been associated with oral aspects of language learning. This article is based on a study which examined whether similar problems exist in reading. Participants were 383 first-semester undergraduates on French, Japanese and Russian programmes.

Questionnaire findings revealed that foreign language reading anxiety was distinct from general FL anxiety and that students with higher levels of anxiety achieved lower grades in reading than less anxious students. Learners of Japanese were found to be the most anxious readers, followed by French and then Russian. Anxious students felt that they should understand everything when they read and were nervous about reading unfamiliar cultural material. Anxiety increased alongside perceptions of ML reading difficulty but it was unclear whether anxiety was cause or effect of difficulty.The authors concluded with recommendations for teachers, including reading strategy instruction.

The Modern Language Journal, 83 (2), 202-218.

8      Literary Studies – Holmes & Platten (2005)

The authors review the evolving position of literary studies within ML degrees. Despite a general sense that the importance of literature is in decline, they argue that there is continued demand for literary courses from many enthusiastic students.  University departments which emphasise the role of literature within their programmes continue to recruit strongly (Holmes and Platten do acknowledge other reasons for this phenomenon). They accept though that there is greater reluctance to read among today’s students who may not always be able to see the direct relevance of literature and suggest that lack of preparedness for reading in the transition to university as a key problem. Their solution to this is to offer some literary content in outreach activities that are organised for schools and to develop a specific programme to introduce first year undergraduates to reading. They go on to describe their experiences at the University of Leeds, which have met with positive responses from students.

In: Coleman & Klapper, Eds. Effective Learning and Teaching in Modern Languages, London: Routledge, 207-214

9        Readers and foreign languages: a survey of undergraduate attitudes toward the study of literature – Davis, Kline, Gorell & Hsieh (1992)

Although this study was conducted a long time ago now, it was set against a backdrop of concerns about attitudes to reading ML literature, which are still relevant. The study used a questionnaire to elicit information from undergraduates of French and Spanish at a US university. Generally, students were found to have positive attitudes provided that they had opportunities to express their own views on their reading, read for meaning and read about experiences that were different from their own.

The Modern Language Journal, 76 (3), 320-327

10    Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom – Day & Bamford (1998)

This is not specifically to do with HE but is very useful for anyone involved in teaching or researching L2 reading. These authors raise concerns about the lack of attention to affective concerns in foreign language reading instruction and research. They propose that attitudes to reading in L2 are complex and are influenced by a number of factors, including attitudes to reading in L1, experiences of reading in other languages, attitudes to the L2 culture and the foreign language classroom environment. Students with a positive attitude to reading in their first language are, therefore, likely to begin reading in another language with positive attitudes.  Day and Bamford argue in favour of an extensive reading approach, which emphasises personal responses to reading and enables students to choose their own materials at an appropriate level. This is more likely to result in successful experiences, which are rewarding and therefore lead to more positive reading attitudes. The authors suggest that research studies show that students become more enthusiastic on extensive reading programmes.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

The final 2 on my list are essentials for researching reading and researching motivation and provide comprehensive overviews of the field:

11    Teaching and Researching Reading – Grabe & Stoller (2002)

Harlow: Pearson Education

12    Teaching and Researching Motivation – Dörnyei & Ushioda (2011) – 2nd edition

Harlow: Pearson

10 useful sources for researching ab initio language learning at university

Ab initio language learning provision is now widely offered at UK universities both for students following language degree programmes and those on language modules. The following is a selection of research publications, reports and conference papers which include discussion of the nature of provision, learning outcomes and the issues involved in motivating language learners on these programmes (it’s not an exhaustive list).

1 Baumann, U. (1999) Ab initio vs. A-level students of German: how does their performance compare? Language Learning Journal, 20, 1:8-14

Baumann looked at the experience of ab initio students of German on modern languages degrees at an English university. The research set out to measure the extent to which ab initio German students were able to reach the same standard as post A-level students. Results led Baumann to suggest that ab initio offers a successful model of provision because there are few disparities in final degree outcomes between ab initio and post A-level students.

2 Bavendiek, U. (2011) Motivational processes and practices in accelerated ab initio language learning, Subject Centre for Languages,Linguistics and Area Studies

This exploratory case study investigated practices in accelerated ab initio language learning at one university from the perspectives of students and teachers. Teaching practices and institutional policies were considered alongside the motivational challenges faced by students on ab initio courses. The research involved both individual and focus group interviews.

3 Bowker, D. & Stuart, S. (2005) Ab-initio language teaching at Scottish universities, Subject Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies

Bowker and Stuart examined the ways in which ab initio students are eventually integrated into mainstream classes (i.e. post A-level and post Higher) in Scottish universities. They found that universities operated flexible entry requirements alongside a variety of teaching arrangements to support ab initio students. They concluded that ab initio provision is largely viewed as successful and is seen as a means of widening access and supporting the viability of language courses.

4 Davis, P. (2006) Report on ab-initio language teaching on UK language degree programmes, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

Davis conducted a survey to assess the extent of ab initio provision in UK universities and received responses from 26 universities. Ab initio provision was found to be very diverse with Spanish the language most commonly offered to beginners. Entry requirements were varied and ranged from two A-levels in other languages to evidence of language learning ability. Davis also reported on extra resources being offered to ab initio students.

5 Gallagher-Brett, A. (2006) Hard-going but worth it: a snapshot of attitudes to reading among languages undergraduates, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

In this questionnaire survey of attitudes to reading among languages undergraduates in seven universities, I found that ab initio students did not demonstrate less positive attitudes to reading overall than more experienced students. However, they they were less confident in all year groups (including final year) than students with prior knowledge of the target language. For more on researching attitudes to reading, see my earlier post:

6 Hotho, S. (1999) Motivation in an ab initio German classroom, Language Learning Journal  20:1, 37-44

Hotho reported on a pilot study in which she examined motivation among ab initio students as a dynamic that can change over time. Participants were undergraduates learning German on an institution-wide-language programme. Results showed that although students were motivated to learn German throughout, their motivation decreased over time as they reported finding it progressively difficult. Although this was a small study, the author raised the question as to whether greater encouragement might help learners.

7 Lewin-Jones, J. (2008) Student diversity and the assessment dilemma, Paper presented at the Languages in Higher Education Conference Transitions and Connections, 8-9 July 2008

Lewin-Jones considered the diversity of the student body in ML and described the results of a questionnaire survey conducted with students on a language module at a university language centre. Findings revealed that language classes consisted of disparate groups of learners, many of whom had no prior language learning experience. The language centre responded to this by introducing portfolio-based assessment, which was initially welcomed by students but which was subsequently found to result in a certain amount of anxiety.

8 Proudfoot, A. (2001) From zero to competence: ab-initio ad astra, Subject Centre Grammar Supplement: 15-16,Subject Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies

Proudfoot described the experience of teaching ab initio Italian at an English university and suggested that ab initio students reach a higher level after four years than post A-level students. She proposed a variety of reasons for this and focused in this article on evidence that ab initio students do well if grammar is taught in context using a functional approach.

9 Siciliano Verrucio, E. (2011) Ab-initio language degree programmes in HE institutions in England and Scotland: a mapping survey and a case study, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies

This report consists of an extensive mapping survey of ab initio provision in language degrees at universities in England and Scotland. It covers the range of languages on offer and the entry requirements. A detailed case study of Italian ab initio provision in one university is also provided.

10 Tamponi, A. (2004) Content and language integrated university course: a task-based approach, Paper presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference, 30 June-1 July 2004

Tamponi describes an experimental study with ab initio students of Italian at one university, which involved the introduction of a task-based approach to the study of literary texts. The rationale for the study was the author’s belief that ab initio students do not perceive there to be any connections between the study of language and content in their university courses.

Also useful are presentations from the Teaching languages ab-initio workshop held at SOAS on 12 November 2009, which can be downloaded

  • Getting started on grammar and progression, Enza Siciliano-Verruccio
  • The ab initio teaching experience, Patricia Romero de Mills
  • Building confidence and encouragement, Ulrike Bavendiek