More sobering research findings for languages: low confidence & low motivation – Research Reviews (5)

Influences on students’ dispositions in Key Stage 3: Exploring enjoyment of school, popularity, anxiety, citizenship values and academic self-concepts in Year 9 – DFE Research Brief 184c January 2012 (Sammons, Sylva, Melhuish, Siraj-Blatchford, Taggart, Smees, Draghici, & Toth)

This is a fascinating longitudinal research study with lots of interesting findings. The report focuses on findings related to year 9 dispositions in key areas such as enjoyment of school, academic self-concept, popularity, citizenship values and anxiety. It also compares previous research findings which involved the same participants when they were in years 2 and 5 so it very much looks at the way young people’s attitudes develop over time. A mixed-methods approach was used. It reveals worrying findings relating to confidence and motivation in languages.

The authors report largely positive findings. Most year 9 students were found to enjoy school and were confident about their overall ability. Alarmingly however, modern languages was found to be the least popular subject area. It is very sobering how consistently the relative unpopularity of languages has been reported in generic research studies over a long period of time (e.g. Francis, 2000; Colley & Comber, 2003). Students were also less confident about their ability in modern languages than in any other subject. This very much fits in with what I found in my PhD research when I looked at motivation in speaking in KS3.

Most students had high aspirations, wanted to go to university and believed that they were liked by their peers. Students from richer socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to enjoy school and to believe that they were popular than those from poorer backgrounds. Girls generally reported higher levels of anxiety than boys and also seemed to have lower academic self-concepts in some areas.

Over time though, learners were found to be less positive about school than when they were younger (in years 2 and 5) and also to be less keen on answering questions in class.

Many interesting similarities and differences were also found in relation to family background, home learning environment etc.

This research is well worth a read even if it is depressing for linguists.


Fear in education and survey of non-specialist language learners – Research Reviews (3)

Fear in education (Carolyn Jackson, Educational Review, 62 (1), 39-52)

In this very interesting piece, Jackson explores the concept of fear as it operates in UK schools and drawing on the findings of her own research, she also explains how fear of failure is widespread because academic success is so highly prized.  Jackson argues that test anxiety is commonplace – girls generally report greater anxiety than boys (possibly because they are more willing to report it!). However, students are simultaneously concerned that if they admit to anxiety, it could suggest that they are unable to cope with pressure. As well as the demands of school, some learners also feel anxious because of family expectations – there is a strong fear of failure in many families and Jackson proposes that this is partially influenced by social class.

Alongside fear of academic failure, fear of social failure is also significant in schools as students often feel that they have to be popular and make an effort to fit in with their peers. Fears of social and academic failure coexist uneasily because being seen to work hard is not necessarily cool. Indeed, Jackson describes students as having to ‘tread a careful line’ (p. 48). She also discusses the range of defensive strategies that some of them may adopt to deal with the implications of academic failure.

This article is of interest to me because in my own PhD research on motivation in speaking a foreign language, fear of speaking emerged as a significant issue and the role of peers is something that I would like to investigate further.

Fear in education (link to article)

Survey of non-specialist language learners 2011 (LLAS & UCML)

My colleague, John Canning’s reports on the second annual survey of non-specialist language learners in higher education carried out by LLAS and UCML (funded by DBIS). As data were collected by means of an online questionnaire, participants were self-selecting and most likely to be following degree programmes in Business, Social or Physical Sciences and Engineering. Encouragingly, most respondents were enjoying their language courses and felt that the quality of teaching was good. But findings also raised some issues of concern – notably some students were unable to describe the language level of their course and some universities were reported to be unwilling to allow students to take credits outside their departments, making it difficult for them to pick up a language module.

Survey of non-specialist language learners