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From the Editors http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82fromed/ Sat, 02 Sep 2017 22:26:53 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12537 Greetings,
We are proud to present our 82nd issue of TESL-EJ. As usual, we have a rich collection of research and reviews from scholars around the globe. We thank everyone who has contributed–writers, reviewers, and editors. If you would like to be a reviewer, please register at our submissions site: http://teslej-sub.org.

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Coding and English Language Teaching http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82int/ Sat, 26 Aug 2017 05:34:45 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12488 * * * On the Internet * * *

August 2017 — Volume 21, Number 2

Vance Stevens
Higher Colleges of Technology, CERT, KBZAC, Al Ain, UAE

Jennifer Verschoor
St George´s College North, Buenos Aires

Vance reflects on 20th century learning, as an early adopter and early adaptor

When I was studying my MA/ESL in Hawaii in the early 1980s and trying to get my head around how people learn languages, I was struck by something Earl Stevick said in one of his books, in a chapter on games in language learning,

The quality of the learning that takes place when we focus our attention only on the items to be learned is different from (and probably inferior to) the quality of the learning that is incidental to something else that we are trying to do (Stevick, 1982; pp.131-132).

In my career as an English teacher, I’ve always been on the lookout for tasks with incidental language learning outcomes. In my first job after earning my MA at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, I was responsible for planning and implementing a curriculum for teaching ESL to foreign students at Hawaii Preparatory Academy, a boarding school on the Big Island of Hawaii. There were only a few ESL students, mostly Japanese and Chinese, and they tended to keep to themselves and speak together in their language rather than mix easily with the predominantly native English speaking students at the academy. I was an early adopter of CALL for language learning, and tried to use computers with my students to the extent possible. This was in 1983, at the cusp of the age of ubiquitous personal computing, so most student computing at HPA was done at terminals connected to a mainframe computer in a single room where all the students went when they needed to compute or print assignments. When I gave my foreign students writing assignments to be done at those computers, I noticed that while they were there in the room with the other students, sitting randomly next to them at the available terminals, they would often have questions, not usually about language, but more often about how you got the mainframe to do this or that, format or print a document, for example. My ESL students mentioned to me that such moments were rare opportunities to interact naturally but meaningfully with the native speaking students there. I had sent them to the computer lab to write sentences and paragraphs, and they had come away having had authentic communication experiences with other English speakers that hopefully led to more such opportunities in other contexts. This could only have improved their language development in ways that I could not have arranged for them if I had tried to develop assignments to focus on that.

I was also an early adaptor of CALL programming at HPA. I had succeeded in budgeting my program for a lab with a few Apple II computers but I was surprised to be told when the computers arrived that there were no further funds for software on top of my request to buy hardware. Personal computers had only recently been invented, I hadn’t realized I’d need a separate budget for software as well, and it had not been obvious to anyone else at HPA at the time that such hardware was of little use without software.

Fortunately, in these early days of personal computing there was a budding community of hobbyists who were writing programs on Apple II for simple games and distributing them in the public domain. My Apple Club in Honolulu held swap meets occasionally where such programs were exchanged on five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disks, and I had a trove of those I had brought over with me to the Big Island. The programs were written in Basic and the code was visible and could easily be changed. A lot of the programs were word games or cloze programs where I could simply change the text in the program interface or items in the databases, while keeping intact the subroutines that did the actual work, to produce my first CALL software programs (Stevens, 1985). This was one of my first forays into coding.

There was a popular commercial game program at the time called Mystery House whose developers had decided to donate it to the public domain. Armando Baltra had been promoting use of this game for language learning in conference presentations and articles at about this time (e.g., Baltra, 1984). I acquired the public domain version for my lab and encouraged my students to play it. They communicated with the game in subject/verb utterances such as “go west” or “light match.” The game used stick-figure graphics but somehow managed to give the students the impression they were exploring a house and meeting people there (but then the characters in the house started turning up dead, and the object of the game was to find the killer from among those remaining in the house before the killer found you). The students had explored almost everywhere they could until one of them issued a command, quite by accident, that caused a wall to move and revealed passages behind the walls. This stirred very real excitement in my classroom, which in turn led to communication with and among the students that took on greater urgency and motivation than any I had been able to elicit in any English class before then.

This was my first palpable awareness of the power computers have to create situations in which students have genuine needs to communicate on topics not teacher-directed, but teacher-facilitated. Since then I have been exploring the benefits of serendipity in language classes, and the importance of promoting chaos as a way of getting students to discover solutions to problems they were motivated to solve, and to communicate the processes involved in those solutions to others in the target language.


At a more recent job this century, where I was teaching computing at Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, we had a curriculum that focused largely on Microsoft Office applications, but I managed to convince my colleagues to allow me to create some units teaching HTML, in which the students coded their own web pages. Since the students were non-native English speaking engineering students, I called what I was doing LACL, language-assisted computer learning, a play on the better-known acronym CALL (computer-assisted language learning). My colleagues tolerated my contributions to the program for a while but eventually over-ruled me since they didn’t feel they or their students needed to know the code that underpinned most of the content on the Internet. Their attitude was that we all have browsers for that, and if you need to produce code, you can usually find an HTML editor to produce it for you. However, sites such as PBWorks, Wikispaces, or Blogger, have underlying HTML code which can be used to troubleshoot problems when the WYSIWYG interfaces don’t work as expected, as sometimes happens. As Dudeney, Hockly, & Pegrum put it (2013, p.162):

Knowing how to recognise and change elements in coding languages allows us to escape the constraints of templates, and gives us greater control over the format and appearance of some online communication. A basic familiarity with the common coding language HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which underpins most webpages, including blogs, wikis, etc., is a good place to start.

Having recourse to the underlying code, and knowing enough about coding to be able to tame a WYSIWYG editor, can be empowering, satisfying, and save a lot of time trying to tweak an interface that will not bend to your wishes until you get under the hood and see what wires are crossed there. Just wanting to know how to tweak code can pose seemingly wicked problems that networking within a community commonly helps resolve. Knowledge gaps are venerable language teaching ploys, and as with my students at HPA, in an environment where help is available from asking others, a post on a social media site can elicit help and start conversations. If this post is from a non-native speaker in a target language, but is answered by a native speaker or even another NNS who uses the target language as the lingua franca for the discussion, then authenticity of purpose and motivation to learn converge with availability of interlocutors, all catalysts for success in learning a foreign language.

We see this dynamic play out not only in the examples above but in gaming communities where NNS players achieve fluency in English while playing with others in games such as Minecraft, all the while speaking in English. They typically engage in a host of peripheral behaviors such as researching tips and ‘cheats’ on wikis and YouTube (in English), recording themselves communicating in English with others while playing the game, and in posting their own tips and how-to videos on YouTube (e.g., Smolčec, Smolčec, and Stevens, 2014). So we see that this combination of ingredients for success in language learning — authenticity of purpose and motivation to learn plus an availability of interloculants — applies not only in the 20th century language learning I was facilitating in the mid-80’s at HPA, but even more so this far into our present millennium.

21st century learning

A common catch phrase for this is 21st century learning. As Rich (2010) puts it, “the term ‘21st-century skills’ is generally used to refer to certain core competencies such as collaboration, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving that advocates believe schools need to teach to help students thrive in today’s world.” In an era where schools realize they are training students to excel in jobs that haven’t been invented yet, employers are looking for students who can learn on the job, and who have a skill-set that includes the three C’s: creativity, communication, and collaboration. These skills are needed to enable employees to adapt to dynamically shifting work environments, communicate with others not only in the immediate environment but across networks, and in so doing absorb on-the-job training through collaboration with others. To these C’s others, for example, Thoughtful Learning (2017) add a 4th C for critical thinking, as well as the literacy skills of information, media, and technology literacies. World Economic Forum (2015, p. 3) characterise this in an infographic giving a comprehensive breakdown of 21st Century Skills, as quoted in Table 1.

Table 1. 21st Century Skills

Foundational literacies
How students apply core skills to everyday tasks
How students approach complex challenges
Character qualities
How students approach their changing environment
Literacy Critical thinking / problem solving Curiosity
Numeracy Creativity Initiative
Scientific literacy Communication Persistence / grit
ICT literacy Collaboration Adaptability
Financial literacy Leadership
Cultural and civic literacy Social and cultural awareness

Lifelong learning

One driver of the attention to these so-called 21st century learning skills is what employers say they are looking for in job applicants nowadays. Scott (2015) conducted an insightful meta analysis into 21st century job skills sought by employers. Among the studies cited is one where Wagner (2010) and the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University conducted “several hundred interviews with business, nonprofit and education leaders” which led them to conclude that, from an employer’s point of view:

students need seven survival skills to be prepared for twenty-first century life, work and citizenship:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration and leadership
  • Agility and adaptability
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism
  • Effective oral and written communication
  • Accessing and analysing information
  • Curiosity and imagination [1]

In her meta analysis Scott also cites a study by a consortium comprising the Conference Board, et al. (2006, p.9) who jointly surveyed over 400 employers across the USA and found that the “applied skills” mentioned above:

trump basic knowledge and skills, such as Reading Comprehension and Mathematics. In other words, while the “three Rs” are still fundamental to any new workforce entrant’s ability to do the job, employers emphasize that applied skills like Teamwork/Collaboration and Critical Thinking are “very important” to success at work.

The Conference Board report continues, “when asked to assess new workforce entrants, employers report that many of the new entrants lack skills essential to job success” (p.10). So it is apparent that teachers who promote skills that will leverage success in the world at large in the course of teaching their subject to their students are doing their students as well as themselves a valuable service.

Coding and 21st century learning

According to Dudeney, Hockly, and Pegrum (2013) coding is a deeper skill subsumed under the four main digital literacies of language, connections, information, and (re)design. Where should English teachers start if they are planning to teach this new kind of literacy? Let´s start by understanding the concept of coding.

Coders or programmers are people who write the programmes behind everything we see and do on a computer. Most of our students spend several hours playing online games, but few know how to create a game. Learning to code encourages students to become creators, not just consumers of the technology they use. Clare Sutcliffe, co-founder of Code Club (https://www.codeclub.org.uk/), a UK network of educators running coding clubs for students aged 9-13, was quoted in Morrison (2013) as saying that teaching coding

has the potential to bring about a fundamental shift in the way we view technology, turning us from passive consumers into active producers. “There is a massive difference between consuming content and being able to create it,” Sutcliffe adds. “It is important to have agency over the tools you are using.”

When children, or adults for that matter, learn to code, it helps them to develop essential skills such as problem solving, logic and critical thinking. Through coding, we realize that there’s often more than one way to solve a problem, and that simpler and more efficient solutions are often better. Analysing and discussing the processes of critical thinking and problem solving can result in meaningful language practice.

Coding and English teaching

Though this paradigm applies across all aspects of the curriculum, the focus of this article is on how it applies to English teaching, and more specifically, on how English teaching can be done in conjunction with encouraging students to work with code, so that between the two, they inculcate aspects of the 21st century skills mentioned here while promoting language development. More than just an idea, this is an actual business model for Bucksmore Education in UK, which offers summer coding classes where students aged 13-16 can take 15 hours per week in English and another 7.5 in coding classes, and take a Raspberry Pi home with them at the end of the course, http://www.bucksmore.com/courses/computer-coding-summer-school/.

Scratch, a free object-oriented programming language developed at MIT, is a popular tool of choice for teachers wishing to integrate coding into their language learning lessons. Writing in Slate, Berdik (2015) quotes ScratchEd founder Karen Brennan, who “describes Scratch as simply another way to express learning and creativity. ‘Instead of writing an essay or doing a PowerPoint presentation, for a class, you can use Scratch to create your own interactive media,’ she said.”

Joan Brown is an English teacher who uses Scratch with her students. In Brown (2016) she presents a rationale for, as her blog post title puts it, “Coding in English Class – Perfect Pair”. In her words:

we rarely think of coding and English going hand in hand, yet as I was instructing the students, I was amazed at the similarities I found … So similar to writing in many ways. You can’t start writing and have no direction.

Coding, she believes, teaches the concept of planning in a way that might carry over into writing. She further points out that programmers have “their own grammar rules called syntax. That syntax determines whether the next programmer will be able to read the code as well as whether the code will run correctly. Such a wonderful analogy to actual grammar.”

teaching the logic behind conditional statements is the art of writing a great comparative essay or a great reinforcement to so many subjective decisions about literature. The If-Then-Else block requires students to weigh two possible scenarios and never leave anything out. There are so many applications to using that flow chart concept in English class.

Alan Cohen (2017) uses Scratch in ESL classes by getting students to code short conversations. Noting that Scratch is easy to learn, and that its drag and drop interface doesn’t create spelling and syntax barriers in the code they create, Cohen has his students

code dialogue that cartoon-like characters display in speech bubbles …. As they discuss and plan their story, the teacher listens to the groups and corrects pronunciation where needed. The students then tell the class what their story is about and run their program. The class and teacher can correct any spelling or grammar mistakes. The coding exercises provide other benefits. They teach planning and logical thinking.

Laura Bradley (2016) uses tutorials from Code.org (https://code.org/) in her English classes. She likes the fact that she doesn’t have to be an expert in code and “the tutorials differentiate the experience for my students, some of whom have been learning to code on their own via Khan Academy, and others who have never heard of coding. Best of all? The online tutorials are all free,” and remain online beyond the end of the MOOC sessions for which they were created.

Having taught her students the basics of coding in Scratch, Bradley reports on a follow-on activity from an assignment to write novels in English class. The follow-on was to

create a computer game based on the novel you just wrote … Having just invested over a month into that novel, they knew their characters, plots, and conflicts inside and out. I hoped that the chance to create a game from that story would honor their writing and stretch some different brain muscles, while also giving them the basis for a richer game than they might create if it didn’t come from a well-developed story.

She continues:

There is so much about this project that mirrors the writing process: in addition to creating a story, they brainstormed and outlined their games, drafted them, tested them, found errors to fix, drafted some more, tested some more, revised some more. And eventually they will publish their games to an audience as big as the internet (via the Scratch site), where this creative gaming community can play, rate, and give them feedback. And if they didn’t proofread their game carefully? It won’t run.

Bradley (2017) reflects on this project and concludes that “although coding may not seem to fit in an English class … coding is a language with its own vocabulary, and proofreading one’s work is critical.”

So why would I take three weeks out of my English curriculum to let my students learn the basics of computer coding? Why should teachers of science, history, or math do the same? … because coding:

  • builds problem-solving skills and logical thinking
  • opens new avenues to creativity
  • gives students a foundation for success in 21st century careers
  • reinforces our own curriculum through a different lens
  • helps students understand how their own technology works
  • opens their eyes to potential careers

From a student’s perspective, a native Farsi speaker with an MA in English language living in Finland takes a CLIL approach to learning coding and English at the same time. Without mentioning CLIL, Omid (2014) argues that his best way to learn English is to learn it in conjunction with something else, such as programming languages. Omid points out that if you want to learn coding, then doing it in the context of ESOL is a good way to leverage the benefits of both subjects. He suggests starting with Codeacademy, https://www.codecademy.com/. In his words,

Codecademy courses are good for improving your reading and comprehension skills because, basically, you read and follow instructions, which are all written in English. You can also practice your writing skills by joining the discussions in the forums. Also, subscribe to their free email newsletter where you will read about people who have done something notable using what they have learned from Codecademy courses.

This echoes what Smolčec, Smolčec, and Stevens (2014) discovered, as mentioned above with respect to Minecraft, when the other thing you are trying to learn has a wealth of materials and tutorials written about it in English.

Two of that article’s co-authors, Marijana and (her son) Filip Smolčec, have been participating for the past three years in EVO Minecraft MOOC, an Electronic Village Online session meant to engage educators in Minecraft so that they can in turn use it with their students (Stevens, 2017). One of the moderators of that session, Mircea Patrascu, has been showing his EVO Minecraft MOOC participant peers how to build in Minecraft with script, while in Romania, he teaches children to code, and has written instructions for connecting Scratch to Minecraft and ScriptCraft (Petrascu, 2016). As Missio (2015) points out, Minecraft “is also now part of Hour of Code, a worldwide initiative that aims to teach kids computer programming” (https://code.org/minecraft).

Bringing teachers up to speed on coding

Morrison (2013) points out that “if coding is to become embedded in schools it is going to take a massive effort in terms of teacher-training.” Morrison also interviews Code Club teacher Laura Kirsop, who, noting lack of such training in her own education, says “there is a long way to go before teachers feel confident enough to teach these skills.”

Claire Siskin has been promoting coding for teachers of English to speakers of other languages for a long time. Her web page at http://www.edvista.com/claire/rev/ compiles dozens of links where teachers can get resources on LiveCode, a scripting language similar to Hypercard on Mac, but which runs on iOS, Android, Windows, Mac, Linux, Server & HTML5. Recently she facilitated a project whereby English teachers at Daffodil University in Bangladesh used LiveCode to create an app for smartphone called BrimmEng, “designed to provide English language practice outside the classroom and reinforce learning in the classroom,” (Siskin, 2107). Her project demonstrates the willingness and ability of English teachers in developing nations to learn a coding language from the start and use it to create their own apps for language learning (Stevens, 2016).

In September 2015 New York city mayor Bill de Blasio announced a program for providing every public school student in New York City with computer science courses at every grade level by 2025, and allocated $80 million in funds to providing 5,000 teachers with computer science training in order to bring that many existing staff up to speed with the initiative. In an article in the New Yorker entitled “Can an English Teacher Learn to Code?” Morais (2015) introduces us to Meredith Towne, a theater and English teacher, and beneficiary of this program.

“The language in Scratch is very similar to theatre language,” she said. … She devised an assignment in which students use Scratch to direct staging—that is, program their fellow-actors…. Her ninth graders have been tinkering with Scratch for a couple of months now. “They’re already better at it than me,” she said.

The observations above address a major concern of humanities teachers over whether they can learn coding themselves well enough to use it as a basis for class projects. Karen Brennan’s ScratchED is a community of learners and teachers who help each other overcome such hurdles. She has studied the strategies of a subset of students who work on their own more than they rely on support from the community to debug their programs. She uses that knowledge to help teachers with “getting unstuck,” the term Brennan (2014) uses in her talk on the HarvardEducation YouTube channel, where she assures teachers that “students don’t need you in the way you think they need you. They don’t need you to solve every problem.” Instead teachers should “embrace the vulnerability of not knowing” and let students understand the value of learning in collaboration with the teacher.

Where can you and your students learn coding?

In the context of ELT there are several ways to start integrating coding as a new kind of literacy. Most coding websites are easy to follow and they provide clear tutorials on how to get started, so neither students nor English language teachers need to have previous knowledge of coding.

Let´s begin by exploring the apps, programs and websites to bring coding into the classroom mentioned by the English teachers whose voices emerge from earlier in this article. These teachers have converged on the following Web projects in particular: Code.org, Hour of Code, Code Club, Scratch, ScratchEd, and Codeacademy.

Code.org and Hour of Code

Getting started with https://code.org is very simple for teachers. The main objective of this website is to teach coding using blocks in a simple and entertaining way.

Teachers will find a variety of coding activities divided into levels ranging from K-5 through 6-12 and University+. The site is divided into the categories (1) Students, (2) Educators, (3) Hour of Code, and (4) Get involved. A click on “Students / Explore our courses” takes you to this page: https://studio.code.org/courses.

Here you will find a full course catalog divided into the three audience levels (K-5, 6-12, and university), plus the Hour of Code option designed to help students (or anyone, try it yourself!) start learning how to code, or improve their coding skills, in only one-hour chunks. Here, we are introduced to the fundamentals of coding in a set of over a hundred tutorials and activities created by computer science specialists. English teachers should be able to realize the potential in working with their students, not only in using the language in the modules themselves, but in talking in class around the content of these tutorials.

As given at https://code.org/hourofcode/overview, these tutorials are:

  • Minecraft – Program animals and other Minecraft creatures in your own version of Minecraft.
  • Star Wars – Learn to program droids, and create your own Star Wars game in a galaxy far, far away.
  • Frozen – Use code to join Anna and Elsa as they explore the magic and beauty of ice.
  • Sports – Make a basketball game or mix and match across sports.
  • Flappy Code – Wanna write your own game in less than 10 minutes? Try our Flappy Code tutorial!
  • Classic Maze – Try the basics of computer science. Millions have given it a shot.
  • Infinity Play Lab – Use Play Lab to create a story or game starring Disney Infinity characters.
  • Play Lab – Create a story or make a game with Play Lab!
  • Artist – Draw cool pictures and designs with the Artist!
  • Text Compression – In this lesson, students will use the Text Compression Widget to compress text by substituting patterns with symbols.
  • Conditionals – Learn about algorithms and conditional statements in this “unplugged” activity using a deck of cards.

Most of these modules are broken down into 10 or 20 puzzles. Students are not writing down code. They are using Blockly as a visual programming language, to tell the computer in plain English what to do. Students must drag and drop the Blockly directions to make a game. The directions with Blockly look like this:

“move forward”
“turn left”
“turn right”

Javascript is generated under these blocks. Translated into code, it looks something like:


ESL teachers should review with students the specific vocabulary of each game before working with Code.org; for example, “flap”, “when clicked”, “play wing sound”, etc. A simple way to get started is to teach the Blockly directions needed.

Teachers can explore more tutorials at https://code.org/learn or even explore the possibility of introducing robotics at https://code.org/learn/robotics.

Code Club

If you teach children 9 to 13, you can set them up in their own Code Club. Code Club was designed to offer weekly extra-curricular coding specifically for this age group. No prior coding knowledge is needed to start or to join the clubs. Students can learn how to create games, websites and animations using Scratch, HTML and Python.

To create a Code Club go to https://www.codeclub.org.uk, or if you live outside the UK go to https://www.codeclubworld.org. Once you activate your account you will find step-by-step instructions on how to create a Code Club, and have access to resources, materials and guidance to run your Code Club.

If your students do not fall into the correct age brackets, you can still explore this site, and the others mentioned here, and adapt the concept of teaching human languages through coding in a club setting of your own devising, designed to suit your context.

Scratch and ScratchEd

Coding impacts every career in the 21st-century, and Scratch (https://scratch.mit.edu/) is one the best websites for beginners to learn the basics of coding. Scratch was created by the MIT Media Lab as a free programming language designed to program websites, games and animations. It’s good for a range of classroom activities because it’s easy to use, it runs in a browser, it’s drag-and-drop, and does not require students to provide correct syntax. Thus it detracts negligibly from what Stevick called, “the learning that is incidental to something else that we are trying to do” (1982, p. 132).

According to the Scratch website, “Scratch is designed especially for ages 8 to 16, but is used by people of all ages. Millions of people are creating Scratch projects in a wide variety of settings, including homes, schools, museums, libraries, and community centers” (so it’s already being used in many careers in the 21st century). And there is a version called Scratch Jr. especially created for ages 5-7 enabling students to create their own interactive stories and games. Teachers can download the guide at https://www.scratchjr.org/learn/interface where they will find clear instructions on how to use Scratch Jr.

Teachers can join the ScratchEd community of practice at http://scratched.gse.harvard.edu/ to get help and share projects with teachers worldwide. Joining the community is free and teachers will encounter engaging ideas introducing how Scratch has been used by educators in different schools.

Teachers can also find lesson plans using Scratch at the Code.org website, https://code.org/educate/curriculum/teacher-led. The lessons are grouped into elementary school, middle school, and high school projects, but the topics might apply to all levels, and even seed fun projects for adults. High school projects listed here range from a variety of STEM activities (e.g., “Code and animate a Solar System simulation, an interactive ecological pyramid, a working analog clock”), through various oral history and digital storytelling projects, to this one: “Your class will be be creating a ‘history of computers’ web page/Scratch project/video that we can share with the world. To make this web page, you and your partner will do research and write about one important event or person in computer history.” Teachers well-practiced in the art of adapting lesson plans will know that any kind of history, or almost anything else, can be substituted for “computer history”. Teachers of English to students of all ages should be able to find activities here suitable to their contexts.


Codeacademy is a website that provides a variety of coding languages. Teachers can find simple lesson plans and class sequences ready to implement for all levels. However, of all the sites mentioned here Codeacademy might be one that teachers of English should use with an awareness of what it does and doesn’t do. There is a balanced review of it at Kite (2017), who notes that whereas this is a good starting point for learning rudimentary code for free, it has “limited depth” and it’s directed at adult learners (e.g., text-based descriptions, no videos to engage digital natives). Two advantages of Codeacademy are that the coding is taught inside a browser (avoiding your having to install the language on your computer) and that it teaches APIs for hooking into apps such as YouTube and Twitter (note the digital storytelling possibilities there), but Scratch works inherently inside a browser and you might not want to go as far as working with APIs if your subject is English.

Whereas the CLIL approach to learning English while learning programming seems to have worked with Omid (2014), according to Hughes (2015), “The reason why Codecademy is successful is because it takes coding, and transforms it into addictive bite-sized pieces that are easy to accomplish, and offer instantaneous feedback. It’s the candy of coding.” Whereas they have introduced many to the fundamentals of programming and have helped launch countless careers, “their product – and to be more precise, their teaching methods – leave a lot to be desired, and are leaving thousands frustrated, and unsure of where to progress with their formative development skills.” Furthermore, these exercises do not sufficiently recapitulate previously learned items (“blink, and you’ll miss it,” as he puts it), nor do they help users apply what they learn to practical projects. In particular, Hughes faults them on producing exercises in chunks that do not teach the mindset of programming. They teach syntax, but not the art of programming, and it’s the art, the inculcation of a way of thinking about approaching, troubleshooting, and solving problems, that most concerns 21st century educators.

Although a Google search trawls up a surprising number of similar perspectives on Codeacademy, there are also those who have found it to be a useful experience; Omid (2014) for one, and also Rushkoff (2012) who says:

To build my own code literacy, I decided to take free classes through the online website Codecademy.com, and ended up liking it so much that I’m now working with them to provide free courses for kids to learn to code. The lessons I’ve learned along the way are of value to parents and teachers looking to grow more code literate young people.

When Rushkoff says he is now “working with” Codeacademy, he means he has become a “resident Digital Literacy Advocate or ‘Code Evangelist’ at Codecademy” (https://www.edutopia.org/user/202975) but there are many proponents of Codeacademy who extol its virtues because it’s free and it teaches coding. It’s probably worth looking into, if only to get a better grounding in coding as a teacher, as you work through the other sites with your students.


Rushkoff (2012) makes some compelling points in his article aptly entitled “Code literacy: A 21st century requirement.” Using the example of Facebook, he notes that whereas we (over 2 billion of us, including teachers and students) use the site superficially to share the minutiae of our lives with friends, the deeper purpose of Facebook is to sell data points on those minutiae to high bidders, and that an understanding of the deeper mechanics of how our digital world works is a critical literacy skill for the 21st century. Learning to code, he says, is one way that we can regain some control over our world. Program or be programmed.

Learning human languages is similarly empowering, as is self-evident in the number of people willing to employ teachers to help them learn them. Learning coding in the context of language development should be doubly empowering, especially as development of either, even on its own, or ideally both, enables critical thinking skills and leverages opportunities in an uncertain future. As Rushkin says, “Code literate kids stop accepting the applications and websites they use at face value, and begin to engage critically and purposefully with them instead. Otherwise, they may as well be at the circus or a magic show.”

Sometimes we as teachers look out at our students peering at their hand-held devices and wonder if they are using them productively or distractingly. Often, it’s apparent that the latter is the case. Engaging our students is our key to success, for then we can discourse with them and have them describe their adventures on their learning journeys, and how these relate to their present (perhaps the present class) and long-term goals. But we ourselves must be worthy of our side of the discourse, which means we have to keep notching our own skills upward in order to bootstrap our students, or to appreciate when they bootstrap us, which can be the case when teachers learn to leverage into their teaching style “the vulnerability of not knowing” Brennan (2014).

We are all now temporally and firmly ensconced in the 21st century. We need to be focused now on moving ourselves and our students toward the 22nd. It is incumbent on us all to be coming to grips with the literacies and skill sets that will improve likelihood of success and even survival as we prepare to adapt to the world unseen not far around the corner.


[1] The quote above is taken from Scott, 2015, p.3, but the URL given in her references is incorrect. The correct URL is given under Wagner (2010) in the Reference section below. Nearly identical points made by Tony Wagner were recorded in American Youth Policy Forum (2010) and are reiterated on Wagner’s web site at http://www.tonywagner.com/7-survival-skills).


American Youth Policy Forum. (2010). Preparing students for the rapidly changing world: Implications for instruction and assessment (Forum 2). American Youth Policy Forum. Available: http://www.aypf.org/resources/preparing-students-for-the-rapidly-changing-world-implications-for-instruction-and-assessment-forum-2/.

Baltra, A. (1984). An EFL classroom in a Mystery House. TESOL Newsletter 18 (6): 15.

Berdik, C. (2015). Reading, writing, ’rithmetic, ’rogramming: Should every school class be a computer coding class? Slate

Bradley, L. (2016). Coding in English class? YES! and not just an #hourofcode, but a #monthofcode! Laura Bradley. Available: https://laurabradley.me/2016/12/15/coding-in-english-class-yes-and-not-just-an-hourofcode-but-a-monthofcode/.

Bradley. L. (2017). Coding in English class? Yes! And in your class, too! KQED Education. Available: https://ww2.kqed.org/education/2017/06/22/coding-in-english-class-yes-and-in-your-class-too/.

Brennan, K. (2014). Getting unstuck: Karen Brennan’s ‘8 for 8’. HarvardEducation YouTube channel. Available: https://youtu.be/c_AdWB1GkRw.

Brown, J. (2016). Coding in English class – Perfect pair. Current and Cool.

Cohen, A. (2017). Teaching ESL through coding. Linkedin Pulse. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/teaching-esl-through-coding-alan-cohen.

Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning. Available: http://www.p21.org/storage/documents/FINAL_REPORT_PDF09-29-06.pdf.

Dudeney, G., Hockly, N., & Pegrum, M. (2013). Digital literacies. Harlow: Pearson (electronic).

Hughes, M. (2015). 4 reasons why you shouldn’t learn to code from Codecademy. MUD. Available: http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/4-reasons-shouldnt-learn-code-codeacademy/.

Kite, C. et al. (2017). Codeacademy review. CodeConquest. Available: http://www.codeconquest.com/reviews/codecademy/.

Missio, E. (2015). What kids learn when they play Minecraft. Parents. Available:

Morais, B. (2015). Can an English teacher learn to code? New Yorker.

Morrison, N. (2013). Teach kids how to code and you give them a skill for life. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2013/12/27/teach-kids-how-to-code-and-you-give-them-a-skill-for-life/#768b91d265d2.

Omid. (2014). Learning English by learning programming. Italki. https://www.italki.com/article/281/learning-english-by-learning-programming.

Patrascu, M. (2016). Using Scratch with Minecraft & Scriptcraft – Step by step instructions. Kids love to code. Available: https://kidslovetocode.wordpress.com/2016/09/27/using-scratch-with-minecraft-scriptcraft-step-by-step-instructions/.

Rich, E. (2010). How do you define 21st-century learning? One question. Eleven answers. EdWeek. Available: http://www.edweek.org/tsb/articles/2010/10/12/01panel.h04.html.

Rushkoff, D. (2012). Code literacy: A 21st century requirement. Edutopia. Available: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/code-literacy-21st-century-requirement-douglas-rushkoff.

Scott, C. (2015). The futures of learning 2: What kind of learning for the 21st century? UNESCO Education research and foresight working papers. Available: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002429/242996E.pdf.

Siskin, C. (2017). BrimmEng. Edvista. Available: http://www.edvista.com/claire/apps/brimmeng.html.

Smolčec, M., Smolčec, F. & Stevens, V. (2014). Using Minecraft for learning English. TESL-EJ, 18(2),1-15. Available: http://www.tesl-ej.org/pdf/ej70/int.pdf.

Stevens, V. (1985). You’d be surprised at how much public domain software you can adapt to ESL and language learning. TESL Reporter 18, 1:8-15.

Stevens, V. (2016). BrimEng: Carry English in your pocket! LiveCode app development from Bangladesh. Learning2gether. Available: https://learning2gether.net/2016/06/26/carry-english-in-your-pocket-brimeng-livecode-app-development-from-bangladesh/.

Stevens, V. (2017). Gamifying teacher professional development through Minecraft MOOC. In Zoghbor, W., Coombe, C., Al Alami, S. & Abu-Rmaileh, S. (Eds.). Language culture communication: Transformations in intercultural contexts. The proceedings of the 22nd TESOL Arabia Conference. Dubai: TESOL Arabia (pp. 75-92).

Stevick, E. (1982). Teaching and learning languages. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Thoughtful Learning team of teachers, writers, and designers. (2017). What are 21st century skills? Thoughtful Learning. Available: https://k12.thoughtfullearning.com/FAQ/what-are-21st-century-skills.

Wagner, T. (2010). Overcoming the global achievement gap (slides). American Youth Policy Forum. Available:

World Economic Forum in collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group. (2015). New vision for education: Unlocking the potential of technology. World Economic Forum. Available: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEFUSA_NewVisionforEducation_Report2015.pdf.

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor’s Note: The HTML version contains no page numbers. Please use the PDF version of this article for citations.

]]> BusyTeacher.org: A Website of Resources for English Teachers http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82m1/ Sat, 26 Aug 2017 03:40:34 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12480 August 2017 – Volume 21, Number 2
Title BusyTeacher.org
Publisher SureSwift Worldwide
113 Cherry Street #40306
Seattle, WA 98104
Contact Information Email: info@busyteacher.org;

Physical address:
SureSwift Worldwide
113 Cherry Street #40306
Seattle, WA 98104 USA

Type of Product Website with downloadable resources for teachers of English
Hardware Requirements An Internet-capable computer or device, including Android and iOS tablets and smartphones
Software requirements An Internet browser such as Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or the like
Platform Web-based
Registration No Registration Required
Price Free


BusyTeacher.org is a website offering downloadable and printable worksheets, handouts, and resources designed for teachers of English. In addition to being able to download materials, users can upload their worksheets to the website and share them with thousands of other English teachers by clicking the “submit a worksheet” link at the bottom of every page.

Figure 1. BusyTeacher.org homepage

First impressions

As can be seen in Figure 1, the website’s layout appears complicated, and this undermines the user-friendliness of the website. There is a large amount of text on the page, which makes it appear somewhat dense and difficult to work with. Nonetheless, many of the main functions are visible on the homepage. On the left side of the home page are several puzzle making tools: Make A Word Search, Make A Word Scramble, and Make A Double Puzzle. In the middle section of the page, recently added and popular worksheets are listed, above which are several other tools for finding resources, such as a drop down menu (see Figure 2 below) that allows users to look for materials by category (grammar, listening, pronunciation, and so on) as well as a top menu bar that allows users to search for worksheets, articles, posters, books, and more. Let us explore these resources in more detail.

Figure 2. Major categories in BusyTeacher.org


Types of resources available at BusyTeacher.org

According to the website designers, users have access to a database of over 17,000 free printable worksheets and lesson plans for teaching English (this number increases constantly with the users’ contributions). Grammar, Listening, Pronunciation, Vocabulary, Writing, Speaking, Reading, Teaching Ideas, ESL Articles, and Seasonal are the included categories that can be selected by users when searching the database of worksheets and lesson plans. For each category, there are several subcategories that can be more specifically selected by the users. For instance, if the speaking category is selected, one has two main subcategories (role-plays and miming activities) at one’s disposal. Users can also select the appropriate proficiency level of the materials; the options are All levels, Beginner, Elementary, Pre-Intermediate, Intermediate, Upper Intermediate/Advanced, and Exam. After the level option is specified, the user will be provided with a number of different worksheets and lesson plans matching the specified proficiency level and category. Users can gain free access to the entire BusyTeacher Library, including 80 e books, through clicking on the of the library link on the left side of the home page (see Figure 3 below).

Figure 3. Articles covering “ESL Essentials”

One section of the websites is devoted to “ESL Essentials,” which includes articles covering important topics such as grammar teaching, teaching young learners, using realia and important teaching tips. This section provides users with ideas and tips about the fundamentals of English teaching. Users can also share their teaching experiences, activities, and stories with others by submitting their articles to the website.

Figure 4. Classroom posters available to download

Another section of the website has been allocated to “Free Classroom Posters” (Figure 4). Since students spend a lot of time in the classroom environment, it is of paramount importance to make the classroom environment more appealing, motivating and encouraging. One way to do this could be by decorating the walls with posters and content materials that help learners learn more effectively (Freeman, 2010). Accordingly, resources in this section may help teachers enhance learners’ motivation for learning.

Figure 5. Emergency worksheets available at BusyTeacher.org

The “Emergency Worksheets” section (Figure 5) of the website contains worksheets about emergencies such as earthquakes, fires, and tsunamis. Users can narrow their search by choosing one of the subsections within this main section to find emergency-related stories, classroom posters, and colorful pages for their classes. The National Weather Service provides most of the emergency worksheets. For example, there is a thirteen-page story about thunderstorms including thunderstorm vocabulary and safety guidelines most appropriate for pre-intermediate learners.

Figure 6. Recycling and revising worksheets available at BusyTeacher.org

The “Recycling and Revising” section (Figure 6) of the website consists of worksheets which focus on reviewing previously learned material. Building and capitalizing upon already learned information is key to committing the information to learners’ long-term memory, so materials in this section can play an important role in reviewing and recycling information. It will likely help learners retain information longer, remember it better, and will increase their self-confidence before moving on to the next topic (Nunan, 2004; Willis & Willis, 2007). For instance, there is a fun worksheet reviewing the alphabet, numbers, and colors and this could be used to practice these basics with beginners.

Figure 7. Classroom management and discipline worksheets available at BusyTeacher.org

The website has also compiled “Classroom Management Worksheets” (Figure 7) to enable its users manage their classrooms more effectively and establish order and discipline in their classes more efficiently. According to Bailey (2006) and Senior (2006), to maintain order in English classrooms, teachers must know how to handle shy and/or recalcitrant students and how to properly encourage them. This section helps teachers to achieve this and many other discipline-related nuances.

Figure 8. Coloring pages for kids available at BusyTeacher.org

The “Coloring Pages” section (Figure 8) of the website presents various images for children to color. According to the website designers, the coloring pages can be used in combination with other exercises to keep youngsters focused, motivated, interested, and engaged in the learning process. Since teaching English as a second or foreign language to young learners can be a daunting task, it is vitally important to make the most of pictures, illustrations, and colors to keep things interesting and on track (Dornyei, 2009; Pinter, 2006).

Figure 9. The “Warmers and Fillers” section

The “Warmers and Fillers” section (Figure 9) of the website presents worksheets to assist teachers run their lessons more smoothly. Warmers provide teachers with templates for getting started on a topic and help learners prepare for the learning to come, while fillers can be used to transition from one topic to another or form one portion of a lesson to the next. The resources available at BusyTeacher.org save teachers a lot of time planning such activities.

Figure 10. The Seasonal Worksheets

The website has also created a section for seasonal activities such as holidays, cultural activities, and activities pertinent to certain periods of the year. Users have access to over 800 seasonal worksheets. For example, the winter worksheet is well suited to beginners as it introduces words like skate, ice, and snow. Such exercises and seasonal activities provide students with enjoyable tasks that align with a given time of year. This lends an element of authenticity and personalization that should reduce learner anxiety and intrinsically motivate them as these topics and tasks are related to their personal lives (Dornyei, 2009; Ellis, 2003).


The diverse worksheets and lesson plans compiled and supplied by the website, along with the articles, posters, and e-books can provide much needed assistance to time-crunched teachers. In addition, exposure to materials created by other teachers may help increase “teacher language awareness” (Andrews, 2007). These are the major and obvious strengths of the website.

However, the website suffers from a few drawbacks as well. In addition to the previously mentioned “busy-ness” of the website’s presentation, one important issue stems from the fact that the materials on the website are provided by users’ submissions. The administrators of the website have stated that they take no responsibility over the content of the worksheets provided by users. Thus, it is not impossible for plagiarized materials to make their way into the website’s content. Though privately owned and non-profit, the website should consider trying to exert more control over the content and holding plagiarizers accountable. Plagiarized submissions and worksheets are only removed from BusyTeacher.org if users themselves notice a copyright violation and report it; it seems likely that many plagiarized materials go unnoticed.

It is also true that the quality of the materials varies since the website relies on user submissions. The designers have included as many as worksheets as possible, but quantity sometimes outweighs quality. The website would be improved if its administrators more actively curated its contents by selecting and including only the most appropriate, effective, and carefully designed materials to include on the site.

Another minor but irritating flaw is the recurrent reference the website’s designers make to “ESL” which ignores the fact that much of the material is applicable in other contexts, including EFL settings.

Overall, there is much useful material available at BusyTeacher.org, and the website does an admirable job of categorizing it and making it easy to locate relevant worksheets and resources. However, it will be up to users to evaluate what they find there to separate the wheat from the chaff.


Andrews, S. (2007). Teacher language awareness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bailey, K. M. (2006). Language teacher supervision: A content-based approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cameron, L. (2001). Teaching language to young learners. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dornyei, Z. (2009). The psychology of second language acquisition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, R. (2003). Task-based language learning and teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Nunan, D. (2004). Task-based language teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Pinter, A. (2006). Teaching young language learners. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Senior, R. M. (2006). The experience of language teaching. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Willis, D. & Willis, J. (2007). Doing task-based teaching. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

About the Authors

Rasoul Mohammad Hosseinpur <rmhosseinpurgmail.com> is an assistant professor of TEFL at the University of Qom, Iran. He has published several articles in ELT-related journals. His research areas include second language writing pedagogy, interlanguage pragmatics, and L1-based instruction.

Reza Bagheri Nevisi <r.bagherinevisiqom.ac.ir> is an assistant professor of applied linguistics at the University of Qom, Iran. His research interests include task-based language teaching and language assessment in general, CALL, pedagogic task types, task complexity and speaking assessment in particular.

© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor’s Note: The HTML version contains no page numbers. Please use the PDF version of this article for citations.

Teaching and Learning English as a Foreign Language in Taiwan: A Socio-cultural Analysis http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82a4/ Sat, 26 Aug 2017 00:39:52 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12476 August 2017 – Volume 21, Number 2

Fan-Wei Kung
National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan


This article examines the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) context in Taiwan based on Vygotsky’s (1978) socio-cultural framework. The historical context is provided after some delineations of the educational system in Taiwan with regard to its foreign language instruction policy and development. Based upon the proposed socio-cultural framework, this study explores whether culture is an important variable, and what measures have been taken by both learners and practitioners to resolve the problems of EFL teaching and learning in Taiwan. The findings demonstrate that Chinese culture is indeed one of the most paramount determiners pertaining to foreign language teaching and learning in classroom settings in that it exerts a substantial impact on both the teachers and learners in various aspects in Taiwan. Several difficulties of teaching and learning EFL are also highlighted along with the ways in which learners and practitioners have aimed to alleviate them collectively. This article offers essential issues to teachers not only as a means to enhance the knowledge of their students, but also as an avenue to guide researchers for future academic endeavors. It is anticipated that more insight into learners’ language development and teachers’ implementation can thus be gained.

Keywords: socio-cultural theory, activity theory, culture, EFL, SLA, ZPD


This article delineates some issues in relation to culture faced by the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners in Taiwan. Cultural variables in a specific learning context are essential for language teaching and learning since they conceptualize how teachers and learners perceive and instruct in many classroom settings (Valdes, 1986). An examination of the literature reveals that little research has hitherto investigated the socio-cultural perspective in Taiwan pertaining to the teaching and learning of English along with their ramifications in the wake of some educational reforms for EFL learners. The paucity of research within Taiwan on some educational phenomena embedded in Chinese culture has led to the undertaking of this inquiry. In order to bridge this gap, Vygotsky’s (1978) socio-cultural framework is conceptualized in this article to ascertain whether any cultural variable exists that could exert a substantial effect on the learning of EFL in Taiwan. A brief historical background of the educational and political systems will be discussed first to provide readers with more contextual knowledge in terms of EFL learning, followed by some occurrences in Taiwan that are found to be deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. The article further provides several ramifications from empirical studies regarding how learners and practitioners have started to work collaboratively to refine the EFL learning based upon Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory in Taiwan. The findings have implications for the learning of EFL in which more insight into learners’ language acquisition can be gained to inform practice in other similar contexts.

Taiwan’s historical background and learning settings

Taiwan, also called as the Republic of China (R.O.C.), refers to the main island of the country including Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu. It used to be a colony of Japan and thus, the Japanese language was the official language on the island half a century ago. Though Japanese is not currently one of the official languages, it can be heard quite often from people who are in their sixties due to Japan’s colonization. During this era, the Taiwanese language was officially banned in schools and government settings. Taiwanese is also called Min-nan or Tai-yu that includes all the indigenous languages such as Hakfa and Holooe, while Mandarin Chinese refers to the official language used and spoken by the immigrants from China to Taiwan in the 1940s (Chiung, 2001).

In terms of the English language, it is officially categorized as a foreign language taught and learned in school. Nevertheless, English is different from other foreign languages in that it enjoys a status of prestige (Su, 2008). It has not only been taught as a mandatory subject, along with Mandarin, from elementary to graduate school, but has also been used as a criterion for school admission purposes and job applications. As the trend of globalization spreads to Taiwan for admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), English has further been solidified as an essential language for educational and international purposes. One example could be seen in which English was suggested to be included as one of the official languages in Taiwan by the Parliament in 2002 to strengthen the national status globally (Liu, 2005). In the next year, Taiwan’s Ministry of Education went so far as to look for native English-speaking teachers in elementary and junior high schools for the purpose of facilitating the English learning with an aim to improve students’ communicative language competence (Shin & Lee, 1996).

In order to internationalize Taiwan in the Asia-Pacific region, the government also proposed several avenues to make the island more “English friendly” in the following years. Bilingual signs (Chinese to English) were set up in public settings such as schools, government buildings and streets to welcome more foreigners. Nowadays, practically everything seen on the street includes Chinese and English translations with more and more people who only speak English (Su, 2008). English is even considered the only language for career promotion and tenure, which explains the reason for which English learning in Taiwan has been a trend for the past decade with no end in sight.

Given the fact that learning English has become a common practice pertaining to its international significance, parents in Taiwan have started sending their children to bilingual schools in early childhood to ensure their children’s English proficiency. The number of bilingual kindergartens surged tremendously over a decade ago, and native English speakers have been in demand for employment ever since (Liu, 2005). For parents, this practice contributes to the popularity of sending their children to several private language institutions for the purpose of preparing them for passing the English language examinations. Under these circumstances, passing the examinations seems to be the top priority of learning English with the help of those language institutions for students starting from pre-school.

The popularity of learning English also initiated several educational policy changes in Taiwan. However, most of them are viewed less than desirable in that they sometimes lack a thorough discussion and consideration before implementation (Law, 2002). Many educational reforms fail to meet the needs of EFL students in Taiwan’s constantly changing society. Some complaints such as the overly competitive learning environment, incorporation of the Listening Comprehension Test for junior high school students for the Senior High School Entrance Exam, and the Graduation Benchmark for university students are argued by some scholars to adversely influence students’ EFL learning (Chen, 2008; Mok, 2000). The learning laden with test-driven drills for passing various examinations indeed entails several Chinese cultural elements in the EFL education in Taiwan. The following section is dedicated to discussing this phenomenon critically after the introduction of Vygotsky’s (1978) socio-cultural theory.

Theoretical foundation: Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory

The tenet of socio-cultural theory is to understand how people perceive and interact with each other on a daily basis. According to Vygotsky (1978), the study of socio-cultural theory includes various forms of mental activity, attention and memory process in the domain of cognition. Based on this construct, the tenet of socio-cultural theory is established in a mediated relationship from humans’ mental activity that subsequently affects their behavior (Duff, 2007).

For language learning, Vygotsky (1978) conceptualizes the framework of activity theory as part of his socio-cultural theory to embody how minds are functioned for learning to occur. Learners’ motives are further suggested to play a significant role in the process of learning to reach their goals. According to this socio-cultural perspective, learning a new language implies that the mastery of that specific language is jointly constructed from students’ dialectic collaboration for meaning to be mediated (Lantolf, 2000). Learners’ cognition and learning devices are thus situated and embodied through their discursive and interactive activities that promote language learning (Lantolf, 1994). Over the past decade, research on Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory has proliferated in second language learning. One essential aspect of this theory is that learners appropriate their means to gain control through cooperation before they learn how to function independently as Lantolf (2000) has clearly illustrated for effective language acquisition.

In the field of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), much attention has been paid to the socio-cultural theory that considers learning a socially constructed trajectory through human cognition for social interactions to take shape (Vygotsky, 1978). The zone of proximal development (ZPD) conceptualized by Vygotsky (1978) has been the subject of research interest since it underscores how learning is formed through learning from the more experienced peers (teacher-learner or learner- learner) for more scaffolded collaborations. In this respect, ZPD could be an interpretive tool that assists us in understanding the dynamics of language learning contexts that have various cultural variables (Ohta, 1995). This framework illustrates that the learning and psycholinguistic processes are not separate from their social contexts; that is, they are reciprocally constitutive (Lantolf, 1994). Researchers in the field have started to utilize ZPD to conceptualize language teaching and learning in that the formation of language acquisition and socialization cannot take shape without the guidance from a more experienced peer in any learning environment (Hall, 1995).

The study

Previous research has revealed that more interactions between peers in classroom settings induce more ZPD that could, in turn, facilitate language learning and classroom dynamics. However, few academic attempts have tried to analyze the EFL context in Taiwan through such a socio-cultural framework based on the consideration of Chinese culture. In order to bridge this gap, the objectives of this study are to investigate whether culture is an important variable in the EFL context in Taiwan based upon the conceptualization of ZPD, and what measures have been taken by both learners and practitioners to resolve the problems of EFL teaching and learning there.

Learning EFL based on Chinese culture

Students in Taiwan are deeply influenced by Chinese culture in terms of their learning style and attitude. Cortazzi and Jin (1996, p.74) used the framework based on Chinese culture to conceptualize Chinese-speaking learners’ affect that typifies Chinese society. Since then, language teachers and researchers have placed a great emphasis upon the role of culture in language classrooms because learners’ affective factors are essential for their language development (Cohen & Dornyei, 2002; Joseph, 2004). Pinker (2009) and Yang (1992) define language development as the comprehensive grip on the four language skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking) for language learners to communicate with each other effectively in the target language.

Some characteristics of Chinese culture include the overriding authority of teachers in the classroom and students’ great respect to them for their comprehensive understanding of the subject matter (Cheng, 2000; Diab, 2000). Owing to Chinese modesty and face-saving philosophy, many Chinese students do not deem asking questions in public a good deed in that the teacher-student transmission of knowledge should be greatly respected and valued. According to Confucian beliefs and philosophy, good teachers should provide students with guidance without exerting excessive pressure that might result in unnecessary outcomes, and they should also teach them how to be reflective learners at the same time (Hu, 2002). Teachers are also expected to be role models for students to emulate based on their virtues both inside and outside the classroom (Cheng, 2000). To cultivate students’ learning development, teachers are advised to not merely impart knowledge, but to foster their moral standards to equip learners with a developed social conscience. The conceptualization of being a role model characterizes Chinese culture and it reflects how Chinese students learn in various ways when learning English. Based on this paradigm, teachers are expected to be knowledgeable, considerate and lenient toward their students. As far as learners are concerned, they would treat teachers with respect and expect them to show great interest in what they are teaching because they are considered the most reliable people in any classroom setting (Cortazzi & Jin, 1996). This practice can thus be conceptualized as Vygotsky’s ZPD because learners are expected to learn from the more experienced peers (teachers in Chinese culture). However, as learners in this context are often found to be reticent pertaining to classroom engagement as the literature reveals (Kirkpatrick, 2011; Sugita & Takeuchi, 2010; Ueki & Takeuchi, 2013), more effort needs to be made to initiate more teacher-student and student-student interactions and collaborations for ZPD to form in a more comprehensive manner for the purpose of facilitating the process of teaching and learning.

The Chinese philosophy of modesty also exerts a substantial effect on many classroom settings as students are acutely aware of group harmony as opposed to personal achievement academically (Bush & Haiyan, 2000). Students generally value more mutual collaborations to avoid showing off individual success. For instance, Cortazzi and Jin (1996) and Saville-Troike (1988) suggest that Chinese learners feel more comfortable speaking English in small groups as opposed to in public for the sake of protection and modesty that they possess when they do not need to speak in front of the whole class. For fear of making mistakes, students also prefer to speak privately so as not to be mocked by their peers. Students are found to think carefully before they speak English in class to avoid making errors, which indicates that Chinese students are more concerned about accuracy compared to fluency. In Chinese culture, being active in class does not always signify success since students are expected to share credit evenly (Wen & Clement, 2003; Zhou & Kim, 2006). The idea of losing face in public when a mistake is made contributes to students’ passive learning attitude when learning a second or foreign language, which reveals their collective-oriented learning trait in the classroom (Chen, 2002; Wang, 2003; Yen, 2002). Many Chinese EFL learners have thus become consciously or unconsciously anxious to speak or write in the target language for fear of losing face to avoid embarrassment.

A lack of confidence can also be observed when learners need to speak in front of their peers publicly. For example, Price (1991) conducted an investigation in which Chinese EFL learners were reported to experience their feelings by using some terms such as horrible, frightened, and awful to express their fear of speaking English in front of a large number of people. In this study, though some students were found to be indifferent unlike the majority of the participants, several cultural elements were revealed to determine their fear to speak up in class to avoid possible confrontation. Wen and Clement (2003) discovered that Chinese English as a Second Language (ESL) learners are often regarded as reticent or lack the willingness to communicate in the target language compared with western learners due to the effect of their culture. For example, Chinese learners may prefer to complete a task collectively while western learners might be more inclined to emphasize personal attainment of greatness when engaged in learning. This phenomenon corresponds to Vygotsky’s ZPD due to the nature of collectivism in which peers work together to make learning happen. That is, through various classroom interactions with one another, students can learn collaboratively and foster their social skills when learning an L2.

The other socio-cultural phenomenon upon which Chinese culture is based is the purpose of learning (Zhou & Kim, 2006). The concept of learning has several historical and educational implications for Chinese students. At the cultural level, learning English has been viewed as a means to elevate the social status and economic mobility and ultimately more financial and material success (Cheng, 1996). At the educational and national level, learning English has been regarded as an avenue to facilitate national modernization and prosperity, especially after the 19th century (Ross, 1993). This implies that Chinese learners have the willingness to increase their learning effort for the purpose of achieving academic greatness. In the case of EFL learning, they make great efforts when taking several international standardized examinations such as the GRE, GMAT and TOEFL to study in North America. Passing these tests affords students more opportunities to pursue their personal aspirations in the future. For many Chinese students, doing well on these exams also assists them in entering the higher social realm with an invaluable asset in the workforce. For example, Gao (2006) conducted a study investigating Chinese learners’ language learning strategy after moving to the UK using a socio-cultural framework. The study shows that Chinese learners indeed possess some degree of similarity as their language learning methods are still test-oriented and analytical. Moving to the UK seems to make them adopt more practical strategies based on their needs to cultivate better communicative skills. Such findings are concluded with the recommendation that language teachers should be acutely aware of Chinese learners’ needs from their cultural roots in order to make more informed decisions for more effective teaching and learning. Xiao’s (2006) study also suggests that Chinese students possess unique cultural aspirations when learning a foreign language compared to their Irish peers, and language teachers are ultimately called to utilize bridging strategies to give Chinese students more room for improvement and growth with a sense of cultural understanding and sensitivity.

It is clear that Chinese culture imposes a substantial impact on teaching and learning in various ways for language learners. As research has suggested that language teaching cannot be separated from culture (Zhou & Kim, 2006), it is essential for language teachers to be cognizant of the fact that in order to attain the desired learning outcome, they are advised to demonstrate a sense of cultural understanding that promotes a more positive atmosphere. From the analysis above, it is clear that Chinese collectivism has a lot to do with Vygotsky’s ZPD as far as EFL learning is concerned. As Chinese culture has deeply influenced Taiwanese students’ learning in many aspects (Ho, 1998; Hwang, 2005), the following section is dedicated to delineating the EFL learning context in Taiwan more specifically with some issues found in its educational system. The foci of the following section will be on whether Taiwan’s EFL learning supports or contradicts Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory.

Learning EFL in Taiwan: Educational system and issues

Taiwanese students have been influenced by the traditional Chinese culture and Confucianism (Ho, 1998). Some effects derived from Confucianism on Taiwanese EFL learners include: students’ passive learning mode, focus on test preparation, face-saving philosophy, and reticence. As Confucianism stresses the role of teachers, their overriding authority in class explains why they deserve students’ respect (Hsu, 2013; Hwang, 2005; Liao, 2006). This phenomenon deeply influences the way in which L2 listening and speaking are taught in Taiwan’s educational system over the past decade since traditional learning focused more on the teaching of L2 reading and writing. This traditional learning mode has resulted in several potential problems because it is different from what research has indicated that L2 immersion is found to give students more opportunities to acquire the authentic language through inductive learning (Hoberg, 2004; Horne, 2005). From this inductive construct, students learn to speak the target language through the errors they make and examples they hear from the authentic input. They can also discover the rules of the target language independently, making the learning process more automatic and effective (Evans, 2002).

However, other researchers maintain that successful L2 learning is solely based upon the explicit presentation of metalinguistic knowledge such as the provision of a set of abstractions, isolated language rules, and prescriptive grammar drills from teacher to students (Johnson, 1994; Klaassen, 2002; Lin, 1996). Based on their theory, this makes the entire learning process more effective and time-saving, which leads to more time for learners to digest what they have learned for further discussion and comprehension. Yet, the nature of such a learning approach within the traditions of Chinese culture and Confucianism soon results in the practice of memorization among the EFL learners in Taiwan. Students are often found to memorize grammatical rules and the spelling of vocabulary without genuinely understanding the language itself. As for the teachers in Taiwan, they have also started teaching English for the purpose of passing various international standardized English tests such as the TOEFL, TOEIC and IELTS (Yu, 2008). This Chinese collectivism between teacher and students to ace these examinations does not seem to strengthen learners’ communicative competence based on Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory when the focus is primarily on test preparation. This learning strategy has been found to be rather monotonous and mechanical for learners in that the goal of learning is no longer for practical communication. Teaching to the test has also changed the EFL education completely, which negatively influences the genuine classroom dynamics in Taiwan (Tsao, 1999). This further shows that the deep-rooted Confucianism might have a few adverse ramifications for L2 learning as illustrated.

After several decades, students in Taiwan have thus become known for their test-taking skills based on their results on the TOEFL and IELTS in the Asia-Pacific region (Hwang, 2005). However, many studies have revealed that students’ high scores on the tests do not signify their overall English proficiency after they study abroad (Hoberg, 2004; Horne, 2005). Students are also found to equate English learning with test preparation and grammatical analysis. Based on this phenomenon, many students refuse to learn anything that is different from what is found on the test, making English learning purely test-driven (Hwang, 2005). For example, students in Taiwan were known for their high scores on the first version of the TOEFL-PBT (paper-based test) when it was first introduced in Taiwan more than a decade ago. At that time, the focus of the test was mainly on grammatical analysis and reading comprehension. From the test-oriented approach of learning English, students in Taiwan did not find it difficult to ace the test, but performed well through memorization and structural analysis. This not merely leads to their passive learning style, but also solidifies their inherent belief that English learning is for the purpose of test preparation (Lin, 1996).

Nonetheless, an important transformation occurred when the Educational Testing Service (ETS) decided to introduce a new edition of the TOEFL and TOEIC in 2006 with more emphasis on listening and speaking assessments. Seeing the needs of several educational institutions and international settings where English is used as a means of communication rather than grammatical analysis, the ETS decided to replace the original grammatical and structural analyses with more integrated listening and speaking tasks to assess students’ communicative skills (Evans, 2002). Because of this change, students in Taiwan panicked when the latest version of the TOEFL iBT (internet-based test) was launched because they were not prepared based on the existing English learning context in which listening and speaking skills were not the focus. The past test-taking strategy no longer worked for them since they would have to listen to several academic lectures and be required to make an oral summary. After the introduction of the TOEFL iBT, reports of the test results have reflected Taiwanese students’ poor English performance, which is different from the previous test edition focusing on grammatical and structural analyses. As Hsu (2013) indicates, according to the 2010 Educational Testing Service report on Asian EFL university students’ performance from 2007 to 2009 on the TOEFL iBT, students in Taiwan ranked 18th among 30 Asian countries, behind those from South Korea and China. The British Council’s 2006 report on performance rankings of the IELTS placed Taiwanese students at 17th among 20 Asian EFL countries. In 2010, the Cambridge ESOL Centre reported that Taiwanese students’ IELTS performance lagged behind that of the test takers from Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea, and was only marginally ahead of those from China.

As for the socio-cultural reasons for which students in Taiwan did not perform well internationally on these tests, it is important to note that they are used to learning English through memorization and grammar translation from the test-driven teaching methodology that is deeply rooted in Confucianism (Liao, 2007). As a result, the focus of teaching is directed toward successful completion of the test, which renders a more monotonous learning mode that does not cultivate effective SLA. After the introduction of the revised TOEFL iBT, students in Taiwan have realized the importance of learning EFL not only to pass the test, but to acquire the communicative competence they need in today’s globalized world. This signifies that the existing curriculum needs to be revised for effective gains in learners’ comprehensive language proficiency (Chang, 2010).

From the above analyses, it can be concluded that the focus of English language teaching in Taiwan needs to be changed for more genuine communicative learning based on Chinese culture. As Huang and Chang (2004) have elucidated, communicative-based teaching provides students with more authentic communicative opportunities compared to merely teaching the language form for the sake of acquiring the grammatical and structural rules. Teachers are advised to change their teaching approaches in EFL classrooms to provide students with more authentic and genuine language exposure (Hwang, 2005). Consequently, speaking English for daily communication would not seem to be that difficult for students in an EFL context in which English is not used for daily communication.

To provide students with more communicative-based instruction in the EFL classroom, an English-Medium Instruction (EMI) methodology in Taiwan’s higher education has been launched with an aim to provide students with a more communicative environment to learn English (Chang, 2010; Yu, 2008). However, the campaign has also resulted in several issues for both teachers and students. That is, many content area teachers (such as business administration or chemistry) are required to teach only in English, which has brought about a great sense of pressure for many academics (Chang, 2010; Liao, 2007). The implementation of EMI without any consideration of students’ needs has also undermined their learning outcome in various ways. One of the issues raised by Yu (2008) includes the difficulties experienced by many low-level EFL students at several technological universities in Taiwan in which EMI has been adopted as the only means of instruction to improve their listening and speaking competence. Students tend to perceive such a learning method differently from the government officials from their low English language competence. This phenomenon clearly contradicts Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory when EMI undermines teacher and students’ interaction in the classroom when no preparation is in place for more qualified teachers to be trained to teach in an L2.

Secondly, a growing body of research has also appeared using more Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approaches both inside and outside the EFL classroom in Taiwan. For example, Hu, Ching and Chao (2012) conducted a study with regard to Taiwanese EFL learners’ motivation with more CLT approaches in class, and the result indicates that students are more involved in tasks when communication is used as a means of instruction for more class collaborations. Their higher level of learning motivation also reveals that students value more practical aspects of EFL learning, not just for the purpose of passing tests such as the TOEFL and TOEIC. Huang and Chang (2004) conducted an inquiry with the university students in Taiwan, and the results show that the highly motivated EFL learners engage in their learning environment based on the available resources such as the self-access centers and extra-curricular activities after school in order to have more opportunities to communicate with their peers in English. The attendance of the Toastmasters Club is also found to be one of the ways in which students have adopted to foster their communicative skills by learning from the more experienced peers with similar interests to sharpen their spoken English and communicative competence (Sun, 2008). The popularity of such a learning approach can be seen as more than one hundred and twenty Toastmasters Clubs have been set up at the universities in Taiwan for students to practice their English speaking skills (Chao & Chen, 2011). This trend comes with an increased number of members every year.

This phenomenon also reflects how ZPD is conceptualized since students are expected to learn from their more experienced peers for knowledge to be gained and shared after the educational reform for more CLT initiatives in Taiwan. From the efforts made by learners in Taiwan to improve their communicative competence such as the attendance of self-access centers and the Toastmasters Club, it is clear that students have taken various measures for more collaborations to occur to facilitate their EFL learning, allowing more ZPD to form as a result. Through students’ mutual collaborations both in and out of class, their cognition could be stimulated through ZPD to facilitate their SLA that would not be possible if it was conceptualized singlehandedly.


To conclude, it is undeniable to find that culture is indeed an indispensable element that influences education in many ways, and the EFL education in Taiwan is no exception. This article demonstrates that Chinese culture indeed plays an essential role in the EFL teaching and learning in Taiwan. The Confucian philosophy also contributes to the teacher-fronted classroom settings where students are expected to value the teacher-student transmission of knowledge in the traditional Taiwanese classroom. The virtue of modesty in Chinese culture is further identified in this article as one of the reasons for which students in Taiwan tend to be reserved in terms of raising questions in class for fear of losing face to avoid embarrassment. This phenomenon is also found to influence students’ affect that undermines their learning trajectory, which partially corresponds to the conceptualization of ZPD. Based on several Chinese cultural variables embedded in the EFL classroom, knowledge is transmitted through the more experienced peers in this teacher-student relationship for learning to occur. However, it is argued that such a model is not a complete representation of ZPD since little classroom interaction is present in the traditional Chinese classroom for any scaffolded collaboration, which subsequently influences how learners perceive their language acquisition (Ho, 1998). These cultural variables underscore the importance and practicality for language teachers to make several curricular changes in the future that could tailor to the needs of students based upon these inherent limitations.

With regard to the classroom settings in Taiwan, this article further delineates several issues in its educational system pertaining to the focus of EFL teaching and learning. Students are found to be demotivated from their unsatisfactory test results after the introduction of the new TOEFL and TOEIC after 2006 based on Chinese collectivism to learn an L2. This contradicts Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory when learning is predicated on test preparation. While some studies undertaken have utilized more communicative language approaches in the EFL classroom to improve students’ communicative competence for more ZPD to form, it is still important for teachers to make more effort to provide learners with more communicative teaching with an awareness of some Chinese cultural variables that could potentially impact both EFL teaching and learning. More and more initiatives are also found to sharpen learners’ communicative competence for ZPD to take shape such as the implementation of EMI and attendance of various activities in Taiwan. However, a lack of teacher preparation programs for both pre-service and in-service teachers to teach content classes in an L2 has resulted in students’ difficulty to learn in the classroom. Academics are also found to experience great pressure when implementing EMI for internationalization. This does not seem to support Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory when teacher-student interaction plays a key role in fostering more effective SLA. More studies are necessary as some challenges still exist and Taiwan is still undergoing a transition as to whether test-driven teaching is beneficial to the EFL learners when they still face great pressure to pass various standardized tests. It would thus be useful if research could be conducted to investigate this fundamental issue. It is foreseeable that more changes will be made in the next few years in Taiwan in the hopes of cultivating students’ overall language proficiency that equips them with the necessary skills in the workforce in this globalized world.

To resolve the discussed issues derived from Chinese culture for Taiwan’s EFL learning, some recommendations are provided. First, future teachers are advised to be acutely aware of students’ learning trajectory based on different cultural variables. Knowing the limitation of Confucianism for Taiwan’s EFL learners, EFL teachers should be more creative and open to curricular changes to foster students’ L2 learning motivation by putting more emphasis on their communicative competence instead of test preparation when learning an L2. This will thus induce more ZPD to form when learning takes place between the teacher and students. Second, teacher preparation programs are advised to incorporate an EMI methodology into their curricula for more qualified teachers to be trained. In addition, more measures need to be taken to ensure that students are ready for EMI to be implemented more effectively. Perhaps more English for Specific Purposes (ESP) classes need to be offered based on students’ fields to equip them with a solid language foundation before EMI could be implemented more comprehensively. Third, both teachers and students should bear in mind the pros and cons of Chinese culture and Confucianism when learning an L2. In the context of Taiwan, policy makers and government officials are also suggested to pay more attention to the issues raised in education for refining the EFL curriculum more effectively.

While several social and learning phenomena have been demonstrated with regard to learners’ affect as a result of Chinese culture in this study, more detailed analyses of their affective variables should be addressed using both qualitative and quantitative methods through ZPD to probe the EFL learning in Taiwan more holistically in the future. As the focus of this article is on whether Chinese culture is embedded in the EFL classroom in Taiwan from a macro perspective based on several existing occurrences, a detailed empirical investigation of learners’ affect is beyond the scope of this study, which is also a limitation that needs to be acknowledged. Future research should address this issue for more insight into the teaching and learning of EFL in Taiwan or other similar contexts.

About the Author

Fan-Wei Kung is an assistant professor of TESOL at National Taiwan Normal University, Taiwan. He researches, publishes and presents internationally about bilingualism, multilingualism, world Englishes, language & cultural identities, applied linguistics and second language acquisition.


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Teacher Perception of Cultural Difference in L2 materials: Is Filtering Culture the Right Approach? http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82a3/ Fri, 25 Aug 2017 23:58:23 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12470 August 2017 – Volume 21, Number 2

Tarek Hermessi
Institut Supérieur des Langues de Tunis, Tunisia


With the emergence of the intercultural approach to L2 teaching, several studies investigated teachers’ attitudes and beliefs concerning the cultural dimension of L2 teaching in different foreign language settings. This study explored teachers’ perceptions of the relationship between teaching English and culture in Tunisia, an EFL setting where the culture of L2 teachers is assumed to be distant from the “English” culture. It also enquired into Tunisian teachers’ approach to culturally different teaching materials. The study revealed that although most Tunisian teachers thought that English cannot be taught without culture, some of them approached cultural content with apprehension to the point that they expressed a readiness to filter and drop any aspect of the “English” culture that is incompatible with the local culture. In practice, the teachers in the study had varied understandings of intercultural communicative competence on the one hand and the socio-pragmatic and the socio-semantic dimensions of communicative competence on the other. In light of these results, it can be argued that teacher attitudes and beliefs concerning the cultural dimension of L2 teaching and their approach to culturally different content are a function of two factors: (1) distance between L2 culture and teacher culture defined in religious, moral and political terms and (2) teacher awareness of the intercultural approach to L2.

Keywords: EFL, Teacher Cognition, Culture, Intercultural Communicative Competence, Teacher Education


Byram (2008) argued that Foreign Language Teaching (FLT) has an educational dimension that consists of developing a capacity for the acceptance of “otherness” in L2 learners. Since the advent of communicative language teaching with its focus on “skills” and “competences,” this educational dimension of FLT has been forgotten (p. 145). However, it has come back to the fore in FLT with the advent of the intercultural approach and the elaboration of the concept of Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) (Byram, 2014). In the intercultural approach, FLT is seen as a cultural encounter that broadens the mind through exposure to difference in cultural practices, perspectives, and products. Such exposure is believed to ultimately affect the way L2 learners see other cultures as well as their own.

In spite of the extensive literature on ICC and the intercultural approach, language curriculum designers and L2 teachers in many FL settings seem to be either unaware or unconvinced of the educational breadth of FLT (See Sercu, 2005, Byram, 2014, and Hermessi, 2017). As a result of this, pedagogical assumptions and practices in these settings are not in line with the prevalent theories of intercultural communicative competence. In fact, although educationalists in these settings accept FLT as an indispensable instrument for integrating global economy and having access to scientific and technological progress, they approach it from an instrumental, utilitarian perspective rather than an educational one. Accordingly, curriculum designers and L2 teachers treat FLT as a “necessary evil” with concomitant culturally “alienating” “side-effects” (See Hyde, 1994 and Cortizzi & Jin, 1999).

Many studies situated within teacher cognition research explored L2 teachers’ attitude towards the cultural dimension of FLT (Borg, 2011). Adaskou, Britten, and Fahsi (1990), for instance, surveyed decisions on the cultural content of a secondary school English course in Morocco and recommended that such content be based on “prevailing attitudes towards foreign culture among teachers of English” (p. 3). They contended also that language could be taught without considering the “English” culture, noting that neither countering stereotypes and prejudices, nor comparing Moroccan culture to other cultures was relevant to “the case of secondary education in Morocco” (Adaskou et al., 1990, p. 3). In a similar vein, Hyde (1994) explored the cognition of Moroccan teachers concerning teaching English and reported that they believed that the cultures behind the English language should be “contained” and their “side-effects” reduced.

Gray (2000) explored how 20 teachers of English (most of whom were British) handled culturally different content in global course books. He found that “[o]f the twelve teachers consulted, six said they dropped material they felt uncomfortable with, and one teacher left this question unanswered. The remaining five said that they adapted material, or would now do so” (Gray 2000, p. 277). Likewise, Hermessi (2016) used a quantitative design to study the cognition of 70 teachers on the place of culture in English education in Tunisia. He found that such cognition was governed by L2 teachers’ “professional” “co-culture” (the culture shared by L2 teachers worldwide regardless of their socio-cultural, ethnic or religious background) more than the distance between the Tunisian culture and the “English” culture. He found, also, that Tunisian teachers of English are still oriented towards the communicative approach to language teaching rather than the intercultural approach. Drawing on Gray’s (2000) article and Hermessi’s (2016) findings, this study enquired into Tunisian teachers’ perceptions of the relationship between English instruction and culture and examined the ways in which they deal with culturally different content in locally-produced English textbooks.


This study is situated within two areas of research, namely intercultural communicative competence research and teacher cognition research. This section reviews literature on the way culture has been discussed in L2 teaching with a focus on the communicative approach and the intercultural approach to FLT. It also reviews literature on teacher cognition theory and research in general and teacher cognition regarding the place of culture in L2 education, in particular.

The first variable of the study is the cultural dimension of L2 teaching. Byram (2000, p. 9) contended that “someone with some degree of intercultural competence is someone who is able to see relationships between different cultures – both internal and external to society – and is able to mediate, that is, interpret, each in terms of the other, either for themselves or for others.” The intercultural approach does not only recognize intercultural competence as an important component of language proficiency but also clearly distinguishes it from communicative competence.

Byram (1997, 2009) identified five components of intercultural communicative competence, which he labeled “savoirs.” The first “savoir” is “savoir être” or “intercultural attitudes,” and refers to readiness to suspend disbelief about other cultures and the ability to decenter and relativize one’s own values, beliefs and behaviors to avoid stereotyping and stigmatization. The second savoir is “savoirs” or “knowledge” and refers to knowledge of social groups and their products and practices in one’s own culture and in the target language culture along with general processes of societal and individual interaction. The third “savoir” is “savoir comprendre,” or “skills,” and concerns the ability to put ideas, events and documents from two or more cultures side by side and relate, compare, and interpret them in a way that minimizes misunderstanding what people say, write, or do. The fourth “savoir” is “savoir apprendre/faire” or “skills of discovery and interaction” and pertains to the ability to optimally use the second and third components of ICC, that is, knowledge and skills, in everyday life cultural encounters. The last component of Byram’s model is “savoir s’engager” or “critical cultural awareness” and refers to the ability to discern how one’s culture can lead to the rejection of the perspectives, practices and behaviors of another cultural group and critically evaluate “the other” on explicit criteria (See, Byram, 2009, pp. 337-340). Byram (2009) argued that “Savoir s’engager” is related to the notions of “political engagement” and “education for intercultural citizenship” that represent the cornerstones of the educational breadth of foreign language instruction.

Kramsch (2011a, b), adopting a postmodernist conception of culture, argued that foreign language teaching is neither a question of approximating native speaker linguistic or pragmatic norms nor of nurturing empathy with and tolerance of cultures other than one’s own. Rather, she considered foreign language learning to be a subjective, individual experience in the process of becoming bi- or multilingual, and struggling with another language, culture, power, and identity. It is a question of the profound unsettling, disturbing effects of L2 acquisition on learners’ lives in the process of developing new identities and new subjectivities (Kramsch, 2009).

In teaching methodology, there are two turning points concerning the place of culture in L2 teaching. The first turning point occurred with the advent of the communicative approach to language teaching. The second occurred with the emergence of the intercultural approach to FLT and the elaboration of the concept of ICC. The communicative approach to language teaching has been theoretically grounded within discourse analysis theory, speech act theory, conversational analysis theory and sociolinguistic theory (See, Richards and Rogers, 2001). It emphasizes the socio-cultural and socio-pragmatic potential of language as defined by Hymes (1974), Widdowson (1978), Halliday (1978), Canale and Swain (1980), and Bachmaan (1990), among others. Such potential is substantiated in the notions of sociolinguistic competence and pragmatic competence. Sociolinguistic competence can be defined as the knowledge of the sociocultural rules that underlie the ability to use language appropriately in context. Pragmatic competence refers to the ability to appropriately and effectively use language in different communicative situations in order to achieve specific communicative purposes. It is related to the appropriateness of communication formats, verbal and nonverbal behaviors and interactional norms as defined in Hymes (1972) model, speech act theory as well as discourse analysis theory. Such formats, behaviors and norms are assumed to be culture-specific. As a matter of fact, both pragmatic competence and sociolinguistic competence are assumed to require sensitivity to cultural difference in communication conventions. It is worth noting that pragmatic competence subsumes sociolinguistic competence in Bachmann’s (1990) model and overlaps with discourse competence in Canale and Swain’s (1980) framework.

The proponents of the communicative approach vividly expressed their discontent with the audiolingual method of teaching on the grounds that it produced “structurally competent” L2 learners, that is, able to form correct sentences, convert active sentences into passive ones and distinguish parts of speech, but “communicatively incompetent” ones, that is, unable to transfer such knowledge to real life situations (Johnson, 1981). The proponents of the intercultural approach, in turn, argued that becoming communicatively competent in a particular language is meaningless if the cultural perspectives of the language in question are not interpretively and critically mediated in relation to the culture of the L2 learner. In this vein, Seelye (1993), for instance, argued that “[no] matter how technically dexterous a student’s training in the foreign language, if the student avoids contact with native speakers of that language and lacks respect for their world view, of what value is the training? Where can it be put to use? What educational breadth has it inspired?” (p.21). Similarly, Kramsch (2009) criticized the realm of foreign language instruction for being “still” dominated by psycholinguistic and sociocultural L2 research that views language use as the successful exchange of information and fulfillment of communicative competence. Kramsch (1993, p. 1) argued that:

Culture in language learning is not an expendable fifth skill, tacked on, so to speak, to the teaching of speaking, listening, reading and writing. It is always in the background from day one, ready to unsettle the good language learners when they expect it least, making evident the limitations of their hard-won communicative competence challenging their ability to make sense of the world around them.

Likewise, Byram (2008, p. 145) argued that there is a need to adopt an ‘appropriate methodology’ beyond that of the communicative approach to develop “a better cognitive understanding” of “self” and “other.”

Teacher cognition, the second variable of the study, refers to the beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes held by teachers about FLT or one of its aspects. Such beliefs, thoughts and attitudes are assumed to drive teaching practice and behavior. They are also believed to serve as a filter through which teachers mentally appraise syllabi, material, procedure and learner needs (Phipps & Borg, 2007; Borg, 2011). An attitude can be defined as a conscious mental orientation that underlies the evaluation of a given situation, person, idea or object (Eagly & Chaiken, 1993). A belief can be defined as a consciously or subconsciously held proposition that is “accepted as true, and is therefore imbued with emotive commitment” (Borg 2001: 186). Teacher cognition, in this study, refers to the attitudes and beliefs held by teachers about the cultural dimension of English language teaching.

Several studies investigated teacher cognition on the cultural dimension of FLT. Sercu et al. (2005), for instance, conducted a large-scale study on 424 European and Mexican teachers’ beliefs concerning intercultural communicative competence and probed the profile of the “intercultural teacher.” They found that the vast majority of their participants believed themselves to be familiar with the culture associated with the foreign language they teach. However, they found that the participants’ profiles did not correspond to the profile of the “intercultural” foreign language teacher. Likewise, Sercu (2005) evaluated the extent to which the teaching practices of 78 high school Flemish teachers of English, French and German were oriented towards teaching language from the ICC perspective. Although it is intuitively assumed that teachers are moving already towards the ICC perspective and supporting its objectives, Sercu (2005) found that Flemish teachers have not yet left the communicative competence approach to FLT in favor of the intercultural approach.

In a similar vein, Tran and Dang (2014) explored the impact of the beliefs of 38 native and nonnative Vietnamese teachers about the cultural dimension of ELT on classroom practice. They found that although Vietnamese teachers hold positive attitudes towards culture teaching, there was a mismatch between the objectives of such teaching and classroom practice. They also found that local teachers explain the importance of teaching culture in language classes by socio-semantic and pragmatic reasons pertaining to “using language appropriately” and acquiring the skills for interpreting documents in English. Luk (2012) used interviews to explore the beliefs of 12 local and native secondary school English teachers in Hong Kong concerning how to integrate “popular” culture in English language teaching. Although she found that all participants, in her study, supported integrating culture with TEFL and considered such integration to be a motivating factor for learners, some local teachers expressed apprehensions about the inclusion of “popular” culture in English classes. In fact, local teachers did not want students to be exposed to what they called “bad” “negative” “pop culture” such as “materials that are sexual or violent.” Some of them, even, reported that they might “screen out” “bad” popular cultural material before deciding on what is suitable for teaching in Hong Kong schools (Luk, 2012, p. 257).

The study

This study, exploratory in nature, opted for a qualitative design to gain insight into how Tunisian EFL teachers (a) perceive the relationship between language and culture and (b) approach culturally different content in the EFL classroom. Regarding the relationship between language and culture the study intended to see whether Tunisian teachers believe in the feasibility of teaching language without culture. It also aims to see whether Tunisian teachers are still oriented towards the communicative approach to culture or they have adopted the intercultural approach. As for approaching culturally different content, the study set out to explore whether the participants have ever felt uncomfortable with certain cultural aspects associated with the English language and the extent to which they would opt for censorship as a strategy to screen out such aspects from the English curriculum.


The setting of the study is Tunisia, a North African, former French colony with complex linguistic characteristics. The educational system in Tunisia is composed of three stages: Basic Education (from ages 6 to 15), Secondary Education (from 16 to 19) and Higher Education (from 19 on). The mother tongue, in the study setting, is Tunisian Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the official language of Tunisia, is, technically speaking, its first foreign language as it is not the medium of everyday communication. It is learned at basic school starting from age 6 and serves also as the medium of instruction of several school subjects in the three stages of education. The second foreign language, in Tunisia, is French, which is taught starting from age 8 and like MSA serves as a medium of instruction, mainly in higher education. The third foreign language is English and it is taught starting from age 12.

In an evaluation of the official curricular documents pertaining to the place of culture in English language education in Tunisia, Hermessi (2017) found that Tunisian policy-makers and textbook writers did not have any a priori ideological objections to the inclusion of “English” culture in the English language curriculum. The study also found that a substantial amount of culturally-loaded material was present in the locally produced English language textbooks, including topics such as generation gap, violence at schools, living without parents, attitudes and values, rights and duties, equal opportunities and roles for men/women, male/female relationships, and tolerance and respect for others. In spite of such a substantial amount of cultural material, culture was far from being approached explicitly and systematically (Hermessi, 2017).

Participants and procedure

The study population is made up of Tunisian EFL teachers, who are recruited from the holders of the Maîtrise in English (a four-year undergraduate degree) or the Licence in English (a three-year undergraduate degree, which replaced the Maîtrise in 2008). The holders of the Maîtrise or the Licence take the “Certificat d’Aptitude au Professorat de l’Enseignement Secondaire (CAPES)” examination to qualify for the position of basic school and high school teachers.

Teacher education curriculum, in Tunisia, is designed and implemented by ELT basic and high school inspectors. It is organized by an official curricular document that does not clearly specify the content of pre-service and in-service training; rather, it only provides ELT inspectors with general guidelines on the topics to be covered at the national and regional levels. In light of the examination of such guidelines and a series of email exchanges with three ELT inspectors, I can claim that teacher education in Tunisia seems to promote the socio-cultural and socio-pragmatic views of culture more than the intercultural communicative competence views. In fact, Tunisian teachers do not have systematic exposure to ICC and to the intercultural approach during their formal pre-service or in-service training. This situation does not, however, reflect an ideological position towards addressing culture in English classes; rather it stems from the fact that curriculum developers, in Tunisia, do not approach the cultural dimension of L2 in a systematic, principled way (Hermessi, 2017).

Teacher cognition research has traditionally used self-reports, such as structured or unstructured questionnaires or interviews, to scrutinize the attitudes, beliefs and thoughts held by L2 teachers regarding FLT. This study used a questionnaire consisting of three open-ended questions to explore the perceptions of Tunisian teachers of the link between L2 teaching and culture. The three questions addressed to the study participants were:

  1. Can English be taught without considering the culture(s) representing it? Explain.
  2. Have you ever felt uncomfortable with particular cultural content when teaching English? If yes, Specify.
  3. Are you for a form of censorship of English cultural materials? If yes, which aspects of culture should be censored?

The questionnaire was sent to ten basic and high schools located in different regions in Tunisia and 70 male and female EFL teachers with different lengths of teaching experiences agreed to complete it (See Table 1).

Table 1. Distribution of the study participants in terms of teaching experience and gender



10 T0 20 YRS

20 TO 30 YRS

30+ YRS










The responses obtained from the 70 study participants have been analyzed using Braun and Clarke’s (2006) thematic analysis technique, “a flexible and useful research tool, which can potentially provide a rich and detailed, yet complex account of data” (p. 5). Thematic analysis aims at identifying, analyzing and reporting patterns or themes as well as interpreting or comparing them in light of prevalent theoretical paradigms or previous research. “A theme captures something important about the data in relation to the research questions, and represents some level of response or meaning within the data” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 10). There are two approaches in thematic analysis, namely the semantic approach and the latent approach. With the former, patterns are identified and summarized within surface semantic meanings and then interpreted in search of “broader meanings and implications… often in relation to previous literature.” In contrast, with the latter, analysis goes beyond surface meanings to identify “underlying ideas, assumptions, and conceptualizations – and ideologies – that are theorized as shaping or informing the semantic content of the data” (Braun & Clarke, 2006, p. 13).

The present study relied on both the semantic and the latent approaches of thematic analysis. Accordingly, the participants’ responses have been analyzed at the surface semantic level and synthesized in relation to the three questions of the study [1]. Following this analysis, two themes have been identified: (a) the feasibility of teaching English without culture and (b) the sensitivity of cultural content and censorship of culturally different material. The identified themes have been further analyzed in more depth in relation to three parameters, namely the findings of previous research, the contrast between the communicative and intercultural approaches to language teaching, and theories of culture.

Results and Discussion

Feasibility of Teaching L2 without Culture

The analysis of responses to question 1 revealed that 63% of the study participants think that it is impossible to teach a L2 without considering the culture associated with it. This viewpoint is illustrated in R1 and R2 [2] (See Appendix). Three reasons have been put forward by Tunisian teachers to justify the necessity of including culture in the English curriculum: (1) centrality of culture to teaching socio-pragmatic competence and socio-cultural competence as defined in the communicative approach to language teaching, (2) its importance to teaching the structural aspects of language, and (3) its motivating impact on learners.
The importance of culture to socio-pragmatic competence and socio-cultural competence is illustrated in this response:

No of course [we cannot teach language without culture]! Just because Culture and Communication are inseparable because culture not only dictates who talks to whom, about what, and how the communication proceeds, it also helps to determine how people encode messages, the meanings they have for messages, and the conditions and circumstances under which various messages may or may not be sent, noticed, or interpreted. Culture is the foundation of communication.

In another response, a participant clearly refers to the fact that not considering culture “would produce speakers with pragmatic deficiencies who can hardly communicate in the target language” (See also R3, R4, and R5). In addition to considering culture to be central to communicative competence, the participants of the study seem to conceive of culture as no more than a frame for the presentation of the structural and functional aspects of language.

For me, I teach language but I teach about culture. I cautiously use the cultural aspects for the sake of facilitating the access to certain linguistic forms. I make out of culture a good servant to language.

I think that culture is part and parcel of ELT, thus, disconnecting them would be harmful. However, the teacher in a ‘different’ community must be careful enough to make culture no more than a tool to facilitate L2 learning.

The development of intercultural competence as extensively defined in the intercultural approach to FLT does not, therefore, seem to be a priority for the majority of the participants in this study. For them, the cultural dimension of L2 teaching is either squared with the socio-pragmatic and socio-semantic norms of language use in context as defined in the communicative language teaching approach or treated as a frame for teaching language structures. This finding confirms Sercu’s (2005) and Byram’s (2014) claims that foreign language teachers often lack understanding of the significance of intercultural competence and its relationship to linguistic competence. Actually, only 5 (two are cited below and 3 are included in Appendix, See R6, R7, and R8) out of the 70 participants evoked intercultural communicative competence, without labeling it as such. The most interesting statement on the importance of intercultural competence was formulated by one of the respondents as follows:

I believe that any language history or background is in fact related to its culture, thus teaching would be incomplete if we focus only on the linguistic aspect. Teaching a language is not just reading texts [whose] main themes are friendship, education or environment and providing pupils with literal translation of some words. I believe the term EFL should be replaced by the term EFCL (English as a Foreign Culture and Language).

The fact that most of the participants did not mention the concept of ICC can probably be (given that “not to mention” does not necessarily mean “not to know”) accounted for by their lack of awareness of the intercultural approach to foreign language teaching. The participants of the study seem also to lack familiarity with the “English” culture as well as training on how to address culture. The importance of familiarity with L2 culture and of adequate training in teaching culture was highlighted by one of the study participants in these words: “They [culture and language] are intertwined. A teacher needs sufficient knowledge, direct contact with the English language and the efficient training to be able to convey the message to his/her students.” This situation is similar to that reported by Adasko et al. (1990) about Moroccan teachers of English who found themselves “uncomfortable in the role of presenters of alien cultures with which they may not identify and which they perhaps have not themselves experienced” (p. 8). Cultural exchange and study abroad programs might be one possible approach to familiarizing L2 teachers with the “English” culture. The positive impact of cultural exchange and study abroad programs on EFL teachers is obvious in the reaction of one of the study participants, who served as a teaching assistant in an American university, to the question of the link between language and culture:

I believe teaching some aspects of the culture helps students enjoy learning the language. It makes the students more motivated and eager to discover, to know and to learn. A language teacher should be a cultural ambassador too. I think that language and culture are interrelated. I taught Arabic to American students at a University in the USA. The dean asked me to teach Cultures of the Middle East though it was not mentioned in my contract. I was reluctant at first but he said ‘As an Arab, you are a true carrier of the Middle Eastern culture. I think you will do better than any American professor.’ I really enjoyed the experience and I felt that I helped break the stereotypes that existed in my students’ minds.

In addition to considering culture important for communicative competence and for teaching the structural aspects of language, the study participants think that culture can be a key to motivating L2 learners as illustrated in the following three responses:

From my experience, I have noticed that pupils become more motivated to learn English when they learn about some cultural aspects.

I believe teaching some aspects of the culture helps students enjoy learning the language. It makes the students more motivated and eager to discover, to know and to learn.

Yeah, this will be possible [teaching language without culture], but not enjoyable I meant boring and learners will not be so interested in their learning.

Sensitivity of Cultural Content and filtering Culturally different materials

The study participants seem to hold an ambivalent attitude towards the place of culture in EFL teaching. This ambivalence lies in that although they recognized the centrality of culture for the development of linguistic and communicative competence, they, at the same time, adopted a suspicious attitude towards “English culture” and held prejudices and stereotypes about it. Furthermore, the study participants reported that they felt uncomfortable with certain aspects of “English” culture and showed a readiness to filter them.

In fact, 26% of the study participants have a suspicious attitude towards the consideration of culture in their classes. The suspicious approach to L2 cultural content is obvious in the following responses:

We have to try to be selective. We don’t have to teach all aspects of L2 especially
values and attitudes related to religion.

Culture must be integrated in language teaching to fully assimilate meaning but this
integration must be limited. BUT I do think that knowing other culture without putting
our culture at risk will be great.

Of course not, but what cultural aspects are to be taught? All languages are vehicles of culture but not all cultural aspects are beneficial to their bearers”; “An L2 should consider all the aspects of culture that may be taught within the Tunisian schools.

The gravest tone in apprehending the cultural dimension of ELT was, however, expressed in the following words:

I believe it is vital to learn a foreign language still our cultural identity should never
melt under the highly heated fire ash of the English language. Open your ears, perfect
your tongue and filter with your mind.

In addition to apprehending cultural content, the study participants reported also that they felt uncomfortable with what they label as “embarrassing,” “obscene,” and “taboo” topics included in the English curriculum in Tunisia. In this respect, one of the study subjects referred to “a text where teenagers meet to dance in a closed room” and added that “[t]he region where I teach can’t accept ethically this cultural aspect in English people. So I felt embarrassed and I don’t teach that particular text at all.” Another participant argued that “our oriental, Islamic culture would not allow our pupils to be exposed to cultural materials that are seen as obscene in our culture, (for example some artistic works).” A third participant referred to “…TRUE LOVE a short story in the 3rd year book, I really find it hard to convince my students to find an end to a romantic story like this.” Similar reactions have been reported by Luk (2012) among Hong Kong teachers of English and Tang and Dan (2014) among Vietnamese ones.

The suspicious attitude led 39% of those who felt uncomfortable with cultural material to believe that all the aspects of the “English” culture that are not compatible with the local culture should be censored. A deep analysis of the participants’ responses to the topics with which they felt uncomfortable and the topics they would filter indicates that “compatibility with the local ‘oriental, Islamic culture” can be defined in religious, moral and socio-political terms. The religiously incompatible topics refer to “any aspect of culture that contradicts/goes counter to religious beliefs” (R20, R21, and R22) or “deal[s] with other religions.” Such topics include Christian religious feasts and celebrations such as “Easter,” “Christmas,” and “Halloween” (R10, R17, and R19). The morally incompatible topics pertain to sex and sexuality, body and nudity, having children outside marriage (“single mothers” and cohabitation, R9), relations between different genders (R15 and R22), and “in vitro fertilization” and “artificial insemination” (R16). It pertains also to dress code (R13), “artistic works,” and even “dancing” and “love stories,” for some of the respondents. It is worth noting, here, that it is quite difficult to disentangle religious compatibility from moral compatibility given that morality is assumed to be based on religious teachings. The socio-political compatibility refers to social problems such as drugs or alcohol addiction, parent/teen relations, generation gap, and violence (R14), which seem to be considered by some of the study participants as taboo. It refers also to politically “sensitive” topics related to the Jews and “the Jewish exodus” (R11). Interestingly, the aspects of culture that the participants would censor are very close to the list of international English textbook publishers’ proscribed topics that fall informally under Gray’s (2002) acronym of PARSNIP (politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms, and pork).

In addition to feeling uncomfortable with certain aspects of culture, some Tunisian teachers did hold prejudices and stereotypes about “English” culture, mainly concerning sex, sexuality, sexual freedom, gender relations, and parent/teen relations. One of the study participants, said that “[w]hen we talk about sex it is a taboo topic in our culture while it is ok in American culture.” Another participant, argued that we should not teach “[a]spects [of culture] telling our pupils about sexual freedom and the freedom to leave parents’ house at the age of eighteen because it may impact badly our learners who are still teenagers.” The study participants also believed that certain social and health problems such as drug addiction, and AIDS are “characteristic” of British and American societies and a result of their “ways of life.” In fact, a participant argued that: “British and American ways of life, addictions, social values and leisure time – It was a time when I tried to avoid covering lessons about drugs or AIDS.”

Implications, limitations and future research

This study explored Tunisian teachers’ perceptions of the relationship between language and culture along with their approach to culturally different material. It also revealed that the study participants, in general, hold an ambivalent attitude towards the cultural dimension of English language teaching and openly show apprehension towards addressing culture in the L2 class. That is, they feel uncomfortable with any aspect of the “English” culture that is not “compatible” with the Tunisian culture, which would, in turn, cause them to filter and drop culturally different materials in their teaching.

The ambivalent attitude of the study participants is reflected in the fact that although there is a general agreement among them about the importance of culture to FLT, almost one third are suspicious about culture and believe that culture remains a sensitive issue that could bring with it alienating, harmful values and norms. This suspicious attitude could be a function of the distance between the teachers’ (and their students’) culture and the L2 culture. This result is not in line with the findings of a previous study, which investigated teacher cognition on the place of culture in English education in Tunisia (Hermessi, 2016). In that study, I found that “co-culture” (the intersection between cultural sub-groups belonging to different cultures, the co-culture of L2 teachers, as a case in point) determines teacher cognition on the cultural dimension of FLT more than cultural distance. The different findings can, however, be accounted for by the fact that teachers tend to approach the overall cultural dimension of FLT as members of L2 teachers’ “co-culture,” but perceive culturally different material, in particular, as members of a specific cultural group.

In addition to their ambivalent attitude, some of the study participants proved to hold prejudices and stereotypes about “English” culture. It would, therefore, be unrealistic to expect them to “interculturize” their classes and help their students to get rid of similar stereotypes and prejudices. To remedy this, a course on the intercultural approach to FLT and intercultural communicative competence should be included in pre-service and in-service teacher education. Such a course would allow Tunisian teachers to become aware of their prejudices and stereotypes and realize that there are alternatives to the “essentialist,” “deterministic,” “static,” and “homogenizing” conceptions of culture that consider all members of a given cultural group to have the same perspectives, practices, and behaviors (Atkinson, 1999). In this respect, the “Tunisian” culture, for historical and geographical reasons, is as difficult to define as the “English” culture. Furthermore, topics deemed inappropriate or even offensive by local teachers might generate intra-cultural debate, that is, debate among sub-cultural groups in Tunisia (urban vs. rural, lower class vs. middle class, conservative vs. liberal, etc.). As a matter of fact, topics like “single mothers or artistic freedom,” for instance, that have been considered by some of the study participants to be “sensitive,” have been the subject of heated debates, between conservatives and liberals, in recent years, in Tunisia.

Because of the prejudices and stereotypes they hold, some of the study participants approach the cultural load of English with apprehension and suspicion to the extent that they would filter and most probably drop any aspect of culture that is not compatible with Tunisian culture. They, actually, seem to firmly believe that filtering and dropping “English” culture would either totally or partially “contain” some “side-effects.” This belief is not typical to Tunisian teachers as L2 teachers and curriculum designers, mainly in settings where the L2 culture is deemed incompatible with the local culture, endeavor to make of FLT no more than teaching the structural aspects of language Such endeavor is based on two assumptions: (a) language can be separated from culture in light of the teachers and students (group and personal) socio-political and historical identities and (b) if a cultural component is needed to, say, contextualize the presentation of the structural aspects of L2, the local culture could serve as a frame of reference (Cortizzi & Jin, 1999). Filtering and dropping cultural content, however, might not be the right approach to cultural difference given that language can hardly be disentangled from culture and culture will always be present in L2 curricula even if it is not explicitly set as a teaching/learning goal or if language is emptied from its cultural load, if that is ever possible.

Although the study has yielded interesting results, it still has some limitations. The first limitation is inherent to its qualitative design, which makes any attempt to generalize the findings to the whole population of Tunisian teachers of English or that of Arab, Islamic teachers unwarranted. The second limitation concerns the lack of background, biographical information about participants and their schools. Such limitation made any attempt to enquire into the relationship between holding particular views on the link between language and culture and handling culturally different material, on the one hand, and, say, gender, social milieu, or stay in an English speaking country, on the other, impossible. Therefore, more studies on teacher cognition concerning the cultural dimension of foreign language teaching, mainly in settings where the teachers’ culture is distant from the L2 culture such as the Arab, Islamic setting, is of paramount importance to changing L2 teaching practice and giving it an educational breadth. A large-scale study (similar to that conducted by Sercu et al. (2005)) on how L2 teachers perceive the cultural dimension of foreign language instruction in the different Arab, Islamic countries could be one interesting avenue of research. Probing the effect of a course on the intercultural approach to FLT on teaching foreign languages in the Arab, Islamic setting could also be another interesting research topic. Finally, the identification of the profile of the “intercultural teacher” in terms of professional and biographical characteristics could be the focus of future research on the cultural dimension of L2 teaching.


The ambivalent attitude towards culture and readiness to censor culturally different material can be explained by the fact that most Tunisian teachers of English are not cognizant of the intercultural approach to FLT and the notion of ICC. L2 teacher education programs should, therefore, set as one of their aims to bring teachers to discern the cultural dimension of L2 education beyond the communicative approach to FLT. In fact, being inter-culturally competent and becoming an “intercultural speaker” or an “intercultural citizen,” to use Byram’s (1997, 2008) terms, goes beyond sensitivity to the socio-cultural and socio-pragmatic norms that underlie, say, complimenting, apologizing, leave-taking, turn-taking, proxemics, and so on. Being inter-culturally competent means acquiring the “savoir” and “savoir faire” that would enable the L2 learner to “savoir comprendre,” “savoir s’engager,” and, ultimately “savoir être.” In other words, it is being able to suspend disbelief about other cultures and beliefs about one’s own by relying on ICC knowledge and skills for discovering, interpreting, and objectively evaluating cultural perspectives, products, and behaviors intra-culturally and inter-culturally (Byram, 2009).

To create intercultural L2 teachers, as Sercu (2005, p. 90) argued, “professionalism in foreign language teaching” should no more be only defined in terms of linguistic, psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, and pedagogical knowledge and skills. Furthermore, L2 teachers and L2 curriculum designers should discern the educational breadth of FLT and assume their critical “mission” as “educators” rather than mere “instructors” of linguistic and communicative competence. Accordingly, they should treat FLT as a grave issue given that, depending on how it is approached, it can either reinforce ethnocentrism, provincialism, prejudices and stereotypes or infuse cultural understanding, tolerance, empathy, and acceptance of “otherness.”

[1] The participants’ responses that most illustrate the theme at hand will be presented in-text; the other significant responses will be cited in-text but will be included in the Appendix.

[2] The study participants’ responses are presented as quotations without any modifications or corrections for language, punctuation, spelling…In addition, responses are numbered as R1, R2 and so on.

About the Author

Tarek Hermessi holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics. He currently occupies the position of Assistant Professor at Institut Supérieur des Langues de Tunis, Tunisia. He teaches psycholinguistics, TEFL, and research methodology at the undergraduate and graduate levels. His research interests include L2 motivation as well as culture and L2 learning/teaching.


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R1: I think that English language teaching cannot be complete if we omit the cultural aspect of the language.”

R2: In many Arab countries in the Gulf, English is taught in an Arab context. But, how efficient is that? That’s the question. Thank God, in Tunisia the choice has been made to teach English while respecting the culture(s) representing it.

R3: It [teaching language without culture] is difficult because culture represents a context for the learner to grasp the language and be able to use it properly.

R4: No, we cannot [teach language without culture] simply because it will lack the communicative value which is the aim of any language teaching. You cannot communicate with native speakers without being familiar with the cultural references that they will certainly make in their utterances.

R5: We can’t teach English without giving an idea about the target culture as it is highly recommended. Knowing [the] culture of the target language is needed to understand the meanings and the situations in which language was used such as when we talk about Idiomatic expressions. We cannot understand the meaning unless we have an idea about the target culture.

R6: If cultural components are completely removed from the English programs in this country, this will develop narrow-mindedness in educators and learners alike, and the overall aim of creating citizens that are able to think for themselves will be thrown into the sea of forgetfulness.

R7: Absolutely No, a de-contextualized language is soulless and may make people able to exchange certain superficial discourses but never allow them to enrich their own cultures and knowledge of themselves.

R8: A second language can never be taught without considering the culture representing it. Any language teacher should be aware of the importance of cultural component. While teaching the language, a teacher has to raise students’ awareness about diversity, openness, and the acceptance of others. By immersing young learners in a new culture, the teacher could easily succeed in making his students excel at learning a language.

R9: Some topics like single mothers and cohabitation are considered as taboos by my pupils

R10: Christmas – Halloween

R11: Teaching about the Jewish exodus (Fourth year)

R12: Some pictures that make students feel shy

R13: Clothes

R14: Teaching generation gap and English teenagers reaction towards it

R15: Mainly related to gender relationships

R16: Genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination …(Third year secondary)

R17: EASTER, not easy to explain to pupils

R18: Any aspect that contradicts with our religion”

R19: Celebrations and festivities such as Christmas

R20: Those which deal with religious topics mainly

R21: Those that go counter our religious beliefs

R22: Those which are not accepted in our culture, mainly religious or gender related.

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Acquisition of Pragmatic Routines by Learners of L2 English: Investigating Common Errors and Sources of Pragmatic Fossilization http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82a2/ Fri, 25 Aug 2017 22:46:18 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12446 August 2017 – Volume 21, Number 2

Zia Tajeddin
Allameh Tabataba’i University, Tehran, Iran

Minoo Alemi
Islamic Azad University, West Tehran Branch, Iran

Roya Pashmforoosh
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, US


Unlike linguistic fossilization, pragmatic fossilization has received scant attention in fossilization research. To bridge this gap, the present study adopted a typical-error method of fossilization research to identify the most frequent errors in pragmatic routines committed by Persian-speaking learners of L2 English and explore the sources of fossilization. In the first phase of the study, a pragmatic routines test was administered to 230 male and female participants to determine the typical errors and their persistence across different proficiency levels. In the second phase, retrospective interviews were conducted to explore the sources of the errors in pragmatic routines committed by 15 highly fossilized advanced learners. The findings revealed that the frequent errors in pragmatic routines were mainly due to sociopragmatic failure. It was found that first language transfer, lack of knowledge, and overgeneralizations were among the most frequent sources of pragmatic fossilization. This can be due to the non-authentic poor-input pedagogical setting in which EFL learners fail to acquire the appropriate pragmatic routines. This study has implications for pragmatic instruction and pragmatic fossilization studies.

Keywords: error, fossilization, pragmatic fossilization, pragmatic routines, L2 English


Fossilization, first introduced by Selinker (1972), is now a key concept in the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research. Fossilization involves an interaction between the three systems of native language, interlanguage, and target language and is the process through which learners fail to progress toward the target-like performance due to the defective structures in their interlanguage utterances. One area where paucity of control over pragmalinguistic knowledge is obvious is that of pragmatic routines. Researchers follow a set of procedures to investigate fossilization along the learning process. Given its local and selective nature, according to Han (2013), fossilization may occur at any point in the course of language development. However, it seems that the effect of non-native speakers’ proficiency levels on fossilizable L2 pragmatic routines has remained underexplored.

To document the nature and sources of pragmatic fossilization, such as L1 transfer and overgeneralization, previous studies have looked at the selection of participants, collection of data (in both natural and artificial settings), and interpretation of data (e.g., Han, 2004, 2009; Han & Odlin, 2006; Long, 2003; Selinker, 1972). Despite extensive research on fossilization, exploring pragmatic fossilization in general and the sources of fossilized pragmatic features among advanced English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learners in particular still remains necessary. The EFL learning context of Iran is particularly of interest to us as it is an input-poor context because learners are mainly exposed to English in language institutes and have little chance for communication outside the classroom to develop their pragmatic competence. To bridge this gap, the present study aimed to investigate the Iranian EFL learners’ fossilization in L2 English pragmatic routines and the sources of common errors of pragmatic routines among advanced learners of English.

Literature review

Pragmatic routines

Pragmatic routines are the recurrent words or phrases employed for particular social purposes, including thanking, apologizing, requesting, greeting, insulting, complimenting, and offering (Davis, 2007). Coulmas (1981) describes pragmatic routines as those conventionalized pre-patterned expressions whose occurrence is highly context-dependent. Pragmatic routines are realized in specific social contexts which are shared by members of a particular speech community. Bardovi-Harlig (2012) maintains that some studies characterize pragmatic routines as a specific sequence of words representing functionally bound expressions as, for example, in you know (House, 2009; Pilcher, 2009) and I mean and you see (Romero Trillo, 2002).

House (1996) describes the importance of pragmatic routines in L2 learning. She argues that from a sociolinguistic viewpoint, ‘it is important to learn routines at any learning stage because they embody the societal knowledge that members of a given speech community share … Routine formulae are thus essential in the verbal handling of everyday life’ (pp. 226-227). For Kesckes (2010), conversational routines, as a broad category, include situational bound utterances (SBUs) in which context identifies the formulas used therein. Additionally, routine formulas, as Hall (2009) pointed out, are employed to perform speech acts (e.g., Get outta here), to serve as topic-opening, topic-maintaining, or topic-closing moves (e.g., So what’s up with you? What else? Well that’s enough of that!), to express social conventions in honorifics (e.g., Your Highness, I am deeply honored), or to convey affective content (e.g., That’s what I’m talking about). Pragmatic routines serve numerous functions in discourse ranging from semantic to socio-pragmatic acts. According to Kesckes (2003), routine formulas which have communicative functions represent particular sociocultural concepts. Thus, L2 learners may not acquire them easily in view of the association between form-meaning-function mappings.

Research on pragmatic routines

Focusing on recent empirical studies, Bardovi-Harlig (2012) had an overview of five main themes of research on pragmatic routines. The themes include the use of pragmatic routines, spread of pragmatic routines by multiple speakers, attitudes toward routine formulas in pragmatics, pragmatic routine formulas and second language acquisition, and formulas in pragmatics pedagogy. Pragmatic routines have been studied in relation with speech acts (Bardovi-Harlig, 2009; Manes & Wolfson, 1981; Ohashi, 2010), politeness (Terkourafi, 2002, 2005), and impoliteness (Culpeper, 2010). Bardovi-Harlig (2009) observed conversations in which routine formulas occurred in speech acts. The oral discourse completion tasks were designed in a study conducted by Bardovi-Harlig (2009) to elicit conversational routines used by native speakers and learners of English. The results revealed that the learners’ underuse of pragmatic routines may be the result of various sources, including lack of familiarity with some expressions and overuse of familiar expressions.

One of the primary features of routines, as Coulmas (1981) points out, is their sociocultural aspects, representing culturally-specific worldviews, such as ‘May God increase your bounty,’ or expressing and maintaining group identity. Davis (2007) investigated the attitudes of Korean ESL learners in Australia and Korean EFL learners in Seoul regarding the use of Australian-English pragmatic routines. The results showed that the Korean EFL learners were reluctant to use Australian formulas such as ‘Cheers’ or ‘Good on you’ when compared with their counterparts. This avoidance represents resistance to Australian-English pragmatic norms. Previous studies (e.g., Kecskes, 2003; Rehbein, 1987; Wray, 1999) also found that particular cultural aspects of pragmatic routines make L2 learners reluctant to acquire L2 formulas. In such contexts, L2 learners may employ their own L1 pragmatic norms that differ from the target-like utterances to maintain their cultural identity (Kecskes, 2003). Similarly, Farghal and Haggan (2006) found a strong native language influence in compliment responses by bilingual Kuwaiti learners of L2 English.

A number of studies have addressed the recognition and production of pragmatic routines by L2 learners (e.g., Bardovi-Harlig, 2009; Barron, 2003; House, 1996; Roever, 2005). Bardovi-Harlig and Bastos (2011) explored the effect of three learner variables of proficiency, length of residence, and intensity of interaction on the recognition and production of authentic pragmatic routines. They found that the recognition of authentic routines correlated with length of residence and that proficiency and intensity of interaction significantly affected the production of L2 pragmatic formulas. The influence of instruction on pragmatic routines has been examined in previous studies (e.g., Bardovi-Harlig & Vellenga, 2012; Boers & Lindstromberg, 2012; House, 1996), indicating the effect of instructional materials and noticing activities on the acquisition of pragmatic routines. The studies have generally shown more development in the acquisition of pragmatic routines by those L2 learners who studied abroad or received an intensity of interaction (e.g., Bardovi-Harlig & Bastos, 2011; Barron, 2003). However, the failure of L2 learners to master the pragmatic routines, as suggested by Han (2004), ‘despite continuous exposure to the TL [target language] input, adequate motivation to improve, and sufficient opportunity for practice’ (p. 4) has remained unresolved in the SLA research. Therefore, from a pedagogical perspective, it remains to re-evaluate pragmatic routines with regard to interlanguage use and its potential for contributing to interlanguage pragmatic development.

Pragmatic fossilization

Persistent errors in interlanguage pragmatics is an inherent characteristic of learners’ interlanguage. The systematic inappropriate use of certain pragmatic formulas leads to fossilization in language development (Romero Trillo, 2002; Selinker, 1972). During the learning process, the pragmatic distance between two languages, as Kasper and Blum-Kulka (1993) noted, may result in an information gap in the formulation of pragmatic routines. What leads to fossilization is, in fact, the combination of unmarked L1 expression and ambiguous (i.e., non-robust) L2 input. Regarding a cline of acceptability and appropriateness for pragmatic competence, as explained by Tsimpli and Sorace (2006), the discourse features of the target language are more vulnerable to fossilization than semantic features. That is to say, discourse features that involve language and pragmatic properties require a higher level of processing, whereas semantic features incorporate formal properties of the language alone.

Evidence for fossilization has been reported in a number of studies undertaken by Han (2003, 2004) and Han and Odlin (2006). According to Han (2004), the empirical studies done on fossilization adopted one of the methodological approaches of longitudinal research, typical error, advanced learners’ errors, corrective feedback, and length of residence. Traditionally, earlier studies on fossilization used learners’ naturally produced data over an extended period of time (e.g., Han, 2010; Lardiere, 2006). In a typical-error approach, the pervasive errors in the interlanguage of learners with the same L1 background are analyzed to investigate fossilization. Kellerman’s (1989) study of Dutch-speaking learners of English adopted a typical-error approach with regard to the use of would in hypothetical conditional sentences. The fact is that even for advanced learners, as evidenced in the studies conducted by Wekker, Kellerman, and Hermans (1982) and Selinker and Lakshmanan (1992), the errors typically occurred despite learners’ abundant exposure to L2 input. Early examples of corrective feedback include the study by Vigil and Oller (1976), who refer to the nature of feedback as a source of fossilization. In light of the model presented in Vigil and Oller (1976), Selinker and Lamendella (1979) studied the role of extrinsic feedback in interlanguage fossilization. Regarding the provision of corrective feedback on typical errors, Kellerman (1989) found that the pedagogic intervention had little effect on learners’ use of linguistic structures. Despite explicit instruction and years of immersion, studies on length of residence (e.g., Thep-Ackrapong, 1990; Washburn, 1991) showed the pervasiveness of fossilized interlanguage errors at different proficiency levels.

Birdsong (2004) maintains that “fossilization has been understood in various ways, among them, as a process, as a cognitive mechanism, and as a result of learning” (p. 86). As evidenced by Selinker and Han (2001), various learner behaviors are associated with fossilization, including backsliding, low proficiency, typical errors, and non-target like performance. In fact, when acquisition stops, a semi-developed linguistic structure may exhibit permanent resistance to native-like construction (Han & Odlin, 2006; Han & Selinker, 2005; Long, 2003; Selinker, 2011). Following previous studies (e.g., Romero Trillo, 2002; Takahashi, 1996; Trosborg, 1995), it seems that fossilization in the area of pragmatics has not been sufficiently explored. For example, Romero Trillo (2002) studied fossilization of discourse markers in native and non-native speakers of English and found that proficient adult learners failed to use pragmatic elements appropriately in communication. In another study conducted by Takahashi (1996), the learners’ transferability perception of request strategies by Japanese learners of English was investigated. The study revealed that EFL learners still failed to perceive the differences in request strategies between the two languages. The errors the learners made were systematic, leading Takahashi (1996) to conclude that they had been transferred from the first language and became fossilized. Pragmatic transfer generally refers to the influence of learners’ pragmatic knowledge of languages other than second language on their comprehension and/or production of their L2. Earlier studies focused on multiple forms of transfer and the conditions under which transfer takes place. Two types of pragmalinguistic and sociopragmatic transfer were among the types of pragmatic transfer identified by researchers (e.g., Kasper, 1992). As far as pragmalinguistic transfer is concerned, Kasper (1992) accounts for illocutionary force and politeness value in L1, which might affect learners’ perception and/or production in L2. Sociopragmatic transfer also includes external contextual factors such as participants’ roles in a given sociolinguistic context. Different manifestations of pragmatic transfer have been identified so far, including interference or negative transfer and facilitative or positive transfer. In addition, as evidenced in earlier research, the influence of first language on second language might bring about different results of overuse (i.e., abuse) and underuse (i.e., avoidance) of functions and formulas. Most studies addressed the negative manifestation of pragmatic transfer. For instance, Kasper and Blum-Kulka (1993) have reported the frequency and use of Spanish routine formulas among Spanish learners of English who were often judged impolite due to their infrequent use of common formulas such as “Sorry” and “Please” during their stay in England. Takahashi (1996) also stated that it is difficult to identify the sources of pragmatic failure, which might be ascribed to L1 transfer, interlanguage overgeneralization, and/or transfer of training (i.e., instructional effect). Therefore, transferability of pragmatic routines needs to be studied further considering the different ways in which a language may influence the use of routine formulas.

As suggested in earlier research by Selinker (1972) and Han (2004), fossilization occurs in learners’ interlanguage performance because of five processes. The central processes are (1) language transfer, (2) transfer of training, (3) strategies of second language learning, (4) strategies of second language communication, and (5) overgeneralization of target linguistic material. Evidently, more research is needed to explore the possibility that other components of pragmatics can be the target of fossilization. Evidence from pragmatic research (e.g., Nattinger & DeCarrico, 1992; Roever, 2005; Weinert, 1995; Wray & Perkins, 2000) has shown that pragmatic routines which reflect the norms of speech communities are the target of learning for language learners. Since pragmatic routines may vary in form, function, and frequency from one language to another, they are likely to become fossilizable structures. In addition, advanced EFL learners may have good knowledge of a range of pragmatic routines but still commit the typical errors in these formulas. Therefore, it appears that pragmatic routines hold great relevance for fossilization. Despite this need for research on pragmatic fossilization, pragmatic fossilization in general and fossilization of pragmatic routines in particular have not been explored among EFL learners in Iran.

Against this backdrop, the present study set out to investigate the common errors in pragmatic routines among Iranian Persian-speaking learners of L2 English across proficiency levels. Additionally, the present study aimed to explore the sources of fossilization of pragmatic routines among advanced learners of L2 English. Sources of fossilization are important since they are among the seven significant aspects of fossilization specified by Selinker and Lamendella (1978): (1) the nature of fossilization, (2) its source, (3) its objects, (4) the manner of fossilization, (5) the point at which it begins, (6) its persistence, and (7) candidates for fossilization. To address the two purposes of the study, the following questions were formulated:

  1. What are the frequent errors in English pragmatic routines committed by pre-intermediate, intermediate, and advanced Persian-speaking L2 learners of English?
  2. What are the sources of fossilization of English pragmatic routines among advanced Persian-speaking L2 learners of English?



The participants were 230 male and female Persian-speaking learners of L2 English enrolled in EFL classes in four English language institutes, all of which offered a six-level communicative course, using the textbook series Top Notch. Participation in the study was voluntary and consisted of 42 (18.3%) pre-intermediate, 99 (43.0%) intermediate, and 89 (38.7%) advanced learners. Top Notch 2 was used at the pre-intermediate level as the textbook. Top Notch 3 and Summit 1 were used at the intermediate-level. For the advanced learners, Summit 2 functioned as the textbook. Table 1 depicts the relevant characteristics of the learners.

Table 1. EFL learners’ profile summary

No. of Learners Percentage
Percentage (%)
(Top Notch 2)
42 18.3 18.3
(Top Notch 3 and Summit 1)
99 43.0 61.3
(Summit 2)
89 38.7 100
Total 230 100


Pragmatic routines test

The typical error as an established approach to fossilization research was used in the current research. To this end, a validated teacher-made test of English pragmatic routines with the Cronbach alpha reliability index of .86 was developed to determine the typical errors committed by pre-intermediate, intermediate, and advanced EFL learners. The test consisted of 38 multiple-choice items which measured the knowledge of English pragmatic routines. The list of expressions was constructed from the conversational formulas used in a variety of pragmatic studies such as Kecskes (2007) and Roever (2005). Each item of the test consisted of a short conversation and three choices, as illustrated in (1). The learners were asked to choose one correct response out of the three choices. The two incorrect choices were either taken from word-by-word translation from Persian to English or were pragmalinguistically and/or sociopragmatically incorrect in the particular context of the conversation. Two experts’ judgments evidenced the soundness of the right choice and the inappropriacy of the wrong choices.

(1) A: What a fantastic coat! Was it expensive?
      B: ——————————

a. It was not worthy of you.
b. It was nothing at all.
c. It cost an absolute fortune!

The test items included various correct choices ranging from more commonly used pragmatic routines such as ‘Thanks,’ ‘Yes, of course,’ and ‘Terrible’ to increasingly less commonly used routines such as ‘I forgot all about it,’ ‘I’m to blame,’ and ‘Much obliged.’ It was assumed that some of the items would be more difficult than others, not necessarily because of the target routines but due to the relation between the right answer and the distractors. For example, in some items both the target routines and the distractors were correct routines when considered in isolation, but the distractors were not the correct choices in that specific context. Besides the use of linguistically appropriate but contextually inappropriate L2 pragmatic routines as distractors, some other distractors were developed out of non-target L1-driven expressions for the Persian-speaking learners of English, such as the following:

(1) Sharmandam
      ‘I’m really ashamed’

(2) Pak faramoosh kardam
      ‘I cleanly forgot’

(3) Hamash harfe
      ‘That’s only words’

(4) Ghabele shoma ro nadareh
      ‘It was not worthy of you’

(5) Ta’arof nakonid
      ‘Aren’t you complimenting?’

(6) Lotf mikonid
      ‘That’s you favor’

(7) Mehmane man bash
      ‘Be my guest’

(8) Hamash taghsire mane
      ‘It’s all my blame’

These are some of the most common formulaic expressions used in Persian conversations. For instance, ‘It was not worthy of you’ is commonly used in Persian in response to compliments. In terms of its function, as Sharifian (2008) noted, it is used to scale down the compliment while raising the status of the complimenter.

Pragmatic judgment interviews

Out of the 89 advanced EFL learners, 15 who scored less than half in the pragmatic routines test were characterized as fossilized learners and asked to participate in one-on-one retrospective interviews. The interviews (i.e., the second phase of the study) took place a week after the test. The purpose of the pragmatic judgment interview was to gain further understanding of persistent errors that were committed by fossilized advanced EFL participants in the study. To investigate the sources of the errors, only questions that were incorrectly answered were included in the interviews. The participants were asked to explain their reasons for selecting the (incorrect) choices and not the other alternatives. They were also asked to state the degree of their familiarity with the correct answer.

Data collection and analysis

To investigate their knowledge of L2 pragmatic routines, the participants were given 20 minutes for the test. The goal was to encourage learners to respond quickly, as approximately 30 seconds was allotted for each item on a recognition test. To check learners’ familiarity with the L2 pragmatic routines, one week later the second phase was conducted to ask the fossilized advanced EFL learners who had received the lowest scores on the test to reconsider the questions they answered incorrectly and explain why they preferred one choice to the others.
The learners were interviewed individually in Persian for about 15 minutes each and did not receive any interventions. The comments from the learners were focused on the questions that they had answered incorrectly. All the interviews were audiotaped and transcribed verbatim for further analysis.

The responses to the test of pragmatic routines were analyzed and the common errors were identified. The number of errors that occurred across proficiency levels was counted, and the descriptive statistics, including mean values and standard deviations, were calculated. The advanced EFL learners’ interviews were recorded and categorized by two teacher-raters to investigate the sources of fossilization. To probe the sources of fossilization of English pragmatic routines, an inductive and data-driven method proposed in grounded theory was used to analyze the qualitative data emerging from the learners’ interview protocols. The errors were identified and the comments were coded. The elicited data were categorized and, based on Creswell (2012), the extracted categories were checked against the data until ‘saturation’ was achieved.

Results and discussion

Frequent errors in English pragmatic routines

The first research question was aimed to probe the frequent errors in English pragmatic routines committed by pre-intermediate, intermediate, and advanced Persian-speaking learners of English. To investigate the question, the results of the test of pragmatic routines were analyzed and the common errors were identified. Table 2 shows the most common errors for each proficiency level. It reports on the five most frequent errors across proficiency levels, with the corresponding mean values ranging from (0=incorrect answer) to (1=correct answer). As can be seen, the common errors for pre-intermediate learners were ‘Much appreciated’ (item 38, M = .14), ‘It’s all my blame’ (item 29, M = .19), ‘Let me see’ (item 7, M = .23), ‘No trouble at all’ (item 35, M = .28), and ‘I mean’ (item 36, M = .28). For advanced learners, the most frequent errors included ‘Much appreciated’ (item 38, M = .15), ‘It’s all my blame’ (item 29, M = .35), ‘What a pain’ (item 31, M = .39), ‘Let me see’ (item 7, M = .39), and ‘What’s wrong?’ (item 14, M = .42).

Table 2. Descriptive statistics of the common errors in English pragmatic routines

Pre-intermediate Intermediate Advanced
Item No. M Frequency
(n = 42)
Percentage Item No. M Frequency (n = 99) Percentage Item No. M Frequency
(n = 89)
Item 38
(Much appreciated)
.14 36 85.7 Item 38
(Much appreciated)
.19 80 80.8 Item 38
(Much appreciated)
.15 75 84.3
Item 29
(It’s all my blame)
.19 34 81.0 Item 29
(It’s all my blame)
.20 79 79.8 Item 29
(It’s all my blame)
.35 57 64.0
Item 7
(Let me see)
.23 32 76.2 Item 7
(Let me see)
.30 69 69.7 Item 31
(What a pain)
.39 54 60.7
Item 35
(No trouble at all)
.28 30 71.4 Item 24
(That’s nice)
.32 67 67.7 Item 7
(Let me see)
.39 53 59.6
Item 36
(I mean)
.33 28 66.7 Item 12
(I cleanly forgot)
.33 66 66.7 Item 14
(What’s wrong?)
.42 51 57.3

A comparison of the common errors committed by pre-intermediate and intermediate learners for the five most difficult items of the test shows that the frequent errors were ‘Much appreciated’ (instead of ‘Much obliged’), ‘It’s all my blame’ (instead of ‘I’m to blame’), and ‘Let me see’ (instead of ‘I’d no idea’), respectively. Similarly, the frequent errors for intermediate and advanced EFL learners were found in item 38 (‘Much appreciated’) and item 29 (‘It’s all my blame’). As displayed in Table 2, ‘What a pain’ instead of ‘Poor you’ (item 31, M=.39) was among the most frequent types of error committed by the advanced EFL learners. It appears that the most frequent types of errors across proficiency levels were mainly the result of sociopragmatic rather than pragmalinguistic failure. As to the interplay of functional adequacy and situational appropriateness, it was found that the learners selected the incorrect options regardless of the context in which the pragmatic routine occurred (e.g., ‘What’s going on here?’ instead of ‘What’s wrong?’ in a conversation between a police officer and a participant of a traffic accident).

Table 3 presents the mean scores of the responses to all items for each level. The results show that the mean scores, out of 38, ranged from a low of 19 for pre-intermediate to a high of 20 for intermediate learners. As is shown, the highest mean score was for the advanced learners with the value of 24.61.

Table 3. Total Descriptive statistics of errors in English pragmatic routines

Proficiency N Min Max M SD
Pre-intermediate 42 10.00 31.00 18.59 5.16
Intermediate 99 12.00 34.00 20.83 5.23
Advanced 89 13.00 35.00 24.61 5.08

The above findings reveal the common errors that the participants made in the recognition of pragmatic routines. It was found that the most common errors made by the participants included, inter alia, non-target-like utterances in an expression of apology (e.g., ‘I’m really ashamed’ instead of ‘I’m absolutely sorry’), a statement of responsibility (e.g., ‘It’s all my blame’ instead of ‘I’m to blame’), and a promise of forbearance (e.g., ‘No trouble at all’ instead of ‘These things happen’). Based on the findings, it can be argued that pragmatic routines are often challenging for L2 learners since they do not lend themselves to context-free pre-patterned expressions (Kecskes, 2007, 2014; Wray & Namba, 2003). The findings indicate that the challenging distractors for EFL learners are those expressions which are related to sociopragmatic rather than pragmalinguistic features of pragmatic routines.

The sources of fossilization of English pragmatic routines

To answer the second research question, the error taxonomy was developed based on the interview protocols. The aim was to show why the advanced EFL learners in the study committed the persistent errors in pragmatic routines. The findings from Table 4 show that there were six sources for fossilization of pragmatic routines among the participants.

Table 4. Sources of fossilization of English pragmatic routines

Categories Frequency
(N = 149)

Non-target like use of L1-driven expressions

39 26.2%

Inadequate knowledge of and exposure to target expressions

31 20.8%

Overgeneralization of target-like expressions

25 16.8%

Context-specific variables

23 15.4%

Grammatical errors

17 11.4%

Other performance variables

14 9.4%

As evident from Table 4, language transfer (f=39, percentage=26.2%), inadequate knowledge (f=31, percentage=20.8%), and overgeneralization of target-like utterances (f=25, percentage=16.8%) were among the most frequent sources of pragmatic fossilization. What follows presents the extracted categories along with relevant examples taken from the learners’ retrospective interviews. Based on the findings, the sources of fossilization fall into six main categories. It should be noted that no changes were made to the excerpts taken from the learners’ answers. The learners were given pseudonyms to guarantee their anonymity.

(1) Non-target like use of L1-driven expressions
This source of pragmatic fossilization, as most learners mentioned, refers to the influence of first language (L1) pragmatic transfer on the EFL learners’ recognition of target-like expressions. It was found that the pragmatic expressions such as ‘It was not worthy of you,’ as illustrated in Example (2), occurred as a result of L1 transfer.

(2) A: What a fantastic coat! Was it expensive?
      B: ——————————

a. It was not worthy of you.
b. It was nothing at all.
c. It cost an absolute fortune!

One of the learners (L7), for example, commented that:

I chose ‘It was not worthy of you’ because I think in all modesty it is better to say that a thing is worthless even though it’s a high-priced item. I think this is a common practice. But perhaps it sounds too Farsi.

Similarly, L12 stated that:

We normally use ‘lotf darin’ [That’s your favor] and ‘ghabeli nadareh’ [It was not worthy of you] in Farsi. You know. We use them to socialize with others and to be more kind and hospitable.

(2) Inadequate knowledge of and exposure to target expressions
This source of fossilization points to the learners’ lack of familiarity with target-like communicative expressions. The comments from the advanced respondents revealed their limited knowledge of the correct pragmatic routines in some cases. As in Example (3), most of the learners did not choose the correct answer.

(3) A: —————. It’s very kind of you to let me borrow your notes.
      B: Glad to be of help.

a. Much obliged.
b. Much appreciated.
c. Much thanks.

For instance, L3 said that:

I am not generally familiar with the expression of ‘Much obliged’ in a spoken conversation. I selected ‘Much appreciated’ from the other choices since I’ve heard it the most.

(3) Overgeneralization of target-like utterances
Overgeneralization was another source of fossilization. It refers to the overextended use of existing L2 knowledge to new target expressions and indicates the learners’ ignorance of rule restrictions. This resulted in an infelicitous statement of responsibility, for instance, when the participants overgeneralized the use of the conventional formula ‘It’s all my blame.’ As in Example (4), the learners cross-associated ‘It’s all may blame’ with its Persian equivalent, ‘Hamash taghsire mane.’

(4) A: I forgot to fill up the tank before we left.
      B: Oh! Do you mean to say we’ve run out of petrol?
      A: I’m afraid we have and —————.

a. I get a blame
b. I’m to blame
c. It’s all my blame

Echoing the same idea, L10, for instance, noted that:

I think the correct answer is ‘It’s all my blame.’ It reflects its alternative in English which is ‘It’s all my fault.’

(4) Context-specific variables
The learners’ lack of familiarity with the contextual factors, such as the degree of formality and the length of utterance for situation-bound expressions, was also a source of fossilization. As shown in Example (5), one of the conversations in the test of pragmatic routines was between a police officer and a driver involved in a traffic accident. Accordingly, the police officer needed to address the driver as depicted in the following short dialog:

(5) A: —————? How fast were you going?
      B: Driver: I don’t know. Maybe 40.

a. What’s up?
b. What’s going on here?
c. What’s wrong?

It appears that other alternatives that may occur in a conversation between two close friends such as ‘What’s up?’ and ‘What’s wrong?’ were not appropriate in this context.

Likewise, L2 commented that:

I selected ‘What’s wrong’ regardless of the given context and the participants involved in this conversation.

(5) Grammatical errors
This source of fossilization in pragmatic routines occurred because of learners’ inattention to the grammatically correct form of a pragmatic routine. As reflected in Example (6), the participants answered this item incorrectly and selected ‘Let a try’ instead of ‘Let me give it a try’:

(6) A: Look. Here’s a quiz on events of the twentieth century.
      B: Oh, ———————-. I’m good at history.
      A: All right. First question: …

a. Let a try
b. Let me give try
c. Let me give it a try

L8, highlighting the simplicity of speech routines, expressed his ideas in the following words:

The lengthy expressions may not be that much useful in spoken language. I prefer to use ‘Let me a try’ in this short talk.

(6) Other performance variables
This prevailing source of fossilization refers to test takers’ performance variables, including test anxiety and fatigue. Referring to this source of errors, one of the learners (L9) stated that:

I was not prepared for a sudden exam.

Furthermore, L15 added that:

I was so stressful and I couldn’t focus my attention on the questions.

The aim of this study was not to simply count instances of particular responses but rather to explore the sources that appeared to underlie them. The findings of this study indicate that some language learning strategies (e.g., transfer, overgeneralization, and simplification) identified in L2 linguistic development also hold relevance for L2 pragmatics. This also appears to be in harmony with Selinker’s (1972) contention, suggesting that fossilization in learners’ interlanguage performance occurs as a result of five processes. The central processes are: (1) language transfer, (2) transfer of training, (3) strategies of second language learning, (4) strategies of second language communication, and (5) overgeneralization of target linguistic material.

It was found that specific pragmatic features are likely candidates for fossilization, namely those causing non-target like use of L1-driven expressions. A comparison of the common errors (e.g., ‘It wasn’t worthy of you,’ ‘Aren’t you complimenting,’ and ‘I’m really ashamed’) committed by pre-intermediate, intermediate, and advanced learners in English pragmatic routines indicates that L1 transfer is closely tied with pragmatic fossilization. In line with previous research (e.g., Han & Selinker, 1999; Selinker & Lakshmanan, 1992; Yu, 2011), this suggests that L1 transfer is a ‘privileged contributor’ to fossilized structures. According to Han (2004), it can then be argued that language transfer not only stabilizes but also fossilizes an interlanguage structure. It appears that advanced EFL learners’ recurrent errors arose from L1 typological transfer. One reason might be that this influence was not attended to in the language learning process.

Moreover, the qualitative analysis of the data indicates that advanced learners in the study committed the pragmatic errors mainly because of the inadequacy of exposure to target-like expressions (e.g., ‘Much obliged’ and ‘Good heavens!’). Yet, under this source of pragmatic fossilization, it was found that most advanced EFL learners reported their lack of exposure to English pragmatic routines. This finding seems to be supported by earlier studies (Dörnyei, Durow, & Zahran, 2004; Bardovi-Harlig & Bastos, 2011) which found that recognizing routines had a significant effect on the intensity of interaction. Similarly, Roever (2005) found that even short-term exposure to the host environment resulted in a greater knowledge of routines.

Furthermore, the findings of the interviews indicate that overgeneralization of target-like utterances is an evident source of fossilizable pragmatic routines. This source of fossilization, consistent with the related literature (Bardovi-Harlig, 2009; Ellis, 2003; Pawley & Syder, 1983; Selinker, 1972), was frequently mentioned by the participants in the study. The learners maintained that they selected the pragmatic routine, for example ‘It’s all my blame,’ incorrectly as it reflects its alternative formula in English which is ‘It’s all my fault.’

Meanwhile, this study showed that the context-specific source of fossilization reflects the interface between pragmalinguistic knowledge (i.e., the linguistic knowledge of expressions) and sociopragmatic (i.e., the knowledge of social contexts) whereby a learner may know an expression but be unaware of the context in which the expression can be used. This source of fossilization in L2 pragmatics substantiates the point made by Edmonson and House (1991), who suggest that EFL learners cannot necessarily handle conversational routines ‘because they do not have ready access to and therefore do not make use of, standardized routines for meeting the social imposition’ (p. 284).

As to the fifth source of pragmatic fossilization, errors in grammar, it was also found that learners preferred simple to elaborated expressions. This finding is in line with a number of previous studies (e.g., Bardovi-Harlig, 2009; Han, 2003). The errors in grammar were the result of grammatical inaccuracies and simplification of target-like utterances. As Farghal and Haggan (2006) found, grammatical inaccuracy and pragmatic inappropriateness were the major sources of errors in compliment responses in the case of bilingual Arab college students. In addition, it can be argued that when language learners pay attention to communicative fluency at the expense of grammatical accuracy, some inappropriate pragmatic routines are likely to be fossilized. Therefore, the speech may become grammatically inappropriate due to simplification, resulting in fossilized structures. Selinker (1993), for example, suggests that learners sometimes simplify the target-like utterances which could lead to fossilized expressions. The French immersion learners, for instance, may quite consciously use one form of the verb as a general strategy.

The final source of fossilization hinges upon the effect of performance variables such as learners’ fatigue and test-taking anxiety. Emphasizing the same fossilization source, Han (2003), for example, suggests that the internal and external causal factors (i.e., environmental, cognitive, neurobiological, and socio-affective) may result in fossilization. These sources of errors are also reflected in Selinker’s (1972) assertion that errors in learners’ interlanguage performance occur when their attention is focused on a new and difficult subject or when they are in a state of anxiety or in a state of other extreme excitement.


Pragmatic fossilization, as suggested by Han (2013), is an interlanguage unique phenomenon in which acquisition fossilizes a semi-developed pragmatic formula. With specific focus on the under-researched area of pragmatic fossilization, this study provided evidence on EFL learners’ common errors in pragmatic routines across proficiency levels and the sources of this fossilization among advanced learners. It appears that sociopragmatic errors persist in learners’ L2 pragmatic routines across proficiency levels. As to the recurrent pragmatic errors that language learners committed, the results show that pragmatic fossilization is the result of various manifestations of failure in L2 pragmatic acquisition. It can be concluded that, among the six sources of fossilization, first language transfer, lack of knowledge, and overgeneralization of native-like expressions are the most frequent ones among the fossilized advanced EFL learners.

As to the pedagogical implications of the study, it can be concluded that the quantity and diversity of pragmatic routines used in the context of teaching are the neglected aspects of language teaching curriculum. This can be due to the low-input pedagogical setting in which EFL learners fail to acquire the appropriate conversational routines. Thus, it can be contended that an input-rich learning situation results in L2 pragmatic acquisition and relatively less persistent errors. Pragmatic competence can then effectively be acquired by providing adequate input, increasing opportunity for communication practice, and enhancing explicit instruction in the use of pragmatic routines. A further implication for ELT stakeholders, namely syllabus designers, materials developers, teacher trainers, and teachers, is to contribute to the success of the teaching and learning process of pragmatic formulas by emphasizing the importance of sociopragmatic knowledge in L2 pragmatic acquisition.

However, this study is not without limitations which may decrease the generalisability of the findings. The data were collected through the adoption of a typical-error approach. To lend support to the findings of this study future longitudinal research should be done with more representative groups of participants in diverse contexts. Another limitation is the multiple-choice nature of the test that was used to determine learners’ familiarity with pragmatic routines. Moreover, the exploration of production of pragmatic routines by EFL learners has not been addressed in the current investigation. As to the persistent errors across proficiency levels, the examination of the relation of recognition and production in pragmatic routines is also a crucial step in the development of L2 pragmatic competence which requires further research. The recurrent errors in authentic conversational interactions that may cause misunderstanding among EFL learners must be further investigated. Future longitudinal research is also needed to shed light on the interplay between native language, interlanguage, and target language. It is ultimately suggested that teachers’ perceptions of sources of fossilization be explored in future research while attempting to minimize the possible perceptual mismatches between teachers and learners.

About the Authors

Zia Tajeddin is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Allameh Tabataba’i University, Iran, where he teaches doctoral courses in Discourse Analysis, Interlanguage Pragmatics, and Second Language Teacher Education. He is Chair of Iranian Interlanguage Pragmatics SIG, is editor of Issues in Language Teaching, and sits on the editorial/review boards of journals such as RELC Journal and TESL-EJ. His research interests center on interlanguage pragmatic instruction and assessment, classroom discourse analysis, teacher identity and cognition, and EIL/ELF. He has presented papers at international conferences and published papers in many journals, including The Language Learning Journal, Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, RELC Journal, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, TESL-EJ, and TESL Canada Journal.

Minoo Alemi is Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics at Islamic Azad University, West Tehran Branch, and a post-doctoral associate at Sharif University of Technology (SUT), Iran. She is the founder of Robot-Assisted Language Learning (RALL) and the co-founder of Social Robotics in Iran. She is on the editorial/review boards of many journals, including British Journal of Educational Technology, BRAIN, LIBRI, and Scientia Iranica. Her areas of interest include discourse analysis, interlanguage pragmatics, materials development, and robot-assisted language education. She has presented papers at many international conferences and published papers in journals such as Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, The Asia-Pacific Education Researcher, TESL Canada Journal, and International Journal of Social Robotics.

Roya Pashmforoosh is a Ph.D. candidate in Applied Linguistics at Kharazmi University, Iran, and a visiting researcher at Texas A&M University, US. Her areas of interest include interlanguage pragmatics, English as an international language (EIL), and speaking assessment. She has presented papers on pragmatics and EIL at international conferences and published papers in journals such as Language Testing.


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Testing as a Way to Monitor English as a Foreign Language Learning http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82a1/ Fri, 25 Aug 2017 05:41:38 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12431 August 2017 – Volume 21, Number 2

Anthony Becker
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, USA

Tatiana Nekrasova-Beker
Colorado State University, Fort Collins, USA

Tamara Petrashova
National Research Tomsk Polytechnic University, Tomsk, Russia


This study was conducted at a large technical university in Russia, which offers English language courses to students majoring in nine different degree programs. Each degree program develops and delivers its own English language curriculum. While all degree programs followed the same curriculum development model to design language courses, each program incorporated a unique set of objectives pertaining to the subject matter of its discipline. The purpose of this study was to determine if progress tests could be a useful assessment tool to monitor the effectiveness of foreign language study throughout a University English Language Program (UELP). Data from 600 English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students was analyzed using a repeated-measures ANOVA. The findings revealed that significant improvements in students’ scores were gained throughout the first phase of the UELP, which occurred over a two-year period. For the first time, the test data was used as a policy tool to introduce meaningful curricular adjustments, including revamping the instructional practices and methods of delivery to target a range of students’ proficiency levels and establish the cut scores for a minimal level of language ability for Bachelor’s degree students.


According to some estimates, English is spoken by approximately 1.75 billion people worldwide (British Council, 2013). As Mufwene (2010) notes, much of the expansion of the English language can be attributed to the prescription of English as a second or foreign language in secondary schools of almost every country of the Outer and Expanding Circles today as to its usage as the primary lingua franca of business, navigation, science and technology, and academia (p. 57). In Russia, it is estimated that only about five percent of the total population speaks English as a second language, which is in stark contrast to many other European countries (e.g., France, Germany, Netherlands, and Spain), where it is estimated that at least one-third of their respective population is bilingual or highly proficient in English (Abramova, Ananyina, & Shishmolina, 2013). Furthermore, in comparison to many other eastern European countries (including countries such as Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland, and Romania), Russian citizens tend to demonstrate far lower levels of English language proficiency (Education First, 2016). While there are many possible reasons to explain this circumstance (e.g., the geographical stature of Russia), many still argue that there is a strong need for Russia to further develop its English language programs, particularly at the university level (Abramova et al., 2013; Legasova, 2015).

Since the turn of the millennium, the Russian government has initiated several major efforts to improve the state of higher education and research in the country. In 2003, the Russian Higher Education System joined the Bologna Process. This process, which represents a series of agreements between European countries to ensure the comparability of standards and the quality of higher education qualifications (Reinalda & Kulesza, 2005), led to the appearance of more robust undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Russia. Shortly thereafter (in 2006), the Russian government created a formal hierarchy of higher-education establishments, which led to the creation of a university ranking system for Russian universities, as well as the designation of special status for high-performing Russian universities (Smolensteva, 2015). More recently, in 2009, a system of universal examinations was introduced for all high school graduates (i.e., the Unified State Exam), whereby the results of these exams have become the sole basis for deciding university enrollment in Russia. While these three initiatives were not undertaken to address English language education in Russia only, it was during their creation that the importance of the English language for Russians was solidified.

As a result of these educational reforms, a number of Russian universities have developed action plans for establishing and promoting themselves as leading research institutions. Many of these action plans include goals and performance indicators for priority fields (e.g., business, computer science, engineering), as well as for English language education. For example, at Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), the administration has established several initiatives related to English, including the following goals: (a) improving the English language teaching system for TPU applicants, students, and staff; (b) introducing a documentation system in the English language; and (c) developing the university’s bilingual social environment (with an emphasis on English) (TPU, 2013). The Russian Higher Education System believes that these efforts will help to close the perceived gap between Russia and its European counterparts.

Despite initiatives to promote English language education in Russia, the ability of universities to monitor students’ progress in learning English has been somewhat hampered. Monitoring, which aims to ensure a constant supervision of a given process so as to identify its correspondence to the desired result, can promote reflection on the results of educational and cognitive activities, as well as lead to possible corrections for the processes associated with them (Kaznachevskaya, 2013). It is often the case that efforts to monitor the effectiveness of English language programs in Russia are insufficient, as individual university departments are largely responsible for their own English language curricula (Tamara Petrashova, personal communication, March 15, 2017). Those who tackle the issue of monitoring student learning often refer to evidence of progress testing as an effective method (e.g., Bennett, Freeman, Coombes, Kay, & Ricketts, 2010; Schuwirth & van der Vleuten, 2012; van der Vleuten, Verwijnen, & Wijnen, 1996). The present study examines how progress testing was implemented to monitor student learning and improve instruction in an English language program at a Russian national research university.

Classroom-based language assessment

Language assessment, defined by Leung (2005) as the noticing and gathering of information about student language use in ordinary classroom activities, and the use of that information to make decisions about language teaching (p. 871), is a prominent component in most English language programs throughout the world. In second language classrooms, teachers implement assessments for many different reasons, including (but not limited to): (a) to monitor students’ language learning; (b) to provide feedback to students; (c) to establish language-learning goals; and (d) to evaluate instructional effectiveness. Tests, as just one possible form of assessment, are most commonly used by teachers to serve the above-mentioned purposes (Miller, Linn, & Gronlund, 2012). While arguments can be made against their use (e.g., see Crowley, 2004; Gilbert, 2016; Popham, 1999), when effectively designed and implemented, tests can be a meaningful part of the assessment process, as they can help to enhance student learning and increase the effectiveness of teaching practices. This is particularly true of criterion-referenced (CR) tests, which, as Jamieson (2011) explains, “ha[ve] a well-established history as a means of focusing the attention of both teachers and learners on important areas of instruction” (p. 1).

Criterion-referenced testing

Since Glaser’s (1963) coining of the terms criterion-referenced and norm-referenced in educational measurement, the prominence of CR tests has steadily grown, as they are seen as being more appropriate for answering questions about the actual achievement of students with respect to a particular domain (e.g., language learning). CR tests, in contrast to norm-referenced (NR) tests, which aim to compare an individual’s performance against that of others, are intended to provide an evaluative description of the qualities which are to be assessed (e.g., an account of what pupils know and can do) without reference to the performance of others (Brown, 1988, p. 4). The purpose underlying CR tests is to determine whether an [examinee] can demonstrate specified real-world abilities. In this way, students are compelled to devote time and effort on the important aspects of a task and not to waste time on things they are not required to [know or] do (Johnstone, Patterson, & Rubenstein, 1998, p. 37).

While NR and CR tests do share some similarities (e.g., both can be used in instructional settings), there are a number of differences that help to distinguish these two types of assessment (see Clifford, 2016; Jamieson, 2011). For example, while NR tests are more commonly used to assess course-specific learning and to assign course grades, CR tests are more often used to assess mastery of specific learning outcomes, as well as curriculum-independent skills and higher-order, program-level instructional skills (Clifford, 2016, p. 225). In addition, NR tests usually result in the generation of a single, average (i.e., compensatory) score, while CR tests typically result in the generation of separate skill-specific (i.e., non-compensatory) scores. Furthermore, NR tests typically cover a large domain of learning tasks, whereas CR tests tend to focus more on a specified domain of learning tasks. Finally, as Clifford (2016) mentions, because of their independence from a curriculum, CR tests can be used to compare the abilities of students from different classes against a common set of external ability expectations (p. 225). For English language programs, many of which monitor their students’ progress over the course of several semesters or years (Kaplan, 1997), CR assessments offer many distinct advantages for measuring progress not found in NR assessments.

Progress testing

As a form of CR assessment, progress tests are seen as being helpful in tracking students’ improvement over time. Progress tests, which act as longitudinal feedback-oriented assessment tools (Schuwirth & van der Vleuten, 2012; van der Vleuten et al., 1996), are administered to the same cohort of students in the same program throughout their entire academic program of study. Additionally, they are usually administered at regular intervals (e.g., once per semester) and sample knowledge and skills expected of graduating students upon completion of their courses. Schuwirth and van der Vleuten (2012) argue that progress tests offer several advantages. Specifically, the authors report that they (pp. 26-28):

  • are not restricted to a specific curriculum;
  • reduce the examination stress experienced by students;
  • complement traditional methods of assessment;
  • positively influence the student learning process;
  • are more predictive of future competence/performance; and
  • add to the reliability of decisions.

Given the longitudinal and complementary nature of progress tests, their use also provides a unique snapshot of students’ development throughout their course of study. Therefore, the information gleaned from progress tests serves to help make decisions about program advancement, instructional effectiveness and course design. Furthermore, progress tests can also be used formatively to help monitor an individual’s growth throughout a period of instruction. In this way, the results of progress tests can be used to make decisions about feedback to students, remediation, and materials development. In either case, progress tests provide a wealth of information about individual learners, as well as about the program they are situated within.

While there is plenty of evidence to suggest that progress tests can be a useful addition to an existing assessment program, the research in support of their use has largely come from areas outside of language education and assessment, primarily within the fields of medicine and psychology (e.g., Bennett et al., 2010; Dijksterhuis, Scheele, Schuwirth, Essed, & Nijhuis, 2009; Schaap, Schmidt, & Verkoeijen, 2011). To this point, research regarding the use of progress tests in language assessment has been limited, especially in comparison to the plethora of studies that have been conducted regarding other assessment and testing practices in the field. In addition, there is very little attention devoted to examining the English language assessment practices implemented in Russia. Given the perceived need for learning English as a second language in Russia (see Abramova et al., 2013; Legasova, 2015), a greater awareness of the assessment practices implemented in English language programs at Russian universities is needed.

Present study

In light of the information presented above, the present paper attempts to investigate the English language assessment practices implemented in Russia. Specifically, this paper focuses on progress test data collected during the first of three stages (occurring from 2012-2014) of a required university English language program (UELP) offered to EFL learners studying at one of the tertiary institutions in Russia. The study sought to answer the following research question: To what extent do EFL students demonstrate performance gains during the first phase of a UELP implemented at a prominent Russian university?

Institutional profile and status of English

The university where the study was conducted is located in the southwest of Siberia, and is one of the leading polytechnic universities in Russia. The university consists of 7 scientific and educational institutes and offers four-year Bachelors degree programs and two-year Master’s degree programs. The primary goal of these programs is to provide quality instruction to meet the educational needs of individuals, society and the State.

Since 1998, the university has emphasized English language teaching to ensure that future professionals are able to use the language to explore and adapt the best approaches and practices of their foreign peers, as well as to efficiently represent their own country in the foreign market. The university language departments and the faculty provide courses in the English language for students majoring in: Natural Science and Mathematics, Humanities, Applied Physics and Engineering, Electrophysics and Electronic Equipment, Economics and Management, Mechanical Engineering, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Thermal Power Engineering, Computer Science and Engineering. Since 2009, the UELP has been divided into three stages (see Table 1).

The first stage of the program focuses on developing mostly communicative and linguistic skills with a special emphasis on particular aspects of the language within the range of topics studied. The distinctive feature of the programs curriculum at the second and third stages is an emphasis on learning English through specific academic content. Content-based instruction at these stages relies on the philosophy that learners acquire English by doing academic course work through the medium of that language (Pessoa et al., 2007). Students take specialized credit-bearing university courses in English and then prepare and defend part of their degree project in English. Thus, students acquire English by using it for both academic and professional purposes.

One of the distinctive features of the program’s curriculum is the emphasis on teaching and learning English through the study of social as well as professional and academic content areas. With the goal of developing communicative language competence (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, 2004), a great deal of emphasis is placed on teaching methods, especially those related to English for Specific Purposes (ESP). Furthermore, substantial emphasis has also been placed on learner-oriented instruction. As a result, students’ needs have been given considerable attention in order to develop syllabi and ensure that a given course serves its target audience (Cowling, 2007).

Table 1
Structure of the University English Language Program

Stage Year of program Degree General goals
Stage 1 1-2 Bachelor’s To develop communicative competence in everyday situations
relevant to home, university, social life, etc.; to prepare
students for specialized ESP courses as well as to develop
their academic English ability and study skills needed for
success in undergraduate courses; to develop the English
language proficiency needed to succeed in English-medium
Stage 2 3-4 Bachelor’s To develop communicative competence in the sphere of
students’ specialization and general areas of science.
Stage 3 5-6 Master’s To develop discipline-specific competence as well as
academic English ability and skills needed for success in
career and science.

In order to determine the relative value of language instruction methods employed by the UELP, and to monitor students’ English language study, three progress tests were administered to all full-time students. The first progress test (PT1) was administered at the beginning of Stage 1, and was used to make entrance decisions for the UELP. The second progress test (PT2) was administered at the mid-point of Stage 1 (i.e., at the end of the first year of study), while the third progress test (PT3) was administered at the end of Stage 1 (i.e., at the end of the second year of study). Although the three tests did reflect some of the English language skills typically taught in the first two years of the UELP, each test was intended to measure students’ English language proficiency, not their language achievement, as they were not specifically linked to the English language curriculum implemented by the department.

Progress Test

Test standardization

According to Davies et al. (2002), a standardized test has to reflect a certain suite of characteristics, including: (a) rigorous development, trialing and revision, (b) standard procedures for administration and scoring of the test, (c) standard content in all test versions based on specifications, and (d) reliability of scores. Taken together, these characteristics are important for helping to ensure that a test is suitable for the purposes of comparability across large groups of test takers. As Davies et al. note, while all of these characteristics are of utmost importance for designing large-scale standardized tests, they should likewise be important considerations for any program that implements standardized tests. Therefore, the progress tests at the UELP were designed with these same characteristics in mind.

Specifically, the progress tests included authentic reading passages that closely resembled the types of English language texts that students were likely to encounter in their actual content-specific courses. They also included language skills (e.g., comprehension of main ideas and details, making inferences from context) and major content (e.g., academic vocabulary) targeted in the academic domain. Furthermore, the tests were piloted with a group of students recruited from the same population (n = 283), and test items were analyzed by computing item difficulty and item discrimination indices. Finally, internal consistency, which is an estimate of the reliability associated with how well the test items that reflect the same construct yield similar results (Bachman & Palmer, 2010), was determined for each of the tests using Cronbach’s alpha (see below).

Test format

Each progress test included two sections: (1) Reading and (2) Language Use. Being restricted by practical constraints, such as time and cost, the test developers attempted to identify an essential core of language abilities that would be relevant to the range of academic situations in which students would find themselves. One of the main competencies that students were expected to acquire during the program was reading and comprehending general academic texts on technical topics as well as more specialized journals articles in their respective disciplines. Therefore, the Reading sub-test assessed the students’ ability to understand written texts typical for the academic context. This test section was intended to tap such aspects of information processing as extraction of selected information, reading for the gist and for detailed information, and complex information processing including comprehension of implicit information. Another area of concern that was explicitly targeted in the language curriculum was students’ ability to recognize and appropriately use morpho-syntactic constructions in an academic register (e.g., passive voice, nominalizations, the use of participles). Thus, the Language Use sub-test assessed students’ skills in operating morpho-syntactic constructions in a specific communicative context. Although the choice of tested skills related to the areas in which students need to succeed in an academic domain and which, therefore, were the most immediate needs of the program, we do acknowledge that the construct of the English language proficiency targeted in the progress tests was very narrow. Speaking was not included in the test, as it was assessed using other formative measures.

Overall, each progress test consisted of 50 multiple-choice items. The Reading section consisted of two short popular science or journalistic texts (250 to 350 words each), followed by five comprehension questions, for a total of 10 questions. The Language Use section included 30 fill-in-the-blank items which required students to complete gaps in given sentences with necessary grammar material, as well as 10 items requiring the identification of a mistake in one of the marked fragments of the sentence.

Each progress test was scored by assigning two points for each correct answer. Each wrong or absent answer was given a score of 0 points. No partial credit scores were assigned. The total score was the sum of scores for both sections, with a possible maximum of 100 points per test. See Table 2 for information about the number of questions in the sections, skills tested, and raw scores for each section.

Table 2
General Description of UELP Progress Tests

No. of questions Question
% of
total score
Section 1. Language Use 80 80%
1-30 Recognizing grammar to be correctly used in a given context 30 Multiple- choice, sentence completion 60 60%
31-40 Recognizing grammar incorrectly used in a given context 10 Multiple- choice, error identification 20 20%
Section 2. Reading 20 20%
41-45 Understanding main idea and/ or details 5 Multiple- choice, comprehension questions 10 10%
46-50 Understanding vocabulary from context 5 Multiple- choice, word meaning identification 10 10%
Total: 50 100 100%

Students had a total of approximately 256 class hours (4 hours/week) in the UELP, and the time periods between the three test administrations were roughly equal. Thus, it meant that after PT1 the students received English instruction for about 128 hours before taking PT2, and PT3 occurred after about the same number of hours following the completion of PT2.

Prior to administering the tests, a standard-setting study to establish the level of the language and skills tested was carried out by UELP teachers and test administrators, each with more than 10 years of experience in English-language instruction. According to the panelists’ judgment, the language used and skills tested in the questions corresponded to the levels of foreign language proficiency specified by the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (Council of Europe, 2014).

Each administration of the progress test was carried out on computers using the Moodle Course Management System. The testing took place in a classroom equipped with personal computers with Internet access. All test-takers were capable computer users since they had already studied the basics of computer science. While the paper-based versions of the test were also available, none of the participants included in the study took the paper and pencil test. The testing procedures were monitored by proctors who received special training to administer the tests.

The testing session lasted 45 minutes, not including time for instructions. The use of dictionaries, other study and reference materials, mobile communication devices and other sources of information during the testing time was not allowed. While performing the test, students could take notes on blank paper provided by the proctors. However, students’ notes were not taken into account in the scoring procedures. Scoring was performed automatically for each progress test. Students’ total score was reported immediately following the test, and was registered and stored by the online system. Students were given only one attempt to take the test.

In order to build an individual progress report for individuals studying within the program, students’ scores for the three progress tests were compared. Specifically, scores for PT1 were compared to scores for PT2, and those scores were then compared to the scores for PT3. Having scores from three separate test administrations made it possible to measure students’ progress throughout the program and to assess students’ end-of-program English-language proficiency with respect to the skills tested.

Data Analysis

There were three test administrations for students who entered the university in 2012. PT1 was administered in September 2012, PT2 in May 2013, and PT3 in March 2014. For these three tests, one and the same test battery (compiled out of 500 bank items that were identified by their content specifications and for which item statistics were available) was administered. The number of students who took part in the UELP testing was as follows: PT1 -1813 (87%); 2- 1547 (79%); 3 -1477 (83%). However, the scores of only those students (n = 1154) who participated in all three test administrations were considered for the analysis.

In order to determine the reliability of the scores for each test, internal consistency was calculated for each of the test forms using Cronbach’s Alpha. According to Kline (2000), alpha values ranging from 0.7 to 0.9 are adequate, while values at, or above, 0.9 are desirable for high-stakes testing. As the UELP progress tests were considered to be relatively low-stakes testing, reliability coefficients at, or above, 0.7 were considered adequate.

In addition, a repeated-measures analysis of co-variance (RM-ANCOVA) test was used to compare the mean test scores of 600 randomly selected examinees across the three test administrations. Test administration served as the within-subjects variable and the mean scores for the three test administrations served as the dependent variable. ANCOVA is particularly useful in situations when the dependent variable could be adjusted for differences in the covariate(s) (Mayer, 2013). For the present study, the group mean scores were adjusted to account for the different test forms that were administered (i.e., the covariate).


Using Cronbach’s Alpha, internal consistency was first calculated. Overall, the reliability coefficients across the different test forms ranged from .796 to .893, which were considered to be adequate for these progress tests. In addition, the mean scores of 600 examinees were compared across the three test administrations. The descriptive statistics are presented in Table 3.

In order to ensure that the RM- ANCOVA test was being used appropriately, certain assumptions had to be met (see Tabachnick & Fidell, 2007). The kurtosis and skewness values ranged between +/- 2, suggesting that the assumption of normality had been satisfied. Furthermore, the result of Mauchly’s Test of Sphericity was non-significant [X2(2) = 4.81, p = .203], indicating that there was equal variance across all three administrations. As all assumptions were met, the use of RM-ANCOVA was deemed appropriate for the present study.

Table 3
Descriptive Statistics for PT1, PT2, and PT3 (n = 600)

Test Mean (for group) SD Min. – Max.
PT1 37.11 13.73 10.00 – 84.00
PT2 41.61 15.53 14.00 – 88.00
PT3 47.50 17.92 12.00 – 96.00
Total average 42.07 16.37 — —

The RM-ANCOVA test revealed a statistically significant main effect, F(2, 597) = 54.27, p < .05, indicating that the mean total scores for the tests were not the same for all three test administrations. Post-hoc comparisons, using Tukey HSD procedures, were used to determine which pairs of the three group means differed. As Table 4 shows, the scores from the first test administration (PT1) were significantly lower than the scores from the second and third test administrations (PT2 and PT3). The effect sizes for these significant pairwise differences were 2.35 and 4.87, respectively. In addition, the mean score difference between PT2 and PT3 was found to be significant. The effect size for this significant difference was 2.55.

Table 4
Tukey HSD Post-Hoc Results for Three Test Administrations

Mean Differences (ik)
(Effect Size is indicated in parentheses)
Test Mean 1. 2. 3.
1. PT1 37.11
2. PT2 41.61 4.54*
3. PT3 47.50 10.96*

* p < .01


The present study focused on progress testing as one possibility to monitor the development of students’ language abilities. The results revealed that students’ mean test scores improved significantly from one progress test to the next (i.e., PT1 PT 2 PT3) over a period of four academic semesters. These findings partially support similar research (e.g., Elder & O’Loughlin, 2002) that also investigated the relationship between English language study and score gains on a standardized test. There are several possible explanations for the findings in the present study.

As a whole, students who were in the first stage of the UELP appeared to experience greater gains than students in the second stage of the program. Elder and O’Loughlin (2002) explain that this is likely because the proficiency that one starts with is the most constant indicator of how far one is likely to travel over the course of their language studies (p. 226). In other words, those students who began the current study with a lower level of English language proficiency had a higher ceiling for growth over the course of the study compared to students who began the study with a higher level of proficiency.

Furthermore, the large gains in students’ overall scores could also be explained by a variety of other factors outside of the curriculum. For instance, a considerable number of students in the present study sought additional assistance (e.g., tutoring) on top of their English language instruction. In addition, not surprisingly, those students who regularly attended their English language classes performed far better on the second and third progress tests. Future research could build on the present study by considering other factors outside of the curriculum that are likely to influence test score gains, such as learning experiences with peers, parental support, educational background, and motivation (Elder & O’Loughlin, 2002; Shavelson et al., 2010).

Since the main purpose of the study was to examine if the results of progress tests could provide additional insights into the quality of English language courses offered at the university, the findings of the study had direct implications for classroom instruction, curriculum development, and policy making.

On a classroom level, test results were used to inform language instruction, including adjusting instructional practices and methods of delivery to target a range of proficiency levels that are often present in a given language classroom. As several instructors reported during interviews, using test scores to group students during classroom activities had been a useful strategy to ensure that the needs of all students were met. Also, since language instructors across university language programs were provided access to the overall summary of the results describing the performance of their students in relation to other departments and specializations, this information was used to identify the specific linguistic structures and sub-skills that appeared to be challenging for each particular group of students. Once the salient points were identified, the instructors then sequenced the material in terms of the difficulty level and dedicated additional classroom time to address those points. Depending on the specific needs of the students, the type of instructional support differed in each class and covered a range of activities from contextualized presentation of the target material to guided practice to providing opportunities for more creative use of the language and fluency development. Finally, multiple feedback sessions have been conducted with language instructors from various English programs at the university in attempts to discuss the goals of the progress testing system, its place in the overall educational process, and how the results should be interpreted and what types of decisions can be made based on those results. Following these discussions, the structure of the progress testing system has been revised as well to include an additional section on Listening, an important sub-skill of the functional language ability that is targeted during language instruction across all university English language programs.

In addition to direct implications for classroom instruction, the study provided justification for the use of progress tests as one of the ways to monitor students’ language development in different university language programs and to provide remediation for students. Students’ performance on each of the three tests was analyzed and the scores were reported back to the students, along with qualitative feedback and recommended instructional modules that were developed to provide additional language instruction (including explanations, examples, and pedagogical activities) on the most challenging content targeted in the progress tests. Currently, 13 modules have been developed focusing on 10 language usage aspects (e.g., the use of passive voice in an academic register) and three aspects of reading comprehension (e.g., understanding main ideas), all targeting B1-B2 levels on CEFR (for modules specification, see Petrashova & Yagovkina, 2013). All modules have been designed for on-line delivery to motivate students to work independently outside of the classroom. The content targeted in the modules has been identified based on the item analysis of test items, including item difficulty, which was conducted for the entire pool of test-takers. Since the proficiency levels of the students vary, the decision was made to provide all explanations included in the modules in Russian to ensure that the content was accessible to all students, regardless of their proficiency level in English. All developed modules are hosted on a web-based course support system and are open to all individuals who have taken the progress test. Once the results of the progress tests and the feedback associated with the scores become available, students receive unlimited access to the modules, so that they are able to go through the material at their own pace from any location, as long as they are logged into the university system.

Finally, in terms of more global implications, the results of the tests were used to introduce several policy-making decisions at the university. One such decision was to incorporate the results of the progress tests in the annual evaluation of language departments performed by the Vice-Rector for Student Affairs, which offers additional evidence about the quality of language instruction provided by the department. In addition, the discussion of the test results at the university council has resulted in the decision to accept the cut-point of the proficiency test (of 50 and above) administered at the end of the second year (PT3) of study as a minimal level for Bachelor degree students, as well as an admission requirement to pursue master degree programs at the university. Finally, the results of the tests are also reviewed by individual departments to pre-screen students for participation in international exchange programs and research activities that require a certain level of English proficiency.


The results of this study should be interpreted with caution for several reasons. First, while standardized tests can be used to chart students’ language development, it is important to remember that language growth patterns should never be based solely on test scores. Instead, language programs should also incorporate informal assessment methods to monitor progress and determine whether or not students’ language skills are improving (Short, 1993). Additional insights can be gained from evaluating students’ performance in the classroom concurrently with their performance on progress tests. Furthermore, information about students’ performance can be gleaned from instructors, as well as from students themselves. Such information, along with performance on progress tests, would likely be more revealing for informing instruction and designing remedial materials for learners (Lee & Sawaki, 2009).

Second, the progress tests included in the study focused on a rather limited set of skills that, no doubt, imposed an important limitation on the evaluation of test takers communicative competence. Because the tests were designed with some practicality constraints (e.g., time availability, programming, resources), it includes only multiple-choice items that provide a certain ease of recognition and guessing success. Therefore, determining the relationship of test performance largely based on multiple-choice items to any “real-world” criterion requires further empirical examination to determine the extent of its correlation with other measures.


The present study explored if the use of progress tests could provide additional information about the quality of English language instruction at a large public university in Russia. The results indicated that, overall, students showed significant increases in test scores across the three test administrations, which, in turn, led to a number of important administrative decisions made at the university. At the same time, the results of the study also highlighted the need for broadening the construct of the English language proficiency by incorporating productive language skills.

About the Authors

Anthony Becker is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University. He has been teaching in the TEFL/TESL program there since 2012. He holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from Northern Arizona University. Aside from work dealing with second language assessment, his other research and teaching interests include language for specific purposes, second language writing, and computer applications in applied linguistics. When not working, he enjoys an occasional hike or run in and around Fort Collins, Colorado.

Tatiana Nekrasova-Beker is an Assistant Professor in Applied Linguistics and TEFL/TESL at Colorado State University where she is currently teaching graduate courses in the TEFL/TESL program, including Teaching English as a Foreign/Second Language, Theories of Foreign/Second Language Learning, and Curriculum Development in English for Specific Purposes. She holds a doctorate in Applied Linguistics from Northern Arizona University. Her research interests include usage-based approaches to L2 acquisition, the role of formulaic language in fluency and syntactic development, project-based methods in L2 instruction, and corpus-based analyses of ESP texts.

Tamara Petrashova heads the Department of Quality Assurance in Foreign Language Training at TPU. She received her PhD in Philology from Ivanovo State University (Russia) in 2006. Dr. Petrashova’s current research interests cover the influence of assessment on learning teaching process, ESP assessment, advanced methods in EFL, project-based learning and teaching, and various topics in applied linguistics research, including vocabulary acquisition, methods and techniques in corpus linguistics.


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Classroom Writing Assessment and Feedback in L2 School Contexts http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82r3/ Wed, 23 Aug 2017 23:13:25 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12425 August 2017 – Volume 21, Number 2

Classroom Writing Assessment and Feedback in L2 School Contexts

Author: Icy Lee (2017)  
Publisher: Springer Nature Singapore
Pages ISBN Price
157 pages 978-981-10-3922-5 $69.99 USD

In the book Classroom Writing Assessment and Feedback in L2 School Contexts, Icy Lee highlights the need to integrate and bring together classroom assessment and feedback as the two interconnected components of classroom assessment, rather than two separate entities. The book calls for “learning-oriented assessment” (Carless, 2007, p. 57), which underscores “the crucial link between assessment, as carried out in the classroom, and learning and teaching” (Assessment Reform Group, 1999, p. 1). The book also elaborates on a paradigm shift from Assessment of Learning (AoL) to Assessment for Learning (AfL) and Assessment as Learning (AaL). AfL also focuses primarily on classroom feedback and the way it can be utilized to enhance students’ learning. Assessment for Learning (AfL)-oriented classrooms strongly emphasizes quality feedback and active learner involvement (Brookhart, 2011). Capitalizing on the existing second language (L2) writing theories and research, the book is a pioneering work that deals with writing assessment and feedback in L2 primary and secondary classrooms.

After an introductory chapter about classroom writing assessment, the paradigm shift in classroom assessment, and providing teacher feedback, Chapter Two addresses some theoretical and practical issues involved in L2 classroom writing assessment. The AfL/AaL as the basis and foundation of classroom assessment is emphasized, and different functions and purposes of classroom writing assessment are explored. The underlying theoretical underpinnings of classroom assessment are then presented in this chapter, and the chapter ends with a number of guidelines and basic principles that underlie effective writing assessment practices.

Assessment for Learning in the L2 writing classroom is further investigated and fully explained in Chapter Three. Insights from assessment for learning research in writing classrooms and the results of previously conducted research on AfL are also described. The chapter concludes with a discussion of issues related to implementing AfL (i.e., teacher, student, school, and system factors), and its pedagogical principles in L2 writing classes (e.g., pre-writing instructional scaffolding involving students in self/peer assessment and self-reflection, teachers providing descriptive, diagnostic feedback, creating a supportive classroom culture, and disengaging scores from feedback).

Assessment as Learning is mainly discussed in Chapter Four, and the basic theoretical underpinnings and principles of AaL are reviewed in this chapter. AaL has been characterized as a process of “metacognition,” and “it entails the development of learners’ metacognitive capacity” (p. 42). The chapter also outlines how AaL strategies are to be implemented by writing teachers; it ends with several recommendations for future research.

The concept of feedback in writing is introduced in Chapter Five. Theoretical views and perspectives underlying L2 writing are expounded upon, the important role of sociocultural theory in furthering our understanding of “feedback” in writing assessment is stressed, and the way feedback can impact the effective implementation of classroom assessment in general and writing assessment in particular is further discussed in the chapter. Finally, various types of writing classroom feedback (i.e., teacher feedback, peer feedback, and technology-enhanced feedback) are briefly introduced.

Teacher feedback is addressed in Chapter Six. At the beginning of this chapter, the theoretical and practical inconsistencies and variations inherent to teacher feedback are fully compared and contrasted by examining previously-conducted research on providing feedback in L2 writing classes. This research-practice divide in teacher feedback in L2 school contexts, the compatibility and disparity between teachers’ written feedback and the recommended principles, factors accounting for and explaining this gap, and the significance of context for teacher feedback are discussed and elaborated on in this chapter. The chapter ends with a number of guidelines for providing classroom learners with effective teacher feedback.

In Chapter Seven, peer feedback in L2 classroom writing assessment is introduced. First, the theoretical perspectives of peer feedback in L2 writing are discussed. Then, a number of frequently asked questions (FAQs) concerning the application of peer feedback in L2 writing contexts are addressed based on important research findings. The chapter concludes with some tips to help educators plan, organize, and implement peer feedback activities in L2 writing classes.

The role of portfolio assessment in L2 writing classrooms is explained in Chapter Eight. First, portfolio types and the way they are actually put into use in writing classes are discussed. Portfolio assessment is then linked to various assessment purposes (i.e., AoL and AfL/AaL). Second, the dual assessment purposes, which comprise: realizing Assessment for/as Learning and Assessment of Learning in portfolio-based writing classrooms, are described. Third, the link between instruction, learning, and assessment in portfolio-based writing classes is clarified. Finally, the way feedback can be employed during various phases of portfolio process (before, during, and after writing) is discussed. The readers are acquainted and provided with an evaluation of writing portfolios as a pedagogical and assessment tool in L2 writing classes.

The use of technology in classroom assessment and feedback in L2 writing is the main focus of Chapter Nine. At the beginning of this chapter, technology-enhanced tasks in L2 classroom writing assessment (e.g., digital storytelling, blog-based writing, and collaborative writing on wikis) are briefly presented to the readers. Then, the merits and demerits of automated writing evaluation and screencast feedback in teacher evaluation of student writing are fully explained. Next, the use of technology in self-/peer evaluation with reference to Microsoft Word language check functions, concordancing, and screencasting are addressed. Finally, the Writing ePlatform as developed by the Hong Kong Education Bureau for upper primary and lower secondary learners is introduced, and its features and potentials to promote AfL/AaL are discussed. The knowledge base of classroom assessment literacy for L2 writing teachers is examined in the last chapter, and the significance of feedback literacy as a key component of classroom assessment literacy is underscored. The author points to the fact that writing teachers will have to undergo professional development and continuously incorporate assessment innovations in their teaching practices so that they can improve assessment, learning, and the teaching of L2 writing in their classes.

The book is an essential contribution to the ever-growing literature on L2 writing assessment. It may help future researchers become more familiarized with different purposes, functions, and the Theory-Practice divide of L2 writing assessment. It can also provide L2 writing teachers and researchers with new directions and suggestions as how to conduct studies on classroom feedback and writing assessment in similar contexts. Furthermore, the book is an invaluable resource for L2 writing teachers to enhance their classroom assessment literacy, and it provides them with feedback training practices and guidelines and new insights into future research on L2 writing. Finally, the book shows how writing assessment and feedback can be adequately utilized by both learners and teachers (Lee, 2007).

Nevertheless, the distinction made between AoL and AfL/AsL is blurred and not defined in clear operational terms though the author has provided a theoretical definition for each. The paradigm shift the author refers to also needs to be defined in concrete terms and further explained. The claim that only formative assessment contributes to students’ learning and is mostly preferable to the summative one is not well supported and documented by the author as well. Lastly, Lee limits herself to the L2 school context (primary and secondary classrooms), which undermines the generalizability of her arguments.

In sum, the book makes a genuine contribution to the field of language assessment in general and L2 writing assessment in particular. It is a valuable point of reference in the area of teaching, learning, and assessing L2 writing. It is a helpful and practical resource for those interested in implementing principles of L2 writing assessment, enhancing classroom assessment literacy, and effectively utilizing feedback in L2 classrooms.


Assessment Reform Group. (1999). Assessment for learning: Beyond the black box. Cambridge: University of Cambridge School of Education.

Brookhart, S. M. (2011). Educational assessment knowledge and skills for teachers. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practices, 30(1), 3–12.

Carless, D. (2007). Learning-oriented assessment: Conceptual bases and practical implications. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44(1), 57–66.

Lee, I. (2007). Assessment for learning: Integrating assessment, teaching, and learning in the ESL/EFL writing classroom. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 64(1), 199–213.

Reviewed by
Reza Bagheri Nevisi
University of Qom, Qom, Iran

Rasoul Mohammad Hosseinpur
University of Qom, Qom, Iran

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New Ways in Teaching Business English http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/issues/volume21/ej82/ej82r2/ Wed, 23 Aug 2017 23:05:15 +0000 http://www.tesl-ej.org/wordpress/?page_id=12421 August 2017 – Volume 21, Number 2

New Ways in Teaching Business English

Author: Chan, C. S. C. & Frendo, E., Editors (2014)  
Publisher: Alexandria, Virginia: TESOL International Association
Pages ISBN Price
300 pages 9781931185141 $49.95 USD

New Ways in Teaching Business English by Chan and Frendo is a collection of various innovative class activities for teaching business English to English as Second Language (ESL) learners. The book centers on helping teachers improve students’ language skills, communication skills, and autonomy, as well as make use of authentic materials, technology and the Internet. Providing a broad perspective on how to teach business English with abundant classroom activities that are created by contributors who come from different countries and contexts, the book proves itself to be a remarkable reference for English teachers and learners major in business who wish to teach business English and to improve their language and communication skills in business-related fields.

The book consists of 84 innovative class activities in six parts, each starting with a general indicator, which includes target proficiency level, context, objectives, class time preparation time, and the resources teachers might need for the activity. Following the general indicator is the activity procedure, which is a step-by-step lesson plan. Finally, the teaching idea ends with a helpful list of caveats and options, which are teacher-friendly suggestions of how to use and adjust the activity to make it flexible for different teaching contexts. I like this section of the book because it is very important and useful. Some teachers might not think through different situations and potential problems when employing each activity, so this section helps them consider potential hidden troubles and gives suggestions on how they should respond to different circumstances. Even though the activities in the book are created from a variety of contexts, they could be easily adapted for use in local situations. For example, teachers may have hard copy materials ready before class where the Internet is not easily accessible to learners, and the book provides teachers with alternate video-sharing websites to display where YouTube is blocked in certain countries.

Part 1 provides eight ideas that business English teachers can use in order to gain a better understanding of stakeholders in diverse contexts. The activities in Part 1 are mainly designed for prospective employers and current employees. In this part, the authors emphasize the importance of seeing and understanding learners’ needs, which include not only “target needs and professional needs, but also the subjective needs of the learners” (p. 4). Therefore, the activities in this section primarily aim to build awareness of English needs and English competence in the workplace, to give teachers a better understanding of workplace context, and to discuss the company’s future plans as well as personal goals.

Part 2 consists of 22 lessons for enhancing learners’ spoken business communication skills, while simultaneously promoting their listening and reading skills through a range of activities. These activities include improving pronunciation by underlining intonation and stress, providing oral fluency practice by incorporating listening and reading into practices, and using English as lingua franca in authentic business contexts. Additionally, different spoken genres that are very important to learners are covered in this section, such as negotiations, presentations, conference calls, panel discussions, and job interviews.

Part 3, which focuses on improving learners’ written business communication skills, contains 16 lessons. Although the authors divide the activities into spoken and written sections, this does not mean that written communication and spoken communication are mutually exclusive; rather, they are often intertwined in real-life situations. The authors give a convincing example of why they are intertwined, stating that “if video résumés become more common than written résumés in the future, then the genre of résumés will have to be taught as a spoken as well as a written one” (p. 102). This part of the book includes several genres, such as contracts, invoices, résumés, and letters of recommendation for business English teachers to systematically prepare their lesson plans and activities with the objective of improving learners’ written and spoken business communication skills.

The activities in Part 4 focus on how to use authentic materials and language in teaching business English to improve learners’ language and communication skills. The authors are aware of the ambiguity of teaching authentic business English that relies on native speakers’ intuitions about language use, which are often wrong. Consequently, it is a challenge to provide an accurate reflection of the actual use of the language by speakers and writers in natural contexts for teaching and assessment materials (Biber & Reppen, 2002). This section contains 19 activities centering specifically on language characteristics that are found in authentic business texts, such as company websites, commercials, and infomercials, as well as authentic materials from outside the business world (e.g., government websites and movies). One of my favorite activities in this section is Using a business letter corpus to explore some ways of making requests because this activity makes use of Business Letter Corpus and offers learners a broader picture of the natural ways in which businesspeople make requests in different contexts. Therefore, the use of Business English Corpus can help learners appropriately use accurate language when making requests. What is more, the inclusion of caveats and options at the end provide suggestions of similar activities design and various applications of using corpus analysis in teaching Business English, and point out some shortcomings of the use of Business English Corpus. Teachers of business English will find these activities a helpful and thought-provoking guideline to use authentic materials effectively in their teaching.

Part 5 centers on intercultural perspectives and includes ten activities. The activities in this section aim to raise learners’ intercultural awareness and cross-cultural communication skills by including issues such as working in international contexts, different genres and ethics, communication failure, and critical incidents. This section is useful because it touches upon business ethic issues that would happen in real life. With the development of global economic integration, business cooperation among different countries continues to grow, and cross-cultural communication is inevitable. The activities in this section are not only intended to raise learners’ cultural awareness, help them explore business ethics, and prevent them from having cross-cultural communication failures in business contacts, but also improve learners’ speaking, writing, listening, and reading proficiency. For example, the lesson “What to do? Creating business ethics videos” teaches students to understand business ethics, develops comprehensive English skills, and enhances cross-cultural communication skills by discussing different scenarios for business ethics and creating business ethnics videos, which allow students to research cases, write scripts, practice writing and speaking, and correct errors.

Part 6 is the last part of the book. In this section, the authors seek to promote learner autonomy in business English. They highlight the fact that learners should take responsibility and guide themselves to gain autonomy to learn outside their studies (Lee, 1998). They also point out that learner autonomy in business English has not been emphasized by many researchers or practitioners. To fill these gaps, the authors offer eight activities for encouraging business English learners’ autonomy, such as integrating learners’ reflections on tasks, peer teaching and evaluation, self-directed learning, and workplace observations.

The book provides a wealth of relevant knowledge points and materials, such as target vocabulary and phrases, sentence frames, writing templates, websites, and learning charts, among others. For example, there are examples of conversation starters that may be used in a conference simulation and an authentic apology from the airline industry. However, it is advisable to provide target phrases, sentence frames, writing templates or grammatical features that are being used most frequently in business English combined with authentic materials for each activity in Parts 2 and 3. For instance, in Part 3, when teaching students how to write a cover letter, the appendix only provides a description and explanation of the structure of a cover letter, but it does not provide grammatical features or sentence frames that are often found in cover letters. Both teachers and learners would benefit from writing templates and grammatical features if the authors could include these elements in this activity.

In conclusion, New Ways in Teaching Business English is a valuable addition to the field of business English teaching. The book’s flexibility of implementing activities and extensive use and suggestions of authentic materials make it easy to be adapted by and accessible to business English teachers from all around the world. Particularly, the inclusion of potential issues that might happen during activities and the appendixes of important materials for activities make the adaptions of each activity feasible in different contexts. Business English teachers and learners majoring in business will find this book a fun and engaging read.


Biber, D., & Reppen, R. (2002). What does frequency have to do with grammar teaching? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 199-208.

Lee, I. (1998). Supporting greater autonomy in language learning. ELT Journal, 52, 282-289.

Reviewed by
Huiyuan “Tia” Luo
University of Central Florida, Orlando

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