Exploring the Impact of the Autobiographical Story on Learning English as a Foreign Language: Case Study in the Primary Classroom

By Miren Askasibar
2015, Vol. 7 No. 10 | pg. 3/4 |

5. Discussion

This chapter discusses the results in the context of the research questions and the literature review. The opening section deals with the first research question, which focused on the differences between the autobiographical story and the ELEANITZ story in terms of comprehension. The second section discusses the differences between both stories in terms of raising interest and motivation among students, which relate to the second research question. The third section focuses on the differences in the use of English by the students on the questionnaires of both stories, linked with the third research question.

5.1 Level of comprehension of the stories

The scores of the comprehension questionnaires suggest that both stories were understood fully in some aspects, and partially in others. In particular, the autobiographical story was understood better than the ELEANITZ story, and the students had better understanding of the stories at the local level than they did at the global level, especially for the autobiographical story.

As regards the contradictory results of the local and global questions, they are in line with previous studies about the effects of question types on listening comprehension by EFL learners. For instance, while Shohamy and Inbar report higher scores for local questions, Park reports higher scores for global questions (G.-P. Park, 2004). Furthermore, a study on the relation between comprehension skill and inference making ability concludes that those who comprehend poorly can often answer local questions, but have difficulty integrating the text globally and selecting the relevant information to produce inferences (Cain, Oakhill, Barnes, & Bryant, 2001). Yet, it is beyond the scope of this study to analyse these issues in depth.

On the other hand, the differences in the scores of the comprehension questionnaires were not statistically significant, due to the small sample size. However, the effect size, that is, the magnitude of the difference between the comprehensions of the two stories, can be interpreted as being attributable to the differences between the two storytelling activities, following Hattie’s guidelines for educational contexts (2009), which establish that Cohen’s d > 0.40 should be interpreted as the method or intervention researched having desired effects. Thus, it could be argued that the difference in comprehension had practical significance in the context of education.

The initial objective of assessing the comprehension of both stories was to test if the autobiographical story had been adapted appropriately, by comparing it to a story within the ELEANITZ project. However, the higher comprehension scores obtained by the autobiographical story raise the question on why that happened, particularly bearing in mind that the readability test graded the autobiographical story as being more challenging than the ELEANITZ story. Yet, even if we leave the results of the local and global questions aside, the interpretation of the comprehension results is challenging for several reasons.

Firstly, it must be borne in mind that the absence of counterbalanced measures design in this study could have caused learning effect, thus allowing participants to improve scores in the questionnaire of the ELEANITZ story, which took place in the second lesson. This would be particularly true for global questions, as they were the questions that more doubts raised during the pre-task activity where the whole group, together with me, went through all the questions to clarify their meaning.

Secondly, my own involvement in the storytelling could have affected the results, as I could have inadvertently stressed the parts of the autobiographical story most relevant to the questions. I also told the autobiographical story with more passion than the CD recording did for the ELEANITZ story, and my motivation could have reflected on students’ achievement, as previous studies suggest (Dörnyei, 2001; M. J. Guilloteaux & Dörnyei, 2008). In addition, the novelty factor could have influenced the activities, as the two lessons on which the case study is based were the only activities led by me with this group of students during my school placement. Lastly, the two cameras that were set up to record the two lessons added to the excitement and caused short distractions to some of the students.

Thirdly, several variables that affect comprehension at the time of telling the story were different between the two stories:

  • Characteristics of the input: the autobiographical story had repetition, comprehension checks and gestures, which improve comprehension (Peñate Cabrera & Bazo Martínez, 2001), but the storytelling was longer and had a more unfamiliar topic, with the opposite effect (Buck, 2001); text characteristics were also more complex in the autobiographical story, making comprehension more challenging (Buck, 2001; Révész & Brunfaut, 2013). Regarding the length of the story, even though the semi-scripted text of the autobiographical story had 562 words and the ELEANITZ story had 526, the storytelling took 11 minutes in the former, while the latter took 5 minutes and 40 seconds. The difference in length was mainly caused by rephrasing introduced to simplify grammar, repetitions, answers to clarification requests made by the students, and comprehension checks.
  • Characteristics of the task: the autobiographical story consisted in a listening activity, whereas the ELEANITZ story was a simultaneous reading and listening activity, and the strategies used for comprehension in each case are different, leading to dissimilar comprehension scores (Lund, 1991; Vandergrift, 2007; Woodall, 2010). As a result, it is difficult to know which of the two stories might have had better conditions for comprehension regarding the task.
  • Characteristics of the setting: there was considerably more background noise while the ELEANITZ story was played on the CD, and the quality of sound was poorer, which made comprehension more difficult.

Additionally, the possibility of students having copied cannot be discarded, since the original arrangement of grouped desks was maintained, although no clear evidence of this was found.

Finally, the fact that student engagement and motivation were higher for the autobiographical story could have also had a positive effect on the performance in the comprehension questionnaires, as previous studies report (Vandergrift, 2007).

Because of the large number of factors that were different in the two lessons, it is not possible to identify the exact elements or combination of elements that might have caused the autobiographical story to be comprehended better than the ELEANITZ story. Therefore, the first research question has been answered partially, as I found differences in terms of comprehension between the two stories, but the interpretation of the reasons for those differences remains inconclusive.

5.2 Student engagement, perception and attitude towards the stories

In the first place, the results show that the autobiographical story had the power to spark autobiographical stories in the participants, while the ELEANITZ story did not. Even in the little welcoming context of a written comprehension questionnaire, the students felt inclined to share their personal stories. Thus, it can be concluded that the results of this study conducted on primary students are in agreement with Kazuyoshi’s finding of autobiographical storytelling having a contagious effect on university students (2002).

As regards the reasons behind the results, the authenticity and truthfulness of the autobiographical story could have played an important role, bearing in mind that previous studies provide evidence on the importance of both features for student engagement and motivation (Dörnyei, 1994; Guariento & Morley, 2001; Leggo, 2007).

Additionally, although not all participants could be observed for on-task and off-task behaviour, the results show some off-task behaviour in the lesson on the ELEANITZ story, and virtually no off-task behaviour during the lesson on the autobiographical story. These results are consistent with those of previous studies that measured on-task and off-task behaviour when using artificial materials compared to authentic materials (Peacock, 1997). Thus, it can be claimed that the use of authentic materials had a positive effect on the level of interest, engagement and motivation experienced by the students.

Furthermore, the autobiographical stories written by the participants imply that they made close to literal connections with the stories that were told in the two lessons. As a result, their own autobiographical stories mostly shared the same setting (the mountains) and contained an identical element (an experience of risk, an incident) as the autobiographical story. Therefore, it can be argued that in order to echo personal stories among the participants, the story that was told to them needed to have a setting and a type of event that they were likely to have experienced themselves.

That fact could partly explain why the ELEANITZ story did not prompt any personal stories, as the probability of any of the students having been to the circus and being asked to take over the performers was very low. I believe that many of the students have probably replaced a teammate in a sports game, or a classmate in a school play, just like they must have felt a bit lost in their first encounters with EFL, like I did with Japanese in Japan, but they did not generalise or project the stories they were told that far.

Secondly, the autobiographical story was liked clearly better, mostly because it was found to be more interesting, but also because it evoked emotional bonds. Besides, in the few cases when the ELEANITZ story was preferred, it was mainly because it seemed easier.

However, it is interesting to notice that mainly high achievers in the comprehension questionnaires liked the ELEANITZ story better and found it easier. This could imply that they favoured the most familiar story, or that they felt more comfortable in the reading and listening activity, finding the autobiographical story more challenging.

As for the reasons why the participants found the autobiographical story more interesting and motivating, the results suggest that the autobiographical story contributed more to improve both intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors reported by previous studies (Nicholson, 2013) in the participants, and it was a better source of engagement (J. C. Turner et al., 2014).

In particular, the participants themselves claimed that its contents were more interesting, which is known to increase intrinsic motivation (Nicholson, 2013). According to the criteria proposed by J.C. Turner et al. (2014), it can be argued that the autobiographical story also increased opportunities for belongingness and connectedness with others, since it provided favourable circumstances for a pleasant interaction and triggered personal stories in the participants. Likewise, the higher comprehension scores of the autobiographical story imply that it could have promoted feelings of competence in the students, thus improving their engagement.

On the other hand, my own motivation to tell a personal story could have also contributed to the autobiographical story raising more interest, engagement and motivation, as previous studies report (Dörnyei, 2001; M. J. Guilloteaux & Dörnyei, 2008).

Finally, the results should be interpreted with care, mainly because the sample was small. Thus, the study answered the second research question for the particular class that took part in the case study, but further research would be needed in order to generalise its results.

5.3 Willingness to communicate in L2

The subsample of the participants who answered the open-ended questions was small, and the results need to be interpreted with care. Hence, the study answered the third research question for the particular class that took part in the case study, but further research would also be needed in order to generalise its results.

The findings regarding the use of English in the answers suggest that the autobiographical story had more power to stimulate the use of English in primary students, in agreement with Kazuyoshi’s findings for university students (Kazuyoshi, 2002).

Most importantly from the practical point of view, it can be argued that mainly low achievers in the comprehension questionnaires were motivated during the lesson on the autobiographical story to use English in their explanations. This could have important practical implications, as generating willingness to communicate in L2 is most probably the most central objective of current foreign language pedagogy (Dörnyei, 2001).

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