Exploring the Impact of the Autobiographical Story on Learning English as a Foreign Language: Case Study in the Primary Classroom
This study set out to explore the effects of the teacher’s personal stories on the comprehension, interest, engagement and motivation of primary students learning EFL. It added the analysis of comprehension to what previous studies that were used as a reference had researched (Kazuyoshi, 2002). It also compared the effects of the autobiographical story with those of an ELEANITZ story, the latter being part of a widely tested and researched set of materials for EFL learning in the Basque Country.
The results of this study are coherent with the research used as a main reference, suggesting that the findings obtained previously for university EFL students also apply to the group of primary students who took part in this case study. However, the lack of statistical significance of the results and the small sample size in this study indicate the need for further studies that will allow for further generalisation.
In particular, understanding better the differences in comprehension between autobiographical stories and regular course book stories like the ELEANITZ story used in this study would imply the need to ensure close to identical conditions in the storytelling of both, which was a main limitation in this study.
The broad question behind this study focused on whether the autobiographical story might be a suitable complement for the stories in the widely used ELEANITZ project. In this sense, the general conclusion of the study suggests that the autobiographical story has features that can help raise student interest, engagement and motivation, and lead to willingness to communicate using L2.
Furthermore, the practical significance of several aspects in this study has pedagogical implications for teaching and learning ELF in primary. In this regard, the fact that the autobiographical story motivated less skilled learners to communicate in English suggests that it can be a very valuable resource in the EFL classroom. Together with this, the autobiographical story was perceived as a greater challenge by the more skilled learners, suggesting that it can be a suitable resource to invite EFL learners out of the comfort zone provided by regular course materials.
Additionally, previous evidence on the beneficial effects of the teacher’s personal stories about their L2 learning process and difficulties suggests that autobiographical stories in EFL maximise their effect when EFL teachers do not pretend to be native teachers. Lastly, the results indicate that in order to trigger personal stories among students with ages similar to those who took part in this case study, the teacher’s autobiographical story should have a setting and at least one major event that will be familiar to them.
Finally, coming back to more general issues regarding current views within the communicative approach in language teaching and learning, it is important to realise that choosing stories is not as neutral and innocent as it might seem at first glance. The results of this study, together with previous research on the autobiographical story, point that this type of story is particularly suitable for methodological approaches in language teaching and learning that favour limited use of materials and resources from outside the classroom, which are conversation-driven, and which focus their attention on the learner, such as the Dogme ELT movement (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009).
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Appendix A – Key new vocabulary in the stories
This appendix contains the key vocabulary in each story that the participants were likely to encounter for the first time. The prelistening phase introduced the key vocabulary.
Key vocabulary that was addressed in the prelistening phase of the autobiographical story: hiking, mountain range, tent, hut, sleeping bag, bunk beds, onigiri.
Key vocabulary that was addressed in the prelistening phase of the ELEANITZ story: magician, magic show, MC (master of ceremonies), worried, orchestra, audience, circus, clowns, jokes, troupe.
Appendix B – The autobiographical story
Hiking in Japan
A few summers ago, my husband and I spent six weeks in Japan, one of them hiking in the Japanese Alps, a long mountain range about 3,000 metres high.
The day before we started hiking, we prepared our rucksacks and filled them with all the things we would need: the tent, our sleeping bags, the little stove, water bottles, a bit of cutlery, the rain jackets, a few spare clothes, a bit of soap and our toothbrushes. And, of course, we needed food.
So, we went to the supermarket. Unfortunately, we spoke only a few words of Japanese, we couldn’t read anything, and we found nobody who spoke English. Everything looked very unfamiliar to us in the supermarket. We needed to take some sandwiches for lunch. But, guess what? Japanese people don’t eat bread, so we had to find something else. The closest thing to sandwiches is onigiri, rice balls. So, we bought onigiri and some cakes. My husband said: “I hope the mountain huts along the path will sell food. Otherwise, we will have to come down in two days, instead of seven.”
The next day we started hiking for seven days in the Japanese Alps. The first day was the hardest, because we had to climb almost 2,000 metres. We couldn’t read Japanese maps or signs, so we weren’t sure if we would find the path easily. Luckily, the path was very clear, so we didn’t get lost.
On this first day, we found a small mountain hut that sold food, where other Japanese hikers were buying noodles and onigiri. So, I thought: “Food will be easy to get along the way.”
Most days we slept in our tent, close to other hikers. We all got up at the same time in the morning, then started walking at a different pace, and we met again in the evening on the next campsite. So, they were our “tent-neighbours,” and we became friends with two of them, even if we couldn’t speak Japanese, and they didn’t speak English.
One afternoon, it started to rain, so we decided to go to a mountain hut, instead of sleeping in the tent. We had a nice supper, and slept on bunk beds. The next morning, we saw that the workers in the mountain hut were very nervous, walking up and down and talking on the radio. Finally, some other hikers came carrying on their shoulders a man who looked sick; his face was blue. His friends told us with signals that he had a heart attack. Then, we heard a helicopter, and we realised that it was coming to rescue the sick man. A man was dropped from the helicopter with a cable, he tied the sick man, and both of them were lifted up with the cable again.
After the rescue, it was sunny again. We left the mountain hut and continued with our walk. When we got to the next campsite, we met our two friends. That night we had dinner together, and we shared their barbeque meat and our onigiri, together with some sake they had. It was their last night in the Japanese Alps, and the same for us.
The next day we walked down another 2,000 metres, and said goodbye to our Japanese friends. I never learned their names, but we were friends for seven days.
Appendix C – Criteria followed to adapt input and to design the comprehension questionnaires
Listening comprehension is a very complex process. Much of its details remain unknown and, consequently, assessing it is also difficult. An effort was made to shape the autobiographical story in such a way that its degree of difficulty would be equal to that of the ELEANITZ story.
Nevertheless, the circumstances under which the empirical research took place made it impossible to take into account all the factors that could have been addressed (Révész & Brunfaut, 2013; Rubin, 1994) if there had been more time to analyse the degree of difficulty of the ELEANITZ story and adapt the autobiographical story to match it.
On the other hand, although the level or degree of difficulty of the listening activity will be set by the task itself, and not the material (Guariento & Morley, 2001; Scrivener, 1994; Wright, 1995), some of the factors determining task difficulty are related to text characteristics. In general, complexity of the language, cognitive load and performance conditions are considered the factors that should receive special attention in this sense (as cited in Guariento & Morley, 2001).
Regarding text difficulty, the following guidelines were taken into account to set the complexity of the language and the cognitive load in order to make input more comprehensible in the autobiographical story (Buck, 2001; Ellis & Brewster, 2002; Révész & Brunfaut, 2013; Rubin, 1994):
The comprehension questionnaires for the two stories were designed following the extensive analysis on listening assessment carried out by Buck (2001) and the review of further research literature on the subject published later on (Vandergrift, 2007). The following criteria were taken into account to design the comprehension questionnaires concerning task difficulty (Buck, 2001):
Appendix D – The questionnaires and the post-test survey
1. The autobiographical story
Set of questions regarding the autobiographical story:
2. The story “Where's the magician?”
Set of questions on the story “Where's the magician?”:
3. The post-test survey
Appendix E – The Rubrics
This case study met two important criteria which supported using a rubric as the assessment tool for the comprehension questionnaires (Allen & Tanner, 2006; Andrade, 2005; Arter, 2000; Moskal, 2000a; Panadero & Jonsson, 2013): it dealt with a complex process – listening comprehension – which demanded a qualitative approach in the assessment, and it was intended to give the participants feedback on the results of the questionnaires in the form of a formative assessment, which would give them some guidance as to how to improve their listening comprehension. Rubrics are widely used in all stages of education, and they are not free of controversy, having both detractors (e.g. Kohn, 2006) and advocates (e.g. Livingston, 2012).
The rubric was partially designed in the form of an instructional rubric (Andrade, 2005; Whittaker et al., 2001). Unfortunately, the circumstances of the case study forced to use it as a scoring rubric.
The three local questions of each questionnaire were assessed with a holistic rubric, while the analytic rubric was considered more adequate to assess the four global questions, as each one of them dealt with a different aspect of comprehension. For the purpose of giving feedback to the participants, the rubric was slightly changed, in order to make it more self-explanatory. In particular, the holistic section of the rubric, which is applied to the first three questions, was turned into an analytic rubric. Besides, the language used in the rubric was reviewed in an attempt to bring it closer to student language, as suggested by Whittaker at al. (2001) and images were introduced to help communicate the contents.
The following pages contain the final rubrics, completely analytic and adapted in order to be handed out to the participants as feedback on the activities.
Appendix F – Comprehension scores per participant
The table in the following page shows the scores obtained by each participant in both stories.