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. 4/4 |

6. Conclusion

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):

  • Unfamiliar words were avoided, using more high-frequency vocabulary whenever it was deemed suitable, and idioms and keywords that might be unfamiliar were introduced before telling the story. Redundancy of words new to listeners was used throughout the narration.
  • Regarding verb tense, the simple past was used. Structures were kept simple, and sentences short.
  • Story events were referred in chronological order, following a linear order. In addition, wherever necessary, the sequence of events was reinforced using appropriate transition words (first, then, before etc.). Transition words were used to improve cohesion. Direct speech was used when it was thought it would make the story easier to follow. Finally, the number of events and people in the story was kept short.
  • Additionally, while telling the story, visual aid was used to provide a schema-based approach and students were encouraged to ask for further clarification whenever they did not understand something in the story, in order to promote the negotiation of comprehensible input along the storytelling.

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):

  • The amount of information to be processed.
  • The location of the information to be processed within the text, as integrating scattered information is more difficult.
  • The type of content to be produced, as recalling literal content is easier than summarising.
  • The relationship between the order of the questions and the order of the information in the story, because the task is easier when both are the same.
  • The order of the questions in relation to their difficulty, as the task is easier when the questions are arranged starting from the easiest and progressing to the most difficult.

Appendix D – The questionnaires and the post-test survey

1. The autobiographical story

Set of questions regarding the autobiographical story:

  1. Whom did Miren go hiking with in the Japanese Alps?
    1. Her Japanese friend
    2. Her husband
    3. Her brother
    4. Her neighbour
    5. Which of the following did Miren put in her rucksack?
      1. A stove, a rain jacket, some deodorant
      2. Sunglasses, a tent, a bit of soap
      3. A water bottle, a hat, some spare clothes
      4. A sleeping bag, some cutlery, a toothbrush
    6. How much did Miren climb on her first day in the Japanese Alps?
      1. 1 000 metres
      2. 2 000 metres
      3. 3 000 metres
      4. 4 000 metres
    7. What was the story about?
      1. It was about the different types of food in Japan
      2. It was about the friends Miren made in Japan
      3. It was about Miren’s holidays in Japan and what happened to her in the Japanese Alps
      4. It was about a man who had a heart attack and had to be rescued in a helicopter
    8. Where did Miren get the food she ate during her days in the Japanese Alps?
      1. She bought everything in the supermarket
      2. She always ate in the mountain huts
      3. She got part in the supermarket and part in the mountain huts
      4. She got part in the supermarket, part in the mountain huts and part from her Japanese friends
    9. After having listened to this story, if you went to the Japanese Alps, which would be the most important three things you would put in your rucksack?
      1. A sleeping bag, a rain jacket and a bit of food
      2. A lot of food, some spare clothes and a toothbrush
      3. A tent, a sleeping bag and some soap
      4. A water bottle, some cutlery and a stove
    10. What do you think is the message of this story, the reason why Miren chose it? Why do you think that?
    11. Does this story remind you of anything that happened to you? Explain what happened shortly, please.

2. The story “Where's the magician?”

Set of questions on the story “Where's the magician?”:

  1. How did Peggy find out about the show of the Tilly Troupe?
    1. Her mum heard it on the radio
    2. Peggy read it on the school magazine
    3. Her mum read it on the newspaper
    4. David told Peggy about it
    5. Who called whom to go to the Tilly Troupe’s show?
      1. First, Peggy called David. Then, David called all the others
      2. Peggy’s mum called all her friends
      3. First, David called Peggy. Then, Peggy called all the others
      4. First, Peggy called David. Then, each called two friends
    6. When was the show going to start?
      1. At a quarter to five
      2. At five o’clock
      3. At a quarter past five
      4. At half past five
    7. Choose the sentence which best summarises the story
      1. The story was about a magician who got lost and didn’t arrive on time for the show
      2. The story was about Peggy and her friends, and what happened to them when they went to see the Tilly Troupe’s show
      3. The story was about Peggy and her friends, and how they organised to go to a show
      4. The story was about the clowns Coco and Jolly, who were making jokes and got cross in the end
    8. What had the Tilly Troupe planned to do in the show?
      1. The Tilly Troupe had planned to do magic tricks, clown jokes, and singing and dancing
      2. The Tilly Troupe had planned to play with the orchestra and dance
      3. The Tilly Troupe had planned to do horse riding tricks
      4. The Tilly Troupe had planned to do some clown jokes and magic tricks
    9. After having listened to this story, if you wanted to go to the Tilly Troupe’s show, what are the most important 3 things you would do before:
      1. Phone a friend, buy a ticket, and learn a joke
      2. Read the newspaper, arrive on time for the show, and learn a song
      3. Buy a ticket, arrive on time for the show, and learn a card trick
      4. Learn a card trick, a song and a joke
    10. Do you think the story is believable? Why do you think that?
    11. Has anything similar ever happened to you? Explain what happened shortly, please.

3. The post-test survey

  1. Which story did you like more?
    1. The story about Miren hiking in Japan
    2. “Where's the magician?”
    3. If your regular teacher, Idoia, asked you to summarise one of the stories in class, which would you choose? Why?

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.



Rubric eleanitz

Rubric eleanitz

Appendix F – Comprehension scores per participant

The table in the following page shows the scores obtained by each participant in both stories.

Table F-11

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