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Teachers' Perceptions of Learner
Difficulty in Vocabulary Learning
by Craig Smith and Akira Tajino
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The Study

Participants

The questionnaire was given to 49 Japanese EFL teachers. Information from 41 of the teachers is included in this report. The questionnaires of eight teachers were excluded: five because they were junior high or primary school teachers, two because they incorrectly completed the questionnaire, and one because all the questions on the form were not answered. The forty-one upper-secondary school teachers were all native speakers of Japanese.

Procedure

A questionnaire in Japanese was prepared. The teachers were asked to consider the relative difficulty their own students would have learning two lists of 5 words each taken from Schmitt‘s (2,000) Vocabulary Levels Test (VLT): the first list (List A) was taken from the 2,000 word level and the second list (List B) was taken from the 5,000 word level. The words inList A were adopt, climb, examine, pour, and satisfy; the words inList B were blend, devise, hug, lease, and reject. The teachers were not given any indication of the frequency level of the words.The first section of words from each of the two levels was used. The VLT has six words in each section and one word in the selected sections was deleted because a list of five items may be as many as people can cope with (Wilson and McClean, 1994).

Completing this type of questionnaire may be stressful for the respondents; Dornyei describes the respondents’ task as a ‘forced choice” (2003: 45). Dornyei explains that if the items to be ranked do not each have an actual different value, assigning different values to the items is not natural and the ranking does not give any information about the degree of a respondent’s belief. These are serious concerns and if the purpose were to seek accurate judgments about relative difficulty which would allow teachers to assign the same rating to more than one word, another form of rating scale such as a semantic differential should have been used. In this study the request to rank order the words was considered to be appropriate because this is a simple and quick way to find out if the teachers had the same opinions about the relative difficulty of the words or not; it was also a good way to set the stage to elicit the reasons upon which the teachers based their ranking decisions.

The teachers were asked to rank the five words on each list in order of relative difficulty from 1 to 5, 1 being the most difficult word and 5 the easiest word to learn. In addition, there were three open-ended questions about each word list: the teachers were asked to explain why they thought the word on each list they had identified as being most difficult to learn, was difficult. They did the same for the easiest words. They were also asked to explain their concepts of difficulty in vocabulary learning.

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