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

Teachers’ perceptions of learner difficulty (TPLD) in learning EFL vocabulary may influence lesson planning decisions and teachers’ feedback to learners on their performance in learning tasks; and thus, learners’ own perceptions of difficulty. Tajino’s review of the SLA literature (1997) reveals that difficulty has often been viewed from a product-oriented perspective: difficulty leads to error, and error adequately reflects difficulty. However, a dominant focus on apparent error or success may pre-empt efforts to understand how students arrive at points on a continuum of failure or success. In vocabulary learning, in particular, it is difficult to measure word knowledge (Read , 2000 ; Nation , 2001) and thus, teachers need to pay attention to vocabulary learning processes. A product-oriented view may not dominate vocabulary acquisition research in coming years because a growing general acceptance of the complex nature of word knowledge (Richards, 1976; Nation , 2001), of the key role of the influences of the L1 lexicon (Laufer, 1997; Swan, 1997), and also, of the incremental nature of vocabulary learning (Schmitt, 1997) will likely lead to greater interest in the process of vocabulary learning. Both product-oriented and process-oriented views of difficulty in vocabulary learning would contribute to a better understanding of how teachers can support their students as they learn vocabulary. Attempts at objective speculations of difficulty issues need to be balanced by recognition that individuals may view difficulty in highly personal ways. Corder’s view (1973: 226) that difficulty is “a matter of subjective judgment” remains largely unexamined in vocabulary learning research. Research in the field of social psychology provides some insight on the significance of individual perception of difficulty. Attribution theory (Weiner, 1980; Hewstone, 1989) argues that the way we attribute the cause of difficulty can be a motivational factor because perceived difficulty can affect the process of L2 teaching and learning (Horowitz, 1987; Tajino , 1997; Dornyei and Schmidt, 2001). Explorations of teachers’ and students’ views of difficulty may provide insights that could help sustain teachers’ and students’ motivation over the long periods of time required to build second language vocabulary. This paper reports a study of how upper secondary school teachers view the difficulties their learners have learning new words.

Research Questions

Japanese senior high school (grades 10, 11, and 12) EFL teachers, were asked to think about the learning burden of certain high frequency words which their students will likely meet in their secondary school English studies. They were also asked about certain lower frequency words. Although their students would probably not be faced with learning these lower frequency words in high school EFL courses, the teachers themselves had likely learned them. Teachers’ views of the first group of words could be expected to be based upon actual teaching experiences; views of the second group would likely be based upon personal learning experiences and their general beliefs about what constitutes difficulty in vocabulary learning. The research questions addressed in this study were as follows:

1. Do teachers agree which words their students will find difficult?

2. What do teachers think causes words to be difficult, and easy, for their students to learn?

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.

Results and Discussion

1. Do teachers agree which words their students will find difficult? Tables 1 and 2 show how the words were ranked.

Table 1 Difficulty Ranking of Words at the 2,000 Word Level*

(1 is the most difficult and 5 is the easiest)

ranking

adopt

climb

examine

pour

satisfy

1

76.6

0.0

0.0

12.2

12.2

2

22.0

0.0

17.1

39.0

22.0

3

2.4

6.0

34.2

22.0

36.8

4

0.0

14.6

36.6

22.0

26.8

5

0.0

80.5

12.2

6.0

2.4

* percentage of 41 teachers answering in each case is shown correct to the first decimal place

Table 2 Difficulty Ranking of Words at the 5,000 Word Level*

(1 is the most difficult and 5 is the easiest)

ranking

blend

devise

hug

lease

reject

1

2.4

63.4

7.3

7.3

22.2

2

2.4

24.4

12.2

17.1

44.0

3

6.0

7.3

17.1

53.7

17.1

4

26.8

6.0

34.2

22.0

12.2

5

63.4

0.0

29.3

2.4

7.3

* percentage of 41 teachers answering in each case is shown correct to the first decimal place

At both word levels, there were similar patterns of agreement: there was a general consensus (somewhat less at the lower frequency level of words not usually included in secondary school text books) on which words were the most difficult and the easiest; there were different opinions on how difficult the other three words would be for the students to learn with numbers of teachers holding opposite opinions; and the overall patterns of ranking also showed that even though there was some consensus on the order of the whole list, there were many different views. At the 2,000 word level, the most common ranking pattern, chosen by 19.5% of the teachers, from the easiest to the most difficult was climb, examine, satisfy, pour, and adopt. 17.1% ranked the words in a similar order by reversing the order of examine and satisfy. The remaining 63.4% of the teachers ranked the words in eighteen different patterns, 29.3% chose unique orders. At the 5,000 word level, there were several common patterns of ranking. 17.1% of the teachers ranked the words from the easiest to the most difficult as hug, blend, lease, reject, and devise. Another 14.6% had similar views but reversed the order of hug and blend. 12.2% also put blend in the easiest position, and then, reversed the order of hug and lease, placing lease in the second easiest position. The remaining 56.1% had other patterns of ordering the words; slightly more than one third of the teachers’ patterns were unique.

An adequate answer to the question whether the teachers agree is simply that although there is some agreement, there are also diverse views on the relative difficulty of the same words. Our main interest is in the reasons teachers gave for their decisions about difficulty. Why did they sometimes agree? Why was there disagreement?

2. What do teachers think causes words to be difficult, and easy, for their students to learn? More specifically, do teachers agree on the reasons for the words most commonly ranked as most difficult in this survey, adopt and devise, and on the reasons for the words most commonly ranked as easiest, climb and blend?

Although the teachers agreed that adopt and devise would be difficult for their students to learn, they had different reasons for believing so. For adopt at the 2,000 word level, the responses consisted of 11 different reasons. For devise at the 5,000 word level, twelve different reasons were given. The reasons could be placed in three groups: leaning problems, syllabus constraints, and first language factors. At the 2,000 word level almost 60% of the reasons for adopt were related to six learning problems: low frequency of the word in English, the absence of the word in students’ lives, abstractness, knowledge of similar words which could cause confusion, the availability of an easier word and the difficulty of guessing the meaning from context . Eight learning issues which represented more than 70% of the reasons for devise at the 5,000 word level were also expected to be problematic: all of those mentioned at the 2,000 word level, with the exception of the difficulty of guessing the meaning from context, and with the addition of three different concerns: difficulty due to multiple meanings of a word, its derivatives, and its pronunciation. 25.8% of the reasons for difficulty given at the 2,000 word level and 15.4% at the 5,000 word level were related to teachers’ syllabus concerns: e.g. the word is not included in officially approved course books. The other responses at the 2,000 word level, about 16%, concerned the students’ first language: low frequency in Japanese, difficulty of the Japanese equivalent, and unfamiliarity of the word concept in the first language. At the 5,000 word level there was a somewhat stronger concern that first language factors, e.g. difficulties related to the Japanese equivalents, would cause problems.

Similarly to the reasons for the most difficult words, in the case of, climb, the 2,000 level word most commonly thought to be easiest, there were a variety of reasons but they were in the same three areas which tied together various reasons cited for difficulty. 40% of the responses were about three syllabus concerns: it was in textbooks, it could be used in lessons, and students had already learned it. Slightly more than half of the reasons were related to learning factors such as its concreteness, ease of use of the verb due to its primary single meaning, and its frequency both in English and in the students’ lives.

Blend , the easiest word at the 5,000 word level is a special case and as such, did not follow the pattern for the other three words. Of the responses, 92.3% were one reason: blend is a loan word and is used in Japanese. Climb at the 2,000 level was also selected as easiest by only a few teachers because of a loan word factor. It could be a coincidence that each list contained a loan word but there are a great number of words with English roots used in Japanese. Interestingly, these two words represent different types of loan words. Blend has become a universally used Japanese word in one of its meaning senses and it is almost always used with the word coffee. On the other hand, climb itself is not a loan word but rock climbing and mountain climbing are used as loan expressions in situations with much less exposure to the general public. In both these cases, the English origin of these loan words is thought to facilitate learning of the root English word.

There were two problems classifying the reasons for difficulty into one of the three categories - learning issues, syllabus constraints, and first language factors: 1 ) In some cases, two categories seemed applicable for one reason e.g. anticipated pronunciation problems could fit in learning issues or first language factors. 2 ) An unexpected number of teachers were interested in the frequency of words in English, of their translation equivalents, of the words and concepts in students’ lives, and frequency in the syllabus. To deal with these problems, the reasons teachers gave to explain their views on relative difficulty were reanalyzed in four categories: intralexical, following the Laufer (1997) framework of difficulty-inducing and facilitating factors for vocabulary learning; cross-linguistic, using the descriptions outlined by Swan (1997); syllabus constraints; and word frequency issues. Laufer’s categories for familiar or foreign phonemes, degree of consistency of sound-script relationship, degree of derivational regularity, generality or specificity, form-meaning connections, and concreteness or abstractness were good fits for the teachers’ beliefs about the learning burden of the words. Swan’s concepts related to the problems of cross-linguistic equivalence and loan words were especially helpful. The use of the first two categories helped clarify the distinction between inter- and intra- language factors in a practical way while recognizing that overlaps exist. The second two categories highlighted two areas of concern directly related to teachers’ lesson planning. Tables 3 and 4 illustrate the diversity in the ways teachers think about difficulty.

Table 3 Teachers’ Views of Learning Difficulties at the 2,000 Word Level*

Intralexical Factors

Cross-Linguistic
Factors

Syllabus Constraints

Word Frequency

Reasons for Difficulty

25.6

7.3

4.5

13.4

Reasons for Ease

13.4

6.1

8.0

20.7

Total

39.0

13.4

12.5

34.1

* percentage of the total of difficulties cited

Table 4 Teachers’ Views of Learning Difficulties at the 5,000 Word Level*

Intralexical

Cross-Linguistic

Syllabus

Frequency

Reasons for Difficulty

15.8

8.3

3.2

9.5

Reasons for Ease

7.1

38.7

16.0

1.4

Total

22.9

47.0

19.2

10.9

* percentage of the total of difficulties cited

Tables 3 and 4 show some interesting variation according to frequency level and to whether the focus was on ease or difficulty. The cross-linguistic category at the 5,000 level is mainly a reflection of beliefs about the correspondence between the English meaning of and the Japanese use of the loan word blend. The intralexical factors were mainly seen to be difficulty-inducing especially at the 2,000 level. This could possibly be because the teachers had actual experiences teaching these words or because since these words are among the most frequently used 2,000 words in English, the teachers are familiar teaching words which co-occur with the words on the list. Syllabus constraints were often viewed in a positive way and also did not dominate. Anecdotal evidence is that secondary school teachers have negative views that the official syllabus and university entrance examinations dominate their teaching. This doesn’t appear to be the case when they are presented with specific teaching challenges. It is interesting that frequency issues were a greater concern at the level in which words could be a reasonable part of a secondary school vocabulary syllabus and less of a concern at the 5,000 word level.

Conclusion

Although there was some consensus on relative difficulty of the words in question there was a wide range of principled reasons for teachers’ beliefs. This may be a reflection of their wide range of teaching situations. The teachers view difficulty from a process perspective as shown by their concern for cross-linguistic and frequency issues. Their concern for product can be seen in some of the reasons which were categorized as intralexical.

This research suggests that it may be beneficial to explore teachers’ and learners’ perceptions of the difficulty of vocabulary learning in order to design learning tasks which will help maintain productive levels of both learner and teacher motivation.

This study offers a reminder that although it is important to discover which words will be easy or difficult to learn, why is the key question to ask about difficulty. The causes of difficulty or ease, whether actual or perceived, may be the basis of learning and teaching decisions.

Teachers who use frequency lists in their vocabulary teaching could experiment with the use of sub-lists to try to confirm their perceptions of the degree and cause of learner difficulty. For example, sub-lists which focus on a single cause of difficulty for which a certain teaching strategy may be useful, could help teachers work toward a better understanding of learner difficulty in vocabulary learning.

This study has provided five areas of interest that may be explored by asking the following questions:

1. Teachers agree on certain aspects of vocabulary learning difficulty and they also have different views on the difficulty of learning specific words. Do their varying views reflect the actual difficulties the students face?

2. Are learners’ perceptions of difficulty similar to their teachers?

3. How are teachers perceptions of difficulty related to their actual teaching practices? How are learners’ perceptions of difficulty related to their learning practices?

4. Teachers recognize that the frequency of occurrence of a word in English is only one factor that determines the challenge their students will have in learning the word. If decisions about teaching words at the same frequency level need to be made on a word by word by basis, how should sub-lists be created?

5. Teachers’ perceptions of learners’ difficulties can be organized by type of learning challenge. How can this focus on specific challenges facilitate effective vocabulary teaching?

Note : An earlier stage of this research project on learner difficulty was presented at the Annual IATEFL Conference 2003 in Brighton, U.K.

References

Corder, S. Pit. 1973. Introducing Applied Linguistics. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.

Dornyei, Z. 2003. Questionnaires in Second Language Research: construction, administration, and processing. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dornyei, Z. and R. Schmidt (Eds.). 2001. Motivation and Second Language Acquisition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Hewstone, M. 1989. Attribution Theory in Clinical Psychology. Chichester: Wiley.

Horowitz, E.K. 1987. Surveying student beliefs about language learning. In Wenden, A. and Rubin, J. (Eds.), Learner Strategies in Language ,

Laufer, B.1997. What’s in a word that makes it hard or easy: some intralexical factors that affect the learning of words. In Schmitt, N. and M. McCarthy (Eds.).

Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Read, J. 2000. Assessing Vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Richards, J.C. 1976. The Role of Vocabulary Teaching. TESOL Quarterly 10(1), 77-89.

Schmitt, N. 2000. Vocabulary In Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M. 1997. The influence of the mother tongue on second language vocabulary acquisition and use. . In Schmitt, N. and M. McCarthy (Eds.).

Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tajino, A. 1997. ‘Learner difficulty: what is it, and how well do we understand it?’ The Teacher Trainer 11/2:11-14.

Weiner, B. 1980. Human Motivation. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Wilson.

Wilson, M. and S.McClean. 1994. Questionnaire Design: A Practical Introduction. Newton Abbey, C. Antrim: University of Ulster Press.

Biodata

Craig Smith is a Professor in the Department of British and American Studies at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, Japan. He is interested in vocabulary acquisition, especially the teaching of delexicalized verbs, and team teaching methodology for vocabulary. He is also involved in several experiential and service learning projects with foreign language students. His email address is craigkufs@hotmail.com.

Akira Tajino is Associate Professor of Educational Linguistics at Kyoto University, Japan. His current research areas are curriculum development , pedagogical grammar, and vocabulary learning and teaching. His publications include two books on pedagogical grammar (Kodansha, 1995; Maruzen, 1999) and articles on English language teaching methodology for journals such as ELT Journal, Language Culture and Curriculum, and Prospect. His email address is akira@tajino.mbox.media.kyoto-u.ac.jp.

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