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Teachers’ and Students’ Beliefs About Oral Production in English as Foreign Language
Juliane Massarollo
Mailce Borges Mota Fortkamp

1. INTRODUCTION

According to several researchers (e.g. Richards, 1998; Felix, 1999; Riley, 1997) our system of beliefs monitor what we do in the classroom. These beliefs about the process of teaching and learning may also directly influence students´ motivation, attitudes, and learning strategies. In addition, they are demonstrated in the classroom practice based on what participants believe to be relevant to second language teaching/learning process.

Differences in teachers` and students` systems of beliefs certainly lead to results that are not the expected ones. Thus, to reduce these discrepancies, which interfere in the teaching/learning environment, it is important to investigate the beliefs regarding the process. Our studies should, therefore, stop being a mere description of these beliefs and should start to look at beliefs into specific contexts and as a personalized expression of concepts and ideas. There is also a special need of reflection and discussion on this subject, which should take place in our classrooms, since our beliefs undoubtedly exert a deep influence in our academic life.

2. THEORETICAL BACKGROUND

One of the main sources of the origins of our beliefs is in the influence exerted by our previous educational experiences – as students or, occasionally, as teachers. According to Kindsvatter, Willen and Ishler (1998), teachers´ system of beliefs is built up over time and it is derived from many different sources such as (1) their own experience as language learners; (2) experiences concerning the learning strategies which lead to best results; (3) preferred or imposed teaching patterns; (4) personal preferences for a particular approach or method; (5) educationally based or research-based principles; (6) principles derived from a specific approach or method.

Besides all the sources of beliefs mentioned above and the influence that suggestions and opinions of teachers, friends, relatives, and other respectable and reliable people can exert over teachers and students’ systems of beliefs, we can also cite some other sources such as culture, literature, and the media.

Thus, considering that teachers are somehow guided by their system of beliefs, a better comprehension of these beliefs regarding the teaching, development, and evaluation of the oral skill may be especially useful in order to promote an improvement of how to deal with the oral skill in the classroom. One of the possible ways of investigating the oral production in a way to contribute to teaching is to try to understand how teachers and students of a foreign language approach this ability. Thus, the main objective of this study is to examine teachers' and students’ beliefs about the teaching, learning, and evaluation of oral production. As pointed out by several researchers (for instance, Abraham & Vann, 1987; Barcelos, 1995 and 2000; Horwitz, 1987), it is important to understand teachers' and students’ beliefs about the nature of the learning and the teaching of a foreign language because these beliefs possibly influence these two processes.

3. METHOD

Fourteen teachers and 56 English students of a foreign language of the Extracurricular Course of Languages at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, from the basic to the pre-intermediate level, were invited to participate in the present study. To collect the data, two questionnaires - one for the teachers and one for the students - were used. The questionnaires were adapted from Barcelos (1995) and Félix (1999). The questionnaire for teachers contained 17 questions, 3 of which were open. For the students, the questionnaire contained 16 questions, being 4 of them open. In both types of questionnaires, the closed questions had as possible answers the categories “I fully agree”, “I partly agree”, “I have no opinion about it”, and “I don't agree.”

4. RESULTS

The quantitative analysis of the first 14 – closed - items of the questionnaire answered by the teachers revealed that 71, 4% of them agree with the relationship between students´ motivation and their success in speaking the foreign language. To 43% of these teachers, there is no objective way to assess the oral performance in a foreign language. To them, the students´ grades reflect their performance in written rather than in oral tests. When teachers want to encourage conversation in class, 86% of them simulate real life situations. In the opinion of 93% of these teachers, the competent oral production is directly linked first to lexical precision, followed by grammar, and pronunciation. Also, to 64% of them, it is the lack of lexical, syntactic and phonological knowledge that causes the non-fluent oral production. To the great majority, that is 86%, oral fluency can be achieved through a repetitive practice. When questioned about which aspects are more important when evaluating their students´ oral performance, all of them pointed out “naturalness” and “explicitness” as the most important aspects, followed by good pronunciation and confidence when speaking, good vocabulary, and, finally, good grammar. Regarding the open questions, 93% of the teachers indicated that, when speaking, it is important that students express their ideas successfully, even if not using grammatical structures correctly. In other words, in these teachers´ points of view, the priority is meaning and not form. Finally, when requested to define with their own words what it means to speak a foreign language fluently, 50% of the teachers mentioned “to be explicit” as the main definition, followed by “to have grammatical knowledge” and “to express oneself naturally.”

Taken together, these results show that for most of the teachers who participated in the study, the teaching and evaluation of oral production are complex aspects of their pedagogical practice. In fact, the definition of fluency itself seems to be a complex aspect for teachers. For instance, they use subjective and vague terms when trying to define it (to speak fluently a foreign language is “to speak without thinking too much before doing it”; “it’s to speak without worrying about it”; “it’s to be natural and explicit”). Also, in trying to be more objective, they choose “to have grammatical knowledge” as a definition in contrast to the fact that they have chosen the lexical aspect as the most important in the ability.

The analysis of the questionnaires answered by the students revealed that to 75% of them, pronunciation is important when speaking the foreign language, followed by good vocabulary, and, in third place, grammar. Most of the students (70%) believe that speaking a second language is difficult. When asked to mention the activities they perform to enhance their oral skills, students mention dialogues, activities in groups and conversation as the most important ones. Part of the students, that is 47%, believe that pronunciation is the most important aspect to be evaluated in oral tests, followed by grammatical knowledge. Finally, 50% of them define speaking a foreign language fluently as “making oneself understood”, 40% as “having grammatical knowledge”, and 10% as “having good pronunciation.”

Comparing teachers´ and students´ answers, it is possible to affirm that both groups resemble each other in the perception they have that the ability of oral production is complex and difficult. However, while teachers seem to emphasize the lexical aspects of oral production, students consider pronunciation the most important item – in production and in oral evaluation. Finally, teachers´ and students´ beliefs are also similar concerning the definition of fluent speech: for students, “to express oneself” and “to have knowledge of grammar” of the language are the most relevant definitions.

5. CONCLUSIONS

The objective of this study was to examine teachers’ and students’ beliefs about the teaching, learning, and evaluation of the ability of oral production in a foreign language. In general, the results revealed that the predominant beliefs to both groups is that speaking a second language is difficult. Specifically, teachers believe there are no objective ways of evaluating oral production. Although they point out to a way of promoting the development of the ability – through the practice of conversation – they also affirm that repetitive practice is an efficient way of developing it. For students, however, pronunciation is the most important item to be evaluated in oral tests, although for them speaking fluently is a synonym for “being understood” and “having grammatical knowledge.” Altogether, the results of this study point to the fact that teachers and students lack elements for a better understanding of what is involved in the development of oral skills. According to the results of this study, it seems that teaching, learning, and evaluating oral production is a random process without any possibility of effective pedagogical intervention. Such situation could be modified if more attention were given to the oral production in teachers´ education programs and in the research in foreign languages.

6. BIBLIOGRAPHY

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RILEY, P. (1997). The guru and the conjurer: aspects of counseling for self-access. In: BENSON, P. & VOLLER, P. (Ed.). Autonomy and independence in language learning. New York: Longman.

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