A Review of Selected ELT Writings

Summaries of interesting topics in ELT books and articles

Language attitudes, motivation, and standards

McGroarty, M (1996) Language attitudes, motivation, and standards. In Sociolinguistics and Language Teaching, McKay and Hornberger (ed.). Cambridge: CUP

The motivation and attitudes of teachers and learners, while not the only variable, affects learning in important ways. How can teachers carry out their job while respecting the languages that their students bring to the classroom?

Attitude refers to cognitive, affective and conative (eg beliefs, behaviours) factors
Motivation relates to: desire x effort to achieve the goal

Early research on motivation involved questionnaire type reactions to statements about learning and beliefs. From this came the well-known categories of intrinsic, extrinsic, integrative and instrumental motivation. This research led to important theoretical advances but remained of limited application to the classroom because it was seen as too removed from pedagogical issues.

Problem 1: causaility. For example, in the case of instrumental motivation, is it the cause or the result of successful attempts to acquire a second language?

Problem 2: data analysis. Results changed depending on how each construct was measured.

Problem 3: generalisation. Because these studies were derived mainly from psychological theory, results were too generic to apply to the classroom

More recent studies have thus began to situate research in human personality and social context.

Because the social context of instruction is specifically related to which language is being taught to whom and because classrooms differ in the nature of instruction offered, it is reasonable for teachers to expect that interreelationships between these factors will change according to who is studying which language, in what social setting, and with what kind of classroom instruction. (ibid:10)

The key point here is the individaual motivational profile of each learner or group of learners.

Accommodation theory
Accommodation theory aims to relate attitude and motivation to social interaction. It describes how speakers (native or non-native) alter their speech patterns to accommodate their interlocutor in order to ‘fit in’. They may do this by using more prestige forms or alternatively by using more socially marked features of language to establish their identity.

The key point for second language learners is that of ability; if the learner lacks sufficient command of the language then she is not able to adjust her speech accordingly. This in turn leads to questions of communication anxiety, which is anxiety caused by the speaker not being able to match their speech to their interlocutor as they would like, thus causing them to worry about judgements that may be made about them.

In a study of highly proficient speakers of English vs native speakers, it was found that it was the relative expert on the topic who dominated the conversation – native speaker or not. When expertise was equal there no apparent dominant figure in the conversation.

The factors affecting accommodation in speech, then: perceived social/personal status and level of subject knowledge.

Teacher attitudes
Research done in the 1970s in Chicago collected samples of written work by black and white children and gave them anonymously to teachers to grade. The study found that white teachers tended to stereotype writing that included features typical of ‘black Vernacular English’ (ibid:16), even though it was of comparable academic quality. A similar study in the 1980s showed that teachers whose first language was not Spanish consistently awarded lower grades to work by children that showed Spanish features.

The implication is that teachers’ first language or ethnicity can have a significant impact on how they may treat groups in a school setting.

Student attitude
A learner of English becomes more familiar with variations and dialects in the language as their exposure increases, especially after a stay in an ESL environment. Studies have shown that learners nearing proficiency often choose carefully what form of English they choose to adopt. For example a Spanish learner of English may prefer a prestige form of English because it makes a difference in achieving his goals, even though his background is not a mainstream prestige community.

Parents may also make similar choices for their children especially if they feel that their own upbringing was prejudiced because of their language. Historical experiences of groups that may have been marginalised or oppressed bring may result in other feelings towards particular discourse communities.

The implication for teaching: teachers would do well to understand the socio-linguistic background of their students.

Importantly, McGroarty notes that formal language study does not necessary improve the feelings of students towards the language or target group itself. That depends very much on length of study and quality/context of teaching.

Norms and standards
A linguistic norm is language that is used most of the time. It is an impartial assessment of frequent language use. However, people harbour strong feelings towards language usage and often see certain forms as right or wrong. The educated public’s usage of norm, then, carries a positive evaluation. For them, change often equates to decline and brings with it corresponding assessments of society. This creates tension between linguists and the public, and yet is important because it has a real effect on educational discourse. It has lead to linguists taking a position of ‘prescriptive abstinence’ (Coulmas 1989:177) requiring them not to pass judgement on matters of good or bad language. As schools are usually the (often self-appointed) front line for the upholding of norms or standards, teachers should be especially aware of such issues and sensitive to the respective backgrounds of students.

Implication for teaching: the language you use and study in class is never neutral. It is indicative of certain power relationships and social domains that will have corresponding meaning to your students. The classic dichotomy between British vs American English can be seen as entirely redundant – the emergence of English around the world adds infinitely new dimensions to this argument and we must be aware of this in the context in which we teach.

Further educational implications
Given the multitude of factors that contribute to attitudes, motivation and standards, it is important that teachers do not base their work on theoretical assumptions about their learners without trying to discover their genuine motivations, attitudes and environments. There is no one single formula for increasing student motivation. The key to doing this is to investigate thoroughly what makes each learner tick – what brings them to the classroom? What are their assumptions and predispositions to language? Working with other teachers if possible, learning to differentiate instruction and encouraging meta cognitive strategies in learners (learner training) can greatly improve the atmosphere of a class and school.

The power of intrinsic motivation should not be underestimated, although it often appears beyond the control of the teacher. By using texts that learners can use for enjoyment, not only for learning, we can help to promote personal satisfaction with the object of study and in that way create the conditions for intrinsic motivation to be fostered. Allowing learners to choose their own topics and integrating a variety of interesting materials are also seen as important.

It is crucial for teachers and students to recognise that multiple standards exist and teachers should make every effort to identify what functions and forms of language matter to their learners.

Building on this is the importance of the connection between language and social identity. All learners have a need to establish their own social identity and in order to allow this to develop teachers must be careful not to restrict ‘acceptable’ language in class to only that language which fits a norm that could be socially divisive. To meet a variety of preexisting attitudes toward language teachers must also use group work that does not allow only certain abilities to dominate interaction.

The tensions described above will continue and the main challenge for teachers is to raise awareness whilst also providing opportunities for practice and development of language which is valued by each learner. In-so-doing they will help learners participate more effectively in society.

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6 thoughts on “Language attitudes, motivation, and standards

  1. Pingback: Reflections on an Unplugged course « An Experiment with Dogme

  2. Great stuff! How is the MA progressing? Good luck and keep on posting these interesting articles.

    • Hi Paul

      Thanks for your comment. The MA is fascinating. Learning too much to take in, hence the need to consolidate it here. I’ve got a backlog of really interesting things I want to post and your comment has given me a push to keep at it.



      • Keep at it Oli!

        Love your Dogme blog, by the way – it’s such a refreshing site packed full of useful ideas. When I was at the BC, that is exactly what I started doing as I felt that Cutting Edge had lost my respect and I really wanted to be at the cutting edge, lol 🙂


      • Thanks Paul,

        The funny thing is I still struggle with guilt from week to week at not using enough of the book. Our EfC syllabus is heavily linked to Cutting Edge learning outcomes and when courses are being sold on that basis you have to tread carefully.

        A work in progress…

      • Tell me about it – I remember observing a line managee who did 2 hrs dogme straight and I had to pull him up as the students had sat there for the whole time without opening their Cutting Edge Int once:)

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