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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 14, 2004
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Exploring gender effect on adult foreign language learning strategies

Leyla Tercanlioglu
Atatürk University, Turkey
The concept of learning strategies has become quite familiar to most professionals in teaching English as a foreign language. The aim of this study is to discover gender differences in language learning strategies used by foreign language learners in a Turkish University. 184 university students who participated in this study were enrolled in the third year of their four year undergraduate degree program. Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) was used to gather information about the strategies that the individual learners employ to learn a foreign language. Quantitative data analyses were performed in this study. The results show significant gender differences, favoring males, in students' strategy use.


Introduction

According to Oxford (1990) foreign language (FL) learning strategies are specific actions, behaviors, steps, or techniques students use to improve their progress in comprehending, internalizing and using the FL. Cohen (1998) defines language learning strategies as "those processes which are consciously selected by learners and which may result in action taken to enhance the learning or use of a second or FL, through the storage, recall and application of information about that language" (p.4). O'Malley and Chamot (1990) consider strategies as tools for active, self-directed involvement needed for developing FL communicative ability.

Related research shows that the conscious use of such strategies is related to language achievement and proficiency (eg, Thompson & Rubin, 1993). Chamot and Kupper (1989) state that successful language learners tend to select strategies that work well together with the requirements of the language task. These learners can easily explain the strategies they use and why they employ them (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990). Cognitive and metacognitive strategies are often used together, supporting each other (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990). Furthermore, there are links between certain strategies or clusters of strategies and particular language skills or tasks. For example, reading comprehension uses strategies like reading aloud, guessing, deduction, and summarising (Chamot & Kupper, 1989).

Some other studies have attempted to examine the relationship between language learning strategies and success in FL learning and the researchers have had varied results. O'Malley et al (1985) revealed that students at all levels reported the use of an extensive variety of learning strategies. High-achieving students reported greater use of metacognitive strategies. They concluded that the more successful students are probably able to use greater metacognitive control over their learning. Ehrman and Oxford (1995) indicated that successful students preferred to use cognitive strategies more frequently in their study. Green and Oxford (1995) discovered that high-achieving students used all kinds of language learning strategies more frequently than low-achieving students. On the other hand, researchers have investigated what unsuccessful language learners do. Vann and Abraham (1990) observed that, although their unsuccessful students appeared to be active strategy users, they "failed to apply strategies appropriately to the task at hand".

Existing research shows that motivation (Kaylani, 1996), cultural background (Oxford, 1996b), attitudes and beliefs (Oxford et al 1990) and gender (Kaylani, 1996) are some of the factors which influence choice of strategies used among students learning a FL.

As gender is an issue with important theoretical and pedagogical implications in second language learning, it has received some attention in language learning strategy research (e.g., Oxford, 1993; Oxford, Young, Ito & Sumrall, 1993; Oxford, 1995; Young & Oxford 1997). These studies have found that gender can have a significant impact on how students learn a language. An emerging theory for this gender difference proposes that although sometimes males surpassed females in the use of a particular strategy, females employ more learning strategies or employ strategies more effectively (Erhman and Oxford, 1989; Nyikos, 1990; Oxford, 1994; Sheorey, 1999). Oxford and Nyikos (1989) who looked at the strategies used by 1200 university students, concluded that gender differences had a "profound influence" (p.296) on strategy use, and that females used strategies more frequently than males. Ehrman and Oxford (1990) stated that women at the Foreign Service Institute definitely reported more use of strategies. Green and Oxford (1995) reported on a study of 374 students at the University of Puerto Rico, and concluded that females used strategies significantly more often than males. Although most studies in this area seem to have reported a greater use of language learning strategies by women, Tran (1988) discovered that Vietnamese women use fewer language learning strategies than men. The present paper tries to describe how gender influences the choice of FL learning strategies used among Turkish university students.

Research questions

This study asked the following questions: What is the mean level of students' FL learning strategy use? Are the scales of "Strategy Inventory for Language Learning" correlated with each other? Is there a statistically significant gender difference in students' FL learning strategy use?

Methods

Participants

A total of 184 pre-service teachers participated in this study. They were enrolled in the third year of their 4 year undergraduate teacher education program at Atatürk University for those who wish to teach English in secondary schools. The age of the students ranged from 19 to 23, with a mean of 18.17 years. There were 44 male (23.9%) and 140 female (76.1%) students in the sample. Students entering the program were mother tongue speakers of Turkish. The medium of instruction in the program was English.

Turkish context

This study was conducted in the School of Education, Atatürk University, Turkey. The School of Education was first founded in 1961. In 1981, tremendous social and political changes had taken place in Turkey, and these changes have had serious implications for teacher education. Before 1981, like all other teacher education institutions, the School of Education was both academically and administratively under the control of the Ministry of Education. It was a 3 year institution. With the 1981 reforms it was transformed into a 4-year faculty of teacher education. The teacher education program was transferred from the Ministry of Education to the universities. Currently, all Turkish universities are ruled by the higher education law of Higher Education Council (YOK). Today, the faculty employs 239 academic staff in 10 departments. It offers teacher education to over 10,100 students.

This study specifically was conducted in the TEFL Department of the school of education. In the current teacher education system, preparation for the English teaching profession requires the acquisition of language knowledge and skills in the three domains of general culture, special English education, and pedagogy. Furthermore, the English teaching practicum encompasses three sessions of field experience during the 4-year English teacher education course; one, during the second semester of the first year, and the other two in the first and second semesters of the fourth year. It is the last session in which students are required to do actual English teaching. There is no module on language learning strategies.

Students in Turkey are admitted to English teacher education course centrally through a nationwide contested two-stage examination which is administered by the Student Selection and Placement Center (OSYM) every year. The examination consists of a) the Student Selection Examination (ÖSS), and b) the Foreign Language Examination (YDS). The second examination is administered approximately two weeks after the first to the candidates wishing to attend the higher education programs in foreign language and literature. There is no formal correspondence with internationally known tests, but the test can be viewed as demanding the equivalent of upper-intermediate language ability.

The maximum numbers of students to be admitted to each higher education program, the rank of the scores of candidates wishing to enter the same higher education programs and the candidates' list and ranking of higher education programs are among the factors which are taken into consideration in the selection and placement of students in higher education programs. It should be noted that Erzurum, where the university is located is the largest province in Eastern Anatolia and is located on a high plateau (1950m). Erzurum has very little modern industry and it has difficult weather conditions. Therefore, the university does not attract the most successful students.

The research instrument

The Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (Oxford, 1990), a survey instrument used cross-culturally to measure strategy use, was first designed in 1985 and revised later. It was designed to identify the strategies that make students more effective language learners. The survey provides information about the strategies that the individual learner employs to learn a second language.

Oxford (1990) identified fifty individual second language strategy items within six broad categories of second language learning strategies. The categories are

'Remembering more effectively' is a memory-related strategy which helps learners link one second language item or concept with another but does not necessarily involve deep understanding. 'Using all mental processes' enables the learner to manipulate the language material in direct ways, e.g., through reasoning, analysis, note-taking and synthesising. 'Organizing and evaluating learning' is a metacognitive strategy which identifies one's own preferences and needs, planning, monitoring mistakes, and evaluating task success. 'Compensating for missing knowledge' helps make up for missing knowledge. 'Managing emotions' helps to identify one's mood and anxiety level, talking about feelings, rewarding oneself, and using deep breathing or positive self-talk, and helps learners manage their emotions and motivation level. 'Learning with others' enables the learner to learn via interaction with others and to understand the target culture.

The SILL was chosen for this study because it is "perhaps the most comprehensive classification of learning strategies to date" (Ellis, 1994, p.539) and has been widely used. Its Cronbach alpha reliability coefficients range from 0.89 to 0.98 in various studies. Reliability of the SILL is high across many cultural groups. Its validity rests on its predictive and correlative link with language performance as well as its confirmed relationship to sensory preferences (for details, see Oxford, 1996a).

Each scale was calculated with Cronbach's alpha coefficient. These scales, the number of items within each category, and the alpha value of each scale and learning strategy preferences of the subjects are given in Table 1.

Table 1: The scales, the number of items within each category,
and the alpha value of each scale and sample items

ScalesItemsalphaSample item
ARemembering more effectively9.8069I review English lessons often
BUsing all your mental processes14.7848I try to talk like native English speakers
CCompensating for missing knowledge6.7531I read English without looking up every new word
DOrganizing and evaluating your learning8.8636I look for people I can talk to in English
EManaging your emotions6.7889I try to relax whenever I feel afraid of using English
FLearning with others6.7229I ask questions in English

Research instrument reliability is often estimated by Cronbach's alpha. Hair et al (1998) suggested that the acceptable value of alpha is at least 0.70. As shown in Table 1, all constructs exhibit a high degree of internal consistency as the alpha values of the constructs are greater than 0.70. Oxford described each of the statements on a 1 to 5 scale, thus

  1. Never true of me
  2. Usually not true of me
  3. Somewhat true of me
  4. Usually true of me
  5. Always true of me.

Data collection and analysis

The survey was conducted by the author at the beginning of a new semester in 2003. Quantitative data analyses were performed in this study. The quantitative analysis involved several statistical procedures: 1) descriptive statistics, including means, and standard deviations, were computed to summarize the learner responses (Table 2), 2) Pearson correlations were conducted to examine the relationships between scales (Table 3), and to investigate gender-related differences data were analyzed using analysis of variance technique (ANOVA) (Table 4).

The researcher

At the time of the study the researcher had been a language teacher educator at the institute where this data was gathered for 17 years. The researcher was a female assistant professor, and had conducted several research projects on foreign language learning and teacher education. She had FL teaching experience and research experience. She was a non-native speaker of English with near native speaker competence.

Results

The results are discussed below in relation to the three research questions.

Overall strategy use

Students who completed the questionnaire, responded (Table 2) with an overall mean score on 'Organizing and evaluating your learning' of 3.39 out of a possible maximum mean score of 5. The next most frequently used were 'Compensating for missing knowledge' (M=3.37; SD=0.55), Using all your mental processes (M=3.23; SD=0.49), 'Remembering more effectively' (M=3.22; SD=0.45) and 'Learning with others' (M=3.14; SD=0.52). 'Managing your emotions' (M=2.88; SD=0.48) was the least used of the strategies.

Table 2: Mean reported frequency of language learning strategy use for all
students with number of strategies used highly frequently by each group

ScalesGenderN MSDSE
ARemembering more effectivelyfemale1403.200.470.04
male443.280.400.06
Total1843.220.450.03
BUsing all your mental processesfemale1403.190.490.04
male443.360.480.07
Total1843.230.490.04
CCompensating for missing knowledgefemale1403.350.580.05
male443.450.390.06
Total1843.370.550.04
DOrganizing and evaluating your learningfemale0.521403.330.04
male443.590.500.07
Total1843.390.530.04
EManaging your emotionsfemale1402.890.490.04
male442.860.470.07
Total1842.880.480.04
FLearning with othersfemale1403.120.540.05
male443.200.470.07
Total1843.140.520.04

The correlation

The correlation coefficient between most scales of the Inventory was statistically significant at 0.01 and 0.05 alpha-level on a two-tailed t-test (Table 3). 'Remembering more effectively' was not correlated with 'Managing your emotions'.

Strategy use by gender

Results of the descriptive statistics procedure to determine gender-related differences (Table 2) indicated male students reported higher use in five of the six scales than female students. Female students reported higher score on 'Managing your emotions'.

Table 3: Correlations between the scales of the SILL

ScalesStatisticsABCDE
ARemembering more effectivelyr




P




BUsing all your mental processesr0.39



P0.00**



CCompensating for missing knowledge r0.150.46


P0.04*0.00**


DOrganizing and evaluating your learningr0.31 0.560.38

P0.00**0.00** 0.00**

EManaging your emotionsr-0.06 0.270.410.44
P0.380.00** 0.00**0.00**
FLearning with othersr0.150.490.270.580.42
P0.05*0.00** 0.00**0.00**0.00*
** p<0.0    * p<0.05

Results of the ANOVA indicated that the gender-related difference is significant on two scales: 'Using all your mental processes' (M=3.36 vs. 3.23; p<0.001); 'Organizing and evaluating your learning' (M=3.5 vs. 3.33; p<0.05). Moreover, the female students' mean for 38 of the 50 individual strategy items was higher than that for male students and the differences for 15 of these 50 items were statistically significant (ranging from p<0.05 to p<0.0001). See Table 4.

The F-value (4.29) from ANOVA for gender differences between and within groups on the 'Using all your mental processes' was statistically significant at alpha=0.04 and DF=1,182 (Table 3). The F-value from ANOVA for gender differences in students' 'Organizing and evaluating your learning' was also statistically significant at p<.01 and df=1, 182.

Table 4: ANOVA results of students' language learn strategy use by gender

Scales
SS dfMSFSig.
ARemembering more effectivelyBetween Groups0.2110.211.030.31
Within Groups37.271820.20
Total37.48183
BUsing all your mental processesBetween Groups1.0111.014.290.04
Within Groups42.951820.24
Total43.97183
CCompensating for missing knowledgeBetween Groups0.3810.381.290.26
Within Groups53.991820.30
Total54.37183
DOrganizing and evaluating your learningBetween Groups2.1312.137.990.01
Within Groups48.651820.27
Total50.79183
EManaging your emotionsBetween Groups0.0210.020.100.75
Within Groups42.171820.23
Total42.19183
FLearning with othersBetween Groups0.2210.220.790.38
Within Groups49.781820.27
Total49.99183

Discussion and conclusion

Overall strategy use

The means and standard deviation values for each of the six scales of the Inventory were listed to find out the most commonly used strategies used by Turkish university students. Griffiths (2003) considered language learning strategies used at a high frequency level when the mean level is 3.5 or above. Therefore, the average of scales in this study indicated overall medium to low strategy usage.

Studies by educational researchers and psychologists have shown that one of the key characteristics of successful learners is that they are active learners and take charge of their learning (eg, Clifford, 1984; Gagne et al, 1993). A study conducted by Najar (1998) demonstrated that successful learners are able to apply appropriate learning strategies and this leads to effective learning. Research has shown that in the educational setting, successful learners are good strategy users and they are defined as knowing a lot of strategies and transferring them readily and appropriately to new settings (Pressley et al 1989; Pressley et al 1987). In considering the results, we can suggest that there is room for improvement in the strategies used by the learners in this study. Apparently these student-teachers have medium to low level skills in the area of how to learn. Furthermore, the need to offer strategy instruction in this study becomes more important given that these students will become teachers. The teacher educators in this institution need to address the deficiency of the students that is, how to approach the learning context.

The correlation

The relationships between items merit attention. In order to determine the relations between the scales of SILL, Pearson correlations were conducted (Table 3) and the results show a strong, statistically significant relationship between the scales of the Inventory, suggesting the multidimensionality of the inventory. The study reveals that the use of strategies in foreign language learning is a multidimensional construct. A construct is multidimensional when it refers to several distinct but related dimensions treated as a single theoretical concept (Law, Wong, & Mobley, 1998). The instrument used here integrates multidimensional constructs and their dimensions within a single framework.

Strategy use by gender

The results show gender differences, favoring males, in students' strategy use. These differences are pronounced in two scales of the inventory, namely: students' perceived use of all their mental processes, and their satisfaction in their organizing and evaluating their learning of FL. Therefore, the results of the present study are not consistent with several other studies that have reported that female learners use strategies with greater frequency than male learners (eg, Oxford & Nyikos, 1989; Green & Oxford, 1995; Kaylani, 1996). A possible explanation for this result may be that in the male-dominated Turkish society female students may have lower self-esteem in reporting the strategies they use. The influence of second language learners' cultural background and of the educational settings in which they learn the target language on the choice of their learning strategies have been the subject of several research studies (Oxford, 1989; Oxford & Nyikos, 1989; Green & Oxford, 1995). Overall, these results further confirm the following observation made by Green and Oxford (1995, p.291) that "...gender difference trends in strategy use are quite pronounced within and across cultures".

It is clear that the more we learn about language learning strategy differences, the more complex the issue becomes. Therefore, further research is needed to extend our knowledge on individual learning strategy differences. Especially, further examination of gender differences in adult FL learning strategies will elucidate the influence of second language learners' cultural background and of the educational settings in which they learn the target language on the choice of their learning strategies by gender. Additional research is also needed to explore the relation between their strategy use and their success.

Although this study contributes useful information to the understanding of learning strategies, there are nevertheless limitations. A limitation of the present study is that the small sample size restricts the generalisability of findings. Thus, there is need for further research to cross-validate findings from the present study to a different, and larger sample. This study was exploratory in nature and dictates caution in interpreting the results. Future research should investigate why these learners have lower strategy use and how to increase it. Multidimensionality of the language learning strategy construct is also an important issue that merits attention. Furthermore, researchers may undertake a gender study to investigate whether the findings reported in the current study may be comparable across different age groups. A further suggestion for follow up studies could be the issue of student second language proficiency and its connection with strategy usage.

It is clear that the more we learn about language learning strategy differences, the more complex the issue becomes. Therefore, further research is also needed to extend our knowledge on individual learning strategy differences. Especially, further examination of gender differences in adult FL learning strategies will elucidate the influence of second language learners' cultural background and of the educational settings in which they learn the target language on the choice of their learning strategies by gender.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank TUBA (Turkish Academy of Sciences) for the support for this research. The support of all the students involved in this research is also gratefully acknowledged.

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Author: Dr Leyla Tercanlioglu (PhD Atatürk University) is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Atatürk University. Her research has mainly been in pre-service EFL teacher education, EFL Reading and Individual differences in EFL learning. Tercanlioglu's articles have appeared in Prospect: An Australian Journal of TESOL, The Journal of College Literacy and Learning, TESL Canada Journal, and other journals. Dr Tercanlioglu teaches TEFL courses for pre-service EFL teachers. Email: Leyla@atauni.edu.tr

Please cite as: Tercanlioglu, L. (2004). Exploring gender effect on adult foreign language learning strategies. Issues In Educational Research, 14(2), 181-193. http://www.iier.org.au/iier14/tercanlioglu.html


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