The effects of strategy instruction on the vocabulary and attitudes of EFL students and teachers have been a topic of considerable discussion in recent years. The language is almost universally used in business communication, international scientific inquiry, and a variety of other contexts. As such, students in many professions would benefit considerably from the ability to use English alongside the other languages in which they are proficient.
However, learning another language is challenging due to the vast amounts of information that the person is required to internalize. Vocabulary, in particular, is a significant concern due to the number of different words in each language, each of which has one or more meanings. The task of learning and memorizing all of them can be extremely challenging, particularly if the student remains in a non-English environment and so does not have many opportunities to practice.
Self-regulation is an approach that can help learners resolve the concern through the creation of learning scenarios by the person. Fatemipour and Najafgholikhan (2015) describe the idea as “thoughts, feelings and actions that are planned and adapted to the attainment of personal goals” (p.249) and claim that it can significantly enhance EFL students’ vocabulary learning. When using the method, people introduce the need to use English into their everyday life where there would usually be none.
Examples include trying to think using the language, particularly when attempting to define complicated concepts, or reading English literature and news in an attempt to familiarize oneself with new words and how they are used. When doing so, the person will naturally encounter unfamiliar words or concepts, research the appropriate words or meanings, and internalize them in the process.
However, self-regulation is not an approach that everyone can use without a need for instruction in doing so. Strategy training has recently emerged as an improvement method that can help students adopt the method. Lu, Lo, and Lincoln (2017) highlight the success of the approach in teaching students how to educate themselves in a language as well as improving their motivation to do so. Many people may not decide to apply additional effort to the learning of the language, whether due to a misunderstanding of the scale of the task or a lack of awareness about the existence or influence of the approaches. A person may assume that knowledge of the basic structure of a language is sufficient and assign the vocabulary a secondary role. Their preparation would then be inadequate when they encountered a situation where the use of the language was required.
Most of the research into the effectiveness of strategy training in the improvement of self-regulation in vocabulary expansion discusses physical contexts of educational institution classes. The advent of information technology enables the usage of new methods, and so there is also a considerable number of studies that discuss the effects of platforms such as Quizlet in assisting such efforts. However, the field of fully online courses remains under-explored, and this study aims to address the gap by researching such an environment. Distance education alleviates many concerns for prospective students and educators, such as the need for a dedicated space for learning, the costs of travel and accommodations, and others. However, the field is still developing, and many issues hinder its more complete adoption alongside the traditional model or instead of it.
The competence of teachers in transferring knowledge about the relevant strategies is among the most significant issues of online education. Can (2017) highlights the inadequacy of English teacher candidates in Turkish universities and the weak revision skills of the students there, which may be associated with such deficiencies. The relationship can be emphasized in online environments, where a teacher has significantly less direct interaction with students than in a physical classroom. As such, this study created an experimental model of an online education course to see whether it affects the students’ abilities positively. Their feedback was collected to identify potential issues and deficiencies that present opportunities for the future improvement of the approach. The results obtained during the study provide answers to its three research questions, which are discussed in detail below.
Findings for Research Question 1
Research question 1 addressed the current usage of vocabulary enhancement strategies by Saudi English majors outside the classroom. As stated above, not all people are capable of employing the full range of approaches without instruction, but most will usually apply some methods to improve their skills and abilities. Indeed, Zhang, Lin, Zhang, and Choi (2017) claim that intrinsic motivation is among the most prominent contributors to a person’s learning strategies.
The approaches were separated into five different categories: memory, determination, social, cognitive, and metacognitive. The first category was the most prominent, with a mean score much higher than any of the other categories even when the number of items in it is taken into consideration. Meanwhile, the use of social strategies was lacking, possibly due to the weak integration of online methods alongside a distrust in the English abilities of one’s peers.
Memory strategies encompass the essential parts of learning a new word such as research into its pronunciation, spelling, and usage. All of the items in the category except for affix examination and online tool usage scored above 1, with most having values between 2 and 3. This result places the category at the top of the list with a significant advantage over other approaches, which indicates that traditional education courses may be somewhat effective at teaching students about memory strategies. However, there is still considerable room for improvement, such as the use of online dictionaries, as suggested by Tananuraksakul (2016). In adopting them, students would enhance their online tool engagement while increasing their scores in other categories, which are still far from the maximum value of 4.
The study has identified six categories of determination strategies, which encompass researching and guessing the meaning of a word. Students tend to rely on dictionaries and context to determine what a new word is while omitting word structure or its aural characteristics. Furthermore, they are much more likely to use an English-Arabic dictionary than an English-English one. The difficulty in separating the two languages may be inhibiting their ability to use the non-native one without having to translate sentences from Arabic internally. The finding is consistent with that of Ping, Baranovich, Manueli, and Siraj (2015), though they categorize the methods as cognitive. Educators should address the deficiency and ensure that students are capable of learning English in a manner that does not rely on Arabic.
Social strategies involve cooperating with other people to learn words, whether through questions, group work, or general communication. Students show a relatively high reliance on instructors or other people to tell them the Arabic translation of the new word, though the value is still below 2. The rest of the strategies are unpopular, with values below 1 that indicate near-absence of use. The finding indicates that students are highly individualistic in their learning of English, preferring to work alone and only asking others for help in defining specific words. Furthermore, they do not attempt to improve their abilities through communication, including that with native speakers of the language, which is an excellent opportunity to learn.
Cognitive strategies involve using repetition to internalize a word, its meaning, and its usage. The results show moderate engagement with this category, though all of the strategies used are below 2 points in popularity. Once again, the students show a low level of engagement with electronic technology, with digital notebooks and online flashcards being the only two items to score below 1. Khezerlou and Sadeghi (2012) claim that the use of computerized environments enhances the use of self-regulated strategies vastly. The statement may explain the overall low level of engagement throughout the category as well as the general weak scores in most categories.
Metacognitive strategies, which involve the active search for new words as well as intense study, testing, and time scheduling, are also lacking, though less so than social strategies. Students display a preference for English podcasts and lectures as well as learning words through their relations with known ones or skipping them altogether. It should be noted that Zhang and Lu (2015) claim that association strategies are strongly predictive of vocabulary breadth.
However, they do not read online articles or test themselves to evaluate the quality of their knowledge. Scheduling and organization is another issue, with the value indicating that their practice opportunities are spontaneous and sporadic. The finding indicates that students’ general motivation to learn English beyond the classroom is low, and they do not think that dedicating time and effort to it is necessary.
The study has also evaluated the general self-regulatory capacities of the students before they underwent the online course. The questionnaire asked questions that were grouped into five control categories: commitment, metacognitive, satiation, emotion, and environmental. Each consisted of four questions, and the overall results show a mean score slightly below 2 out of the possible 4. The students’ commitment control values were all above 2, though none came close to 3. It is possible to deduce that the students have difficulties controlling their patience, stress, and environment. The metacognitive control section is populated by lower values, with only one greater than 2. Students appear to struggle with procrastination, as they either do not address it or try and fail because their methods are inadequate.
The tendency may harm the students’ overall performance, as the generally below-average scores in the satiation control sections show. Students show moderate ability to invigorate themselves but struggle with boredom and impatience. The finding is reinforced in the emotion control section, which indicates that they cannot deal with the stress associated with learning and sometimes choose surrender as their coping option.
Combined with their tendency to procrastinate, as shown above, this finding enables the assertion that their vocabulary suffers due to the rarity of their learning efforts and their tendency to fail. The last section, environmental control, presents values that are all close to 2, with students knowing about the importance of the learning environment and seeking suitable ones out. However, they have difficulties dealing with changes in their surroundings and influencing them to improve their learning process.
Findings for Research Question 2
The second research question concerns the effectiveness of strategy training on the overall English vocabulary of Saudi English majors. The first metric was the Wilcoxon test (see table 19), applied to compare the productive vocabularies of the participants before and after the implementation of the program. The data shows that the overall knowledge of the population increased considerably and that the difference is statistically significant.
As discussed in Chapter 4, the finding indicates that the program is effective at achieving its purpose. The participants agreed in the interview, with only two people voicing dissenting opinions. The result is consistent with Aktekin and Güven (2013), who also describe an increase in the students’ vocabulary after strategy training, albeit over a more extended period. Overall, the approach can be described as valid and beneficial for the people who are studying English.
There is no control group in the study, and so it is challenging to identify how much of the improvement was the result of the online course. Indeed, one of the respondents claims that while his or her knowledge has improved by the end of the course, the change was due to him or her encountering new words during work. Many of the other participants were likely affected by this tendency to some degree, though they did not notice or admit it.
However, Mizumoto (2013) claims that the introduction of a self-regulated learning approach improves the efficacy with which students learn vocabulary. Ardasheva, Wang, Adesope, and Valentine (2017) agree, stating that their research synthesis shows the positive influence of strategy instruction on EFL learning. As such, if the improvement in the students’ abilities is significant, and most of them attribute it to the program, it is possible to assert that the program was beneficial.
Table (20) evaluates the percentile improvement of the productive vocabulary of the study population before and after the education program. With a 76.199% difference in favor of the latter, it is likely safe to assume that the program is effective at its task. The mean level achieved by the students improved from 3.225 to 13.55 without a corresponding change in the standard deviation, indicating that most or all students have experienced considerable and similar growth, with few to none achieving especially excellent or unsatisfactory results. As such, their distribution remained largely the same, but with a higher mean, facts that are reflected in the numbers achieved in the test. The result of this study may be attributed to the specific nature of the words used or to the intermediate level of the learners, which led to them not encountering the complexities of the language.
Improved motivation is among the primary factors that enabled the program’s success, as shown by the responses in the interview. Many participants expressed an interest in self-development as a result of the program, whether with the same tool or other approaches such as reading English literature. However, a significant proportion of the students featured in the study also noted that they had difficulties reconciling the program with their normal educational activities due to a lack of time.
Mizumoto and Takeuchi (2009) discuss a similar finding, noting that learners tend to discard strategies that they perceive as time-consuming. It may be possible to rectify the issue in the future by integrating the online course into the school curriculum more closely, with dedicated periods that students can use to work on it. As such, they would be more inclined to use it without feeling that they do not have enough time.
Many participants complained that they do not have regular opportunities to reinforce some parts of the vocabulary they have learned in the program. Such words and phrases would be outside of productive vocabulary by definition and not contribute much to the person’s general ability to converse in English and understand it. Notably, Ranalli (2012) claims that students may struggle with specific aspects of vocabulary as they progress and show little to no improvement.
However, the words therein are essential for a wide variety of topics, including work, research, and general in-depth discussion. As such, a general vocabulary test is necessary to determine the overall effectiveness of the method in enhancing the students’ English knowledge. The same measurements as those employed for the productive vocabulary test have been used for this measurement to ensure that the results can be compared.
The Wilcoxon test for overall vocabulary levels shows the same result as the evaluation of productive vocabulary. The most likely cause is the imprecise nature of the test, which only considers whether one of two results is higher, lower, or the same as the other. As such, it is not possible to determine the degree of improvement from the test results, though it is evident that all of the participants have been able to enhance their knowledge of English. The results would likely be more indicative of the success of the program if there were a control group that would enable a comparison of two populations at the same point in time. As it stands, the results can be attributed to the overall growth of the students’ vocabulary as they encounter new words in various situations.
Overall, it is possible to find a variety of reasons why the test would show improvements in overall vocabulary for every person, even if the study disregards the natural progression of the learners. The hypothesis that the program successfully increased the knowledge of the students would answer the question definitively if it were true. However, some participants complained about the somewhat low number of words in the provided materials, and so it may not have contributed to the learning of uncommon ones significantly.
Another, more likely possibility is that the test used to evaluate the levels of the learners was skewed towards productive vocabulary, and so it improved enough as a result of the program to offset the lacking progress in the less common categories and improve the results. An evaluation of the percentile improvement in the growth of the mean proficiency level can help determine which option is more likely.
The vocabulary level test comparison shows similar results to its productive vocabulary analog, though the improvement is slightly less than in the first case. The mean increased from 3.449 to 8.968, and the standard deviation fell from 2.166 to 1.740 for an overall improvement of 61.541%. As such, all students show similar levels of improvement, and they have become closer to the mean after the conclusion of the program.
The result implies that lower-skilled progressed more while higher-skilled ones advanced less, ultimately achieving similar outcomes regardless of their relative positions in the beginning. Combined with the earlier finding that higher-skilled learners may encounter challenging aspects of the language and struggle with them, the result lends credence to the theory that the program, and the test, were focused on productive vocabulary. The students’ knowledge of less commonly used aspects of the language did not advance as much but only made a slight impact on the results of the test.
Regardless of the possible issues, the findings show that strategy training was effective in improving Saudi English majors’ vocabulary. In addition to the significant improvement shown in the various tests discussed above, the participants responded positively to the program and stated that their English abilities improved noticeably. They claim that they applied the vocabulary featured in the program consciously and intentionally and successfully internalized it.
Some add that they find it easier to learn new words and apply them throughout work and education, even if some less frequently used ones tend to remain unused. Overall, the difference shows that strategy training is a practical approach that can be used to allow students to improve their abilities. Dizon (2016) was able to produce similar results, further supporting the claim that there is a significant positive effect. However, the program would benefit from alterations that focus more on words that are outside of the productive vocabulary.
Findings for Research Question 3
The third, and final, research question discusses the effect of strategy training on Saudi English majors’ use of self-regulated online vocabulary strategies. Each separate category deserves mention due to the variation in their popularity and usage as well as the motivational factors associated with these differences. Despite their relatively high popularity before the implementation of the program, memory strategies appear to have benefited considerably from the strategy training.
A majority of the population showed improvement in the measurement of each approach, and every participant was able to improve his or her total score. There are no particular outliers, which indicates general effectiveness for every aspect. The combination of a small number of decreases in each category and the total improvement suggests that students may have created individualized styles with their new knowledge, abandoning less effective methods and adoption superior ones.
Determination strategies, which were less advanced than memory approaches in students, do not display the same positive effect. While a considerable proportion of the students improved in each category, and each participant became better at the category overall, there is a large number of ties. The result can stem from the ultimate irrelevance of the strategies in the category, though their existence as codified approaches contradicts this theory.
A deficiency in the education program that led to an emphasis on other approaches is a more likely cause. Lee (2016) notes that the creation of online courses that can match face-to-face instruction takes a tremendous effort in addition to the work required to ensure that it covers all of the essential aspects. As such, this issue can likely be resolved in the future, as the design of the program is refined using more data.
Social strategies, the weakest category in the pre-program evaluation, have benefited considerably from the implementation. The categories with the least improvement, group activity and asking another person for the Arabic translation, still show more than half the participants improving. The latter can be explained by its high value prior, while the former can, once again, be attributed to a deficiency in the program design that did not encourage teamwork.
However, the substantial improvement in online group practice with classmates contradicts the idea. Overall, participants have embraced the use of information technology in the social aspects of language learning. Kizil and Savran (2016) indicate that people generally consider information technology important in these aspects of EFL learning. As such, the literature supports this finding and shows that the use of social strategies is dependent on online engagement.
The last two categories of strategies, cognitive and metacognitive ones, display trends similar to those discussed in the determination section analysis. The students show noticeable improvement, and the overall capability of most participants to use the strategies has increased as a result of the program, but many individual strategies show high numbers of ties. Those mean that the students do not show meaningful improvements in their use of that particular approach, whether due to their preferences or due to some inadequacies in the program.
The fact that cognitive strategies are the only section that demonstrates overall adverse outcomes is especially noteworthy, mainly because a quarter of the students demonstrates the tendency. The section is one of the few that contain explicitly computer-related strategies such as digital notebooks as well as online audio and flash cards, and so it requires further investigation in the future.
Despite the issues discussed above, the participants universally show promising results with regards to their strategy adoption. As can be seen in table (28), every student has improved his or her awareness of various strategies after the program concluded. Unlike increases in vocabulary, this finding can be attributed to the program almost entirely, as they are unlikely to encounter new strategies as they might words, especially with their initially lacking understanding of the social aspect of learning.
Furthermore, as table (29) shows, the population shows significant improvements in every strategy category. Social and metacognitive strategies show particularly significant growth, which may be attributed to their initially low adoption. Following the same reasoning, memory strategies, which scored the highest before the program, grew the least. Lastly, despite the regression in some students’ use of cognitive strategies, their adoption has grown at an average rate compared to the rest across the entire group.
The study also conducted Wilcoxon tests to determine the differences in the self-regulation ability of the participants before and after the program. As can be seen in tables (30), (31), (32), (33), and (34), the students show growth in each of the five categories, with no one failing to increase his or her total score. The commitment, metacognitive, and satiation control evaluations all show similar results of moderate growth, with each category showing a small majority of positive results.
Students show considerable increases in their ability to overcome internal barriers to independent learning, with concentration, procrastination control, and boredom elimination receiving particularly high scores. These aspects are highlighted above as a concern for students who do not undergo strategy training. As such, the result can be seen as a sign of the effectiveness of the program.
The emotion control section deserves a closer investigation due to its potentially concerning results. As can be seen in table (33), the students have become more likely to address the issue of stress immediately. They also feel more satisfied with the methods they use to do so, likely indicating a perception of increased effectiveness. However, fewer students display an increased knowledge of stress handling methods, with a significant proportion of both ties and negative results.
Also, a higher number of participants indicates that they are now more likely to want to give up when stressed. Combined, the findings suggest that while some students may have found a way to cope with the stress, most alleviate it by abandoning the task and returning to it later. The proposition becomes more likely to be valid once the interview complaints about the difficulties of the course are taken into consideration.
The environmental control section also deserves consideration due to its results, which are considerably less favorable than in any other category. While the overall results displayed in table (34) are positive, each of the positive majorities is weak. The attitude towards looking for a suitable learning environment is especially notable due to its overwhelmingly negative change. Most participants became less likely to search for a suitable location before studying as a result of the program, even though a majority became more aware of the environment’s importance than before. The online nature of the course is one possible reason, as it is possible to participate in it using one’s mobile device. As such, students may engage in self-educational activities whenever they have some free time without regard for the location. It should be noted that most students will try to improve their surroundings’ suitability if they determine that it is inadequate.
Despite these issues, the overall self-regulatory capabilities of every participant have increased, as shown in table (35). Furthermore, table (36) shows significant growth in every aspect, with commitment control and environmental control showing the lowest values and metacognitive control displaying the most growth. As with strategies, commitment control may be explained by its already relatively high values, and metacognitive control, by its weak initial showings.
Environmental control issues were just discussed above and have translated into weak numerical results. Nevertheless, all of the capacities discussed have shown a growth of at least 30%, showing the effectiveness of the program. As such, it is possible to conclude that the program as a whole is effective at enhancing Saudi English majors’ use of self-regulatory vocabulary training strategies. However, the importance of the online component has not been established yet, and so it is necessary to discuss the three strategies that were its focus.
The use of digital flash cards
Quizlet is the platform used to allow students to make flash cards, use them for memorization, and share them with other participants as well as the instructors. Aschroft and Imrie (2014) note that there are other services with similar capacities, but recommend Quizlet due to its excellent user interface and free distribution model. Many students report satisfaction with the service, claiming that it is both easy to use and helpful in the memorization of words. Some add that they have been motivated to continue the development of their vocabulary independently in the future. The finding contradicts that of Barr (2016), who struggled to motivate his students to develop their vocabulary continuously using Quizlet, resulting in their tendency to cram the day before exams. However, the other two approaches may have helped supplement the weaknesses of the platform.
Speed and efficiency are two noteworthy advantages of Quizlet, which is designed for easy and quick use on both PCs and mobile platforms. Wright (2017) claims that it takes less than eight minutes on average for a student to make 20 bilingual flashcards using the mobile application. As such, they can complete the tasks provided in Quizlet without significantly detracting from their time, which is already occupied by other activities.
Nevertheless, many students reported time management difficulties in the interview, which may be attributed to the other strategies. Participants suggested a move of the course to summer vacation to resolve the issue, as it is not heavy enough to interfere with their rest and would also not interfere with their colleges or universities. The introduction of occasional offline meetings to discuss and address the difficulties experienced by the trainees was suggested as another improvement.
Students were already using dictionaries before the course, as discussed above, but mostly English-Arabic ones. Yot-Dominguez and Marcelo (2017) confirm the finding by stating that the use of online dictionaries reaches the highest value among self-regulated learning approaches. Notably, their use of such bilingual tools online has increased considerably after the course, but the employment of monolingual dictionaries shows lesser improvement. Less than half of the participants began using English-English dictionaries more, suggesting an inability to distance themselves from Arabic in their study of another language.
Another possibility is that they are not confident in their ability to understand definitions in English without encountering many unknown words and having to search for them, as well. Nevertheless, the overall increase in dictionary use matches the findings of Ranalli (2014), though he does not specify whether they were monolingual or bilingual. Students have recognized the importance of dictionaries as they began learning more words, and online tools are more convenient than physical sources nowadays.
The ubiquitous usage of dictionaries in most popular language learning approaches can be considered the reason why so few participants mentioned their usage in the interview. As one of them notes, before the program, he or she would limit his or her activities to memorizing words from the resource. The participant also mentions having difficulties recalling the material later, most likely due to a lack of internalization.
As such, dictionaries should be considered supplementary tools that aid the learning process but cannot replace it entirely without slowing the learner’s progress. As Seker (2016) notes, the organization and use of resources is a vital strategy for advanced English learners. English-English dictionaries are particularly crucial for advanced learners, as they help them understand the usage of the word. As another student mentions, he or she has become able to make sentences using the new vocabulary by looking at English dictionaries instead of translating them to Arabic.
Using words in a written context
The course incorporates exercises where students have to use the words they have recently learned in sentences. The approach encourages them to internalize the words and become ready to use them whenever the need arises. Many interviewees show the inclination to use the approach independently, though some are concerned that there may be no opportunity to use the words they have learned in the near future.
Nevertheless, the approach is helpful, as students have to research the topic in which the word is used to formulate a sentence. In doing so, they develop self-regulation skills by learning to think for themselves, according to Ebner and Ehri (2016). The practice helps them improve their overall performance in all aspects of learning and enhance their use of all of their strategies. Long (2016) claims that self-regulation can enhance a person’s overall academic performance. Overall, it is possible to conclude that participants strongly appreciated the online aspect of the program despite its issues. Therefore, the answer to the third research question is that strategy training is highly effective in improving Saudi English majors’ perceptions of online self-regulated vocabulary learning strategies.
Suggestions for Future Research
The research has unveiled a variety of noteworthy tendencies among participants that may or may not be a result of the program. Future research can conduct tests to determine whether the relationships and outcomes discovered in this study hold for more extensive and more diverse student populations. It can also try to address the weaknesses of the model used in this study, some of which are discussed above, by altering the model. Other platforms may be beneficial to add into the curriculum, more significant numbers of words may be explored, or the course can be shifted to the summer vacation, as suggested by the participants.
The small sample size is the most significant limitation of the study, as it introduces the possibility of considerable bias into the measurements. When the homogeneity of the sample is taken into account, it becomes necessary to test the results in a study with more participants before accepting them. The lack of a control group is also an issue, as it makes the determination of how much of the improvement in students’ vocabularies may be attributed to the program challenging. Nevertheless, the study provides insights into the implementation of online educational programs that deserve consideration and further research.
Despite its flaws, the education program used in this study proved highly effective at improving Saudi English majors’ usage of self-regulation strategies and overall vocabulary proficiency. As such, it may warrant an attempt at large-scale implementation, possibly after some refinements are added to address the concerns of the current participants. It may be effective at a large scale, as well, particularly when it comes to fostering group work. However, issues that result from upscaling, such as the vastly increased load on the instructors, should be taken into consideration. An increase in their number, as well as the amount of work they do, will most likely be necessary.
The study has determined that Saudi English majors’ usage of self-regulated vocabulary learning strategies is inadequate to enable them to progress at a satisfactory pace. However, the program it proposes has proven itself successful, creating universal and significant improvement among all students. It has succeeded in enhancing student vocabulary and teaching about them about the use of online self-regulated strategies. Many intend to continue practicing independently, using the resources highlighted in the program. As such, the incorporation of online tools into self-regulated EFL learning has proven itself to be highly effective and worth consideration. However, the findings require further testing and verification due to the small sample size and the design with no control group.
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