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Study Looks at How 15-year-olds Learn English

FILE - ESL (English-as-a-second-language) teacher Xavier Chavez, standing, teaches a summer history class at Benson High School in Portland, Ore.,Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
FILE - ESL (English-as-a-second-language) teacher Xavier Chavez, standing, teaches a summer history class at Benson High School in Portland, Ore.,Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2008. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Study Looks at How 15-year-olds Learn English
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Today’s English students have a lot of exposure to the language outside of the classroom. By using the internet, social media, and other digital technologies, they can watch videos, hear music, and play video games in English.

But teachers are not so sure that digital exposure results in better English-speaking abilities. That is the finding of a new study on how teenagers learn English. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, a group that studies economic activities in large economies, supported the study.

The study is called “How 15-Year-Olds Learn English.” It provides case studies of teaching teenagers English from five countries: Finland, Greece, Israel, the Netherlands and Portugal. The researchers gathered information by visiting schools and observing English lessons in each country. They also interviewed teachers, students and school administrators.

The study findings will be used to support the OECD’s 2025 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), said Catalina Covacevich. She was one of the study’s main researchers. PISA studies the school systems of about 90 countries by measuring the performance of 15-year-olds in reading, writing and math. In 2025, PISA will aim to measure 22 of those countries’ English language skills for the first time.

“It’s an obvious statement that English transcends classroom walls,” Christa Rawkins told VOA. She was another one of the researchers for the study.

Teens spoke “about the ways they used English with people on those sorts of social networking sites and other media. But it was rarer that they were talking about sitting down to learn English via those platforms.”

Some students in Greece said it is easier to search for English-language information on the internet because more of it is available. In the Netherlands, 15-year-olds described watching English YouTube videos. In a written opinion study, half of students in the Netherlands reported always using English when using digital tools.

Teachers however are unsure whether digital tools are improving students’ English knowledge. While teachers said using English platforms might increase students’ motivation to learn and help them get used to the language, the platforms “are not necessarily teaching them English,” Rawkins said.

One teacher in Finland, for example, said students might get the false idea that they do not need to study English because of how often they use English outside of school.

“They think they know it better than I do because they use it in computer games and it’s present in their lives all the time,” the teacher said. “They think they don’t have to listen to me in English classes, I feel that is a challenge.

Rawkins said there is a “slight disconnect” between the kind of English students are learning outside of school “and the kind of English they're being asked to learn and study in classrooms.” Students might feel that “studying English at school is just about studying grammar whereas outside (of) school they can communicate and interact in the language,” the report said.

A large part of OECD’s work with PISA, the researchers said, is examining inequities in education. Rawkins said there can be large inequities that arise from the kinds of out-of-school exposure kids get to English. Kids from wealthy families are able to travel to English-speaking countries or attend summer camps where they can speak English to international friends, for example. Some students can pay for private lessons.

“Kids living in cities were more likely to be using English out and about in their daily lives compared to their counterparts in more rural areas,” Rawkins added.

There has been a big change in how students are exposed to English outside of school. But within the classroom, things “hadn’t really changed.” The report noted how digital technologies are used within the classroom, but traditional teaching methods, like textbooks, were still used in every school observed.

Teachers in all five countries said their students struggled the most with writing and speaking English rather than in reading and listening. Researchers noted that students might feel a lack of self-confidence when it comes to speaking. They might also be less likely to speak and write English outside of school.

“Outside school they're doing a lot of reading and listening to English because that's what the majority of their exposure is, particularly when it comes to digital technologies,” Rawkins said. “They're not doing so much speaking or writing.”

I’m Dan Novak.

Dan Novak wrote this story for VOA Learning English.

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Words in This Story

exposure — n. the act of experiencing or meeting something or someone

digital –adj. related to computers and computing

interview –v. to talk to someone to get information and learn about something they know about

obvious — adj. something everyone knows

transcend — v. to go beyond or above something

platform –n. a service or network that distributes information or messages

challenge –n. something that is done that must be overcome or dealt with using effort

grammar –n. the rules of language use

inequity — n.(social) the state of being unequal or unbalanced especially when talking about how people feel about social relationships between groups