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The goal of this study was to determine whether learner beliefs regarding corrective feedback mediate what is noticed and learned in the language classroom. The participants were four groups of high-beginner college-level francophone English as a second language learners and their teachers. Each teacher was assigned to a treatment condition that fit his corrective feedback style, and each provided feedback in response to errors with the past tense and questions in the past. Participants (N = 197) completed a beliefs questionnaire, and half (n = 99) took part in the intervention that followed. Beliefs were probed using a 40-item questionnaire, and average belief scores were calculated for each learner. These were then correlated both with the noticing reported on an immediate recall measure and with the test scores on picture description and spot-the-differences tasks. The results reveal four common beliefs, two of which mediated the noticeability of the supplied feedback, but none of which impacted the learning outcomes.
Individual differences (IDs)—such as intelligence, language aptitude, motivation, risk taking, and beliefs—are thought to influence and even to predict second language (L2) learning success (Breen, 2001; Dörnyei, 2005; Fox, 1993; Gardner & MacIntyre, 1992; Horwitz, 1985, 1999; Sawyer & Ranta, 2001). However, little is known about their effect on the processes of L2 acquisition and, more specifically, about their impact on the ways learners process language instruction (Sheen, 2011). Corrective feedback (CF) is an integral part of language study and allows teachers to provide information about the grammaticality of a learner's oral and written production. In particular, CF is said to facilitate learners' noticing the difference between their incorrect utterance and the target form, leading to L2 development (Schmidt, 1990, 1995). For feedback to be effective, however, learners need to recognize its didactic focus (Carroll, 1997) by understanding that the teacher's correction is targeting the form, and not the meaning, of an ill-formed utterance. As such, it makes sense to question whether IDs influence the noticeability and thus the effectiveness of oral CF.
Studies on the impact of IDs on the effectiveness of oral CF have considered differences in learners' age (Mackey & Oliver, 2002); proficiency (Ammar & Spada, 2006; Philp, 2003); and attention, memory, and language aptitude (Ammar & Sato, 2010; Mackey, Philp, Egi, Fujii, & Tatsumi, 2002; Trofimovich, Ammar, & Gatbonton, 2007), though these investigations are scarce (Russell & Spada, 2006). Together, they suggest that age, proficiency, and a number of cognitive factors affect learners' ability to notice and, as a result, profit from oral feedback, more specifically from recasts, that is, a CF technique that provides the target form in response to an error. In terms of age, children between 8 and 12 years old are able to respond to feedback on questions in dyadic interactions with adults and to benefit from it sooner (leading to more immediate changes in their restructuring and interlanguage) than their adult counterparts (Mackey & Oliver, 2002). As for proficiency, high-level learners tend to notice and benefit from recasts more readily than low-proficiency learners (Ammar & Spada, 2006; Philp, 2003). Finally, it has been demonstrated that learners with a large working and phonological memory (Mackey et al., 2002) as well as a broad attention span (Ammar & Sato, 2010) are more likely to notice recasts than prompts (i.e., CF techniques that cue the problem in the learner's utterance and encourage self-correction).
Only two affective variables, anxiety and learner attitudes, have been investigated in relation to CF effectiveness, but not to its noticeability (Sheen, 2008, 2011). These two variables, along with analytical ability (a cognitive factor), were examined in relation to both oral and written feedback. The results show that although all three factors mediated the effectiveness of different types of CF, their impact depended on the mode in which the feedback was delivered and on the specific CF type. Of the affective factors, anxiety proved to be a variable in oral feedback, but did not play a role in written feedback. Learner attitudes towards CF, on the other hand, figured much more in the case of written than oral feedback. These attitudes measured the degree to which the participants were willing to accept feedback and whether they saw it as helpful and important; their perceptions towards grammatical accuracy were also investigated. In terms of CF type, learners with lower anxiety outperformed those with higher anxiety in the case of oral metalinguistic CF (operationalized as the teacher's provision of the correct form following the error, together with a metalinguistic explanation; Sheen, 2011), but anxiety was not a factor in the effectiveness of oral recasts (defined as “a teacher's reformulations of a student's erroneous utterance, without changing the meaning of the student's original utterance in the context of a communicative activity”; Sheen, 2011, p. 62). Similarly, learner attitudes mediated gain scores for the learners in the oral metalinguistic group, but not for those in the oral recast group. These findings suggest that affective variables influence the effectiveness of CF in the classroom, but it is still not clear whether they impact the noticeability of oral feedback. With this in mind, the current study was designed to determine whether the noticeability and benefits of feedback are dependent on differences in learner beliefs about corrective feedback.
The consideration of learner beliefs in general is important because they “have been recognized as learner characteristics to count with when explaining learning outcomes” (Dörnyei, 2005, p. 214) and have been empirically shown to be constant among learners and consistent across different language groups (Horwitz, 1985, 1987, 1988). Investigation into learner beliefs about CF in particular is necessary because, to date, no published studies have considered learners' perceptions of what feedback is, how it is best delivered, and the factors that make it effective. Although learner beliefs have been claimed to underlie many aspects of learner behaviour and learning outcomes, no studies have looked into learner beliefs about CF independently from other language-related constructs; rather, they have allotted the concept secondary importance (e.g., Loewen et al., 2009; Schulz, 1996, 2001). In fact, Loewen et al. (2009) show that learners view grammar instruction and CF as distinct categories and call for future research to consider this differentiation. Finally, there have been a number of calls for second language acquisition (SLA) research to consider IDs as mediators of what CF is noticed and consequently learned from in the classroom (e.g., Lyster & Saito, 2010; Russell & Spada, 2006). Russell and Spada (2006) observe that
few studies have investigated the impact of individual learner factors in relation to CF … [and that] until more studies are done to isolate these variables and investigate them in a series of studies in classrooms and laboratories, they remain compelling arguments without adequate supporting evidence. (p. 155)
Research that has considered the noticeability of CF has primarily focused on recasts, suggesting that the learners' ability to recognize their corrective intent is limited by error type (Mackey, Gass, & McDonough, 2000), length (Philp, 2003) and explicitness of the recast (Ammar & Sato, 2010); proficiency level (Philp, 2003); working memory capacity (Mackey et al., 2002); and attention-switching ability (Ammar & Sato, 2010). Comparisons of noticing between recasts and prompts are rare; only two studies have broached the subject (Ammar, 2008; Mackey et al., 2000). Although an early attempt of this evaluation was inhibited by an unbalanced distribution of the techniques (Mackey et al., 2000), Ammar's (2008) systematic comparison of recasts to prompts reveals that the latter is more noticeable than the former. Yet it is not clear whether beliefs affect learners' ability to notice CF.
The effectiveness of recasts and prompts seems to be context specific. Although early laboratory studies (e.g., Leeman, 2003; Mackey & Philp, 1998) found that recasts facilitate L2 grammar learning, investigations that compared recasts to other feedback types either found recasts more effective (Long, Inagaki, & Ortega, 1998; Mackey & Philp, 1998) or yielded no differences between the CF types (e.g., Lyster & Izquierdo, 2009; McDonough, 2007). In the classroom-based studies, however, prompts yielded the most gains (e.g., Ammar & Spada, 2006; Ellis, Loewen, & Erlam, 2006; Lyster, 2004; Yang & Lyster, 2010). The fact that recent laboratory studies have failed to differentiate the effectiveness of the CF techniques suggests that recasts and prompts differ in the type of learning opportunities they afford (Lyster & Izquierdo, 2009; Lyster & Saito, 2010). That is, whereas recasts provide correct reformulations of the ill-formed utterance and invite learners to infer the corrective intent, prompts overtly signal the presence of an error, cue its location, and push students to self-correct. Still, there is no indication of whether learner beliefs about CF impact what is learned in the classroom.
In light of this, it is necessary to examine learner beliefs regarding CF and to determine whether differences in learner perceptions mediate their ability to notice and learn from the feedback they receive in the classroom. If beliefs influence L2 learning, then there could be a link between beliefs and noticing and between beliefs and learning. Hence, this study poses the following research question: Do learner beliefs about CF mediate their noticing and learning of L2 norms?
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- THE AUTHORS
The goal of this study was to determine whether learner beliefs about CF mediate the noticeability and effectiveness of feedback delivered in the classroom. Beliefs appear to have affected the noticeability of feedback in general and of recasts in particular, but did not mediate the relationship between beliefs and learning. The beliefs–noticing relationship found here echoes the general agreement among SLA researchers that learner beliefs may affect how learners view and perform language tasks (Horwitz, 1988; Kern, 1995) and that learners generally favour feedback on errors in the classroom (Cathcart & Olsen, 1976; Chenoweth et al., 1983; Mohamed, 2011; Schulz, 1996, 2001). The learners' beliefs about the importance and effectiveness of feedback in this study seemed to have positively affected their ability to notice the supplied corrections, paving the way for a more productive and longer lasting learning experience (Mantle-Bromley, 1995).
However, the lack of a statistically significant relationship between beliefs and noticing across the two grammatical targets may be seen as contrary to the previous research (Kern, 1995; Peacock, 1999; Schulz, 1996, 2001) that associated higher concerns for grammatical accuracy and CF with learners rather than teachers. In those studies, the learners enjoyed grammar instruction and CF more than their teachers (Peacock, 1999), who appeared less concerned about the value of grammar teaching than did their students (Schulz, 1996). In Kern's (1995) study, the learners, more than their teachers, were concerned about the effect of fossilization in the case of no CF and agreed with the need for grammar rules. So if grammar is important and feedback is a gateway to accuracy, then why was there no association between beliefs about CF and the noticing scores for either grammatical feature? One of the reasons may be because there were no direct questions regarding the role of grammar instruction in the beliefs questionnaire, thus preventing an evaluation of learner preference in this regard. Another reason may be that “students may not be universally motivated to be accurate, generally, or grammatically accurate, specifically” (Chavez, 2007, p. 555). Chavez's (2007) study revealed that first-, second-, and third-year learners of German, as well as their teachers, perceived grammatical accuracy as having a stronger emphasis than they felt it needed. That is, although they recognized its importance, the learners appeared to show a strong concern for accuracy only because they wanted to receive a good grade or because they felt that this concern would be in line with their teacher's expectations. The teachers, in turn, might have overestimated the course requirements and the role of grammatical practice in them. In the current study, because the participants were surveyed during the first class of the term, it may be argued that they were not concerned with or did not have the time necessary to form opinions about the course requirements, the teacher's expectations for accuracy, or the evaluation criteria.
The lack of a relationship between beliefs and L2 development is in line with previous research (Ellis, 2008; Mori, 1999; Tanaka, 2004) in that the amount of learning students engage in depends, for the most part, on the actions they take to improve their language knowledge, not on their perceptions of what constitutes language learning. This speaks to the limitation of the instrument used to measure beliefs in this study. Specifically, the fact that the topic and phrasing of the Likert-style questionnaire items were identified by the researcher, and the participants were simply asked to respond to these “ready-made” constructs, raises questions about the extent to which “a construct as intellectually and affectively complex and rich as is one's personal belief system . . . [can] be fully captured by people's responses to a set of normative statements” (Bernat & Gvozdenko, 2005, p. 7). The use of such a questionnaire, however, allowed for a large number of respondents and ensured a statistically reliable instrument that helped to uncover an emergent picture of learner beliefs regarding feedback.
Another reason why there was no association between beliefs and test scores might have to do with the length of the intervention and the fact that no delayed posttest was used. Because the process of language learning takes time and effort on the part of the student, it is unlikely that the learning measured after a 4-hour intervention would show a relationship with beliefs; more time may be necessary for beliefs to affect learning outcomes (Ammar & Spada, 2006; Mackey & Goo, 2007). The comparison of the results on a delayed posttest with belief scores might have yielded a connection between beliefs and the test scores. More research is needed in this area to determine to what extent beliefs can influence learning.
Finally, this result may be rooted in the participants' dependence on their teachers. Having been exposed for much of their academic life to the traditional model of teaching, where the instructor is in charge of the classroom, the learners may rely on the teacher not only for CF in response to their errors, but also for information on their learning progress. The activities used in this study gave the learners opportunities to create and express content, ask questions, and interact with peers. This new instructional context, though brief, may have given the participants a reason to start seeing the teacher more as a facilitator than as an authority figure in the classroom (Cotterall, 1995)—an idea that could, in the long run, prompt them to view learning “as a learner-centered and self-regulated process in which proactive participation and initiatives are important” (Amuzie & Winke, 2009, p. 376). This, of course, will remain a speculation until empirically observed.