Research Article | Open Access
Strategic Use of English to Study Science: A Perspective from Communities of Practice
This research is underpinned by the sociocultural perspective of communities of practice which situates learning and students’ use of strategic actions to achieve the desired goals in the practices of their communities. Strategic use of the English language is the focus of this study and the aim of this research was to establish whether differences in the strategic use of writing skills in English exist between students of various educational backgrounds. A self-reporting questionnaire on the writing strategy use was distributed among 94 students enrolled in the Foundation Year in one university. The questionnaire items were classified into subgroups, including cognitive, metacognitive, social, affective, compensation, memory, and negative strategies. The results showed that no differences exist among students in all groups in terms of the overall strategy use and in each questionnaire subgroup. Data was analysed using the Mann-Whitney U test and the Kruskal-Wallis one-way analysis of variance. All results were statistically insignificant. The findings from this study have implications for the theory of communities of practice, suggesting that sources of student choices regarding the use of English skills to study science might be related more to their individual agency rather than specific communities of practice.
The study reported here is part of an on-going research project seeking an understanding of factors that play a role in the transition of Bahraini students to Higher Education. This research is underpinned by the sociocultural perspective of communities of practice (CoP) which situates learning and student use of strategic actions to achieve the desired goals in the practices of their communities . The entire research, therefore, focuses on the various aspects of societal and school structures that define learning, viewing learners from different schools as members of separate communities of practice.
The notion of communities of practice was developed by Etienne Wenger . According to Wenger , “practice is the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise” (page 45). This means that practice within a community gives meaning to what we do. This practice also leads to the development of a certain approach to learning and a learner identity in which students will have to negotiate when moving between different communities of practice (ibid). Identity work is therefore central in CoP for it is seen as a barrier or facilitator in the process of crossing boundaries between two communities, thus preventing or enabling the transition process.
While a lot of works on CoP focus on forming trajectories and crossing boundaries when learners enter a new community of practice, the focus in this research falls specifically on the periphery stage. Learners in a new community are legitimate peripheral participants who have some experience of educational practices but who, at this periphery stage, do not know if the practices that had previously guaranteed success and that had been valued by the members of the old community are also valuable in the new community . A lot of research works therefore focus on how learners negotiate the meaning of practice as they move towards the centre to achieve full participation [3, 4], but not much has been written about what happens to students at the periphery stage (see, e.g., Lea ). For this reason, we first focus in this part of the research on identifying whether any differences in practice exist between our students who come from various communities of practice in order for us to develop an understanding whether specific groups of students will have to engage in greater negotiations of their identity than the others.
Additionally, seeing that language is one of the artefacts that mediates social interaction in a community, the construct of CoP is a way of locating it ethnographically, which creates an accountable link between the local practice and language development of individuals . Taking into account our focus on school settings as separate communities of practice, this means that patterns of language and strategies of language use created in one learning environment might affect how learners use language as novices on the periphery of a new community of practice. This forms an important rationale for us to investigate in this study whether differences in the strategic language use exist between students from various educational backgrounds.
The conceptual framework of the on-going research project which also includes the findings presented here focuses on different areas of transition. One of these areas is related to developing literacy in science needed to learn the material in students’ disciplinary modules. Learning of this material in our university takes place in English which is why we felt we had to investigate English language strategy use. Therefore, following CoP as a model for understanding transitions, we began with establishing whether differences in strategy use exist and we hypothesised that when beginning higher education, students from different educational backgrounds will use different English strategies to study their university subjects. To test our hypothesis, we raised the following research questions.(1)Are there any differences in the reported writing strategy use between students from private/international and government/national schools?(2)Are there any differences in the reported strategy use between students who have different secondary qualifications Tawjihi (Tawjihi is a national secondary qualification awarded in Bahrain), High School Diploma IB, A-level, or other secondary qualifications?
It is worth noting that while the on-going study covers both reading and writing strategy use in relation to developing literacy in subject areas that would enable transition, we focus only on written strategy use in this paper. The conceptual framework of the entire research also covers areas of pedagogical practices in language education, school pedagogy, and practice of delivering subject-specific knowledge and these aspects will be discussed in subsequent publications.
Participants in the study were a total population of 94 students who were enrolled in the first year of medicine at the university. The students were divided into 2 groups according to their educational background and qualifications type to help us link English strategy use to their community of practice and to answer the research questions. To answer the first question, students were divided based on their school background. The total number of students who graduated from private/international schools was 53 and the number of students from government/national schools was 41. To answer the second question, the division was based on students’ qualifications. There were 38 students that held Tawjihi qualifications, 21 were High School Diploma holders (High School Diploma holders are students who graduated from private schools in Bahrain which follow the national curriculum), 8 students had IB diplomas, 12 had A-levels, and 15 were categorized under “other qualifications” which included diplomas from schools other than Bahrain and those who offer IB or A-levels.
The data for the study was collected through a questionnaire that was adapted from the work of Baker and Boonkit . The questionnaire was composed of 39 questions which focused on students’ reported use of writing strategies in English while studying other university subjects. The strategies in the questionnaire were grouped into cognitive, metacognitive, compensation, memory, social, affective, and negative strategies. These groups make up general learning strategies which are taken by learners to make learning the subject more effective and more transferable to new situations (ibid).(1)Cognitive strategies are utilised for specific learning tasks and they involve more direct manipulation of the learning material itself . Repetition, resourcing, translation, grouping, note taking, deduction, recombination, imagery, auditory representation, key word, contextualization, elaboration, transfer, and inference are among the most important cognitive strategies . An example from our study include I edit for content (ideas).(2)Metacognitive strategies involve organizing, planning, and thinking about the learning process while it is taking place and, at the same time, editing one’s mistakes . They are classified as advance organizers, directed attention, selective attention, self-management, functional planning, self-monitoring, delayed production, and self-evaluation . An example from our study includes I read my feedback from my previous writing.(3)Compensation strategies are strategies that an individual uses while writing a given assignment whether he/she may be writing a draft or editing grammar and vocabulary before submission of the assignment. By using compensation strategies, a learner tries to bridge the gap caused by the language barrier . One of the examples from our study is I like to edit my work as I am writing.(4)Memory strategies require mental processing of the language. Memory strategies entail the mental processes for storing new information in the memory and for retrieving them when needed. Using memory strategies allows the learner to make the mental link to retained information, practise through memory, send and receive messages, and analyze data . An example of a memory strategy that we included is I make notes or try to remember my feedback.(5)Social strategies offer exposure to the target language through communication with others. They contribute to learning indirectly since they do not lead to obtaining, storing, retrieving, and using of language but give students opportunities to negotiate the meaning of that language . An example from the study includes I discuss what I am going to write with other students or teachers.(6)Affective strategies are related to learner frustrations connected with learning a new language. The use of these strategies makes learners aware of their emotions associated with coping with the demand, hence, encouraging them to look for something that would help them view the situation more positively . A sample affective strategy from this research includes I give myself a reward when I am finished.(7)Negative strategies are related to strategies used before, during, and after the writing process. These are strategies we would not like our learners to use and they are specifically developed in the social context in which writing occurs . An example from our study includes When I have finished my work I don’t look at it again; it is finished.
A Likert scale was used to scale the responses. Five numbers followed each statement (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) with 1 = I never or almost never do this, 2 = I do this only occasionally, 3 = I sometimes do this (about 50% of the time), 4 = I usually do this, and 5 = I always or almost always do this. Data were analysed using SPSS version 20. Nonparametric tests were used as the population was below 100 and not all samples were of the same size. The significance level ( value) was set at 0.05. The Mann-Whitney test was used to compare differences between two independent groups (government/national and private/international) and the Kruskal-Wallis test was used to compare between students under five different categories of secondary qualifications (Tawjihi, High School Diploma, IB, A-level, and other).
Table 1 presents the results obtained for the first question: Are there any differences in the reported writing strategy use between students from private/international and government/national schools? Students’ responses were examined in terms of individual strategy use, as well as in particular categories (cognitive strategies (COG), metacognitive strategies (MET), compensation strategies (CP), memory strategies (MEM), social strategies (S), affective strategies (A), and negative strategies (N)). As Table 1 shows, the means from students from private/international schools ranged between 4.57 and 1.62 (overall ) and the means from students from government/national schools were recorded at 4.39–1.93 (overall ) The significance value for the overall strategy use was 0.457 (OWS). For specific groups of strategies, these values were 0.115 for the use of cognitive strategies (CWS), 0.158 for the use of metacognitive writing strategies (MWS), 0.053 for the use of compensation writing strategies (CP), 0.270 for the use of memory writing strategies (MEMS), 0.820 for the use of social writing strategies (SWS), 0.686 for the use of affective writing strategies (AWS), and 0.706 for the use of negative writing strategies (NWS). This indicates that there are no differences in the use of writing strategies between students from private/international schools and government/national schools and that these results are statistically insignificant.
Table 2 presents results obtained in relation to the second research question: Are there any differences in the reported strategy use between students who have different secondary qualifications Tawjihi, High School Diploma IB, A-level, and other? Similar to items in Table 1, the results presented here were examined based on individual strategy use, as well as the seven categories of strategies in English identified in the questionnaire (cognitive strategies (COG), metacognitive strategies (MET), compensation strategies (CP), memory strategies (MEM), social strategies (S), affective strategies (A), and negative strategies (N)). As Table 2 shows, the means from Tawjihi students ranged at 4.42–1.92 (overall ), from High School Diploma students at 4.48–2.00 (overall ), from IB students at 4.75–1.13 (overall ), from A-level students at 4.75–1.33 (overall ), and from students who were identified as holding “other” qualifications at 4.47–1.33 (overall ). The significance value for the overall strategy use was 0.358 (OWS). For specific groups of strategies, these values were 0.080 for the use of cognitive strategies (CWS), 0.361 for the use of metacognitive writing strategies (MWS), 0.067 for the use of compensation writing strategies (CP), 0.442 for the use of memory writing strategies (MEMS), 0.943 for the use of social writing strategies (SWS), 0.661 for the use of affective writing strategies (AWS), and 0.485 for the use of negative writing strategies (NWS). This indicates that there are no differences in the use of writing strategies between students who hold different school qualifications and that these results are statistically insignificant.
4. Discussion and Conclusion
This study reported on the findings from an on-going research project exploring the factors related to the transition of Bahraini students to higher education. Apart from focusing on specific factors related to school pedagogy, developing literacy in science in a foreign language and social identity, this research also hopes to contribute to the sociocultural theory of communities of practice (CoP). Particularly, through a series of research findings, we are interested in exploring whether CoP are a useful lens for understanding educational transitions when learners move from one community to another. We are specifically interested in exploring this move in the context of language and culture change.
The findings reported above have shown that no differences in the strategy use exist between students from different educational backgrounds and with different secondary qualifications. The proximity of mean responses from all student groups and standard deviation indicates that on average all students use similar writing strategies. No differences were recorded between the student groups in terms of overall strategy use and in each subcategory of strategies in the questionnaire. This made us reject our initial hypothesis which assumed that differences in the strategic use of the English language to study science exist between students from different communities of practice.
Our findings contradict a similar work by Sheorey and Mokhtari  who reported differences in strategy use by students whose native language is English and are nonnative speakers. Taking the perspective of CoP as a theoretical framework, it could be argued that Sheorey and Mokhtari  also classified their students into different communities of practice. It would have to be understood that their division though, unlike ours, was based on students’ language ability as opposed to secondary qualifications and educational background. Their findings showed that nonnative students report using certain strategies significantly more than native speakers. These results suggest, if we consider native and nonnative speakers as members of two different communities of practice, that the differences in reported strategy use may be linked to different patterns of language formed through practice in native and nonnative context. The authors imply this by stating that forces that drive reported usage of reading strategies especially for nonnative speakers are linked to how teachers increase students’ awareness of such strategies in their own communities . This also supports the view by Eckert  who was cited in Section 1 of this paper to explain our focus on language and who proposes that patterns of language and strategies of language use created in one learning environment might affect how learners use language in new situations.
Our findings, on the other hand, suggest that we reject this view for they demonstrate that, regardless of their education background, students still use the same strategies in a new situation, which here is understood as entering the new community of university. Sheorey and Mokhtari  propose that it is important for specific language strategies instruction to be integrated within the overall practice of language teaching in a community so as to enhance students’ use of these strategies when they study at university. Our work implies that there might be no links between instruction (i.e., practice) and students’ strategic use of the English language when studying university subjects.
Here, we report only on what happens on the periphery stage; that is, how students strategically approach their study in English in the very few weeks of their university studies. Using the perspective of CoP, it is expected that this might change for students because they will have to negotiate their identities as they progress through the educational system and as they become influenced by the practice of the university. Previous research  showed, however, that what English teachers in Bahrain teach in schools cannot be linked to the strategy use of students from Bahraini national schools and with Bahraini qualifications demonstrated in this study. This provides initial grounds to claim that student strategy use is perhaps linked more to their individual agency than practice in their respective school communities. Future work in this research will focus on finding correlation between what was discovered earlier in terms of teacher practice  and student strategy use reported in this study. We also discovered through the course of an on-going research that there are no differences in English writing strategy use between native and nonnative speakers considered in our study, which is contradictory to the findings by Sheorey and Mokhtari  cited earlier. We wish to disseminate these findings in our future publications to further highlight the lesser importance of practice in the old community for students’ empowered action (i.e., agency) on the periphery of the new one.
Baker and Boonkit  whose work was adapted here to develop the questionnaire for our study illustrate the need to take account of culture in learning strategies because some strategies are more common in certain cultures than the others. It is the belief of these researchers that strategies in English use can be successfully taught as their findings showed that a successful group of readers and writers (i.e., students who were taught appropriate English strategies) often apply what they have learned to other university subjects, thus suggesting the link between practice and strategy use. We contradict this view by presenting findings which indicate that despite different cultures of learning, students still report the same strategy use. This is supported, for instance, by findings obtained from students with qualifications from Western contexts such as A-levels or IB and from students from the local Bahraini context who hold Tawjihi qualifications. The data from these groups of students, and not only these, suggested the same frequency of specific strategy use and no differences in their overall use. This provides additional evidence that students’ choice of strategy use might be linked to their individual agency rather than practice.
While we agree with Baker and Boonkit  that specific language strategy use is more common in some cultures than the others, we would like to challenge their point about linking student strategy use to the practice in their culture. The findings discussed above already suggest this but we also developed research that demonstrates no difference in strategy use between students of different nationalities and ethnic origin. This research strengthens our argument about the power of individual agency on the periphery, even if we expand our definition of community of practice beyond the school context and focus on the broad sociocultural framework of our students. Similar to our findings with regard to native and nonnative speakers of language, we also hope to disseminate these findings soon to make a valuable contribution in terms of CoP as a useful model for understanding transitions.
Conflict of Interests
The authors declare that there is no conflict of interests regarding the publication of this paper.
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Copyright © 2014 Aneta Hayes and Nazia Al-Amri. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.