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Improving Iranian EFL learners speaking skill by activating

content schemata through pre-task


By Majid Hassanpour
Department of English, Guilan University
M.A. in TEFL

I wrote this paper as a project and nothing more.

Abstract:
Speaking is the most wanted skill of all 4 skills required for learning a second/foreign language.
However, many learners have problems in speaking and couldnt communicate effectively. But, in order
to communicate effectively, students must pay attention to different components which place a burden on
their cognitive capacity. Therefore, I proposed that by activating students content schemata we can
improve their speaking ability. So, Twelve students participated in this study and they were divided into 2
groups, one control group and on experimental group. A sequence of a pre-test, treatment (for the
experimental group only), post-test was followed and the results showed the significance of activating
students content schemata.

Introduction
Learning English as a foreign language has become very popular today in Iran because of
the importance of English as an International language which could be used to communicate with
people across a range of countries and the awareness of this fact by parents and adults has led to
an increase in the number of language learners in the country.
Moreover, as stated by Richards in teaching listening and speaking from theory to
practice (2008) most of the learners think of their success in learning a language in respect to
their ability to speak. Additionally, according to Bahrani and Soltani (2012) the primary concern
of most of the learners in a foreign language learning program is improving their ability to speak.
However, by attending courses for several years, many learners still dont see themselves
capable of speaking fluently and because of their incapability in speaking, they abandon their
courses completely or go to another language institute in search of a learning program which
promotes their ability to speak English fluently.
Therefore In this paper I as the researcher will investigate one of the possible solutions to this
problem which is the activation of Iranian EFL learners content schemata through pre-task
activities to improve their speaking skill.
Defining Concepts
Defining Schema:
The schema was first coined by British psychologist Sir Fredric Bartlett in 1932 which
didnt take much attention when he introduced it. But surprisingly, it gained a significant
attention during the 1980s first because of the decline of behaviorism thoughts in psychology and

secondly because of the influential work of Rumelhart (Schema: Building blocks of Cognition,
1980). According to Brown schemata which is the plural of schema are abstract, generalized
mental representations of our experience that are available to help us understand new
experiences and states that prior knowledge is stored in schemata (2012). Lynch and Mandelson
as cited in Uso-Juan and Martinez-Flor (2006) divide schema into two types, Content Schemata
which include past experiences, topic familiarity, cultural awareness and Formal Schemata
which include knowledge of discourse, vocabulary, and grammar.
Defining pre-task, during task, post-task
According to Ellis, as cited in Hassaskhah (2014) a task is organized is a way that include
three parts: Pre-task phase, during task phase, and post-task phase.
Elis (2003) states that pre-task phase provides an opportunity for language learners to get ready
for the main task through modeling activities, improve their fluency through activating their
background knowledge and experiences in life, also known as schemata, and to promote their
language acquisition by reducing cognitive loads for undertaking a complex task such as
speaking. Next is during task phase, which sets the environment essential for learners to take
control over doing the task by themselves and post-task phase allows learners to check their own
performance and pay attention to forms of the language being used in that particular situation.
Defining Communicative Competence
According to Canale and Swain (1980) there are four essential components in an
authentic communication in life which are called Grammatical, Sociolinguistic, Strategic, and
Discourse competence. Grammatical competence refers to learners knowledge of grammar and
vocabulary, Sociolinguistic competence refers to learners awareness of the environment in

which the language in being used that also includes pragmatic aspects of language use in society,
Strategic competence refers to the learners use of different strategies to compensate their
linguistic inefficiencies, and discourse competence refers to learners cohesive and coherent
strings of sentences produced. Therefore, in a communicative task these four components could
be used by learners to take control over their communication to exchange and negotiate meaning
successfully. In order to make this happen, teachers should design a proper task which enables
learners to make use of these components.

Statement of the Problem


Obviously oral production is a necessity in absolutely every classroom which provides
the opportunity for learners to acquire another language, therefore, its importance is always
drawn to the learners attention from EFL teachers and institutes encouraging learners to use the
L2 in their classroom and preventing them to use their L1.
But, unfortunately, their interpretation about the nature of speaking skill differs from
institute to institute or teacher to teacher and as Sadeghi and Richards put it, speaking classes
are most often little more than unfocused discussion sessions, with little real teaching of what
oral proficiency in spoken English entails (Teaching Spoken English, n.d p. 2, para. 1). And
in addition, theyve concluded that most of the problems teachers face in teaching speaking is
developing learners fluency and accuracy along with the finding topics that are interesting to
learners because most of the teachers use course books as the primary source of teaching
material. Similarly Bahrani and Soltani state that speaking classes mainly focus on grammar and
vocabulary rather than the skills necessary to use them (2012). Therefore, according to their

statements, teachers usually focus on one aspect of speaking and neglect the other aspects which
is not how a communication takes place in life.
As I mentioned earlier, to communicate successfully learners should take control over
their learning and try to use different sources that are available to them to communicate
effectively.
For this reason I assumed that by choosing proper topics and activating learners content
schemata, speakers performance will improve since it reduces their cognitive loads and creates a
thorough scheme of the task and topic in their mind therefore theyre more aware of what theyre
doing and take more control over their language usage.

Research Question
Does activation of content schemata improve Iranian EFL learners speaking skill?
Hypothesis
H0: Activation of content schemata has no effect on the improvement of Iranian EFL learners
speaking skill.

Literature Review
There are too many studies on the effects of activating learners schemata on their
reading or listening comprehension skill. But, unfortunately, there arent many studies available
about the effects of activating learners schemata on speaking skill. Therefore, I decided to list
here only the studies that were relevant to the effects of activating learners schemata on
speaking and the reason behind this is to avoid the chaos presented in the literature review of
similar papers.

Rahimpour and Hazar (2007) investigated the influence of topic familiarity on learners
accuracy, fluency, and complexity of the L2 output. Twenty participants were selected based on
their level of placement test and two tasks were given to each participant, one with a familiar
topic and another with an unfamiliar topic. The result of the study showed that Topic familiarity
has an influence on accuracy and fluency but not complexity.
Another study by Kazemi (2014) studied the effects of topic familiarity on learners oral
presentation through using a sequence of a pre-test, treatment, and a post-test from 30 female
learners. Since the lack of a control group the study followed a quasi-experimental design.
Similarly, the result of this study indicated that topic familiarity has an influence on their oral
presentation. In the same vein, Shabani (2013) examined the efficacy of background knowledge
on learners speaking ability through a quasi-experimental design with a pre-test, treatment, and
post-test sequence. The study was conducted from 10 pre-university students, which as a pre-test
talked about unfamiliar topics, then went home and prepared themselves by reading books and
watching movies about the other topic, after that, their discussion were considered as a post-test
and the result showed that background knowledge can improve learners speaking ability.
A study by Nouraliyan and Khodabanehlou and Jahandar on the effects of learner-based
readiness, including topic familiarity on speaking ability from 60 intermediate learners in a
quasi-experimental design sequence of pre-test, treatment, and post-test showed that learners
speaking ability were improved.

Method
I. Participants

Twenty Intermediate level students with the age of 20-25 enrolled in this study who were
studying at Vaje Language Academy. They all had received 3 to 2 years of training in English
and to make sure theyre at the same level of proficiency, a Preliminary English Test (PET) of
Cambridge University was conducted and their score showed that the participants are
homogenous theres no significant difference between them. Next, they were randomly assigned
to two different groups, 10 students in control group and 10 students in Experimental group.
I. Materials/Instruments
As it was mentioned above, Cambridge Preliminary English Test (PET) were used to check
their proficiency. Moreover, two topics were selected from Oxford Landmark Intermediate level
course book (chapter 12, and 4)-Students course book was American English File- for the
purpose of testing students speaking skill. The first topic is about the abstract concept of Success
and the second topic is about Traditions and Customs. Twelve questions about these two topics
were selected from 30 questions provided in two online websites ESLDiscucctions.com and
ESLConversationQuestions.com which can be found in the appendix of this paper.
Also, for assessing the speaking skill of students, the researcher created his own rating scale
according to different components of communicate competence and the assessing sheets of PET
exam for teachers. These questions can also be found in the appendix of this paper.
I. Procedures
Before conducting the experiment, I informed the participants about the academic purpose
and significance of the study and, made it clear to them that this test wont affect their grades in
the academy. Next, I assigned the students of the control group to 5 groups, each group included
2 students. Similarly, I did this with the students in the experimental group.

Pre-test:
Control Group/ Experimental Group
Main task: (10 minutes)
The task designed for the experiment required 2 students, so students performed the test
in pairs. I introduced the topic to them -Topic of the first task was about the tradition and
customs - and asked them to discuss a set of questions about the topic which I just gave to them
(see appendix). Thus, they I asked them to discuss the questions with each other and explore the
topic. Finally, their conversation was tape-recorded and analyzed.
Post-test:
Control Group No Treatment
There were no pre-task and post-task.
Main Task: (10 minutes)
For post-test, I introduced the topic to the students of the control group -topic of the
second task was about success - and asked them to discuss a set of questions I just gave to them.
Their conversation was tape-recorded and analyzed.
Experimental Group Treatment Group
Since I designed the task for an experiment, I decided that theres no need to incorporate
the post-task phase in our communicative task. Then, before the testing, Students of the
experimental group sat in a class and I started the teaching prior to testing them.
Pre-task phase: (15 minutes)

I came and put seven dashes on the whiteboard. Then, I played hangman with the
students about the topic - topic of the second task was about success- After the topic was finally
uncovered I started the treatment (activation of content schemata phase). I wrote 4 names (Steve
Jobs, Ali Daei, Mahmood Hesabi, and Bill Gates) on the board and asked the students if they
were familiar with them. Students introduced them. After that, I asked students if these people
could be considered a successful person or not and stressed that they should give the reason for
their answer. After discussing the topic, students left the classroom and the test time began.
Main Task: (10 minutes)
I introduced the topic to the students and asked them to discuss a set of questions about
the topic which I just gave to them (see appendix). Their discussion was tape-recorded and
analyzed.

Analysis
For analyzing their speaking skill, I created a rating scale based on different components
of communicative competence by Canale and Swain 1981. I produced a set of questions to see if
learners meet different communicative criteria while producing utterances (see appendix)
After analyzing the audio and providing an audio script the evaluation sheets were filled
and a score was given to each learner based on their speech. After rating students oral
production, I use two kinds of statistics to show the significance of the treatment,
Results
In order to answer research question and show the effects of activating EFL learners
content schemata (Independent Variable) through a pre-task activity on speaking skill

(Dependent Variable), I put their score into SPSS and calculated their Mean Score, and Standard
Deviation (see below)
Table 1

All
13.8
14.2
0.4
20

Pre-Test
Post-Test
Difference
Total Number

Mean Scores
Control Group
Experimental Group
13.6
14.0
13.1
15.3
-0.5
1.3
10
10

Test Scores

Mean Score
18.0
16.0
14.0
12.0
10.0
8.0
6.0
4.0
2.0
0.0

Pre-Test
Post-Test

All

C Group

Ex
Group

Student Groups

Figure 1

Table 2

Pre-Test
Post-Test
Difference
Total Number

Standard Deviation
Control Group
Experimental Group
1.42984
1.33333
1.28668
0.94868
-0.14316
-0.38465
10
10

Standard Deviation
2
1.5
1
0.5
0
Control Group

Experimental Group

Pre-test

Post-test

Figure 2

Its clear from table 1 that performing the treatment on experimental group had an effect
on students speaking skill since there was a 1.3 raise in their mean score but for control group,
the results showed a decrease in their mean since no treatment was performed on them. In
addition, as you can see in table 2 the standard deviation of both group had decreased but the
experimental groups standard deviation decrease was much more and suggested that students
performance of the experimental group were closer their mean score. Based on this statistics, the
null hypothesis of this study is rejected which entails that activating students content schemata
does have an effect on learners speaking skill. For making this clear, I calculated the t-test for
post-tests of two groups.

T-test
Table 3

Groups

Control Group

Experimental Group

Mean

13.1000000

15.3000000

SD

1.2866800

0.9486800

SEM

0.4068839

0.2999990

10

10

A t-test from control group and experimental groups post-test performance showed that
the two-tailed P value equals 0.0004 which by conventional criteria, this difference is considered
to be extremely statistically significant.
Conclusion
According to the results of this study, I believe that theres a positive relationship
between the activation of students content schemata and their oral production because students
cognitive load will be reduced and theyll be more inclined to negotiate meaning rather than
form. The Implications this study have for teaching speaking is that by designing a task which
includes a pre-task phase designed for activating students schemata, we can improve learners
speaking ability.

References
Bahrani, T., & Soltani, R. (2014). How to Teach Speaking Skill?. Journal Of Education And
Practice,3. Retrieved from http://pakacademicsearch.com/pdf-files/edu/413/2529%20Vol%203,%20No%202%20(2012).pdf

CANALE, M. (1980). THEORETICAL BASES OF COMMUNICATIVE APPROACHES TO


SECOND LANGUAGE TEACHING AND TESTING. Applied Linguistics, 1(1), 1-47.
doi:10.1093/applin/1.1.1
Ellis, R. (2006). The Methodology of Task-Based Teaching. The Asian EFL Journal
Quarterly, 8(3), 19-45. Retrieved from
http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30902790/Asian_EFL_Proceedings.pdf?
AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1436438904&Signature=G9B
iEBubGtHiEzAgyEv81R3rJPY%3D&response-content-disposition=inline
Hassaskhah, J. (2014). English Language Teaching Methodology. Jungle Publication.
Rahimpour, M., & Hazar, F. (2007). Topic Familiarity effect on Accuracy, Complexity, and
Fluency of L2 output. The Journal Of Asia TEFL, 4(4). Retrieved from
http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30902790/Asian_EFL_Proceedings.pdf?
AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1436438904&Signature=G9B
iEBubGtHiEzAgyEv81R3rJPY%3D&response-content-disposition=inline
Richards, J. (2008). Teaching listening and speaking. Singapore: SEAMEO Regional Language
Centre.
Sadeghi, K., & Richards, J. Teaching spoken English in Iran. Retrieved from
http://www.professorjackrichards.com/wp-content/uploads/Teaching-spoken-English-inIran-SYSTEM.pdf
The Efficacy of Topic Familiarity on Oral Presentation: Extensive Speaking Assessment Task of
Iranian EFL Learners in TBLT. (2015). International Journal Of Applied Linguistics And
English Literature, 4(3). doi:10.7575/aiac.ijalel.v.4n.3p.93
Uso Juan, E., & Martinez Flor, A. (2006). Current trends in the development and teaching of the
four language skills. Berlin: M. de Gruyter.

Appendix
Table 4

#
1

Student Name

1
1

2
2

3
2

Question
4 5 6 7
1 1 2 1

8
2

9
2

10
1

Pre-Test
Total
%
15 79%

2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20

2
1
2
1
1
1
2
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2
1
1
1

1
2
1
1
1
1
2
1
1
2
2
1
1
1
1
2
1
1
1

2
2
2
1
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
2
1
2
2
1

2
2
2
2
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
2
1

2
1
2
2
2
2
1
2
1
2
2
1
1
2
2
2
2
2
1

1
1
2
1
1
2
1
2
1
1
2
2
1
2
2
2
2
1
1

1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2
1
1
2
2
1
1
2
1
2
1
1

1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2
1
1
1
2
1
1
2
1
1
2
2

1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2

1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1

10
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1

24
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0

14
13
15
12
13
12
14
16
12
14
16
13
12
14
15
15
15
14
12

74%
68%
79%
63%
68%
63%
74%
84%
63%
74%
84%
68%
63%
74%
79%
79%
79%
74%
63%

Table 5

#
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20

1
1
2
1
2
1
1
1
2
1
1
2
2
1
2
1
1
2
2
1
2

2
2
1
2
1
1
2
2
1
1
1
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
1
1
2

3
2
2
1
2
1
2
1
2
1
1
2
1
1
2
1
2
2
2
2
2

4
2
2
2
2
2
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
2
2
2
2
1

5
1
2
1
2
2
1
2
1
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
1
2
2
2
1

Question
6 7 8
1 1 1
2 1 1
1 1 1
1 1 1
1 1 1
1 1 1
2 1 1
1 1 1
2 2 2
1 1 1
2 1 1
2 2 1
2 2 2
1 1 1
2 2 1
2 1 2
2 1 1
2 2 2
1 1 2
1 1 2

9
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2

25
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0

Post-Test
Total
%
13 68%
15 79%
12 63%
14 74%
12 63%
13 68%
13 68%
13 68%
15 79%
11 58%
16 84%
16 84%
14 74%
15 79%
15 79%
15 79%
16 84%
17 89%
14 74%
15 79%

Table 6

DO NOT REPORT

Char

Pre-Test

Post-Test

Pre vs Post Test

#
1

Student Names

2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30

Code
1

Total
15

%
79%

Total
13

%
68%

Gain/Loss
-2

1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
1
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
2
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0

14
13
15
12
13
12
14
16
12
14
16
13
12
14
15
15
15
14
12
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
13.8

74%
68%
79%
63%
68%
63%
74%
84%
63%
74%
84%
68%
63%
74%
79%
79%
79%
74%
63%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
73%

15
12
14
12
13
13
13
15
11
16
16
14
15
15
15
16
17
14
15
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
14.2

79%
63%
74%
63%
68%
68%
68%
79%
58%
84%
84%
74%
79%
79%
79%
84%
89%
74%
79%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
75%

1
-1
-1
0
0
1
-1
-1
-1
2
0
1
3
1
0
1
2
0
3
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0.4

Mean Scores

Pre-Test
Post-Test
Difference
Total Number

All
13.8
14.2
0.4
20

Mean Scores
Control Group
Experimental Group
13.6
14.0
13.1
15.3
-0.5
1.3
10
10
Table 1 1

%
11%
5%
-5%
-5%
0%
0%
5%
-5%
-5%
-5%
11%
0%
5%
16%
5%
0%
5%
11%
0%
16%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
0%
2%

Test Scores

Mean Score
18.0
16.0
14.0
12.0
10.0
8.0
6.0
4.0
2.0
0.0

Pre-Test
Post-Test

All

C Group

Ex
Group

Student Groups

Figure 3

Pre-Test
Post-Test
Difference
Total Number

Standard Deviation
Control Group
Experimental Group
1.42984
1.33333
1.28668
0.94868
-0.14316
-0.38465
10
10
Table 2

Standard Deviation
2
1.5

1
0.5
0

Control Group

Experimental Group

Pre-test

Post-test

Figure 4

T-test
Table 3

Groups

Control Group

Experimental Group

Mean

13.1000000

15.3000000

SD

1.2866800

0.9486800

SEM

0.4068839

0.2999990

10

10

Table 7

Communicative Competence Assessment


Discourse Competence: (6 points- 2 points for each criteria)
1. Does the speaker start/close the conversation? And produce sentences in an appropriate
length? (write the instances where they started the conversation and closed the
conversation)
Observation:
2. Does the speaker add new relevant information to flow of information? (write the
instances where they added new information)
Observation:
3. Does the speaker produce unified spoken discourse? (write the instances where they
produced unified utterances and write the instances they produced irrelevant spoken
discourse)
Observation:
Grammatical Competence: (6 points- 2 points for each criteria)
1. Does the speaker have a good pronunciation? (Write the bad ones/good ones)
Observation:
2. Does the speaker produce grammatically correct sentences? (write the incorrect/correct
sentences)
Observation:
3. Does the speaker use different, new and relevant vocabularies? (Write the words/write
the repetitive words)
Observation:
Sociolinguistic competence: (4 points- 2 points for each criteria)
1. Does the speaker understand the nature of different situations?
Observation:
2. Does the speaker use formal/informal speech in their appropriate place?
Observation:
Strategic Competence: (4 points- 2 points for each criteria)
1. Does the speaker stop whenever facing with problems?
Observation:

2. What do they do to compensate for break-downs in their speech? (Do they use
synonyms, antonyms, generalizations, and L1 vocabularies?)
Observation: