Posted: September 17th, 2017
individual difference/An account of the nature of anxiety:
Experts in the field believe that affective factors should be incorporated into any
comprehensive second language learning theory since they influence both the rate and
the degree of success of the process of learning (Hadley, 2001, p. 63) and explain the
reason why some learners have more or less difficulties in leaning an L2 in
comparison with others (Keblowska, 2012, p. 159). Among others, anxiety stands out
as an important affective factor (Dörnyei, 2005; Skehan, 1989) which is powerful
enough to decrease motivation (Elkhafaifi, 2005) or inhibit performance (Derakhshan
& Eysenck, 2009).
Anxiety can be intuitively defined as the feeling of worry or uneasiness;
however, it has not been so easy for specialists to offer a comprehensive objective
definition. As a result, many various definitions have been offered. For instance,
Spielberger defined anxiety as “the subjective feeling of tension, apprehension,
nervousness, and worry associated with an arousal of the autonomic nervous
system”(1983, p.1). As the initial research was based on different definitions which
did not discriminate between different kinds of (facilitative/debilitative and
trait/state) anxiety, it yielded contradictory and perplexing results to establish a clearcut
relationship between anxiety and L2 acquisition (Scovel, 1978, p.132).
Horwitz et al. refer to the difference between the “true” self and the limited
presented self in a foreign language situation as an important factor to discriminate
between foreign language anxiety and other types of anxiety. Accordingly, they
define foreign language anxiety as “a distinct complex of self-perceptions, beliefs,
feelings, and behaviors related to classroom language learning arising from the
uniqueness of the language learning process” (1986). MacIntyre and Gardner also
define it as “the feeling of tension and apprehension specifically associated with
second language contexts, including speaking, listening, and learning” (1994, p. 284).
It is also noticeable that foreign language anxiety is “intricately intertwined with selfesteem,
self-efficacy, inhibition, and risk taking” (Brown, 2007, p. 161). As a result, it
is believed that any attempt to involve learners in foreign language activities might be
considered as a threat to their self-esteem and sense of identity and may lead to
anxiety (MacIntyre, 1999, p. 32).
Brown refers to two types of trait and state anxieties which are permanent and
temporary respectively, and classifies language anxiety as a situation-based state
anxiety (2007, p. 161). Scovel adds “situation-specific anxiety” which results form a
specific activity (1978). On the other hand, although there abounds considerable
amount of research proving the negative effects of anxiety on the process of L2
learning, Alpert and Haber (1960) regarded a role for positive effect of facilitative
anxiety in language classrooms as opposed to debilitative anxiety. It is believed that a
specific amount of apprehension is a plus (Chastain, 1975, p.160) and prevents
learners form being “wishy-washy” (Brown, 2007, p. 162) whereas too much anxiety
results in negative effects. Several studies (e.g. Ehrman& Oxford, 1995) confirm the
beneficiary effects of facilitative anxiety as well.
Controversy arises among experts in the field to decide whether anxiety is the
cause or the effect of poor performance in language acquisition. On one hand,
research has shown anxiety to be the source of poor performance for all kinds of
leaning, not just foreign language learning, and some studies show that anxiety
disturbs essential functions of cognitive ability through occupying and overloading
working memory which impedes the absorption, processing, and production of the
target language (MacIntyre& Gardner, 1991a, 1991b). On the other hand, based on
Linguistic Deficit Coding Hypothesis (LCDH) theory, other researchers have tried to
regard anxiety as the product of the learners’ difficulties with language codes due to
deficits of their first language (Kleinmann, 1977).
Horwitz, Horwitz and Cope developed Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety
Scale (FLCAS) with 33 items reflective of three sources of anxiety in foreign
language classroom: communication, test and negative evaluation anxiety.
Communication anxiety refers to the fear of interpersonal interaction in dyads, groups
or public. It includes listening difficulties and all apprehension regarding
understanding others and making others understood. Test anxiety refers to a fear of
failure which stems from a desire to have a perfect test performance which even
makes the most bright and prepared students vulnerable. Accordingly, oral tests
provoke both communication and test anxieties at the same time. Finally, negative
evaluation refers to the apprehension regarding probable negative judgment of teacher
or peers – real or imagined. It has a larger scope in comparison to test anxiety
including any social situations in general (1986, p. 128).
At the end of the day, there is a consensus among scholars and practitioners
that debilitative anxiety should be reduced to the minimum in order to enable learners
to successfully function in the context of the L2 learning. The studies of anxiety have
had implications for the language classrooms as we shall consider in the following
Few language teaching methodologies (e.g. suggestopedia and community language
learning) and language learning theories (e.g. Krashen’s Monitor Hypothesis) have
accounted for anxiety while others tend to ignore the significant role it plays in the
success or failure of language learners. It is wrongly believed that learners’ cognitive
development is much more important and individuals are able to deal with the
interference of affective factors themselves (Keblowska, 2012, p. 158). However,
MacIntyre and Gardner point to the extensive negative effect of anxiety in interfering
with “every stage of learning, whether during input, processing, or performance” and
its influence on the learners’ attention, concentration, strategy choice, process
duration, memory retrieval and their willingness to use when encountering a new
word (1994, pp. 286–287).
Accordingly, Horwitz et al. refer to two options available to practitioners in
dealing with learners’ anxiety: enabling learners to cope with anxious situations and/or
lowering stress in classroom. They recommend that teachers should exploit various
techniques such as “relaxation exercises, advice on effective language learning
strategies, behavioral contracting and journal keeping” to relieve anxiety (1986, p.
131). Chen and Chang suggest that instructors identify the situations which provoke
anxiety and create supportive leaning environments so that learners can devote their
working memory and cognitive recourses on dealing with the learning tasks (2009, p.
Horwitz refers to the importance of briefing students on course goals to
confront students’ erroneous beliefs (1988, p. 286). Onwuegbuzie, Bailey and Daley
refer to the role of “encouragement, reassurance, positive reinforcement, and
empathy” (1999, p. 232) and careful error correction in developing learners’
confidence and self-esteem. In order to decrease test anxiety, they particularly refer to
the careful construction of examinations regarding content validity, exposure to
similar tests and conducting different tests (oral, listening or writing) separately.
Moreover, they refer to various techniques such as openly discussing anxiety,
changing students’ erroneous beliefs regarding errors, motivating seniors to enroll in
introductory classes, allocating less strict time limitation for older adults’
Evaluation of the learning activity:
In order to evaluate how well a learning activity can address the anxiety implications
on pedagogy, we will adopt Horwitz et al. anxiety scale (1986) and evaluate the
following task step by step. The teacher has decided to divide the class into two
groups of three and assign one part of a reading passage to each of the groups. The
students are supposed to read the texts at home and be prepared to give a summary to
the other group in the following session. Then they have to co-construct the whole
text in written form within their groups and evaluate each other’s writing. Then they
are asked to write about the activity in their learning journal at home.
First of all, the fact that the students have enough time to read the texts at
home will give them the opportunity to get prepared for the task. Preparedness is one
of the important factors which greatly reduces communication anxiety (Horwitz et al.,
1986, p.129; Kondo & Ying-Ling, 2004, p. 263). In addition, working in groups will
reduce their negative evaluation anxiety since the students would not assign the
failure to themselves: it is the group which fails, not an individual learner, so it is less
self-threatening. Group work especially appeals to our diffident students (i.e. Moein
& Maryam) who have more communication anxiety.
At the beginning of the next session the teacher allocates five minutes for a
review of what they have read. However, he extends the time to ten minutes due to the
needs of one of the groups who is slower than the other. Providing a supportive
environment and reducing time pressure will contribute to the students’ readiness and
will in turn decrease communication anxiety. After the review part, each student finds
a partner form the opposite group to exchange the summaries which involves both
speaking and listening. Horwitz et al. (1986) assert that listening and speaking are the
most anxiety-provoking tasks since it entails ongoing process of listening and
comprehending at the same time (Goh, 2000; Kao, 2006; Tercanlioglu, 2005).
However, since in this activity learners are assured to have enough time and
opportunity to request for clarification in case they fail to understand, it will lessen
their communication anxiety. Regarding speaking, in addition to being prepared, they
are also sure if they fail to include something in their summary or to make themselves
understandable, it wouldn’t affect the final success or failure of the task due to its cooperative
Afterwards, the teacher asks students to go back to their groups and coconstruct
the whole text in written form. One student in each group should take on the
responsibility of wiring whereas the others should tell him what to write. In this part,
students with negative evaluation anxiety may refrain form participating, so in order
to motivate individuals the teacher talks about the beneficiary effects of participation
in order to develop speaking skills and the fact that they should not be worried about
their peers’ evaluation. After that he pastes their writings on the board and asks them
evaluate each others writing and decide who has written better and deserve a reward.
Orienting students toward self-evaluation would reduce test anxiety in students along
with fostering post-task motivation (Dörnyei, 2001). Besides, negative evaluation
anxiety will be kept in minimum due to co-operative nature of the task. Finally,
journal writing strategy contributes to the reduction of anxiety (Foss & Reitzel, 1988)
as mentioned above (see 3.2).
All in all, it is worth mentioning that competitiveness aroused between the
groups can lead to facilitative anxiety which will motivate the students to do their best
and in turn satisfy our competitive students (i.e. Nastaran, Sara and Ali) and enliven
the atmosphere of the class while debilitative anxiety being kept in minimum. Since
five out of six students in this class are preparing themselves for an IELTS test, this
class is experiencing a high degree of anxiety, so adopting less anxiety-provoking
tasks and techniques such as the one we just considered would positively influence
their leaning performance.
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