Understanding High School Asian English Learners…

Daeryong Seo and Husein Taherbhai examined beliefs among Asian English Learners in an effort to better understand their academic motivations. His study was the recipient of CERA’s Annual Outstanding Paper Competition. Read a summary of his paper below and consider the question: What makes you tick as a learner?

This study examined competence-related beliefs and task values among high school Asian population groups (i.e., Native English speakers, Former-English Learners, and Present-ELs), and between the Asian and Non-Asian groups in their math and science performance.  The results of current study indicated that Present-EL Asians performed better than Former- and Present-EL Non-Asians and equally well compared to native English-speaking Non-Asians in math achievement test.

In the context of motivational beliefs, all Asian groups in general had a relatively higher level of competence, interest, and perception of utility in math and science than the Non-Asian groups.  In addition, all Asian groups reported higher math competence mean score than science regardless of EL status when a between-subject comparison (i.e., math vs. science) was conducted.  On the other hand, all Non-Asian groups scored much higher in math utility than science regardless of EL status.  The results may be interesting, but we caution against generalization of these findings until future studies report similar results.

While part of the reason for Asian ELs’ higher math achievement could be attributed to their motivational beliefs, their attitudes toward math seem incongruous to Asian students in Asia.  For example, Korean students were ranked very low in questions such as math ability and task values (i.e., importance and interest) in both the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS, 1997) and the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA, 2013) even though their math performance was ranked very high in both tests.  Importantly, other East Asian students (i.e., Chinese and Japanese) also indicated the similar results in both tests.  An interesting aspect in attitudinal change of Asians when they come to the U.S. could be because Asian ELs perform similarly in math achievement as native English speaking Non-Asians in spite of their language deficiency.  The higher level of math confidence for Asian ELs may not be intrinsic but may be dependent on the underperformance of others.

The highly competitive nature imposed by societal pressures (what is called “High Pressure Cooker model – see Fareed Zakaria on CNN, Sunday 12/1/2013) on Asian students does not come with problems.  A while back ago, for example, there were serious conversations about Japanese and Korean students committing suicide for doing poorly in high stake examinations.  While “aping” these cultural issues would require a major national effort, our paper provides some credence to the belief that EL programs are necessary for all ELs.  Besides, the understanding of motivational beliefs may throw light on more than typical remedial efforts (e.g., tutorials) in helping Non-Asian students achieve parity with their Asian counterparts.

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