One Size Does Not Fit All: Learning to Tailor Instruction to the Needs of Asian EFL Students

One Size Does Not Fit All: Learning to Tailor Instruction to the Needs of Asian EFL Students

Andrew Schenck (Pai Chai University, South Korea)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6046-5.ch040


Past research often neglected to examine the unique factors influencing linguistic development in EFL environments. Modern research, however, is beginning to recognize and investigate these factors. The purpose of this chapter is to examine key differences in Asian EFL contexts that require pedagogical reforms. Review of these contexts has revealed three main issues: a dearth of input, an absence of authentic opportunities for practice, and the prevalence of cultural and historical traditions (e.g., Confucianism) that make adapting communicative techniques a challenge. Ways to reform input, cultivate metacognitive awareness, utilize technology, and provide social skills training have been proposed according to the unique needs within Asian EFL settings.
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Throughout the years, researchers and educators have debated the importance of nature vs. nurture in the language learning process. Early in the 20th century, theorists felt that nurture, represented by the spoken or written input provided by caregivers, was the main determinant of language learning. Proponents of this view, called behaviorists, posited that language was primarily molded through reinforcement of spoken and written stimuli (Guasti, 2004).

As behaviorist theories of language learning became more widespread, researchers began to realize that the presentation of language features and imitation alone could not adequately describe processes of linguistic development. As pointed out by Newport, Gleitman, and Gleitman (1977), imitation of parent’s speech cannot explain the novel utterances of young children. Language learners often construct utterances such as, “I no go,” which are never spoken by their caregivers. Language learners may also overgeneralize grammatical features such as the past tense, constructing verbs like goed for went and singed for sang (Guasti, 2004). Due to the issues positing that language learning is a process of imitation, researchers began to conclude that there was little or no relationship between input, habit formation, and language acquisition (Newport & Gleitman, 1977). Theorists such as Chomsky (1975, 1981, 1986) developed cognitive models of linguistic development, which posited that all learners acquire language naturally through an innate, universal language acquisition device. Such theories downplayed the importance of the environment in the language learning process. From this period onward, researchers expanded upon the notions of innate processes that governed the acquisition of grammar, phonology, semantics, and other aspects of the language learning process (Gass & Selinker, 2008; Hoop & Fikkert, 2009; McCarthy, 2004; Mitchell & Myles, 2004; Pinker, 1991, 1994).

While the intense debate concerning innate and environmental characteristics of language learning is an important one, the polarization of researchers toward one of the ideological extremes often served to hinder understanding of research results. In some cases, researchers appear to have “missed the forest for the trees” in their zeal to bolster support for their ideological views. A case in point is a study conducted by Makino (1979) which examined the acquisition order of 9 grammatical features in 777 secondary school students studying in Japan. Despite significant differences in the acquisition order found within this English as a Foreign Language (EFL) environment, the prevalence of innate theories of language development at the time compelled researchers to conclude that contextual influences on grammatical development were minimal (Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982). In actuality, three of the nine features studied, the possessive, article, and progressive auxiliary morphemes, were different from those obtained from English as a Second Language (ESL) settings (Dulay & Burt, 1974; Dulay, Burt, & Krashen, 1982; Makino, 1979). Results of the study appear far too disparate to make such a claim.

More recent studies have identified the importance of examining both innate and environmental influences on linguistic development. Holistic models have now been advanced which help both researchers and educators understand the synergistic involvement of multiple factors (Goldschneider & DeKeyser, 2005; Kecskes, 2008, 2010; Schenck & Choi, 2012). With a more holistic understanding, researchers have also begun to realize the influence of key environmental differences in an EFL context (Schenck & Choi, 2013). These key differences, along with educational reforms which may be used to address them, will be further examined within Asian countries such as China, Korea, and Japan.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Communicative Approach: A teaching approach that emphasizes task-based learning and the facilitation of natural communication.

Metacognitive Strategies: Refers to methods that students use to plan, reflect on, and evaluate their own learning.

Audiolingual Approach: A language teaching method based on behaviorism. Students learn through listen-and-repeat grammar drills. It assumes that students can learn through reinforcement.

English as a Foreign Language: Refers to English instruction that occurs in countries where English is not the native language.

Behaviorism: A theory positing that behavior is shaped through reinforcement.

Grammar-Translation Approach: A language teaching method whereby learners are taught grammar and asked to translate texts from the target language to the native language.

English as a Second Language: Refers to English instruction that occurs in countries where English is the native language.

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