Divergence and Convergence, Educating with Integrity: Proceedings of the 7th Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 10 - 11, 2008. Kyoto, Japan: Doshisha University Shinmachi Campus. (pp. 8 - 20)

Japanese high school students’ emotional ratings of the four skills:
A first step towards strength-based education

Japanese Title

by Kazuya Kito (Temple University Japan) & Yo Hamada (Yokote-Seiryo Gakuin)

Since 1985, motivation has been considered a key facet of curriculum planning and problems underlying school education. In this study, some ideas regarding demotivation are combined with insights from a field known as emotional science. The perception of 57 Japanese high school students of the four English language skills was investigated using a Semantic Differential Method developed by Osgood. The results of a 25-item questionnaire analyzed by a hierarchical cluster analysis procedure suggest that respondents tend to feel most favorable about reading activities, then listening. The greatest degree of anxiety and negative emotions tends to be associated with speaking activities. Based on insights regarding strength-based education proposed by Anderson, we hope to transform demotivated high school EFL students by emphasizing their strength in writing.

Keywords: strength-based education, motivation, demotivation, EFL instruction, learner attitudes, four language skills
Japanese Abstract

[ p. 8 ]

Recent years have seen a surge in interest in the study of motivation (Gardner, 1985; Little, Ridley, Ushioda, 2003; Dornyei, 1994, 2001; Dornyei & Murphy, 2004). There are also several distinguished motivational theories: self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985), goal-setting theories (Locke & Latham, 1990), attribution theory (Weiner, 1992), self-worth theory (Covington, 1992) and self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1993).
Nevertheless, research on motivation still needs to be explored more in depth because motivation appears to involve many different dimensions. In other words, no single current motivation theory alone cannot explain all of the facets of motivation. Moreover, other variables related to motivation need to be investigated as well, one of which is demotivation. Students can be motivated at one point, but no matter how teachers attempt to put motivational theories into practice, it appears likely that learners will inevitably lose motivation at some point.
Demotivation can be understood as the loss of motivation. Motivation stimulate learners to and to work hard and encourages them to persist in their studies; whereas demotivation tends to induce passivity, giving up, and a lack of receptivity to new learning experiences. We suggest that conventional motivation theories may not provide enough practical tools for teachers to help students overcome any lack of motivation. For such reasons, it may be worth examining the phenomenon of demotivation in greater depth.
Dornyei (2001) defines a demotivated learner as “someone who was once motivated but has lost his or her commitment/ interest for some reason” (p. 142). According to Dornyei (ibid.), students might become demotivated for nine (possibly overlapping) reasons, as indicated in Table 1.

Table 1. Possible reasons for student demotivation according to Dornyei (2001, p. 152-153)
Item Reason Example
1 the teacher "The teacher shouted all the time."
2 inadequate school facilities "Our classroom was cold in winter and hot in summer."
3 reduced self-confidence "I don't have confidence in my English anymore."
4 negative attitudes towards the L2 "I simply don't like English."
5 compulsory nature of L2 study "I have no choice: English is forced on me."
6 interferences from another language "English is similar to German, which gets in the way sometimes."
7 negative feelings about the L2 community "Anglophones are generally obnoxious."
8 attitude towards group members "My class is full of obnoxious rascals."
9 attitude towards course book "My text book is a boring piece of trash!"

[ p. 9 ]

Recently several studies based on Dornyei’s (1998, 2001) research have been conducted in Japan,. Some notable examples are listed in Table 2.

Table 2. Primary studies on EFL student motivation in Japan from 2004-2008
Table 2

Reviewing all the studies discussed above, Kikuchi (2007) conducted a qualitative research project and administered an open-ended questionnaire to figure out what factors might be demotivating a group of high school EFL students in northern Japan.
To delve into the issue of demotivation more deeply, Kikuchi and Sakai (2007) created a 35-item Likert questionnaire that also included one open-ended question. Respondents were asked to write their experiences about situations in which their motivation to study English was heightened. They administered this questionnaire to 112 first-year university students and five factors were identified as decreasing motivation: 1) course books, 2) inadequate school facilities, 3) test scores, 4) non-communicative methods, and 5) teachers’ competence and teaching style. Most of these factors were supported by the participant comments, except for the second factor, inadequate school facilities. Kikuchi and Sakai’s research (ibid.) was of great value in that they focused on demotivating experiences in high schools and they worded their survey instructions to elicit demotivating instances more directly, reviewing almost all the studies conducted before in Japan.
In Hamada and Kito (2008a), demotivating factors were also explored quantitatively among 100 high school students and the factors were further explored through interviews with 26 high school informants. Their study suggests that five factors might adversely impact the motivation of many Japanese EFL students. Specifically, they are the (1) learning environment, (2) teacher’s competence and teaching style, (3) little intrinsic motivation, (4) non-communicative methods, and (5) textbooks and lessons. Through the interview, the lack of intrinsic motivation was considered one of the main reasons for low levels of motivation among respondents. The students’ interviews followed by the questionnaire revealed that the learning environment did not seem to demotivate the students at all, but their teachers instructional style indeed did indeed demotivate them. The worst attitude of a teacher is, in the words of one student, “先生が習った事は全て分かるという前提で進めるという事”. This roughly means, “instructors teaching while assuming that everything previously taught should have learned by students.” Statements like that were deemed extremely demotivating by interviewees.

[ p. 10 ]

A third factor was supported by students comments such as “英語を習ったとしてもどうせ使えない。 [Even though we learn difficult English, we cannot use it]” and “最初から英語を学ぶ目的なんてない。 [There wasn’t any purpose or goal in learning English from the beginning.]” In addition, a fourth factor strongly criticized by all the interviewees might be described as “grammatical overkill”: an obsessive focus on arcane grammar which was deemed demotivating.
A fifth factor identified by students is that textbooks appear to be too long or too difficult. Moreover, lessons which focus too much on details were considered to be demotivating. In addition, it is implied that most Japanese EFL learners zest for learning English atrophies in junior high school. Hamada and Kito (2008b) administered a questionnaire to 100 students in which they rated their own proficiency with various English grammatical forms. Using a 5-point Likert scale with 5.0 indicating great proficiency and 1.0 great difficulty, most students rated themselves between 2.23 - 2.69 in terms of proficiency with most English grammatical forms. This suggests that too much focus on grammar might be demotivating for students because it is an area of weakness for most. In order to research potential demotivators in more detail, we conducted this study based on the ideas of Osgood (1956). Osgood’s research on semantic differentials is generally regarded as the fountainhead of a later theory known as “emotional science”. First, let us briefly define what a semantic differential is, then outline emotional science.
"The semantic differential method is one means to explore the subtleties in which various people conceptualize different concepts."

Semantic differentials are designed to measure the connotative meaning of concepts. Participants rate two bipolar words in terms of a scale, or a range of words or numbers ranging across a bipolar axis. In this procedure, objects are also described with words. A combination of two words, or of words with numbers, are used to rate objects. Naturally, the ratings tend to differ from person to person. The semantic differential method is one means to explore the subtleties in which various people conceptualize different concepts. Emotional science, which is also sometimes called kansei engineering, attempts to broaden the views of the semantic differential method proposed by Osgood and to apply those ideas to evaluate and produce products in light of participants’ feelings and emotions towards an object or a concept.
At first emotional science focused primarily on how people perceive objects, and the emotions they felt when touching or using various objects. Later, the focus widened to include ways of gathering information about a wide range of emotional responses concerning many topics. Although there are controversies about using this method, it has been adopted by the Japan Industrial Standard Organization and ISO according to CNET Japan (2007) and Allied-Brains Accessibility Online (2004), in evaluating products. It has also been applied in advertising analysis by companies such as Coca-Cola Marketing of Japan (Kito et al, 2005). This study represents the first attempt to examine how ideas from emotional science might be able to help demotivated EFL students in Japanese public high schools.

Research Questions

The two main research questions addressed in this study are:
  1. How do Japanese second year high school EFL students at one school in northern Japan perceive the four English skills according to a 25-item self-reported survey?
  2. What is the strongest skill among the four skills for this given group according to the research instrument?
At first emotional science focused primarily on how people perceive objects, and the emotions they felt when touching or using various objects. Later, the focus widened to include We hypothesized that if we could define one skill that students felt confident about, we maybe able to reduce demotivation by promoting that strength. Buckingham (2005, p. 11- 20) states that concentrating on peoples’ weak points is not a viable learning strategy. Instead, he contends that spotlighting their strengths will inspire them to become more productive and successful at whatever they are doing. In order to help students focus on their strengths, this study aims to pinpoint which skill they feel the strongest about.

[ p. 11 ]



The participants for this study were 57 second-year public high school students in northeastern Japan who took a required English II class from the co-author. 40 of the participants were male and 17 were female. The English proficiency level of most students at this school was below the national average for Japanese high school students as measured by the standardized rank score (hensachi).

Instruments and Procedures

Two instruments were used in this study. First, a survey questionnaire with two parts was employed. The first was in an open response essay format in which participants wrote down any thoughts about the skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing with respect to English learning. Participants were also asked to write down any adjective(s) in Japanese that came to mind when thinking of each of the four skills in an EFL context. This was conducted in late February of 2008 and respondents had 10 minutes to complete this instrument in class.
The data from this survey were typed into a word processor. Semantic data were then analyzed by Ver. 2.2.3 of the ChaSen software developed by the Nara Institute of Science and Technology. All the adjectives referring to the four skills were output into an Excel spreadsheet. The adjectives were tabulated and top 25 words were chosen for the second instrument. This process, know as text data mining, was necessary in order to cut out leading questions and to reduce researcher bias.
The second instrument was a Semantic Differential Questionnaire sheet containing 25 items in a 7-point Likert scale format. This was administered in March 2008 and respondents had 20 minutes to complete this in class.
A copy of both instruments is in Appendices A and B.

Data analysis

The Semantic Differential Questionnaire was analyzed according to factor analysis procedure (Tucker & MacCallum, 1993) on SPSS. The extracted factors were then put through Hierarchical Cluster Analysis (Romesburg, 2004) via SPSS to explore which of the 4 skills could be categorized closely together because common emotions were associated with them. The advantage of using factor analysis is that it categorizes questions into similar groups. These groupings are based on Likert scale responses by the participants. A factor analysis of the data revealed the emotions the participants had toward each of the four skills.
The 25-item Semantic Differential Questionnaire in Appendix B was analyzed using a principal axis factor analysis. The number of factors rotated for this analysis was chosen on the basis of the scree plot distribution. Three factors were rotated by a promax rotation with a kappa of 4. While rotating these factors, 5 items did not meet factor loading requirements of .40. These were items 11, 16, 18, 22, and 24. They were consequentially eliminated from the analysis.


Before going into the details, let us first explain how factor analysis works. In factor analysis, the item identified as “factor 1” represents the strongest emotion about a given topic. In this study that means the strongest emotion participants had about the four English skills. The term “item” corresponds exactly to the questionnaire items in Appendix A. The factor loadings describe how strong the question item pertains to the emotions of all of the participants. For example, if Factor 1, item number 1 was harsh with a loading of .85, this indicates a very strong negative or positive emotional feeling of the participants. If the loadings are below .40, it suggests that no strong emotional feeling about that topic among participants.
In the first survey questionnaire, 25 adjectives in Japanese were selected from the text data that the participants wrote down. The top 25 have been translated into English in Table 3. The numbers indicate the number of occurrences in the whole text data retrieved in the survey in Appendix A.

[ p. 12 ]

Table 3. Results of Data Text Mining using Chasen from 57 Japanese second year high school students in northern Japan.
Japanese adjective [English translation] Number of occurrences Japanese adjective [English translation] Number of occurrences
tanoshii [enjoyable] 34 kurushii [painful] 5
muzukashii [difficult] 32 chiisai [small] 5
utukushii [sweet] 9 hayai [fast-paced] 4
subarashii [wonderful] 8 kirei na [beautiful] 4
rikai dekinai [incomprehensible] 8 nagai [long] 4
shitashimiyasui [approachable] 7 hitsuyou na [required] 4
jitsuyouteki [practical] 7 ii [good] 4
modokashii [irritating] 7 kakkoii [groovy] 4
nigate [weak] 7 urusai [vociferous/noisy] 4
nemui [mind-numbing] 6 atarashii [new] 3
kibishii [harsh] 6 kurai [gloomy] 3
ooi [surfeit] 6 kirai na [hateful] 3
mendokusai [bothersome] 6

The words in this list were then used to form the Semantic Differential Questionnaire in Appendix B. The participants completed one sheet for each of the four language skills. Students marked how strongly they feel about each word in the list according to a 7-point Likert scale.
Three loading factors were identified and named kunou [distressing] , gaiken-no-ii [well-seeming], and kouinshou [favorable]. See Table 4 for details.

Table 4. Factor Analysis of 57 Japanese high school students in northern Japan emotions toward four skills.
Japanese adjective [English translation] F1 F2 F3
kibishii [harsh] 0.85 0.06 -0.04
kurushii [painful] 0.71 -0.04 -0.16
nigate na [weak] 0.64 -0.07 -0.14
muzukashii [difficult] 0.64 -0.10 0.23
rikai dekinai [incomprehensible] 0.58 0.08 -0.26
ooi [surfeit] -0.56 -0.09 -0.05
modokashii [irritating] 0.52 0.03 0.07
menndokusai [complicated] -0.42 -0.22 -0.28
kakkoii [groovy] -0.01 0.81 -0.03
hitsuyou na [required] -0.12 -0.66 -0.06
ii na [good] -0.03 0.63 0.22
kirei na [beautiful] 0.00 0.59 0.06
hayai [fast] -0.10 0.48 -0.35
jitsuyouteki na [practical] 0.00 0.48 -0.03
atarashii [new] 0.09 0.47 0.00
tanoshii [enjoyable] -0.06 -0.04 0.81
shitashimi yasui [approachable] -0.19 0.00 0.67
utsukushii [beautiful] 0.12 0.34 0.54
subarashii [wonderful] 0.20 0.47 0.48
suki na [likable] 0.23 0.06 -0.67

[ p. 13 ]

The factor analysis in Graph 1 reveals the respondents’ self-reported overall emotions towards each of the four language skills. It offers a general idea of how students tend to feel about each skill. Notice that the strongest factor, F1 kunou [distressing] is associated with negative emotions. The next strongest factor, F2 gaiken-no-ii [well-seeming] and F3 kouinshou [favorable] suggests positive emotions.
In addition, each of the four skills was closely further explored. Factor scores from factor analysis were used. Figure 1 shows how the four skills factored out.

Figure 1. Mean factor scores for 57 Japanese high school students in northern Japan about emotions toward four English skills.
Figure 1

This data suggests that “Writing” was seen in a positive light by most of the respondents, whereas “Speaking” was the least favorably viewed. Note that F1 represents a negative emotion associated with stress and anxiety. Therefore, the anxiety level is low when the blue bar is facing down.
Lastly, the four skills were categorized into similar groups or clusters. This was done through hierarchical cluster analysis. A dendrogram using the Ward method (Romesburg, 2004, p.129) is provided in the Figure 2.

Figure 2. Cluster analysis of the four skills taken from 57 Japanese high school students in northern Japan.
Figure 2
Notice that result of the cluster analysis shows that listening and reading are perceived in similar ways. Writing is not so different. Speaking, on the other hand, seems to elicit distinctively different associations.

[ p. 14 ]


Before we venture to say what the data suggests, it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this study. Three points are worth mentioning. First, the participants of this study were all taught by the same teacher. This effectively controlled for some variables in this research. However, students working with different teachers might exhibit a very different cluster of attitudes towards the four language skills.
Second, although the Semantic Differential Method has been around since the late 1950s and implemented in many studies, there are still limitations and concerns about the reliability of its results (Wylie, 1974).
Third, since this study only had 57 participants from just one school, caution is needed when attempting to generalize the results. More studies with larger samples over a wider area are needed before we are in any position to say how high school students in Japan in general feel about English.
With those points in mind, let us say that this study showed that most participants felt strong anxiety about their English skills. Particularly when it comes to speaking, the majority of participants seem to have a strong sense of anxious distress [kunou] towards their English.
On the other hand, the data analysis revealed two other factors which could be described as positive factors. Many students described English as both gaiken-no-ii [well-seeming] and kouinshou [favorable]. The factor gaiken-no-ii [well-seeming] is composed of 7 items: groovy, required, good, beautiful, fast, practical, and new. The items “practical” and “required” that loaded in the factor “well-seeming” can be further understood from learner belief studies. Nakayama et al. (2005) concludes that students strongly believed English was a means to get a better Job. In addition, Sakui and Gaies (1999) have studied Japanese student’s beliefs about language learning and found that learners hope to experience joy from learning English. Therefore, the third factor may suggests the students’ ideal state or expression of their hopes about learning English. According to this interpretation, even though students feel anxiety, underneath it, there is also a feeling of beauty and joy. Although this might be an interesting interpretation, the goal of this study is not to define what caused the outcomes or conjecturing about cause and effect. This study merely describes how students at one high school in northern Japan describe the four English language skills.
Therefore, the results have been broken down into each skill to explore them individually. As shown in Figure 1, writing seems to have very positive emotions linked to it. As noted before, Factor 1 represents distress-anxiety. Accordingly, the facing-down bar indicates a low level of anxiety. The higher the bar, more anxiety is felt towards that particular skill. Knowing this, it would seem that speaking is a skill respondents tend to feel more stressful or anxious about.
Furthermore, Figure 2 shows the grouping or the clusters of the four skills. The advantage of cluster analysis is that it groups individual stimuli into similar groups. In our study, listening and reading yielded similarities. These two combined are somewhat similar to writing. Lastly, attitudes toward speaking appear to be drastically different from the other three skills. This implies that many respondents feel anxious about speaking English.
"the basic ideas of strength-based education . . . need to be brought about in Japanese high school EFL contexts"

To conclude, the basic ideas of strength-based education as envisioned by Cooperrider (2001, p. 60) need to be brought about in Japanese high school EFL contexts. Recently, strength-based education principles have been adopted at places such as Princeton University, which is offering a course entitled “Health and Happiness” (Buckingham & Clifton, 2005, p. 11). At Harvard University, Tal Ben-Shahar’s Positive Psychology class is the most crowded and successful class at Harvard in 2006 according to the Boston Globe (2006). It now seems that more and more universities are taking in this concept, and some studies have shown positive results. Cooperrider (2001) states:
it has been shown, both in the field and the laboratory, that teachers who hold extremely positive images of their students tend to provide those students with (1) increased emotional support in comparison to others (Rist, 1970; Rubovitz and Maeher, 1973); (2) clearer, more immediate, and more positive feedback around effect and performance (Weinstein, 1976; Cooper, 1979); and (3) better opportunities to perform and learn more challenging materials (Brophy & Good, 1974; Swann & Snyder, 1980).

Another study done by Austin (2006, p. 180) revealed that students who had undergone the StrengthQuest program showed statistically significant gains in five of eight scales, namely: efficacy; extrinsic motivation; self-empowerment; expectancy; self-perception. Those results are summarized in Table 5.

[ p. 15 ]

Table 5. Strength-based education research on 255 freshman students at La Sierra High School in Riverside, California according to Austin (2006).
Table 5

Taking in this concept of strength-based education, it is our belief that writing should be emphasized more in Japanese high school EFL classes. It would seem that the primary motivator or the driving force of willingness to study English for this group of respondents is writing.
By emphasizing writing first, followed by listening and reading, students may progress at a higher rate compared to the old-fashioned “work on your weakness” approach. Borrowing Childs’ (2005) words:
we view language ability as consisting of an inner circle, ‘feeling of the language,’ with an outer ring divided into the traditional four quadrants [four skills]…with this view, we can note that what is learned in one mode [one skill] is likely to feed through to other modes (p.14)
This means that one strongest skill can pull the other skills and drive them to a higher level than by working on each weak skill, according to Buckingham (2005) and Childs (2005). By working on their strong skill, students can achieve more, according to Austin (2005) and Buckingham (2005).
To summarize, writing has been identified as the strongest and linked with positive emotions among the respondents in this study. Since this was a first attempt and a first step in shifting towards strength-based education, the next step is to find out if the students’ scores in other language areas would rise by emphasizing writing skills. In the future, we would also desire to investigate any possible changes in the attitudes of the students toward English on a longitudinal basis. If demotivating factors are reduced and positive feedback seems evident, we can then conclude that strength-based education has promise for English education.


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