Iranian Non-English Majors' Language Learning
Preferences: The Role of Language Institutes
by Azam Noora


For effective language learning and teaching , both learner skills and assumptions should be given due attention. In promoting this idea, students should be provided with the opportunity to clarify and assess their preferences and perspectives .The reality is that many Iranian non-English major university students, attend language institutes due to the deficiency of universities in satisfying their ever-increasing desire to learn English communicatively. To investigate whether the experience of attending language institutes has any role in shaping non-English majors' college language learning preferences, we asked 192 undergraduate non-English major students with or without the experience of attending language institutes, to state their views as to how they prefer learning English in the “General English “ class . By 28.3% of the subjects had the experience of attending language institutes . The results of the Chi-square test indicate that students with or without the experience of attending language institutes, are different regarding preferred teaching method, the most important language skill and their motivational orientations. The results have implications for syllabus and material design and classroom practice.


Insights from nearly two decades of research in second and foreign language development in natural as well as formal setting have made us aware that language learning is primarily a learner and learning -oriented activity ( Brown, 2001; Nunan, 1988; Wright, 1990). Consequently, in recent years there have been more emphases on the role of the learner in the language learning process. Learners' beliefs about language learning is one of the more recently discussed learner variables in the field.

In curricula based on a learner-centered approach, learners have greater roles in teaching/learning processes, and this can result in the promotion of their interests and preferences toward language learning (Makarova, 1997). Moreover, Rifkin (2000) asserts that learners' beliefs (including their preferences) about the learning process are "of critical importance to the success or failure of any student's efforts to master a foreign language" (p. 394). According to Nunan (1988, p. 177), "no curriculum can claim to be truly learner-centered unless the learner's subjective needs and perceptions relating to the processes of learning are taken into account." Unfortunately, as Allwright (1984) says, "very many teachers seem to find it difficult to accept their learners as people with a positive contribution to make to the instructional process" (p. 167).

Based on Bada and Okan (2000), many teachers acknowledge the need to understand learners' preferences, but they may not actually consult learners in conducting language activities. Teachers may believe that learners are not capable of expressing what they want or need to learn and how they want to learn. However researchers like Block (1994, 1996) claim that learners do have an awareness of what goes on in classes and that teachers should therefore make an attempt to align their task orientation to that of learners. Breen (cited in Block, 1996) showed that students were able to identify specific techniques adopted by the teacher that they preferred and believed that it helped them with understanding the new language. Nunan (1989) describes two Australian studies that show learners favor traditional learning activities over more communicative activity types. Some students want more opportunities to participate in free conversation, expressing their wish towards a more communicatively oriented approach. On the other hand, there are those who would prefer more emphasis on grammar teaching ( Bada and Okan, 2000).

Once instructors come to know such learner diversities, they can, "if necessary," take into consideration those preferences and plan and implement alternative behaviors and activities in their classes (Barkhuizen, 1998). Even if learners' desires and those of teachers' are in contrast with each other, they can shift to a negotiated syllabus procedure and come to reasonable agreements ( Jordan, 1997).

Although many teachers acknowledge the need to understand the ways in which learners differ in terms of needs and preferences, they may not consult learners in conducting language activities. The basis for such reluctance to cooperate may be that learners are not generally regarded capable of expressing what they want or need to learn and how they want to learn it (Bada & Okan, 2000). Besides, it is argued by many teachers, quite rightly, that in some societies, like Iran, with a top-down curriculum, social roles of teachers and learners are so rigidly drawn that expecting learners to participate in decision-making in the classroom may not be viewed as appropriate(Eslami R. & Valizadeh,2004). The traditional learning styles and habits of the learners may influence learners' perceived self-confidence and their knowledge base to make informed choices in relation to instructional activities. In these contexts promoting learners' participation in the educational process needs to be done with care and sensitivity.

As Cray and Currie (1996) suggest, the important point is that teachers do not have to act on behalf of their learners but with their learners. Attention needs to be given to students' ways of learning and their preferences and unless teachers are aware of those preferences they cannot consider them in their teaching activities and classroom practices.

This study was conducted in order to broaden the scope of studies done in the area of non-English majors’ preferences about English learning, and to include learners of a different profile and in a different socio-cultural context from previous studies. The context of English language teaching in Iran, with its anti-Western sentiments after the Islamic revolution, the limited amount of exposure to English language and relative lack of native English speaking tourists and visitors in the country, is different from the EFL teaching contexts reported in other studies ( e.g., Bada & Okan, 2000; Lin & Warden, 1998). Therefore, it will be insightful to see if similar findings will be reached. This study will give information regarding this particular group of learners' perspectives about English learning and their motivational orientations.

It should be noted that the terms likes or Preferences, following Spratt (1999) and Eslami R. (2004), has been used in its simplest form. Thus, when students prefer a teaching method or focusing on a language skill, it means that they either enjoy it or find it useful.

The Study

Research Hypotheses:

Many language teachers in Iran, assume that non-English majors can be treated with the same standard approach and as a result students in different non-English majors, with or without the experience of attending language institutes and with different levels of proficiency attend the same General English class. However, there was no assume that students with or without the experience of attending language institutes, have the same interest and outlook, value the same skills or generally appreciate our efforts in the same way? More specifically, to show this is the case or not, the following hypotheses were formulated:

H1: Non-English majors with the experience of attending language institutes are different with those without such an experience in their preferred language skills.

H2: There is a significant difference between the two groups'(mentioned in H1) preference for learning English in an all- English environment.

H3: The two groups of non-English majors, differ significantly in their preferred teaching method.

H4: There is a significant difference between the two groups' perspectives about college language course.

H5: The two groups differ significantly in their motivation to learn English language .

ELT in Iran:

English is formally taught as a foreign language to Iranian students from the second year in junior high school. The students have about three hours of formal instruction in English every week. Teachers use a combination of grammar-translation method and audiolingual method in most schools. At the university level, students mostly study English for academic purposes (EAP) and therefore, reading is the most emphasized skill. The first course university students have to take is3-credits of "General English" and then they take more specialized English courses in which they focus on their field related English texts and learn related terminology. The curriculum in high schools is a top-down curriculum; the Ministry of Education dictates all the decisions regarding the textbook selection and the exams. However, not much control is exerted on teaching methodology. The culture of teaching is basically a teacher-centered one in Iran. Contrary to secondary education, at the university level, instructors have the freedom to choose the textbooks and activities for their classes. Compared to EFL learners in other contexts, Iranian EFL students do not have much exposure to English outside the classroom. Very few English programs are broadcasted on TV or radio. Of course, through advancements in technology and the more frequent use of the Internet, satellite, and rapid growth of private language institutes in Iran, the opportunities for English language learning have greatly improved (Talebinezhad & Aliakbari, 2002).

Although English is taught as a required subject both at universities and schools in Iran along with other subjects, the real act of English learning takes place not in these educational centers but in non-academic centers. This might be due to the deficiency of public schools and universities in satisfying students' ever-increasing desire to learn English communicatively. Whatever the reasons might be, many students resort to non-academic places to learn English.

English Language Institutes in Iran

One can probably refer to English language institutes as the largest systematic non-academic centers. In general, there are three types of English institutes in Iran according to the issuing authority: Ministry of Education, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and Ministry of Science, Research and Technology. From the total number of 4678 educational institutes in Iran which are licensed by the Ministry of Education, 1971 institutes are language institutes whose first language taught is certainly English. This accounts for 42% of the total number of the institutes .The rest 58% belongs to centers teaching all branches of science, art and technology, from remedial school subjects to sewing and computer sciences at all levels. As for the private institutes issued by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, from the total of 186 institutes 127 are English teaching centers which make up 68% of the total ( Talebinezhad & Sadeghi, 2005).


A total of 192 students in different majors (Social Sciences, Business Management, Banking Management, Industrial Engineering, Chemistry, Physics, and Politics) at Azad Universities of Dehaghan and Shahreza, participated in the study. All the subjects were first-year students from the Science and Humanities Departments taking the “General English” course. They had studied English formally for six years in junior and senior high school. . By 28.3% of the subjects had the experience of attending language institutes . The subjects ranged in age from 17 to 27.


The data for this study were collected through a 13-item questionnaire, adapted from Lin& Warden (1998). Based on the experiences of working with English learners, the instrument was amended (some items omitted and some added with a different format). To make sure that students understand the items in the questionnaire, students’ native language (Persian) was used.

Data Analysis:

The data collected were analyzed using SPSS statistical package. A Chi-square frequency analysis was carried out in order to define significance of dispersion of choices (p<0.05).

Results concerning each research hypothesis, will be presented in a tabular form in percentage, beginning with H1.

Regardless of non-English majors’ needs and preferences, instructors just concentrate on reading skill (using GTM) in General English and LSP classes in Iran. In order to see the role of language institutes in shaping students' language learning preferences, we asked students to determine the importance of each language skill. Regardless of their experience of attending language institutes, respondents, by 60.0% believed that the four language skills (and not just reading) are highly important. However, their responses differ significantly regarding the importance of “speaking” and "listening".

Table 1: Importance of Speaking  


Attending Language Institutes



















Chi-square = 19.155 Sig = .001

Table 2: Importance of Listening


Attending Language Institutes



















Chi-square = 11.973 Sig = .018

 As shown, the importance of “speaking” and "listening" is not the same for the two groups of participants. “Speaking” and "listening" skills are highly important for 86.3% and 84.6% of the students with the experience of attending language institutes respectively. While 10% of the students not attending language institutes believe that the importance of "listening" skill is low, only 3.9% of the students with such an experience have such an opinion.

In General English and LSP classes in Iran, instructors use students’ native language (Persian) to translate the texts and explain the rules. It is generally assumed that non-English majors prefer this teaching method and are not motivated to learn English communicatively at least in college language classes. As a result GTM (Grammar Translation Method) is the dominant teaching method in most of the language classes and students in different majors, attend the same General English class. Since there was a hunch that students with or without the experience of attending language institutes, have different perspectives, we asked students to express whether they preferred learning English in an all- English environment in class or not.

Table 3: Preference for an English-only Teaching Method


Attending Language Institutes


Teaching Method





Just English

In Class








Chi-square = 23.827 Sig = .000

As predicted, learners seem to be divided on the issue of preferred teaching method. The results suggest that while 50.3% of the students attending language institutes, prefer learning English in an all-English environment, it is the case for only 24.9% of the students without the experience of attending language institutes. This is a clear message to the instructors that students attending the same "General English" class, have different preferences which are ignored. Teachers are not aware of non-English majors' preferences regarding in-class learning.

To investigate the effect of attending language institutes on non-English majors’ perspectives about college language course, we asked whether students took college language course because (1) it is compulsory (2) they are interested in language courses (3) it has an important role in their future career and (4) it is necessary for modern life. The results are presented in the table below:

Table 4: Perspectives about College English Course  


Attending Language Institutes


Taking English

course due to:




Being compulsory




Being interested in English





Its role in their future career






Its necessity for modern life




Chi-sq = 17.955 Sig = .036

As can be observed here, regardless of the experience of attending language institutes, almost half of the students are inclined to learn college English for better job opportunities and its effect on their future career. However, it seems that students attending language institutes, have more positive attitudes towards college English course. While 25.0% of such students take college English just because it is a must for them, by 38.0% of the other group have such an opinion.

The reality is that a significant number of students are not interested in the language course or would not mind taking college English course as a necessity for better modern life. Many university students mainly attend the language classes because it’s a part of the general curricular program and graduation requires their passing marks from their English classes (for insufficiency of English course at schools and universities see Sadeghi (2003); Mazandarani (1998); Seif (1998); Ghasemi (1996). However, it seems that those students who have the experience of attending language institutes, are more interested in English language (27.7% vs. 11.9% ).The striking point about these results is that regardless of attending language institutes, an overwhelming majority of the participants believe that learning English is not a necessity for modern life.

It is important to note here that many Iranian university students enroll in private language institutes because they feel they cannot get satisfactory result from their English courses at university. They think they can only learn the communicative skills of English language over there (Talebinezhad&Sadeghi, 2005). To take a more realistic perspective about non-English majors’ general motivation to learn English as a foreign language, we asked their basic purpose of studying English .

Table 5: Students’ Basic Purpose of Studying English  


Attending Language Institutes



Basic Purpose of Learning English





Communication with foreigners










every day English









Ability to read English texts







As is shown, non-English majors don’t differ significantly in their motivation to understand every day English. Regardless of attending language institutes, an overwhelming majority of them (96.0% and 95.0%) are inclined to understand every day English. However, they differ significantly in their motivation to learn English for communication with foreigners or reading English texts.

While by 75.0% of the students attending language institutes, would like to be able to read English texts, it is 65.8% and 40.6% for the other group respectively. In other words, by 74.0% of those who have the experience of attending language institutes, do not like the emphasis on just one language skill (reading) in their college language classes. The striking point is that regardless of attending language institutes, a significant number of the participants would not like to learn English for ability to read English texts. They prefer to learn English communicatively; however, instructors are not aware of this preference.

Conclusions and Discussions:

Teachers, curriculum designers, material developers, and others who want to be sensitive to the needs of the students they serve, cannot always rely on their unaided intuitions (Rudduck, 1991). In this study, we investigated students’ perspectives about English learning. Of special interest was the way non-English majors with or without the experience of attending language institutes, showed preferences for different language skills and teaching methods.

The general lack of research on the issues surrounding non-English majors has led many language teachers in Asia to assume that all students can be treated with the same standard approach (Warden&Lin, 1998). This has inevitably given way to disappointment as not only are our students in Asia ,including Iran, EFL, as opposed to ESL, but the vast majority of students studying English are non-majors. Since the language of instruction is not English and due to the deficiency of universities in satisfying students' ever-increasing desire to learn English communicatively, many of these students attend language institutes. Can we assume that these students value the language skills and appreciate their instructors' efforts in the same way or prefer the same teaching method? This survey has clearly shown that this is not the case.

The findings show a discrepancy between skills and teaching method favored by non-English majors and teachers’ intuitions about them. Our findings show that types of learning that focus merely on “reading skill” and using Persian in teaching English, do not appeal to non-English majors especially those who have the experience of attending language institutes(by 74.0%). There is a significant tendency among learners towards class content that observes both receptive and productive skills emphasized equally. Students attending language institutes, highly prefer to learn English in an all-English environment but majority of learners without such an experience (75.0%) prefer a more traditional classroom work and teaching method. Certainly this data points towards understanding the special needs of each group of students. This could mean adopting methods to have a better “fit” with the target students, as Leng (1997) points out. While fashionable teaching methodologies come and go, the teaching situation in Asia is generally similar with large class sizes and limited resources. Rather than dismissing teaching methodologies, such as grammar translation, we should realize that such methodologies may have useful applications when combined with other factors such as students’ backgrounds, levels, preferences, future needs for English, teachers, schools, culture, etc.As Hsiu-Ju Lin (1996) put it:

The degree to which I would stress one or the other would depend on the level of the students and their needs... .(Warden&Lin,1998).

Therefore, as Eslami&Vlizadeh (2004) state, it seems that a locally developed version of a communicative language teaching approach (Thompson, 1996, p.36) may be more appropriate and acceptable for some EFL contexts. Obviously, adapting a communicative teaching approach for EFL contexts like Iran, with increasing number of students attending language institutes, requires time, a well-structured teacher training, and a transition period. Most importantly, the students' needs and the sociocultural context of English in the Iranian EFL setting should be considered.

Moreover, the results of the present study show although different to some extent, that non-English major students are highly motivated to learn English for understanding everyday English and for its effect on their future career. They have realized that they need English not only for academic purposes but also for communication.

However, a vast majority of these students who do not have the experience of attending language institutes, are not interested in college English course and take it just because it is a core requirement at all universities. In other words, they have positive attitudes to language learning in general but negative attitudes to college language courses. It may signify the fact that the traditional methods of language instruction in General English and LSP classes cannot help them to develop their communicative competence.

It seems that instructors need to put a great deal of thought into developing programs which result in a change in non-English majors’ attitudes towards college language learning. Iranian students do not have to spend so much money and time on learning English language by going to language institutes. The burden of ensuring optimum language learning and development should be undertaken by the formal educational system.


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Azam Noora graduated from Isfahan University with an M.A in English language teaching . She has been collaborating with Dr. Eslami R. ( now teaching at A&M University of Texas), in his research team. Her latest work is a paper in Pragmatics & her major fields of interest are Pragmatics, SLA and ESP. Azam currently works at the Azad University of Dehaghan in Iran.

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