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Teachers' Perceptions of Learner
Difficulty in Vocabulary Learning
by Craig Smith and Akira Tajino
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Perspectives on Learner Difficulty

Teachers’ perceptions of learner difficulty (TPLD) in learning EFL vocabulary may influence lesson planning decisions and teachers’ feedback to learners on their performance in learning tasks; and thus, learners’ own perceptions of difficulty. Tajino’s review of the SLA literature (1997) reveals that difficulty has often been viewed from a product-oriented perspective: difficulty leads to error, and error adequately reflects difficulty. However, a dominant focus on apparent error or success may pre-empt efforts to understand how students arrive at points on a continuum of failure or success. In vocabulary learning, in particular, it is difficult to measure word knowledge (Read , 2000 ; Nation , 2001) and thus, teachers need to pay attention to vocabulary learning processes. A product-oriented view may not dominate vocabulary acquisition research in coming years because a growing general acceptance of the complex nature of word knowledge (Richards, 1976; Nation , 2001), of the key role of the influences of the L1 lexicon (Laufer, 1997; Swan, 1997), and also, of the incremental nature of vocabulary learning (Schmitt, 1997) will likely lead to greater interest in the process of vocabulary learning. Both product-oriented and process-oriented views of difficulty in vocabulary learning would contribute to a better understanding of how teachers can support their students as they learn vocabulary. Attempts at objective speculations of difficulty issues need to be balanced by recognition that individuals may view difficulty in highly personal ways. Corder’s view (1973: 226) that difficulty is “a matter of subjective judgment” remains largely unexamined in vocabulary learning research. Research in the field of social psychology provides some insight on the significance of individual perception of difficulty. Attribution theory (Weiner, 1980; Hewstone, 1989) argues that the way we attribute the cause of difficulty can be a motivational factor because perceived difficulty can affect the process of L2 teaching and learning (Horowitz, 1987; Tajino , 1997; Dornyei and Schmidt, 2001). Explorations of teachers’ and students’ views of difficulty may provide insights that could help sustain teachers’ and students’ motivation over the long periods of time required to build second language vocabulary. This paper reports a study of how upper secondary school teachers view the difficulties their learners have learning new words.

Research Questions

Japanese senior high school (grades 10, 11, and 12) EFL teachers, were asked to think about the learning burden of certain high frequency words which their students will likely meet in their secondary school English studies. They were also asked about certain lower frequency words. Although their students would probably not be faced with learning these lower frequency words in high school EFL courses, the teachers themselves had likely learned them. Teachers’ views of the first group of words could be expected to be based upon actual teaching experiences; views of the second group would likely be based upon personal learning experiences and their general beliefs about what constitutes difficulty in vocabulary learning. The research questions addressed in this study were as follows:

1. Do teachers agree which words their students will find difficult?

2. What do teachers think causes words to be difficult, and easy, for their students to learn?

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