and Transfer in Language Learning
Karen Yeok-Hwa Ngeow
ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English, and Communication
and motivation play important roles in learning. Transfer, the application of
prior knowledge to new learning situations (McKeough, 1995), is often seen as
a learning goal, and thus the extent to which transfer occurs is a measure of
learning success (Pea, 1987; Perkins,
1991). Motivation, defined as the impetus to create and sustain intentions
and goal-seeking acts (Ames & Ames, 1989), is important because it determines
the extent of the learnerās active involvement and attitude toward learning.
relationship between transfer and motivation
suggests that transfer and motivation are mutually supportive in creating an optimal
learning environment. If the learner perceives what he is learning to be
relevant and transferable to other situations, he will find learning meaningful,
and his motivation to acquire the skill or knowledge will increase. Similarly,
for transfer to take place, the learner must be motivated to do two things. First,
he must be able to recognize opportunities for transfer (Prawat,
1989); second, he needs to possess the motivation to take advantage of these
opportunities (Pea, 1988).
The challenge of teaching is thus to simultaneously enhance transfer and motivation
so that they both support learning. To do this, teachers need to first understand
the nature of transfer and the nature of motivation.
nature of transfer
Teachers often ask themselves "What is in the learning situation that needs
to be transferred?" The answer may be one or more of the following: content
or conceptual knowledge, strategic or procedural knowledge, and appropriate dispositions
for learning (Thorndike, 1932; Perkins et al., 1993).
Proponents for the teaching of content knowledge over strategic knowledge
argue that learners who have mastered the content knowledge of a particular domain
are fully capable of displaying sophisticated use of effective strategies in new
situations, including those strategies never explicitly taught (Chi,
1988). They claim that without requisite domain-specific knowledge, general
strategies have a weak effect on enhancing performance in most tasks. At the same
time, a common argument for emphasizing the teaching of strategic knowledge
is that if one can identify and teach the general skills (e.g., metacognitive
and problem-solving skills) that are applicable to a broad range of tasks, it
is easier then to facilitate transfer of learning (Pressley et al., 1987). Although
proponents from the two camps disagree on the question of what exactly is transferred,
they concur that positive dispositions toward learning are vital to learner success.
These dispositions include traits like high motivation, risk-taking attitudes,
mindfulness or attentiveness, and a sense of responsibility for learning (Salomon
& Perkins, 1988; Pea, 1988).
nature of motivation
Gardner and Lambert (1972) introduced the notions of instrumental and integrative
motivation. In the context of language learning, instrumental motivation refers
to the learner's desire to learn a language for utilitarian purposes (such as
employment or travel), whereas integrative motivation refers to the desire to
learn a language to integrate successfully into the target language community.
In later research studies, Crookes
and Schmidt (1991), and Gardner
and Tremblay (1994) explored four other motivational orientations: (a) reason
for learning, (b) desire to attain the learning goal, (c) positive attitude toward
the learning situation, and (d) effortful behavior.
Many theorists and researchers have found that it is important to recognize the
construct of motivation not as a single entity but as a multi-factorial one. Oxford
and Shearin (1994) analyzed a total of 12 motivational theories or models, including
those from socio-psychology, cognitive development, and socio-cultural psychology,
and identified six factors that impact motivation in language learning:
attitudes (i.e., sentiments toward the learning community and the target language)
beliefs about self (i.e., expectancies about one's attitudes to succeed,
self-efficacy, and anxiety)
goals (perceived clarity and relevance of learning goals as reasons for learning)
involvement (i.e., extent to which the learner actively and consciously participates
in the language learning process)
environmental support (i.e., extent of teacher and peer support, and the
integration of cultural and outside-of-class support into learning experience)
personal attributes (i.e., aptitude, age, sex, and previous language learning
strategies to enhance student motivation and learning transfer
Research studies have shown that language acquisition is the result of an interplay
between cognitive mechanism and environmental conditions (Spolsky,
& Egbert, 1995). Understanding and creating optimal language learning
environments thus becomes a primary concern of the language teacher. Teachers
can observe circumstances under which learners acquire language and can make adjustments
toward creating optimal learning conditions. In designing learning activities,
the language teacher should remember that because language learning focuses on
both the accuracy and appropriateness of application in various contexts of use,
learners must be given opportunities to participate as language users in multiple
contexts. These opportunities will result in learnersā heightened motivation and
awareness of the intricacies of language use.
Some teaching strategies that can be used to foster motivation and provide better
transfer opportunities of language skills include the following:
Learner anxiety (Horwitz,
1986) and other negative feelings can be stumbling blocks to learners becoming
cognizant of learning and transfer opportunities. Thus, providing our learners
with the motivation to learn is one of the best steps we can take to facilitate
learning success. This is best conveyed by
Bruner (1960, p.31):
Encourage learners to take
ownership in learning
learners take ownership of the learning assignment by letting them identify and
decide for themselves relevant learning goals. This will motivate them to
apply what they have learned to attain these learning goals.
Promote intentional cognition
or mindfulness to learning in various contexts
must be able to practice language in multiple contexts in order to bridge domains
and foster active abstraction of concepts learned (Bransford, et al. 1990). This
will help learners recognize the relevance and transferability of different learning
skills or knowledge.
authenticity of learning tasks and goals
should recognize a real need to accomplish learning goals that are relevant and
holistic (rather than task-specific). This prepares them for the complexities
of real-world tasks that require them to use language skills and knowledge that
have to be continually transferred.
"The best way to create interest in a
subject is to render it worth knowing, which means to make the knowledge gained
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publication was prepared (Digest #138, EDO-CS-98-11, November 1998) with funding
from the U.S. Department of Education under contract number RR93002011, and published
by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication.
opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or
policies of Learn2study, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products,
or organizations imply endorsement by Learn2study.