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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


Learning English in Malaysian Rural Secondary Schools: Difficulties, Learning Styles & Strategies and Motivation

Assoc Professor Dr. Padmani Mildred Thiyagarajah.

Learning English has consistently posed problems for students in rural schools in Malaysia. The resulting disparity in English language proficiency levels between urban and rural students has contributed much to the urban-rural divide. The poor performance of rural Malay students in learning English is of concern to both politicians and educationists as this will have serious long term socio-political and economic effects for the country. This paper will report on a study carried out to examine learning difficulties, the language learning strategies, preferred learning
styles and motivation of rural Malay students in learning English. The findings of this study include the relationships between language learning strategies, styles and motivation, and the students’ language performance. The sample for the study consisted of form four students of three remote rural schools where the entire student population of the schools were solely Malay. The study was of generally a descriptive correlative design employing descriptive statistics and qualitative data obtained from interviews and observations. The students’ language performance was measured by the English PMR examination results. Information on difficulties in learning English was obtained through interviews, observations and a questionnaire. Oxford’s (1990) Strategy Inventory for Language Learning was used to elicit information on learning strategies used. Learners perceptual learning styles were measured using Reid’s (1995) Perceptual learning Styles Preferences Questionnaires. Gardner’s (1985) Attitude/Motivation Test Battery was used to measure the subjects’ attitude and motivation.
The study found that rural Malay students faced immense difficulties using the English language either in writing, speaking, reading or understanding spoken English. Apart from their general inability to interact meaningfully in English they also faced problems in both accuracy and fluency while trying to use the language in the classroom. Their use of English outside the classroom appeared to be non-existent. The findings also revealed that the students were generally using varieties of learning strategies. However, the uses of these strategies were somehow limited as their competencies in the strategies of learning were underdeveloped. The low performance of the students on cognitive strategies suggest that they may not be doing much thinking in their learning processes. This study showed some weak correlations between five of the learning strategies and the students’ language performance. The weak correlations may be the result of little use of the strategies. This study also found that rural Malay learners of English have limited preferences for the learning styles. This may be due to the unawareness of the learners of the different styles of learning. In terms of learners’ attitude and motivation, learners generally displayed medium levels of motivation in all measures.
Findings of the study suggest that classroom practice and learners’ performance in English can be improved if teachers develop students’ awareness of language learning strategies and styles and actively engage them in activities which focus on these strategies. Language lessons ought also to focus on cognitive skills which will enable learners to think critically and creatively. This implies curriculum and teacher training reforms and innovation for Teaching English in rural schools in Malaysia. Strategy instruction and learning styles preferences will need to be important areas of focus both in teacher training and actual classroom practice. Guidelines for teacher educators, curriculum developers and classroom teachers for more explicit teaching of the effective use of learning strategies will be necessary. This will be in keeping with and supportive of the current trends in learning which emphasize the need to promote more autonomous and self-directed learning.


Assoc Professor Dr. Padmani Mildred Thiyagarajah  (Malaysia)
Assoc. Professor in TESOL
School of Educational Studies
Universiti Sains Malaysia

Dr. Padmani Mildred Thiyagarajah is Assoc. Professor at the School of Educational Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia. She teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate courses in the Methodology of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Her main area of research interest is learning and teaching of English for curriculum innovations and reforms and their implementation in the classroom via teacher training.

  • Learning English
  • Malaysian Rural Schools
  • Difficulties
  • Learning Styles & Strategies
  • Motivation

(30 min Conference Paper, English)