Extramural exposure leads to more varied use of English by 16-year-olds

Feb 22, 2011

Pupils who devote much of their spare time to activities involving exposure to English, such as computer games and films, are thought to vary their use of language more in their written work than pupils with less extramural exposure to English, reveals a licentiate thesis, focusing on educational science, from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Eva Olsson analysed a total of 74 texts produced by 37 16-year-old pupils at a municipal in southwest Sweden. Two different texts were collected from each pupil: a letter and a newspaper article. The pupils also answered questions about their exposure to English in their spare time and kept a diary of this exposure for a week.

"The results show that pupils with extensive exposure to English in their free time feel particularly confident in contexts involving everyday language, which is not surprising," says Olsson, author of the licentiate thesis. "In their letters, pupils with extensive exposure to English generally used longer sentences and a more varied than those with less extramural exposure to English."

More unusual words

Pupils who are exposed to the English language through computer games and films, for example, also made greater use of more unusual words in the news articles than their peers with little exposure. It is therefore believed that they are more capable of adapting their vocabulary to the type of text in question. The text analyses also show that pupils with extensive exposure demonstrated greater use of nuance in their language. They appear to master more linguistic tools and also to vary these tools depending on the type of text.

"If you view a pupil's linguistic register as a palette, those pupils with extensive exposure to English in their spare time appear to have a richer palette with more different shades," says Olsson. "Their texts can therefore be perceived as richer and more varied. However, it's also important to stress that pupils with limited extramural exposure to the language can still become very good at English, as other factors play a role, including the ability to write in Swedish. But those pupils who have plenty of exposure to English in their spare time are thought to benefit hugely when producing written work at school."

All of the pupils who indicated that they had lots of extramural exposure to English achieved good marks for their English on their school-leaving certificates – either a distinction or a special distinction. Pupils who are less successful in other subjects can still do well in English, which is thought to depend in part on their regular exposure to the language in their spare time.

Better recording needed

Olsson believes that schools could develop methods to better record pupils' exposure to English during their spare time, and the effects of this exposure, so that English classes can be better tailored to each pupil. Given that extramural exposure to the language is much greater than class-time exposure in many cases, the advantages of many pupils devoting so much time to English during their spare time must be taken into account. At the same time, it is important to look after the needs of those pupils who do not have as much exposure to English outside school.

" who are really good at English could, for example, go on to practise writing more advanced types of text, as higher education and many jobs require an increasingly high standard of English. I hope that the results of the study will draw attention to the importance of extramural English for pupils' learning so that this dimension can be taken into account more than is currently the case when planning English teaching at different levels, in terms of both the curriculum and local schools."

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