Exploring the Perceptions of Iranian Intermediate EFL Learners about Reading Comprehension Ability

Document Type : Original Article

Authors

1 Assistant Professor of TEFL, English Language Department, Islamic Azad University, Zanjan Branch, Zanjan, Iran

2 MA in TEFL, English Language Department, Islamic Azad University, Zanjan Branch, Zanjan, Iran

3 Assistant Professor of TESOL, English Department, University of Technology and Applied Sciences, Ibra, Oman

10.22034/efl.2022.336001.1153

Abstract

Learners’ perception of culture on receptive skills more specifically on reading comprehension has been an area facing a big challenge contemporarily. The current research aimed to investigate the cultural perception of Iranian EFL learners on reading comprehension ability. To conduct the study, a mixed-methods design consisting of a questionnaire and interview study was used. Participants, 50 intermediate EFL learners (25 males, 25 females), were randomly selected using Oxford Placement Test. The participants were provided with two passages with different cultural contents (one containing Iranian culture and another containing culture of English spoken countries). Then participants were required to fill in a Likert-scale questionnaire which was distributed through Google form online platform. Also, an interview session was conducted to gather more detailed data. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and coded to find common themes. Analysis of interview and questionnaire data showed that learners hold similar cultural perceptions on reading comprehension ability by gender and social class has no significant impact on learners' perceptions. The results of the study specified that Iranian EFL learners held a positive attitude towards the integration of cultural materials into reading passages to better comprehend the target language. Moreover, it was seen that gender and social class did not impact significantly learners' cultural perceptions of English reading comprehension. The findings imply that ESL students with various reading levels or capabilities can learn from materials that are culturally diverse, specifically the ones at higher reading proficiency levels.

Keywords

1. Introduction

Reading is one of the challenging language skills, especially in teaching a language in a second or foreign context. Also, it has been considered essential for academic success (Liu2015Maher Salah2008). Yang (2017) regards reading as a mental complex process that creates an interaction between reader and author. In other words, it has been stated that comprehension of meaning and ideas is the final goal of reading skills (McNamara2007, as cited in Tavakoli2014). It is interesting to know that within this process of comprehension, complexity, and mentality there lies a crucial issue of culture. Language instruction in general and a second or foreign language, in particular, should also consist of some cultural features that the learners have to be acquainted with to facilitate this process (Abdzadeh & Baker2020Bedford1981Carrell1983Johnson1981).  It is believed that second and foreign language teaching is a way to improve both language skills (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and cultural competence at the same time (Yang2017). Background knowledge and understanding of the new culture are elements that can influence the comprehension ability of the ESL students along with their linguistic ability (AfflerbachHurt & Cho2020Carrell & Eisterhold1983Johnson1981). For an illustration, the complexity of foreign language exacerbates the comprehension of texts for EFL learners. Foreign language complexity and lack of adequate background knowledge are causes of concern in choosing appropriate reading passages for EFL learners. Research in the reading comprehension of texts of a foreign cultural background has demonstrated that “discourse has a meaning of its own which determines the relative meaningfulness of groups of sentences which comprise it” (Johnson1981, p. 169). It is important to provide learners with reading materials along with integrating and using background knowledge to reduce the problem of incomprehensibility among learners. “Comprehension of words, sentences, and discourse could not be simply a matter of applying linguistic knowledge. Every act of comprehension involves one’s knowledge of the world as well” (Anderson et al.1977, p. 369). Reading texts are full of culturally-based words and sentences. Separation of culture from reading is not easy; furthermore, it should be reiterated that comprehension without cultural background may not be fulfilled completely. 

In spite of previous research in cultural awareness (e.g., Wu2021), it seems that a large number of ESL learners are not sufficiently cognizant of the cultural components of the language they are learning. On the one hand, little is known about misunderstanding of reading passages while studying and also misinterpretation when communicating with other speakers of that language. On the other hand, it is still questionable whether the knowledge of cultural schema relating to specific reading texts might influence comprehension of English texts. There has been no research investigating the impact of the culture of the new language in language learning in a specific skill, and also, the texts which are used by ESL students do not consist of cultural elements of American English. Some students might claim that they are acquainted with that foreign culture (Englebert & Dong2004). But it should be mentioned that appropriate schemata and proper cultural background are the major factors influencing the learning and comprehension process. Culture as an interwoven element in a language is considered to be significant in language teaching and policy (Abdzadeh & Baker2020). Therefore, language instructors must educate learners on the cultural background knowledge, integrate culturally appropriate teaching approaches, and investigate culturally-based linguistics to encourage comprehension in the learning process. Regarding the above mentioned point; however, there have been no controlled studies that discuss and explore the cultural perception and reading comprehension of language learners, especially in EFL contexts such as Iranian language classrooms. The research to date has tended to focus on cultural issues regarding learning language components. Thus, no study has been done exploring learners’ reading comprehension as influenced by their cultural awareness. Consequently, by considering the aforementioned gaps, the present study explored cultural perception, reading comprehension, learners' comprehension of English texts, and cultural attitudes. Thus, the following research questions can be formulated:

RQ1: What are the cultural perceptions of Iranian EFL learners on comprehension of English texts?

RQ2: Is there any significant difference in cultural perceptions of Iranian EFL learners on comprehension of English texts based on their social class?

RQ3: Is there any significant difference between male and female Iranian EFL learners’ cultural perceptions?

2. Literature Review

Reading has been introduced as a cognitive and constructive process (Woolley2011). According to “Longman dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics” reading is defined as: 

The processes by which the meaning of a written text is understood. When this is done silently it is known as silent reading. The understanding that results is called reading comprehension. Reading employs many different cognitive skills, including letter and word recognition, knowledge of syntax, and recognition of text types and text structure. Comprehension that is based on clues in the text is referred to as bottom-up processing, and comprehension that makes use of information outside of the text is known as top-down processing. (Richards & Schmidt2013, p. 483)

Johnson (1981) believed that language is complex and culture is one of the items that cause complexity in language learning and preparing appropriate passages and texts for EFL/ESL language classrooms. Therefore, integration of native culture in the reading materials might facilitate reading comprehension for language learners. There are three reasons, according to Rumelhart (1980), for readers' failure through the process of comprehension. 1) The reader might not have proper schemata. 2) The clues prepared by the author might be insufficient for activating those schemata. 3) The reader might find a persistent interpretation of the passage however not the one meant. Comprehending reading materials of any kind has a direct connection with background knowledge. 

As it was discussed earlier, schema theory illustrates the aspects of background knowledge in reading comprehension. In other words, readers’ background knowledge has a key role in a better understanding of reading texts (Yang2017). It has been declared that “there is something behind the eyes of readers while reading a text other than their linguistic knowledge for perceiving and comprehending a text” (Yang2017, p. 371). Carrel (1983) has referred to this as cultural background knowledge which might cause some problems in EFL/ESL classrooms. It can be stated that schema is different in every ESL/EFL student since they might be from different cultures. Therefore, learners might experience misunderstandings while reading foreign reading texts. Adequate cultural background knowledge in the form of learners' perceptions, information in mind, emotions, and concepts can be effective in the reading comprehension process "when the cultural background is familiar and students can draw on cultural information in the decoding process” (Paulston & Bruder1976, pp. 5-6).

Language, food, clothes, literature, religion, values, traditions, and lifestyle have been considered components of culture or what a group of people shares in specific areas. However, it should be emphasized that the present study explored culture as background knowledge and a means of learning and facilitating reading comprehension. Knowing about other cultures is considered a way for better communication with individuals of that society, improving linguistic knowledge, and motivating learners in their learning process. 

Regarding the importance of cultural background, Abdzadeh and Baker (2020) argued that using cultural materials in Iranian language classrooms influenced learners' cultural awareness positively. They also believed that integration of cultural and intercultural instruction in the Iranian context which is culturally restricted can benefit learners in communication with individuals from other countries. NamaziandostSabzevari, and Hashemifardnia (2018) also emphasized the positive influence of cultural materials. They conducted a study to examine the impact of cultural materials on the listening comprehension of Iranian EFL learners. According to the findings from the posttests, it was found that participants’ performance was different; in addition, materials including cultural content had a significant impact on the improvement of learners’ listening comprehension. In a study, Liu (2015) investigated Taiwanese EFL junior college students' reading comprehension. The researcher aimed to explore the feedback of learners about the impact of cultural and background knowledge on reading comprehension. According to the results from the Likert Scale questionnaire, students believed that cultural and background knowledge are useful for better comprehension of English reading materials. In another study, Yang (2017) discussed the importance of English cultural awareness and its impact on the reading comprehension of junior high school students; in addition, she proposed some techniques to improve the cultural background knowledge of students. According to Yang (2017), familiarity with cultural issues of English native speakers helps EFL students to better comprehend reading texts. Also, she introduced three principles, assimilative, comparative, and phasic, for teaching culture. She also emphasized that roleplaying, reading after class, and communicating with native speakers are useful ways for EFL students to learn English culture. 

One of the things that foreign language teachers should pay attention is to be able to create positive attitudes in the minds of language learners with their creativity. These teachers should be able to teach cultural topics and issues to students in discussion-oriented formats. Indeed, in most cases, understanding the cultural similarities, increases intercultural attractiveness. Cultural content can include anything that is useful in teaching a foreign language culture. Thus, the foreign language teacher should make as much use as possible of pictures, films, tapes, field trips, and texts concerning the history, geography, customs, and art of the people speaking the foreign language taught to the students (Clavijo1984).

Other issues can affect the formation of adolescent culture, so it cannot be denied. This is why parents have a very important role to play in their children's future. Because they can show them the right way of life, and teach them how to enter society. If you are careful, parts of the student culture are formed at home and with the family. Students certainly need family support, especially in the cultural sphere, in order to be able to pursue an academic education (Coleman1996). 

The level of knowledge of parents (their level of education) is another factor that greatly affects the process of learning and the formation of their child's behavioral personality, the results of which will surely be easily tangible in the future (Davis-Kean2005DearingMcCartney, & Taylor2002Nagin & Tremblay2001Smith & Brooks-Gunn1997).

Indeed, parents, the broader family, peer groups, neighborhood influences, schools and other bodies (e.g., clubs) are all implicated in shaping children’s progress towards their self-fulfillment and citizenship. The children themselves, of course, with their unique abilities, temperaments and propensities play a central role in forming and reforming their behaviour, aspirations and achievements.

As it mentioned before, another important issue in this research is the study of the effects of parental occupation on the formation of culture and personal thoughts. It may seem a little irrelevant at first glance, because some people believe that since each individual has the power of perception and can use his or her intellect and logic in all things, s/he can address cultural issues and differences and s/he easily accept them and deal with them simply (Abdzadeh & Baker2020). At first glance, this process may seem pointless, but with a little reflection, we realize that the formation of a person's culture can also be directly or indirectly rooted in the thoughts of his or her parents and, consequently, his or her parents' job. In order to examine this issue more closely, we had to include another factor in this process, called the level of education of the parents (their level of literacy). The question may be asked, what is the relationship between a person's job and his level of education? Since this research has been conducted in the context of Iran, so it can be argued to some extent that the level of education and employment of the individual are hierarchically related to each other. As a result, the level of education of parents, the occupation of parents is effective in shaping the culture of their children.

Another noteworthy point is that the background of this research is different in different countries. This means that the studies of other countries cannot be compared or generalized with Iran. Because the way jobs are valued is different in different countries (Yang2017). To clarify this issue, we need to look deeper into this issue. In our country, unlike other countries, the working class (meaning those who do physical work) have a lower level of education than other classes and guilds, or at least a limited number of them have an academic education. In many developed countries, however, workers, like other sections of society, often have an acceptable level of education. Therefore, it is not possible to look at the value of jobs in different countries with one eye and compare them with each other. Because, for example, concepts such as worker and employee are different in different societies. But the point to be considered is the way people view their culture and life, because concepts such as culture and cultural issues in many cases have little to do with literacy and education. Because the way people approach the issues around their lives can be different, so that in many cases, a person's level of education, especially academic education, has nothing to do with his or her view of culture and life (Davis-Kean2005).

In this research, the place of residence of language learners has also been studied. Because we wanted to reveal some of the cultural unspoken to you. Many people think that people who live in affluent parts of the city have a high culture and their views are different. But cultural poverty cannot be like that, because one's place of residence cannot cover or change one's cultural poverty. People's perspectives are directly related to culture, and its impact cannot be ignored. Life flows in every part of the city and every part of the city has its own beauty, so terms such as urban or suburban cannot be attributed to the type of human thoughts and views. In the following chapters of the thesis, we review the results obtained in this research. Of course, it is emphasized again that these results are specific to a city called Zanjan in Iran. Thus, these results cannot even be extended to other major cities in the same country.

3. Method

3.1. Participants

The participants of the study were 50 students learning English in different language institutes in Zanjan, Iran. As the concentration of this study was on the cultural perception of students, they were selected from different institutes in different districts of town, Jahad University, Parseh, Goyesh, Kish, and Alavi. Another important point is that both female (25) and male (25) students participated in the study. To ascertain that the participants were homogeneous in terms of language level, Oxford Placement Test (OPT) was administered. It was found that all the participants were at an intermediate level. Also, it should be mentioned that participants were selected through convenient sampling due to the rules of institutes for conducting interviews, selecting participants, and distributing questionnaires.  

3.2. Instruments

3.2.1. Reading passages

To conduct this research, we provided two passages with different cultural content to language learners. The meaning of different cultural content is that one of the passages was related to the culture of our country (Iranian culture), and the other text included other cultural content that was related to English-speaking countries. Furthermore, a separate time was allotted for reading each passage. Language learners were not allowed to use their mobile phones while reading these passages and could only use their dictionary (using a dictionary means using a dictionary book). Another point was that for each student, a separate sheet was printed and the students of each group were tested simultaneously under the supervision of the researcher and their teacher in coordination with the institute management.

3.2.2. Interview

Since it seemed sufficient to use a questionnaire to conduct this research but to examine this issue in more detail, it was decided to include the interview in the framework of our research. The purpose behind the interviews was to compile both qualitative and quantitative data by gathering accurate and specific information about the participants' views in the field of culture and cultural issues utilizing interviews and questionnaires. As Merriam and Tisdell (2015) assert interviews are purposeful conversations, where the goal is to gather meticulous as well as specific information from the interviewee. Indeed, two passages with different cultural content were given to the students to read. Then a one-on-one interview was conducted with the students for scrutinizing their beliefs and their opinions in the field of native culture and other English-spoken countries’ cultures through learning a new language (English language). To test the subject in more detail, it was decided to record all the interviews and then transcribe all the recorded audio files. The question may arise as to why the interview was used first and then the questionnaire. Our goal in implementing this method was to have a time interval between conducting the interview and conducting the questionnaire. The reason for this is to get the main views of the learners because if the interview and the questionnaire were done in one day, it would be possible for the learners to answer the questionnaire according to what they said in the interview. In that case, our research would not be of much value and would be more symbolic.

3.2.3. Questionnaire

A Likert-scale (5-point) questionnaire was administered to all EFL students (N=50). The questionnaire was designed by the researcher herself. This questionnaire was designed accurately for assessing cultural factors and their effects on learning a new language. Because this research, in addition to conducting interviews, required more sensitive exploration for more accurate scrutiny. Given the critical situation around the world (Covid-19 disease), the researcher decided to provide an online questionnaire for students. Therefore, this questionnaire was designed by Google Form and provided to learners as a link. To advance this issue better and more meticulously, a questionnaire link was sent to students simultaneously. And since the number of questions in the questionnaire was 30, it allocated 20 minutes to answer this questionnaire and the test link expired at a certain time. For each statement in the questionnaire, the language learners (participants) were supposed to answer the items based on their own beliefs in the field of culture and cultural issues. To analyze the data collected from the questionnaire, SPSS software (version 22) was used.  

3.3.Procedure

For the present study, a mixed-methods design was chosen for data collection. In other words, both qualitative and quantitative data were collected. First, OPT was administered to make sure of the homogeneity of participants. Then researcher provided two reading passages with different cultural content for language learners. The meaning of different cultural content is that one of the passages was related to the culture of the researchers’ home country (Iranian culture), and the other text included other cultural content and was related to English-speaking countries. Furthermore, a separate time was allotted for reading each passage. Language learners were not allowed to use their mobile phones while reading these passages and could only use their dictionary (using a dictionary means using a dictionary book). Another point was that for each student, a separate sheet was printed and the students of each group were tested simultaneously under the supervision of the researcher and their teacher in coordination with the institute management. Next, the questionnaire study was conducted. 

A Likert-scale (5-point) questionnaire was administered to all EFL students (N=50). The questionnaire was designed by the researchers. This questionnaire was designed accurately for assessing cultural factors and their effects on learning a new language. Because this research, in addition to conducting interviews, required more sensitive exploration for more accurate scrutiny. Given the critical situation around the world (Covid-19 disease), the researcher decided to provide an online questionnaire for students. Therefore, this questionnaire was designed by Google Form and provided to learners as a link. For each statement in the questionnaire, the language learners were supposed to respond to the items based on their own beliefs in the field of culture and cultural issues. To analyze the data collected from the questionnaire, SPSS software (version 22) was employed. After the questionnaire study, the interview was carried out.

To investigate the issue in more detail, it was decided to include the interview in the framework of the research. The purpose of the interviews was to compile both qualitative and quantitative data by gathering accurate and specific information about the participants' views in the field of culture and cultural issues. As Merriam and Tisdell (2015) assert interviews are purposeful conversations, where the goal is to gather meticulous as well as specific information from the interviewee. Indeed, two passages with different cultural content were given to the students to read. Then a one-on-one interview was conducted with the students for scrutinizing their beliefs and their opinions in the field of native culture and other English-spoken countries’ cultures through learning a new language (English language). It was also decided to record all the interviews and then transcribe all the recorded audio files. 

3.4. Data Analysis

The gathered data were analyzed using SPSS version 22. First, Cronbach Alpha was used to measure the reliability of the questionnaire. Second, to identify the determining factors influencing the learners' attitudes and perceptions about the use of culture in-class instruction, an Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) was used. Third, Chi-Square was then used to specify whether there existed any significant difference among participants' responses to the questionnaire items. Then we used the non-parametric method to find out how the differences among the participants' answers to each item of the questionnaire were. Since the data of the questionnaire was nominal, our questionnaire was considered non-parametric.

Since social class and gender have been considered as the factors in this study, we have analyzed the data by considering those factors separately. Once by considering the social classes of the learners, we analyzed the participants' responses to each item of the questionnaire, and once again we analyzed the participants' responses to each item according to the gender of the learners. There was no score in this questionnaire, first, their Mean Rank in each section was calculated separately. In the following, since our method was non-parametric and the data was nominal, we used the Kruskal Wallis method. By doing this, we were looking to see whether there was any significant difference among participants' responses to each item in the questionnaire; This means that each item of the questionnaire was examined separately to see whether there existed any significant difference in that particular item between the participants' responses. It should be noted that all these analyzes were performed along with their inferential analysis. Finally, for identifying the structure of the relationship between the variables and the respondents, the researcher employed exploratory factor analysis (EFA) through SPSS. 

4. Results

This research intended to investigate the cultural perception of Iranian EFL learners on reading comprehension ability. To conduct the study, a mixed-methods design consisting of a questionnaire and interview was employed. The outcomes of the data analysis are presented here. 

First, the reliability of the questionnaire was estimated. According to Table 1, reliability of the questionnaire was α ≥ 87.7% which is according to Cohen’s Table of Effect Size considered as much larger than typical. 

Table 1

Reliability Statistics of the Social Class Questionnaire

Cronbach's Alpha

N of Items

.877

30

Also in order to ascertain about the validity of the question are, a Confirmatory Factor Analysis (CFA) was run, the obtained model fit as the result of the factor analysis displayed NFI (Normal Fit Index) = 0.90, CFI (Comparative Fit Index) = 0.94, TLI (Tucker Lewis Index) = 0.92, SRMR (Standardized Root Mean Square Residual) = 0.05, RMSEA (Room Mean Square Error of Approximation) = 0.047. All the obtained indices indicate he goodness of the model and confirm the validity of the questionnaire. 

4.1. Results Related to Research Question 1

RQ1: What are the cultural perceptions of Iranian EFL learners on comprehension of English texts?

To answer the first research question, participants were provided with two reading passages (one containing Iranian culture and another one English spoken countries' culture). After teaching passages, students filled in the questionnaire and were interviewed. To answer this research question, language learners' perceptions of cultural issues were analyzed to find the effective factors. To specify the influential factors influencing learners' perceptions of cultural issues, an Exploratory Factor Analysis (EFA) was used. The following graph (Figure 1) shows how many effective factors could be loaded from the questionnaire. Since the questionnaire has 30 questions (30 items), we sought to examine how many effective factors there were in which students' views on culture and cultural issues could be loaded. According to the graph, as it turns out, the fracture occurred in the fourth component. An elbow was obtained in component 4th of the mentioned figure, so it can be said that four factors were influencing this research.

 image

Figure 1. Scree Plot Representing the Number of Factors Elicited from the Questionnaire

Table 2 represents the Pattern Matrix obtained from EFA depicting the significant factors under which the items of the questionnaire were loaded. According to the results, four significant factors were identified based on which the students’ answers to the questionnaire which reflected their perceptions and attitude towards the use of culture were loaded (Table 2)

Table 2

Pattern Matrix of the EFA analysis for Culture Questionnaire

 

Factor 1

Factor 2

Factor 3

Factor 4

Q10

.85

 

 

 

Q18

.82

 

 

 

Q12

.80

 

 

 

Q20

.77

 

 

 

Q27

.75

 

 

 

Q11

.74

 

 

 

Q25

.69

 

 

 

Q28

.66

 

 

 

Q17

.56

 

 

 

Q5

.52

 

 

 

Q29

-.48

 

 

 

Q22

 

 

 

 

Q24

 

.81

 

 

Q28

 

.81

 

 

Q7

 

.80

 

 

Q9

 

.80

 

 

Q16

 

.77

 

 

Q3

 

.74

 

 

Q26

 

.73

 

 

Q15

 

.54

 

 

Q23

 

.40

 

 

Q30

 

.40

 

 

Q21

 

 

.70

 

Q6

 

 

.68

 

Q1

 

 

-.47

 

Q4

 

 

 

.73

Q13

 

 

 

.70

Q14

 

 

 

.51

Q2

 

 

 

.42

Q19

 

 

 

 

According to the table, questions 10, 18, 12, 20, 27, 11, 25, 28, 17, 5, and 29 have been loaded as the first effective factor. Questions 5, 29, 24, 8, 7, 9, 16, 3, 26, 15, 23, and 30 are loaded in the second effective factor. Questions 5 and 29 are loaded in both the first effective factor and the second effective factor. But according to the existing laws and regulations, in such cases, the higher value should be considered for that question. In the next effective factor (the third effective factor), questions 21, 6, and 1 are loaded. Also, in the fourth effective factor, questions 4, 13, 14, and 2 are loaded.

By examining the questions related to the first effective factor, we named this effective factor "accepting and understanding of cultural differences between the source language and the target language." By investigating the questions related to the second effective factor, we named this factor "the direct connection between learning the language of a country and learning the culture of that country." By scrutinizing the questions related to the third effective factor, we named this effective factor "the existence of concerns due to misunderstanding in learning the culture of the target language." By reviewing the questions related to the fourth effective factor, we named this effective factor "reacting quickly and being under the influence of a new culture." In other words, learners’ perceptions by comparing questionnaire and interview studies showed that most learners regard learning culture as motivating through watching movies and reading original texts. Also, it was found that cultural understanding increases better comprehension. Some percent of the learners believed that culture is important but communication is the main purpose of language learning. Overall, learners' perception regarding the cultural background and its relationship with reading comprehension showed better comprehension of culturally-based texts.

To answer the first research question, many studies were done. As mentioned earlier, we did not consider the level of language learners in this study, because all participants in this study were selected meticulously and all of them are advanced students. As mentioned in the previous discussions, two different texts were given to the learners, and the content of the texts was quite different in terms of culture and cultural issues. For answering the first research question, first, the results of interviews and questionnaires were compared. Of course, it should be noted that the purpose of comparing the results of the interview and the questionnaire is that, for each person, the results obtained in the interview section are compared with the results obtained in the questionnaire section. Then, the results of all language learners' interviews, as well as the results of their questionnaires, were examined separately.

The first text was the text whose content was about the culture and cultural issues of the learners themselves. The second text was a text about the culture and cultural issues of English-speaking countries. The interview began after the students had read both texts. All language learners, without exception, believed that the concept of the first text was much simpler and more understandable than the second text. Therefore, we based the main focus of our research on the interview in the second text. Therefore, we based the main focus of our research on the second text interview. The number of language learners in this study was 50. Then, after analyzing all the cases and data, we found that about 52% of the learners had ambiguities in understanding the main concept of the second text and did not understand some parts of the text well, but the rest of them, about 48 percentage of them had no problem understanding the second text. After reviewing other questions of the interview as well as analyzing the results of the questionnaire, we realized that to learn a new language and understand it accurately, learning words, grammar, and in general improving general knowledge about that language are necessary but they are not enough. After scrutinizing all the answers and results, it became clear that culture is an integral part of a language, which cannot be ignored. To find the root of this issue, we had to review our results several times. We finally realized that the main problem is that culture and cultural issues are not taught while learning a new language (here a new language means English). The question may be asked why the rest of the students had no problem understanding the main meaning of the story. In answer to this question, it should be said that these language learners are accustomed to watching original language movies and reading original language books to improve their language skills. Because they believed that doing mentioned works is necessary over the length of learning a new language. These language learners stated that learning a new language should not be limited to what is taught in institutes. Because they believed that to improve language knowledge, one has to communicate with that language. This is not possible by just reading the books taught in the institute, so they read the original language books and watch the original language movies regularly and continuously to achieve their goals.

4.2. Results Related to Research Question 2

RQ2: Is there any significant difference in cultural perceptions of Iranian EFL learners on comprehension of English texts based on their social class?

Regarding social class, learners were divided into three categories: high, middle, and low. To gain information on the social class of learners, they were required to give responses to questions regarding their parents’ job and education, their neighborhood, and income. Then learners' responses to the questionnaire were compared by their social class status. In the next three tables (Table 3, Table 4, and Table 5), Chi-Square shows whether there exists any significant difference among learners in answering the questions of the questionnaire in terms of different social classes or not.

Table 3

Chi-Square Analysis Exploring the Learners’ Responses to the Questionnaire based on their Social Class

 

Q1

Q2

Q3

Q4

Q5

Q6

Q7

Q8

Q9

Q10

 

Chi-Square

7.987

.883

.201

.721

.678

5.701

.002

.000

.121

2.534

 

Df

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

 

Asymp. Sig.

.018

.643

.904

.697

.713

.058

.999

1.000

.941

.282

 

a. Kruskal Wallis Test

b. Grouping Variable: Social Class

 Table 4

Chi-Square Analysis Exploring the Learners’ Responses to the Questionnaire based on their Social Class

 

Q11

Q12

Q13

Q14

Q15

Q16

Q17

Q18

Q19

Q20

 

Chi-Square

1.060

3.346

7.142

.791

5.244

1.600

.105

.379

4.646

3.454

 

Df

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

 

Asymp. Sig.

.589

.188

.028

.673

.073

.449

.949

.827

.098

.178

 

a. Kruskal Wallis Test

b. Grouping Variable: Social Class

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 5

Chi-Square Analysis Exploring the Learners’ Responses to the Questionnaire based on their Social Class

 

Q21

Q22

Q23

Q24

Q25

Q26

Q27

Q28

Q29

Q30

 

Chi-Square

5.790

5.736

3.976

.119

3.775

1.947

2.534

5.447

.408

4.903

 

Df

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

2

 

Asymp. Sig.

.055

.057

.137

.942

.151

.378

.282

.066

.815

.086

 

a. Kruskal Wallis Test

b. Grouping Variable: Social Class

According to the above three tables (Table 3, Table 4, and Table 5), which are analyzed based on the Social Class component, it was found that there existed a significant difference between high, mid, and low social class only in questions 1 and 13. Because, among these 30 questions, only in questions 1 and 13 the values obtained are below 0.05. By looking at the previous table, it is clear that in each question, there is a separate mean which is obtained for each of the high, mid, and low social class groups. But the question that arises here is what was special in questions 1 and 13 of the questionnaire and what did the text of these questions measure? Because the mean of high social class learners in both of these questions is higher than the mean of mid and low social class learners. On the other hand, the question arises as to why there existed no significant difference among the learners' answers to the other questions (in the 28 remaining questions).

To answer the question, why language learners with high, middle, and low social classes differed in question 1 of the questionnaire, it can be said that since all these language learners were natives of Zanjan, they could all speak the Persian and the Turkish language, so the English were considered as their third language. After operating meticulous investigations, we realized that in some families, language learners used only the Turkish language to communicate and speak with their family members, while others used only the Persian language to communicate with their family members. And the rest of them used both Turkish and Persian languages in their communication with their family members. To scrutinize this issue, we had to involve their social class in this process once again. After accurate investigations, we found that some families have spoken Turkish to their children since childhood, but other families have spoken Persian to their children since childhood. This is why some language learners considered that the introduction of the target language is of paramount importance, while some of them believed that the introduction of the target language was not so important.

Rather, to answer the question, why language learners with high, middle, and low social classes differed in question 13 of the questionnaire, it can be said that some language learners were strongly in favor of reading books (especially reading books in the main language). Because they believed that nothing could replace a book in the course of learning a new language. On the other hand, some of them believed that the best way to learn a new language is to be in the native environment of that language, so they believed that the best way in such a situation where it is not possible to be in an English-spoken country, is to learn the language through communicating with the original language movies or series. Besides, some language learners believed that reading books in the main language and watching movies or series in the original language complemented each other, so they could not be separated. Thus, we have witnessed various disagreements on this issue.

4.3. Results Related to Research Question 3

RQ3: Is there any significant difference between male and female Iranian EFL learners’ cultural perceptions?

To respond to the third research question, questionnaire data were analyzed and compared by gender. To estimate the difference based on gender, Kruskal Wallis Test was employed. The outcomes of the test are illustrated as follows:

Table 6

Chi-Square Analysis Exploring the Learners’ Responses to the Questionnaire based on their Gender

 

Q1

Q2

Q3

Q4

Q5

Q6

Q7

Q8

Q9

Q10

 

Chi-Square

3.842

.110

2.589

1.567

.212

.014

.078

.066

.257

.083

 

Df

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

 

Asymp. Sig.

.050

.741

.108

.211

.645

.904

.780

.797

.612

.773

 

a. Kruskal Wallis Test

b. Grouping Variable: Gender

Table 7

Chi-Square Analysis Exploring the Learners’ Responses to the Questionnaire based on their Gender

 

Q11

Q12

Q13

Q14

Q15

Q16

Q17

Q18

Q19

Q20

 

Chi-Square

.340

3.063

.002

.204

.002

.953

.000

.360

1.632

.024

 

df

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

 

Asymp. Sig.

.560

.080

.964

.651

.962

.329

1.000

.548

.201

.876

 

a. Kruskal Wallis Test

b. Grouping Variable: Gender

Table 8

Chi-Square Analysis Exploring the Learners’ Responses to the Questionnaire based on their Gender

 

Q21

Q22

Q23

Q24

Q25

Q26

Q27

Q28

Q29

Q30

Chi-Square

.410

.093

.270

1.114

2.864

.993

.749

.712

.218

.426

df

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

1

Asymp. Sig.

.522

.760

.603

.291

.091

.319

.387

.399

.641

.514

a. Kruskal Wallis Test

b. Grouping Variable: Gender

According to the values attained in each question (Table 6, Table 7, and Table 8), it was seen that only in question 1 of the questionnaire, there was a difference between all women's opinions and men's opinions. Because there is a significant difference in each question when the value obtained is equal to or less than 0.05. Thus, we can only see that, in question 1. It should be noted that, even in question 1, this value was on the border.

Based on investigations conducted on the impact of gender on culture and cultural issues, as well as the results of data analysis, we found that there was a difference between women's opinions and men's opinions only in question 1 of the questionnaire. It should be noted that, even in this question, the difference was not significant. This means that women and men differ very little in cultural attitudes according to this study. Women and men think about culture and cultural issues almost identically. Of course, care must be taken because the results of this study cannot be generalized to all people.

5. Discussion

The present research intended to investigate the cultural perceptions of Iranian EFL learners on reading comprehension of English texts. The data was gathered by using interviews and questionnaires. According to the findings, it was found that perceptions of learners toward integration of cultural materials into reading passages and the language learning process were positive. As the results showed the most perceived factors by learners were that cultural concepts can cause better understanding in language learning, learning cultural traditions of language under study is important; however, it should not affect an individual. Also, it was emphasized that learning culture through texts and movies is different from learning it in real-life situations. Regarding participants of the present study, it should be mentioned that learners are from an EFL context in which exposure to English language and communication with native speakers is nearly zero. Learners were not exposed to real-life confrontations with the English native speakers. There was no physical material around them to bring them in touch with English language and culture except television or social media. Language learners specified that they just read textbooks of institutes once it was accessible. There was evidence that only a few learners were able to read original textbooks or watch original movies and series. Despite lack of exposure to real-life experience and culture of the target language, learners mostly indicated that culture teaching plays a key role in learning language and the comprehension process.

The mentioned findings were in line with what Abdzadeh and Baker (2020) discussed in their study. They also believed that using cultural materials in Iranian language classrooms influenced learners’ cultural awareness positively. They also indicated that integration of cultural and intercultural instruction in the Iranian context which is culturally restricted can benefit learners in communication with individuals from other countries. This factor was also found by the present study as the second effective factor. Findings from NamaziandostSabzevari, and Hashemifardnia (2018) also were in parallel with the findings of the present study. According to the findings from the posttests, it was found that participants' performance was different; in addition, materials including cultural content had a significant impact on the improvement of learners’ listening comprehension. In similar findings, Liu (2015) showed that students believed that cultural and background knowledge are useful for better comprehension of English reading materials. According to Yang (2017), familiarity with cultural issues of English native speakers helps EFL students to better comprehend reading texts. 

Another outcome of this research was related to the cultural perceptions of learners by gender. Overall, it was deduced that there is no significant difference between male and female learners' perceptions. It seems that both male and female learners regarded the role of culture in language learning important approximately equal. Also, learners' cultural perception based on social class did not suggest any significant difference among high, medium, and low classes. Regarding the social class factor, it was found that there was no significant difference among low, medium, and high classes; however, there was a slight difference in questions 1 and 13. Concerning the difference in question 1, it can be said that since all these language learners were natives of Zanjan, they could all speak the Persian and the Turkish language, so English was considered their third language. After operating meticulous investigations, we realized that in some families, language learners used only Turkish language to communicate and speak with their family members, while others used only Persian language to communicate with their family members. And the rest of them used both Turkish and Persian languages in their communication with their family members. So this might be a reason that language learners differently considered the introduction of the target language is of paramount importance in question 1. To discuss the next difference among learners based on social class in answer to question 13, it should take into account that some learners in high class or medium class families have more access to facilities such as original target language movies and books. This accessibility to such facilities might be a reason for different perceptions among learners.

6. Conclusion

Cultural perception as an influential factor in language learning is one of the key issues that need to be investigated by researchers in the field of second or foreign language learning. In the EFL contexts such as Iranian schools and institutes where exposure to real-life experience and native speakers is very low, being aware of EFL learners' cultural perceptions can assist English teachers, instructors, syllabus designers, and even school administrators to take into account their learners and students' needs for better learning and understanding of target language. This study indicated that Iranian EFL learners held a positive attitude toward the integration of cultural materials into reading passages to better comprehend the target language. In addition, it was seen that gender and social class did not influence learners' cultural perception of English reading comprehension significantly. In line with the findings of this study, the following implications are suggested based on the conclusions: 1) ESL students with various reading levels or capabilities can learn from materials that are culturally diverse, specifically the ones at higher reading proficiency levels. 2) Familiar and unfamiliar cultural materials can be both useful for ESL students. 3) The difficulty level of reading texts could not be a factor influencing the reading comprehension of ESL students, especially the juniors. 4) The suitability of reading materials cannot be guaranteed only by readability statistical formulas. Nevertheless, a number of suggestions can be given to the researchers enthusiastic about following similar research. This research explored the effect of cultural background on reading comprehension. This variable can affect the performance of language learners on productive (encoding) skills. Thus, it is suggested that future researchers study the effect of cultural background on EFL learners’ writing and speaking.  Also, in this research, the participants’ major was mathematics and science at school, and they were going to learn English language at institutes. Thus, the outcomes might be various for students of other majors. Consequently, future researchers are strongly suggested to replicate this research with the other participants.

Moreover, the findings of the study can be replicated by using different research methods such as qualitative by concluding interviews or mixed-methods design. Indeed, further research can be performed to integrate learning strategies into classroom instruction. The teacher may provide some techniques for applying various strategies to different skills. Furthermore, future researchers are suggested to replicate the study by employing participants with various levels of English command. They are also suggested to compare the impact of cultural background on language learners to make sure if it has the same effect on the reading comprehension of EFL learners with general language proficiency.

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Volume 7, Issue 2
2022
Pages 33-58
  • Receive Date: 04 April 2022
  • Revise Date: 26 April 2022
  • Accept Date: 21 May 2022
  • First Publish Date: 21 May 2022