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Subjective theories of teachers and their impact on second language acquisition of immigrant children

Katja Koch

Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Ghent, 19-21 September 2007


  1. Project: „Pre-school language training for non native German speaking children"
  2. Subjective theories within the project context
  3. First results – subjective theories of language acquisition
  4. Interrelations
  5. References

Under condition that teaching and learning is a complex social interaction process between teachers and students, we can assume that the subjective theories of teachers play an important role in this process, and that we can determine interrelations between subjective theories, the way of teaching and the cognitive and affective development of the students.

Is this really so? I would like to explore this particular question in my speech today, and while doing so, present to you some of my findings from my project „Pre-school language training for non native German speaking children". I will start by giving you more details about the project and I am going to explain which concept of "subjective theories" is important for my work. My aim is to answer the question if we can determine interrelations between subjective theories, the way of teaching and the learning success of the students.

1. The Project: „Pre-school language training for non native German speaking children"

The project aims at generating data about the acquisition of second language competence until the termination of the process of learning how to read, and relating these to existing possibilities to foster the children’s development in schools and kindergartens. In particular, it aims at gathering information about the children’s linguistic development, and with the help of case studies it shall shed light on the interrelation between language acquisition, subjective theories and learning success - an interrelation that has so far been scarcely documented.

The concrete questions are:

In order to answer these questions, it seems to be a good idea to combine different methods such as interviews and observations, as well as language diagnostic tests. The desired inherent back reference of quantitative and qualitative results should lead to findings that would not be possible through one method alone. It is expected that the observation of individual cases will provide detailed insights into the process of language acquisition and the existing possibilities to support this process. One single isolated test could not lead to such detailed results. However, a quantitative survey of the outset learning circumstances and learning progresses is the basis for the generalization of the qualitative findings concerning the children’s language acquisition and learning progress.

The methodical design is as follows:

It was assumed that each method constitutes its own object, meaning that each method leads to its very own findings that may contradict or complement the others. In this way, each method is seen to have its own specific importance, and no method is considered to be principally superior to the others. It is a common feature of integrative models to incorporate qualitative and quantitative methods in order to investigate a question from different angles with different methods. Based on the question, one gives primacy to the object over the methods.

This leads to the conclusion that in order to get to a reasonable combination a thoroughly reflection and an integration of the different methodical positions are indispensable (Fromm 1990, p. 478.) Within the context of our study this meant that the following questions had to be settled:

  1. Which questions should be approached with which method?

  2. How could one succeed in developing a common procedure model on the level of the research logics?

  3. Can qualitative data be quantified and vice versa on the level of evaluation, and if so, how?

Based on the research matter, qualitative methods have an advantage if the objective is a thoroughly and detailed observation of social phenomena or the study of social processes that again produce certain structures of situative actions (Wilson 1982, p. 501). While central functions of quantitative research are the description of characteristics that are categorized and which can provide information about the frequency distribution, as well as the generalization of results and the identification of factors that describe causal relations. The objective of the project was to analyze the children’s language development and identify factors that might influence this development. Therefore, it was appropriate to measure the children’s language development at different times rather than to observe it or to inquire about it in interviews. The subjective theories of the teachers and their attitude towards heterogeneity can be measured as well. However, the focus of interest was put on the individual relevance systems and their impact on the children’s language competence and therefore, the teachers were interviewed. The way of teaching as well as the learning activities of the students and their behavior in class was studied through participatory observation during the lessons. The observers were supposed to write down linguistic interaction sequences, and therefore, they took an active part in the lessons as assistants in order to carry out their tasks in the best possible way. This particular design led to the overlapping of the methods regarding the generation of the object: The interviews also provided information about the overall conditions or the structuring of the lessons, and the observations about the language competence. The information that is gained regarding the class context and the language development of individual students is particularly dense.

The search for a common procedure model that integrates the research logics of the individual methods was a lot more difficult. Regarding the time, a principal openness of the research process was achieved because after each survey round the findings of the different studies were related to each other which led to new questions. On the one hand, the findings of the observations of the pre-school remedial language training as well as the results of the language tests affected the interviews with the teachers, and on the other hand, the interviews led to new focuses for the observations during the first and second grades, which again influenced the following interviews. This led to a number of combination possibilities regarding the qualitative methods of the research design, particularly as the implemented qualitative methods approached different levels and contributed different perspectives (Flick 2004, p. 41). The interviews that were based on guidelines and complemented with the repertory grid technique reconstructed the teachers’ expertise about their classes and the development of the children from the point of view of the teachers. The observations aimed at studying the observable actions of the teachers in class and their interaction with the students. Since the qualitative research logic is open it was possible to amend the instruments used during the research process.

The diagram of the research procedure shows that this inherent back reference of the results to the research procedures was not as easily applicable to the quantitative part of the survey. The problem is the basic incompatibility of the qualitative and the quantitative research logics that can only be resolved if we are, for pragmatic reasons, willing to deviate to a certain extent from the respective research logic and the resulting procedure models (cf. e.g. Mayring 2001, Flick 2004). We did not want to do this. If we change the premises of the respective research paradigm it will lose the very advantages that initially led to the decision to use a triangulation of the methods. Therefore, for pragmatic reasons, in our study qualitative and quantitative methods were not integrated on the level of the research process but rather on the level of the results, always taking into consideration the respective paradigmatic logic (Kelle/Erzberger 2000).

And it was possible to answer the question to what extent qualitative data can be quantified and quantitative data can be qualified. Through a content analysis certain interview categories were converted to ordinal or nominal data and integrated into the respective data sets. (cf. Flick 2004, p.77) For example, the types of subjective theories reconstructed from the interviews were transformed into nominal scales and integrated into the data set according to class. The most important assumption was that teachers represented by types influence all children in the class, and can therefore be looked upon as a personal specification of the variable "type".

2. Subjective theories within the project context

The term "subjective theories"(1) is used by scholars to describe the phenomenon that humans construct their own theories while constantly reflecting the reality they perceive. Therefore, the study of subjective theories is based on an image of humans that understands what humans do not as "behaviour" but as "actions" (cf. e.g. Groeben u.a. 1988, pp. 209-220), and that emphasises that reflection is a principle human ability. Subjective theories help to understand the world and serve as a guideline for human actions. They are the connecting element between scientific theories on the one hand, and the daily working routine on the other hand, allowing for the fact that in many working fields every-day knowledge does not have a direct relation with scientific knowledge.

According to Kallenbach, subjective theories serve to understand why something is, explain why it is so and predict what it is going to be like (cf. Kallenbach 1997, pp. 4f).

The critical analysis of behavioristic approaches in education and teaching research showed that the action of a teacher is the result of the interaction of the person with his or her environment (Kelchtermans 1992, p. 252). The pedagogical competence needed for handling class situations is largely developed through practical work and not so much through university education (Flaake 1988, Huberman 1992, Terhart a.o 1994). Therefore, Hoyle describes this development as a process that allows the teacher to acquire the knowledge and skills that are necessary for the pedagogical practice (Hoyle 1992, p. 135). So, it can be assumed that during the confrontation of teaching practice and theoretical knowledge the teachers construct subjective theories that influence their actions in class and that may have an impact on the students’ success in school.

Against this background, we studied the subjective theories of the teachers regarding the acquisition of German for the following reasons: Scientific theories of second language acquisition are relatively complex and quite uncommon in teacher education in Germany, and therefore, most teachers have not learned about them at university. The schools that took part in the survey have a high percentage of migrants and therefore, it is part of the teacher’s daily tasks to teach German to children with a native language other than German and to support them in their language acquisition. One can assume that in the face of this dilemma most teachers develop subjective theories that allow them to justify their actions during class (c.f. Edmondson 1998).

To find these theories a two-step procedure was applied. First, the contents of the subjective theories were gathered with the help of a guideline-based interview. After transcribing the interviews and identifying the basic constructs of the teachers, the structure of the subjective theory was reconstructed and validated through group discussion in a second interview at the end of the second grade.

3. First results – subjective theories of language acquisition

So, which subjective theories did we find? In principle, it seems that all interviewed teachers have developed subjective theories of language acquisition. An overview matrix indicates that these subjective theories are constructed around factors that support the language acquisition and that hamper the language acquisition. Furthermore, they teachers distinguish between the three levels family, child and school. We find that there is a tendency that teachers tend to see successful language acquisition processes as a joint achievement of the parents, the children and the school while failed language acquisition processes are rather attributed to the parents. If we try to further sum up the subjective theories we can detect four trends. The first two show different approaches to the question which role the native language plays in the language acquisition of the children.

Supporters of theory 1 believe that the acquisition of a second language is supported if the parents speak German, the child brings along a certain motivation for language learning and has a lot of contact with German speaking children. The language acquisition is hampered if parents and children speak in their native language at home.

Supporters of theory 2 believe that the second language acquisition of the child is supported if the parents have a good command of both the German language and their native language. The child should bring along a certain motivation for language learning and have regular contact to German children as well as speak his or her mother tongue.

Supporters of theory 3 don’t put emphasis on language-related factors but on middleclass behavior: They believe that the second language acquisition is supported if the parents support their children in all school-related issues, if they have a certain level of education, if they respect the teacher and support her work, and if the child has visited the kindergarten.

Finally supportes of theory 4 believe that school can support the second language acquisition if the language of instruction in all lessons is German, if there is extra remedial language training, if the teacher herself is a good role model in speaking German and if the way of teaching encourages the children’s language competence.

Within the project the teachers did use more than one theory, but there was a strong separation between the supporters of theory 1 and 2. They support either theory 1 or theory 2.

4. Interrelations

And now I would like to come to the question if there is an interrelation between the subjective theories and the learning success of the children.

4.1. Performance development

To measure the language standard of the children within the project context we used a test with questions regarding vocabulary, prepositions, formation of the plural and the command of the articles.

If we look at the whole class including the German speaking children, we find no significant interrelations. Therefore I will give you know a look at the non-german speaking children’s vocabulary.

An evaluation according to class shows that there are significant differences between the classes.

We can see that one class has an over average performance level, four classes have an average performance level and three classes an above average level. However, the lengths of the columns indicate that the performance levels within a class are widely scattered. The performance level of class C1 is relatively homogeneous and on a high level while in class B1 and B3 it’s homogeneous on a low level. If we try to bring these differences in line with the subjective theories of the teachers we come to the conclusion that the classes with teachers that support theory 2 (class C1, B2, C2, A1) perform better than the classes with teachers who support theory 1 (A2, A3, B1, B3).

4.2. Teaching style

If we look closer at the teaching style, we find another interrelation between theory 2 and a teaching style with a widely acceptance of the cultural background of their pupils. To exemplify this, let’s have a look at teacher C1 and B3:

Teacher C1 is a supporter of theory 2. She uses the intercultural character of the class to make the cultural diversity of the class a subject of discussion and talk about similarities and differences. Although German is especially important to her as the language the lesson is held in, she supports children who speak to each other in their common native language. She gives many instructions and has a dominant teaching style. The lesson is rather teacher-dominated and group work is rare. She pays attention that all children understand what they are supposed to do and often repeats the work instructions. She offers language-supportive measures for individual students in addition to her normal lessons.

We can characterize this as an intercultural accepting style that is focused on the special needs of immigrant children.

Teacher B3s style is different. She is a supporter of theory 1. She rarely makes use of the intercultural character of the class and insists that all children speak in German. She uses group work but does not make sure that all children understand her instructions. The children with a native language other than German who are often seated together in groups do not know what they are supposed to be doing in many occasions. She does not have a concept for language-supportive measures but rather refers to the remedial language training offered by the school.

She has a teaching style that is focused on the German speaking children in the class, she doesn’t ignore the immigrant children on purpose, but she has no idea of their specials needs.

So we can come to the conclusion, that there is a positive impact of subjective theories on the German language performance of immigrant children if the teacher believes that the native language of the children supports the Second Language Acquisition and if the teacher has a teaching style that is focused on the needs of immigrant children.

5. References

Edmondson, Willis.J.: Subjective Parameters describing Teaching Roles. Towards a theory of tertian foreign language instruction. In: Fremdsprachen lehren und lernen, 27 (1998) S. 81-105

Flaake, K.: Berufliche Orientierungen von Lehrerinnen und Lehrern. Eine empirische Untersuchung. Frankfurt 1989

Flick, U.: Qualitative Forschung: Theorie, Methoden, Anwendung in Psychologie und Sozialwissenschaften. Reinbek 2004.

Fromm, M.: Zur Verbindung quantitativer und qualitativer Methoden. In: Pädagogische Rundschau, 44 (1990) 4, S. 469-481.

Groeben, Norbert/ Wahl, Diethelm/ Schlee, Jörg/ Scheele, Brigitte: Das Forschungsprogramm Subjektive Theorien. Eine Einführung in die Psychologie des reflexiven Subjekts. Tübingen 1988

Hoyle; E.: Professionalisierung von Lehrern: ein Paradox. In: Terhart, E.: Unterrichten als Beruf. Neuere amerikanische und englische Arbeiten zur Berufskultur und Berufsbiographie von Lehrern und Lehrerinnen. Köln/Wien 1991, S. 135-144

Huberman, M.: Teacher development and instructional mastery. In: Hargreaves, A./ Fullan, M. G. (eds.): Understanding teacher development. London 1992, S. 122-142.

Kallenbach, C.: Fremdverstehen – aber wie? Ein Verfahren zur Anbahnung von Fremdverstehen. In: Zeitschrift für interkulturellen Fremdsprachenunterricht 1 (3), 1997, [9 Seiten]. Verfügbar über:  [Zugriff: 15.02.2006]

Kelchtermans, G.: Die berufliche Entwicklung von Grundschullehrern aus einer biographischen Perspektive. In: Pädagogische Rundschau, 44 (1990) 3, S. 321-332

Kelle, U./ Erzberger, C.: Integration qualitativer und quantitativer Methoden. Modelle und ihre Bedeutung für die Forschungspraxis. In: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 51 (1999) 3, S. 509-531.

Mayring, P.: Kombination und Integration qualitativer und quantitativer Analyse In: Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/ Forum Qualitative Social Research (Online-Journal), 2 (1). Verfügbar über:  [25.02.2001)]

Terhart, E./ Czerwenka, K./ Ehrich, K. / Jordan, F./ Schmidt, H.-J.: Berufsbiographien von Lehrern und Lehrerinnen. Frankfurt/M. 1994.

Wilson, T. P.: Qualitative „oder" quantitative Methoden in der Sozialforschung. In: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, 34 (1982) 3, S. 487-506.


1. In the following the term "subjective theories" will be used despite the existence of other names such as "every day theories", "naive theories" or "implicit theories" because the term "subjective theories" illustrates best how significant subjective views are for the construction of theories

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 07 November 2007