10 Feb 2013

Students’ Use of Modals in Narrative Compositions: Forms and Functions

Students’ Use of Modals in Narrative Compositions: Forms and Functions
(Free ELT Journal)

This article presents the findings of a corpus based research that investigated Malaysian ESL learners’ use of modals in two written tasks. The aim of the study was to investigate the distribution and functions of modals used in the students’ writing. The research design comprised a qualitative technique through discourse analysis supplemented with some descriptive statistics derived from a concordancer which identified modals used by the students at two different levels. The findings showed that the preferred modals for the two levels are modals can, will and could which were used to express ability and certainty. Modals of probability/possibility showed lower frequencies of use in the writing. Also, students at the lower level were less competent in using past form modals as compared to those at the higher level. This study indicates that the students were able to perceive the conceptual meaning of each modal and their communicative function.

Keywords: Modals, Modality, Corpus, Discourse Analysis, Narratuive Compositions

1. Introduction 
The complexity of the English modal auxiliary system has been a major problem in learning and teaching of English as the second language. The modal auxiliary system of the standard formal English is complex, with the same modals expressing different notions, ranging from probability through permission to obligation. Literature has shown that ESL learners face problems in comprehending and using the English modal system accurately. 

Modals are not only auxiliaries in the prescriptive grammarian sense but they also appear to contribute to the semantics of communication and communication without the knowledge of grammar will fail as structure will be lacking. Grammar, as prescribed by the Ministry of Education Malaysia (Ministry of Education, 1991) is a set of rules which speakers of a language use to make meaning. Modals, the focus of this study, are part of grammar and their expressions have formed an important part of the grammar and semantics of all languages, including English. 

It is a challenging task for teachers of ESL learners to impart knowledge on modal auxiliaries and for the learners to be able to learn and use the knowledge in their written work. DeCarrico (1986) and Hinkel (1995), in their respective work on modals, stress that L2 learners use modals differently from L1 learners. They found that L2 learners use modal verbs more in context as opposed to L1 learners. The current study, which focuses on how Malaysian ESL learners’ use modals in their written work, will contribute to the data on how Malaysian L2 learners use modal verbs. 

The Malaysian ESL teachers, according to Hawanum (2004), being L2 speakers themselves, are often not certain as to how to go about teaching grammar to their students. They are not sure how much detail should go into explaining grammatical items. When the Malaysian New English Language Curriculum (KBSM), based on a communicative model of language teaching learning, was implemented in1988, the teaching of grammar emerged as problematic (Pillay and North, 1997). Having students of mixed abilities and mixed interests in a classroom has resulted in difficulties for some language teachers (Vethamani, 2001). Teachers are unclear of the role of grammar in the new curriculum and are uncertain how grammar should be integrated into their lessons. 

Grammatical items have been one of the most problematic areas for learners of the English language, especially with Malaysian ESL learners, who are L2 speakers (Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman, 1983, Hughes and Heah 1993; Holden et al., 1993; Gaudart, Hughes and Michael 1996; Pillay and North, 1997; Hawanum, 2004). One of the problematic grammatical items faced by Malaysian ESL learners is the correct use of modals(Hughes and Heah, 1993). Rosli and Edwin (1989) in their error analysis of Form Four English composition found that students in both urban and rural areas have problems using verb forms and this includes the modal auxiliary since a modal is formed with a verb phrase. Wong (1983: 136) also agrees with the fact that the modal auxiliary system of standard formal English is extremely complex, with the same modals sometimes being used to express different notions like that of probability, possibility and certainty, and of inclination, ability, permission and obligation. This results in confusion for ESL learners, and teachers need to be careful when teaching this part of grammatical item to the students. 

The syllabus of the Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah (KBSM) or the Integrated Secondary School Curriculum for English language as outlined by the Curriculum Development Center (CDC) of the Ministry of Education Malaysia (MoE) lists several modals for Malaysian ESL learners. The modals, which include can, could, will, should, may, might, must, need to and have to, as stipulated in the Curriculum Specifications of English language, are used across a wide semantic field. These few modals are used to serve multi-functionally across the notional categories in the system (de Silva, 1981). Malaysian ESL students would use these modals in so many ways with various meanings possibly leading to incoherence. Hence, with these few modals listed by the syllabus, the study seeks to investigate the use of modals by Malaysian ESL learners. 

1.1 Objective of the Study 
The objective of this study is to investigate the use of English modals in terms of their functions from data made available by the EMAS Corpus. The focus of this study has been narrowed down to examining the use of modals in two written tasks of ESL learners from Form 1 and Form 4. 

1.2 Research Questions 
In view of the objective mentioned above, this study attempts to answer the following research questions: 
1. What are the modals used by Malaysian ESL learners in Form 1 and Form 4, respectively, in two written tasks? 
2. For what functions are the modals used by the students in Form 1 and Form 4, respectively, in two written tasks?

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