For this study of the experiences connected with learning English of a small number of adult Puerto Rican students, a qualitative research design using in-depth interviews seemed most appropriate. Through these interviews, I hoped to step into the worlds of these students and come to understand the meanings that learning English as a second language had for them. In this section, I will describe the research site, the selection of participants, data collection and analysis, and issues relating to my stance as a researcher and to trustworthiness. The names of all persons and places in this study have been changed to protect anonymity.
The research site for this study is a rural municipality that I have called Colinas. This town has a population of approximately 26,000 people distributed among the town itself and seven suburbs (barrios). According to the 1990 census, there are 12,000 males and 14,000 females. The people in this area live below the economic norm in Puerto Rico. Two thirds of the population are unemployed and have an income per capita of $2,449 a year. Fifteen percent of the household providers in Colinas are women. Many of the people of this population participate in federal nutrition programs.
The Census Population Summary (1990) revealed that only 3,000 persons work in the municipality of residence. Those who are employed work in agriculture, horticulture, construction, retail trade, educational services, and public administration. Unfortunately, the average salaries for service jobs in this area are lower than those in the metropolitan area, except for those in educational services.
Although in the past three decades there have been advances toward an industrialized society in Puerto Rico, the economic transformation is not as much in evidence in this region. There are very few garment factories or industries in Colinas, leaving people no choice but to commute to other towns. According to the census of 1990, 1,818 persons worked outside of Colinas. Many of these people travel to nearby towns. Others commute to San Juan, Bayamón, and other metropolitan areas to work in larger companies.
Many of those who are not fortunate enough to find
jobs migrate to the United States. The statistical report of Colinas showed
that during the years 1980 to 1990, 2,400 persons born in Colinas lived
in the United States six or more consecutive months and returned to Puerto
Rico. There is a lot of migration to the United States, and this has had
an impact on Colinas College.
Colinas College is one of the eleven campuses of Center University, a large private university of Puerto Rico. The university has decentralized its power over the campuses, making each responsible for its own budget. All campuses have been evaluated periodically by the Middle States Association, and all have been accredited.
Colinas is a four-year college that offers bachelor and associate degrees. Among the study programs available are elementary education, secondary education in English as a second language, Spanish, social studies, business administration, secretarial science, nursing, and computer science. The enrollment of the campus is close to 2,500 students. However, the attrition rate for first- and second-year students is as high as 20%. Many of these students leave college if they find part-time jobs or move to the United States. Several other trends may be observed within this student population. There has. been a 16.8$ increase in the population between the ages of 18 and 34. Even though there is a decrease in high school graduates, the number of newly admitted students shows a growing increase. There were 500 returning adult students enrolled during the fall 1995 term.
The university has a special program for its adult students. The adult program is designed to meet the needs of those who wish to finish their degrees for promotions, for retraining, or to fulfill personal goals through flexible modalities. The program allows students to take half of their courses in traditional classes with 45 contact hours and the other half through independent study, contract, proficiency exam, and portfolio assessment. These modalities allow students to work at their own pace, integrate experiences, and minimize length of time toward degree termination.
For program admission, students must be 21 years old or older and have completed a high school diploma. This diploma may have been awarded in one of two ways: by a general program of studies or business program through a high school or by approval of an equivalency exam. Students are not required to take a standardized test, such as the College Board Exam. The adult program director and counselors interview students and administer an essay exam. Based on these criteria, students are accepted or rejected. They are all required to take English, Spanish, and math placement tests to determine their proficiency levels. Based on these test results, adult students are placed in remedial, lower, or higher level courses. It is important to mention that although there is an open admission policy into the adult program, adult students are required to take all courses under the curriculum they have declared as a major. They will be granted degrees under the same degree requirements as traditional students.
This program is a component of all degrees offered at this institution. It consists of a series of courses that focus on the development of a social and personal consciousness, the refinement of the communication skills in Spanish and English, and the development of ethical and aesthetic sensitivity. Students are required to take at least three consecutive level courses in English according to their proficiency test scores. Basic English courses are offered at three levels on this campus. Students who scored between 300 and 450 points enroll in the first group of courses: 001, 002, and 003. Students who earned scores between 451 and 599 are required to enroll in 010, 020, and 030. Bilingual students and students who wish to become English teachers and who scored 600 or higher are required to take Advanced English courses 100, 200, and 300.
Most adult program students have been out of school
for several years and ask to be placed in lower level English courses to
help them get back on track. The English placement test results reveal
that the greatest number of students admitted to the program fall into
the lower level courses. However, there are a small number who are bilingual
and who have scored high on
the placement test.
Some of these bilingual students have been admitted to the elementary English education and secondary English education degree programs. There is a great demand for bilingual English teachers in this central region. The majority of the students who graduate from the English education programs are employed immediately after graduation. Some are hired before certification. Because English teacher employment is relatively high after graduation, many adult students are interested in becoming English teachers.
Selection of Participants
In order to locate adult student participants for this study, I solicited students in my own classes for two consecutive semesters. These classes were both evening and day sessions. I explained to these students that I was interested in speaking to some of them about their experiences learning English in the public schools of Puerto Rico.
In ethnographic interview studies, an initial interview screening process is customary to give students the opportunity to know more about the study. I spoke with every student who inquired about the study because each could provide rich experiences about the teaching and learning of English in Puerto Rico. These initial interviews helped me identify those students who displayed openness and fluidity in communicating with me for additional intensive interview sessions and provided a larger context for the more in-depth final cases I selected.
In preparation for the initial interviews, I had noted those students who displayed interest. Several students captured my attention after I had read their class journals, listened to them, heard their exchange of ideas during a class discussion I had stimulated about the change in language policy that was occurring in Puerto Rico, and noticed their class participation. After these class observations, I decided to initially interview eight students who conveyed verbally their interest in participating.
Of these students, three had lived in the United States for most of their lives and were bilingual after that experience. Although their accounts were interesting, they did not meet the criteria I had set. I wanted returning adult students who had studied in public schools on the island. Nevertheless, I gave them all the opportunity to speak to me in an initial interview session and thanked them for their time and interest.
In the end, I selected five participants, three males and two females, who seemed appropriate based on the standards of age, nontraditional student status, and experience in the public schools on the island. These five students were all returning adults who had studied English in the public schools of Puerto Rico. Three of these participants displayed a great deal of interest in learning English in my class, while the remaining two were less enthusiastic in their class participation. Their class behavior and the initial interviews helped me decide to include these five participants in the study. Luckily, they were all very open to talk to me about their experiences. I informed them that participation in this project would in no way influence their class grade and that they might withdraw at any time if they wished.
It was of utmost importance that I seemed nonthreatening to the students because I am an administrator in this department. I could not change this, so I had to look for ways to help the students trust me and view me as a person concerned about the teaching and learning of English. For example, I guaranteed students that their accounts would not be discussed with other teachers. I explained to them that I would protect their anonymity by using pseudonyms in the research report (please see Appendix A). And, most important; I clearly explained the purpose and nature of the study, answering questions they had. This was a crucial time for me to gain their confidence and trust, so I tried not to project administrative authority in any way. I asked these participants to decide the best time and place for the subsequent interviews; thus, the meeting places depended on the participants' choice, which was mainly in the lobby of my office. The furniture is set up in a way that created a relaxing environment, free of phone calls and interruptions. In addition, I asked each participant's permission to tape record the interviews and told them all that they could listen to the tapes and decide if they would like to continue.
Data Collection: The Ethnographic Interview
Ethnographic interviews seek the words of the people we are studying, the richer the better, so we can understand their situations with increasing clarity (Ely et al., 1991). Therefore, this method was the major data-collection strategy of the proposed research study. Ethnographic interviews were particularly appropriate for data collection in this proposed study because by gathering descriptive data in the participants' own words, I as a researcher developed insights on how to interpret a piece of their own world (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982). In order to document their stories, I explored the perceptions that these Puerto Rican adult college students have about English language learning. As Spradley (1979) mentions, by doing so, I sought to discover patterns of meaning. The interview sessions helped me understand the world from their point of view, what they knew, in the way they knew it, and inferred the meaning of their experiences as I recursively collected and analyzed the data.
The interviews resembled a shared, friendly conversation rather than a one-sided interrogation (Bogdan & Biklen, 1982; Brause & Mayher, 1991; Merriam, 1983; Spradley, 1979). Consequently, I made every effort to provide the participants with ample opportunities to share with me their experiences and feelings. According to Merriam (1988), a good communicator empathizes with respondents, establishes rapport, asks good questions, and listens intently. I made every effort to hold these interviews at convenient times and places so that we could talk without interruptions and I could focus on future questions.
Because the effectiveness of an ethnographic interview depends largely on the questions the researcher asks, I probed for the perceptions of the participants by asking open?ended questions as skillfully as possible. Some examples of model questions were: "Please go back to your elementary school years and describe how you learned English." "How did you and your friends feel about it?" "Which activities were helpful or not helpful in your learning process?" "Which were the activities you believe affected your English-language-learning process?" "What do you think about the teaching of English in the past?" "How would you describe your language-learning experience now?" I shaped the questions from a broader to a more focused view as the data evolved. The ongoing recursive analysis in the field log that was part of the cyclical process of doing-thinking-doing (Ely et al., 1991) was the most important guide to further probe and develop questions.
Due to the importance the culture and the context play in naturalistic studies, I held these interviews in Spanish. In this way, I was able to capture the essence of the participants' experiences because concepts are inherent in language and they are part of the metaphors we live by (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). I then transcribed the interviews and translated those portions relevant to the study. These translations were checked with a professional colleague who is a professor of English as a second language in another academic institution. (See Appendix D for sample segment of interview transcript with translation.) I kept them in Spanish, in a numbered, on-going, computerized log form, and in the participants' exact words. I reflected on each interview, listened to it and analyzed it, so that I could plan the next one. I was aware that I needed to space the interviews in periods of at least three to four weeks to give myself sufficient time for analysis. Unfortunately, I did not talk English with them. Probably their comfort level with English would play a key role here.
The rounds of interviews varied from three to four for each participant. Sometimes I needed to probe further and explore the meaning of certain experiences, and we scheduled an additional interview. There was, however, an element that I had to respect among the participants. Often there was limited time within their class schedules to hold these interviews. They all preferred to conduct them on school grounds rather than in their or my homes, which meant holding our interview sessions either in the evenings after class for the night participants or within free periods for the day students. In spite of this time restraint, we managed to arrange interviews that lasted an hour, and at times an hour and a half, giving us ample time to work.
On occasions, I saw the participants in the hallways on campus after we had finished the structured interviews. We met to discuss analytic memos and emerging patterns. They were all willing to participate in these participant?checking sessions, and I noticed that they became increasingly interested in the course of the study. Their interest, in turn, provided me with lots of motivation when they commented that this study was important for them and that it could help others as well in their journey of learning English. These sessions gradually became minimal until no further meetings were scheduled.
In naturalistic inquiry, all that goes on in the research process is of vital importance. Therefore, keeping a log of observations, transcripts of interviews, analyses, and documents was essential. The log "is the home for the substance that we use to tease out the meanings and reflect upon them as they evolve" (Ely et al., 1991, p. 69). It was the place where I faced myself as a research instrument, and it echoed my "plans, questions, doubts, and ruminations" (Ely et al., 1991, p. 69) which were a part of the process. (See Appendix F for sample segment of field log with translation.)
Because my major data-collection strategy was ethnographic interviewing, transcripts of the interviews were recorded in the ongoing log to facilitate the recursive analysis of the data. In the log, I coded my data along the margins and began to make connections between emerging categories and patterns. I wrote analytic memos throughout the process for hunches and possible directions of future data collection (Ely et al., 1991; Lofland & Lofland, 1984). These memos reflect what happened in the research process as I alternated between data collection and data analysis. Talking and listening to my data (Ely et al., 1991) through constant rereadings of the log generated new research questions. (See Appendix G for sample analytic memo and translation.)
From these data, I built my analysis (Lofland & Lofland, 1984). All of this information was stored in the hard drive of my personal computer and separately on other floppy disks to avoid accidental loss. The tapes, transcripts, disks, binder, and all other data were safely stored in my office file.
As is characteristic of naturalistic inquiry, data collection and data analysis are concurrent and cyclical (Ely et al., 1991; Tesch, 1990). I read and reread the data, scrutinizing every line and phrase as I engaged in analyzing and deriving meaning from the emerging patterns. The interweaving of this data collection, self?reflection, coding, and analysis directed me in the meaning?making process (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). The log was the repository that enabled me to go back and forth as I recalled what went on during the research process while I consistently wrote analytic memos.
I used initial open coding along the margins of my field log to serve me as a springboard to wonder and speculate about my data (Strauss, 1987). In this recursive process, I broke down the data into manageable "thinking units," trying to decipher the smallest meaningful chunk of text. Analyzing the data into meaningful chunks enabled me to create categories and subcategories. I shaped this scheme by reading, thinking, trying out tentative categories, changing them when others did better, checking that all information was categorized, and then revising categories again when that seemed necessary (Ely et al., 1991). As I continued, I worked with category relationships to determine how best they might be linked, because the primary purpose of discovering relationships between categories is to find conceptual linkages (Tesch, 1990). In this process, I teased out the meaning of the data as I made decisions about the supporting evidence. This involvement between the data and myself was a time to hold a close, intense conversation, listening to the clues that had implications for ongoing method, descriptive reporting, and theory building (Ely et al., 1991).
In order to paint a picture as true to my participants' views as possible, so that the informants spoke for themselves (Strauss & Corbin, 1990), I created themes that reflected the meanings that were most evident and/or those that were emotionally charged (Ely et al., 1991). A theme can be described as a statement that captures and reveals the essence of the participant's point of view. In cases where it was possible, I used the actual words of the participants, also known as "in vivo codes," to present themes which were followed by narratives and thematic discussions and analysis. I intended to capture my interpretations in a descriptive and interpretative account of the data in light of existing concepts and theories (Tesch, 1990; Wolcott, 1990). My aim was to portray the natural setting, to evoke the experience as vividly as possible, inviting the reader to see through my eyes what I had perceived. In order to present these meaningful accounts, I devoted one chapter to profiles of the participants that illustrated the implicit themes. Following that, I devoted a chapter to a thematic discussion that highlighted specific themes and integrated material from each portrait specifically related to each particular theme.
The Stance of the Researcher
In qualitative studies, the researcher as the instrument collects, analyzes, and reports the data. Because we researchers are humans with emotional attachments and view everything through the screen of our own experiences, we are called on to look within ourselves and recognize the biases we bring with us to the study. What we see and hear may run counter to our experience, our beliefs, and our moral principles (Ely et al., 1990). This opportunity to use in?depth interviews to discover the intricacies of second-language learning in Puerto Rico from the perspectives of these participants may shed light for other educators. In order to share these findings, I needed to "make the familiar unfamiliar" and "make the unfamiliar familiar."
As a human instrument, I tried to maintain enough distance to view the stories of these participants through new lenses because I have been in this scenario for 25 years. This long span of time required that I also maintain my "detached wonder" to speculate and probe about things I might have taken for granted. At times, I felt that some of the participants' remarks were overgeneralized. I realized that the contrary was true as I went back and reread my logs. These pieces of information stood out like "sore thumbs." The second challenge I was faced with was to understand those things that the participants were telling me that were different from my own view. I needed at this point to sharpen my own perspective because the only way I could retell their stories was if "I became the other."
I have my own experiences as a second-language learner. Among these experiences, I have had the opportunity to live in different settings, cultures, and subcultures in the United States and Puerto Rico. My language learning experience as a child was different from the way these Puerto Rican students learned English. First I learned to speak, then read, and the grammar was incidentally touched on in writing. Here in Puerto Rico students are very focused on grammar. My own experiences give me an advantage when comparing similarities and differences in approaches to second?language learning.
I was born in New York City and lived there most of my life, except for the sixth and ninth grades, which I took in the public schools of the south in Puerto Rico. While I was in New York, I spoke Spanish with my parents at home and English at school. In both of these settings, I had the opportunity to learn both English and Spanish. This experience with both languages, Spanish in the home and English in the community and school, as well as the two years I spent in Puerto Rico, helped me to become bilingual. Therefore, I feel that both languages can be learned simultaneously.
English was viewed in my home as a very important language for our economic future. I was encouraged by my parents to learn English because it was the language of academic and economic success. In the literature on second?language learning, this is called instrumental motivation (Gardner & Lambert, 1972).
In 1970, I moved to Puerto Rico and began to work in the south as a bilingual teacher in a primary school. Later on, I taught English in high school; and for the past ten years, I have taught at the college level. These various contexts have helped me understand the cultural differences in student populations and have confirmed some of the hunches I brought to this study in relation to the teaching and learning of English as a second language. In addition, I have become aware of new issues that have given me insights into the opinions and attitudes of my students.
In this stance, I cannot help touching upon a very sensitive political issue for Puerto Ricans. I observed that some of my students voiced little motivation to learn English and showed negative attitudes. On the first day of class, students were uneasy, and this made it difficult for me to keep my classes highly motivating and interesting. These concerns engaged me in this study of the experiences of second-language learners in Puerto Rico. I understand that many students and teachers have had to resolve their questions about politics and the teaching and learning of English. In some cases, this concern has been depoliticized (Torruellas, 1990) by administrators and teachers; but in others, politics has provoked a lot of ambiguity and contradiction. I had to open up to understand how each one of my participants felt about this issue, and I recorded them as true to their meanings as I could.
I knew that this view required that I take a researcher's stance to guard myself from overlooking the issues in my participants' accounts because I am a Puerto Rican American. Instead, I tried to "bracket my feelings" and worked to take the role of the other (Lofland & Lofland, 1984). The stance that I wanted to adopt was a reflexive one that would allow me to speculate about classroom cultures and to place these participants in a more powerful position by taking part in these interviews about the teaching and learning of English.
I view my life as an opportunity to learn to become a better person day by day. Most of the way, I have stumbled. Getting up, however, and turning these falls into positive learning experiences have made me what I am today. I have biases, but I made serious efforts to guard against them so that they would not distort my research. Because of who I am and how I think and perceive the world, I must strive to be credible and trustworthy in this research process. I found the criteria established by Guba and Lincoln (1985) most suitable to help me produce results that could be trusted (Ely et al., 1991).
Guba and Lincoln (1985) suggest prolonged engagement as one way to make one's findings credible. I interviewed participants with sufficient time to listen to their stories, by probing deeply their views, reassuring them that there were no hidden agendas and that I would not use their confidences against them. Despite the fact that I worked on campus, when they talked about it, I made every effort to see it through the eyes of the participants. I adopted my researcher's stance to maintain my "detached wonder" (Guba & Lincoln, 1985, p. 304). I spent two semesters collecting data and an additional year analyzing them to provide for greater likelihood of credibility. I persisted in these processes until no new categories emerged. By reflecting on the data, I knew when that stage was near and when it was the appropriate time to draw a series of interviews to a close. Planning for prolonged engagement provided me with the scope necessary to conduct my study in depth.
Participant checking is an additional technique described by Guba and Lincoln (1985) as contributing to trustworthiness. Information provided by the participants was corroborated on subsequent interviews. I also checked with participants themselves the constructions I made from their interviews. I arranged sessions for the participants to respond to my analysis by showing them selected analytic memos, categories, and coding to see that my ongoing analysis and emerging themes were true to their views. I wanted to make sure I captured their experiences and brought those to life. In the process of corroboration of the participants' words, I had to revise my categories and themes to fit as many cases as possible.
Throughout the research process, I needed to verify my interpretations, reflect on the data, and develop an organizing system (Tesch, 1990). Peer debriefing was also an important technique in establishing credibility (Guba & Lincoln, 1985) in my inquiry process. I checked with professional colleagues for feedback and ideas as I shared my tentative findings. Throughout the research process, I shared portions of my log, coding, emerging categories, and tentative findings with these colleagues.
Negative and discrepant case analysis "is the search for evidence that does not fit into our emergent findings and that leads to a re-examination of our findings" (Ely et al., 1991, p. 98). I looked at inconsistencies and contradictions as a way of refining and revising my findings to report them as they are. Although there were no strictly negative cases, one participant's experiences of and attitudes toward learning English appeared discrepant in certain respects.
Lincoln and Guba's criteria of a qualitative product (1990) helped me to monitor my presentation. I described the site, culture, and circumstances of this study in an attempt to provide the reader with a clear picture of the context necessary to make transferability judgments. To ensure and evidence dependability, I worked to present the data, findings, interpretations, and recommendations in a coherent way. Earlier in this chapter I have described the internal processes of checking data, giving the reader enough elements to decide to accept or reject my interpretations. Confirmability involves the process of ascertaining whether the data, interpretations, and outcomes are grounded in the data (Cuba & Lincoln, 1985). I have provided thick descriptions and detailed accounts of the analytic process to make my product both "tracked and trackable" (Lincoln & Guba, 1990, p. 242).
Every technique mentioned here has contributed to
the trustworthiness of the study; however, my own sense of integrity, my
values, and my dedication to this study were an ongoing commitment. I kept
a reflexive journal in which I continually reflected on my self-awareness
and recorded information about the process. I owed this to myself, my students,
and my country.