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El-Koumy, Abdel Salam A. 

Differences in FL Reading Comprehension among High-, 
Middle-, and Low- Ambiguity Tolerance Students. 

2000-03-00 

14p . ; Paper presented at the National Symposium on English 
Language Teaching in Egypt, (Ain Shams University, March 
21-23, 2000) . 

Reports - Research (143) -- Speeches/Meeting Papers (150) 

MF01/PC01 Plus Postage. 

College Students; ^English (Second Language); Foreign 
Countries; Higher Education; Learning Strategies; 
♦Psycholinguistics; ^Reading Comprehension; Second Language 
Instruction; Second Language Learning; Testing 
♦Ambiguity Tolerance; Egypt 


ABSTRACT 


The purpose of this study was to examine the differences in 
foreign language reading comprehension among high-, middle-, and 
low-ambiguity tolerance students. The subjects for the study were 150 
English-as -a -Foreign- Language (EFL) university students randomly drawn from 
all freshmen enrolled in the English section at four schools of education in 
Egypt • Data required by the study were obtained by using two measures: the 
MAT- 50 (Morton, 1975) and a reading comprehension subtest of the Test of 
English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) . The data were analyzed using one-way 
analysis of variance and a t-test. Results showed a significant variance in 
the mean scores among the high-, middle-, and low ambiguity tolerance groups. 
The t-tests revealed that the moderate ambiguity tolerance group scored 
significantly higher than the low and high groups, and the low and high 
groups were not found to be significantly different. A relationship may exist 
between ambiguity tolerance and learning strategies- -high- , middle-, and low 
ambiguity tolerance students may exhibit different learning strategies that 
could, in turn , lead to different rates of language learning success. Based 
on these results, it is recommended that EFL students be helped to become 
moderate ambiguity tolerant students. Three tables and 26 references are 
included. (Author/KFT) 


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Differences in FL reading comprehension among high-, 
middle-, and low-ambiguity tolerance students* 


Abdel Salam A. El-Koumy 
Suez Canal University, Egypt 


Abstract 

The purpose of this study was to examine the differences in FL 
reading comprehension among high-, middle-, and low-ambiguity 
tolerance students. The subjects for the study were 150 EFL 
students randomly drawn from all freshmen enrolled in the 
English section at four schools of education in Egypt. The data 
required for the study were obtained by using two measures: (1) 
the MAT-50 (Norton, 1975), and (2) a reading comprehension 
subtest of the TOEFL. The obtained data were analyzed using the 
one-way analysis of variance and the t-test. Results of the ANOVA 
showed a significant difference in the mean scores among the 
high-, middle-, and low-ambiguity tolerance groups (f= 9. 56, p < 
0.05). Analyses of the data using independent t-tests indicated that 
the moderate ambiguity tolerance group scored significantly 
higher than the low and high ambiguity tolerance groups (t = 4.22, 
p < 0.05; t = 3.24, p < 0.05, respectively). The low and high 
ambiguity tolerance groups, however, were not found to be 
significantly different (t = 0.89, p > 0.05). Based on these results, 
recommendations were made for helping EFL students become 
moderate ambiguity tolerants. 


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1 


Purpose of the study 

The purpose of this study was to examine the differences in 
FL reading comprehension among high-, middle-, and low- 
ambiguity tolerance students at the university level. 


*This paper was presented at the 20th National Symposium on English 
Language Teaching in Egypt, Ain Shams University, The Center for Developing 
English Language Teaching, 21-23 March 2000 


BEST COPY AVAILABLE 


2 


Need for the study 

The idea of this study arose from the researcher's awareness 
that some Egyptian EFL students panic and give up quickly when 
they independently read a passage containing some difficult 
words. Furthermore, cries and complaints are usually heard when 
a reading comprehension test, that contains some difficult words, 
is administered to those students. In contrast, other students tend 
to be wishy-washy and do not pay attention to difficulties or 
confusing facts (e.g., homophones, homographs) in what they 
read. Still others tend to be calm and open-minded in dealing with 
difficulties and confusing facts when they read. Hopefully, the 
findings of this study might reveal whether or not such behaviors 
influence FL reading comprehension. 

Background to the study 

Ambiguity is one of the main characteristics of a 
second/foreign language learning situation in general (Brown, 
1987; Chapelle and Roberts, 1986; Groebel, 1985; Karpf, 1980; 
Peng, 1990; Taha, 1983). Chapelle and Roberts (1986), for 
example, wrote: 

An L2 situation can be considered ambiguous because 
of the characteristics it shares with each ,of the four 
kinds of ambiguous situations. An L2 situation is 
considered "novel" by learners because the 
grammatical, lexical, phonological and cultural cues 
are unfamiliar and therefore insufficient for them to 
construct a meaningful interpretation. On the other 
hand, these cues may be perceived as being too 
numerous to interpret, resulting in a "complex" 
situation. Similarly, a learner may interpret these 
multiple language cues as contradicting each other, 
rendering the situation "insoluble." Also, because 
language cues in many cases cannot be interpreted by 
the learner, the situation can be perceived 
"unstructured." (p. 31) 



3 


In light of the above, many second/foreign language learning 
theoreticians and applied psycholinguists (e.g., Ehrman and 
Oxford, 1989, 1990; Hahn, 1989; Larsen-Freeman and Long, 

1991; Oxford, 1990a, 1990b; Oxford and Ehrman, 1993; Reiss, 
1981; Rubin and Thompson, 1982; Scarcella and Oxford, 1992; 
Stern, 1975) claim that successful language learning necessitates a 
degree of ambiguity tolerance. Furthermore, ambiguity tolerance 
is considered by both students and teachers as one of the 
personality factors that characterize the good language learner 
(Reiss, 1985; Lalonde, Lee and Gardner, 1987). Reiss (1985) found 
that students who considered themselves good language learners 
viewed tolerance of ambiguity as important to them. She 
concluded that the good language learner is one who is, among 
other things, "fairly comfortable with ambiguity" (p. 518). In 
their investigation of teachers' perceptions of the successful 
second language student, Lalonde, Lee, and Gardner (1987) found 
that a group of teachers (N = 300) perceived the good language 
student as one who is, among other characteristics, tolerant of 
ambiguity. 

As part of a second/foreign language learning situation, 
reading is also fraught with uncertainty (Bartholomae and 
Petrosky, 1986; Clarke and Nation, 1980; Ruddell, 1991, Weaver, 
1993). The foreign language learners seldom know the meanings 
of all words in a reading passage. They also face phonological, 
syntactic, semantic and cultural ambiguities in what they read. 
Therefore, some reading theoreticians and practitioners (e.g., 
Joycey, 1984; Loew, 1984) view ambiguity tolerance as an 
important characteristic of the good language reader. 

With the above in mind, it seems that ambiguity tolerance is 
a prominent characteristic in second/foreign language learning in 
general and reading in particular, and that this variable deserves 
to be studied in its own right. 


O 


4 


Review of related research 

In reviewing the research related to the problem under 
investigation, the researcher found only three studies that 
investigated the relationship between ambiguity tolerance and 
achievement in SL/FL in general, or in certain language tasks in 
particular. Using Budner's Scale of Tolerance-Intolerance of 
Ambiguity with a group of high school students learning French 
as a foreign language, Naiman et al. (1978) found that tolerance of 
ambiguity scores were significantly correlated with scores on a 
listening comprehension task and an imitation task. Chapelle 
(1983) (see also Chapelle and Roberts, 1986) used Norton's (1975) 
Measure of Ambiguity Tolerance (MAT-50) and a group of 
subjects from different language backgrounds (Arabic, Japanese, 
and Spanish) to explore the relationship between ambiguity 
tolerance and success in learning English as a second language. 
The results of her study indicated no significant correlations 
between ambiguity tolerance and beginning of semester language 
scores but the correlations between ambiguity tolerance and end- 
of-semester scores were, in almost every case, significantly 
positive. She found that ambiguity tolerance was positively related 
to end-of-semester scores on a multiple choice grammar test, a 
dictation test, and parts of a speaking test. She concluded that "an 
individual's AT is related to his progress in some aspects of L2 
learning" (p. 94). Lori (1990) investigated the relationships that 
exist among ambiguity tolerance, self-concept, English 
achievement, Arabic achievement, overall school achievement, and 
students' attitudes toward learning English as a foreign language. 
He collected data from 280 high school seniors enrolled in 13 high 
schools in Bahrain. He measured their tolerance of ambiguity by 
using the MAT-50 (Norton, 1975). The results of the data analyses 
indicated that tolerance of ambiguity correlated significantly but 
very low with English achievement (r = 0. 14), Arabic achievement 
(r = 0. 18), self-concept (r = 0. 11), and overall school achievement 
(r 0. 16). The results also showed that tolerance of ambiguity 
correlated significantly low with attitudes toward learning English 
as a foreign language(r = 0. 36). 



5 


As noted earlier, none of the previous studies specifically 
addressed ambiguity tolerance and SL/FL reading 

comprehension. The present study, therefore, attempts to fill this 
gap by exploring the differences in FL reading comprehension 
among high-, middle-, and low-ambiguity tolerance students at the 
university level. 

Research hypothesis 

In light of the foregoing, the hypothesis of the study was 
stated in the null form as follows: There would be no significant 
differences in the mean scores on a TOEFL reading 

comprehension subtest among the high-, middle-, and low- 
ambiguity tolerance groups. 

Method 

Sample 

A total of 150 students representing three levels of ambiguity 
tolerance took part in the study. These subjects were randomly 
selected from all freshmen (N = 260) enrolled in the department of 
English at four schools of education in Egypt (Al-Arish, Ismailia, 
Port-Said, and Suez) in the 1999/2000 academic year. All subjects 
were taught the same textbooks at the pre-university level for the 
same period of time (6 years). All received reading instruction 
with the same approach. Table 1 below shows the number of 
males and females by ambiguity tolerance level. 


Table 1 

Number of Males and Females by Ambiguity 
Tolerance Level 


AT Level 

Male 

Female 

Total 

HAT 

6 

44 

50 

MAT 

7 

43 

50 

LAT 

5 

45 

50 

TOTAL 

18 

132 

150 


AT = Ambiguity tolerance 
HAT = High ambiguity tolerance 
MAT= Middle Ambiguity tolerance 
LAT = Low Ambiguity tolerance 



6 


Instruments 

The instruments used in the study were: (1) the MAT-50 
(Norton, 1975), and (2) a reading comprehension subtest of the 
TOEFL. A brief description of each instrument is given below. 

The MAT-50 is a 61 item Likert-type scale which asks 
subjects to agree or disagree with each item on a 7 point scale. For 
example, item 25 is: 

A problem has little attraction for me if I don't think it has a 
solution. 

YES! YES yes ? no NO NO! 

This scale is a highly reliable measure and a valid test of 
ambiguity tolerance. The numerous validity and reliability studies 
conducted on this instrument showed that it had an internal 
reliability coefficient of .88 and a test-retest reliability of .86 over 
a 10 to 12 week period. A content analysis of this instrument and a 
subjective analysis of 20 judges also showed adequate content 
validity. Furthermore, a cluster analysis of this scale and a 
correlational study on commitment provided good evidence for 
construct validity (Norton, 1975). 

The TOEFL reading comprehension subtest (Model Test 2) 
consists of five reading passages with 10 questions for each 
(Sharpe 1996). 

Description of variables 

The independent variable in the study was ambiguity 
tolerance with three levels (high, middle, and low). Each subject 
was classified according to his/her ambiguity tolerance level, as 
defined and operationalized by Norton (1975) in the following 
way: Any subject with a score greater than one standard deviation 
from the mean on the MAT-50 was defined as a high ambiguity 
tolerance subject (HAT); any subject with a score less than one 
standard deviation from the mean was defined as a low ambiguity 
tolerance subject (LAT); and any subject with a score within half 



7 


a standard deviation from the mean was defined as a middle 
ambiguity tolerance subject (MAT). 

The dependent variable in the study was FL reading 
comprehension as measured by a reading comprehension subtest 
of the TOEFL. 

To neutralize extraneous variables, one person, the 
researcher, administered both instruments to all groups in the 
same manner. The testing time was also identical for each of the 
three groups of the study. 

Procedure 

At the beginning of the first semester of the 1999/2000 
academic year, the data required for the study were collected at 
times convenient to the learners. The MAT-50 was administered 
to a total of 260 students. From this population, twelve students 
were eliminated because they did not properly complete their own 
questionnaires. The remaining students were then stratified into 
three groups with three ambiguity tolerance levels (high, middle, 
and low). From each group, a random selection of 50 subjects was 
made to participate in the study. After that, a reading 
comprehension subtest of the TOEFL was administered to the 
final sample. Finally, the data collected were analyzed using the 
one-way analysis of variance and the t-test. 

Data analysis 

All statistical tests were carried out using the Statistical 
Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) (Norusis, 1993). 


Table 2 

ANOVA showing the differences in reading comprehension 
among the three ambiguity tolerance groups 


Source 

DF 

SS 

MS 

F 

Significance 

Between 

Groups 

2 

187.25 

93.63 

9.56 


Within 

Groups 

147 

1439.52 

9.79 


p < 0.05 

Total 

149 

1626.77 





As shown in Table 2, the ANOVA results showed a 
significant difference in reading comprehension scores among the 
high-, middle-, and low-ambiguity tolerance groups (f = 9.56, p < 
0.05). Therefore, three subsequent t-tests were employed to 
compare the mean scores of each two groups with the level of 
significance set at p < 0.05. 


Table 3 

The mean difference for each two groups 


Group 

N 

M 

S. D. 

t-value 

MAT 

50 

23.40 

3.08 

4.22 

LAT 

50 

20.80 

3.09 

MAT 

50 

23.40 

3.08 

3.24 

HAT 

50 

21.36 

3.22 

LAT 

50 

20.80 

3.09 

0.89 

HAT 

50 

21.36 

3.22 


Data from Table 3 indicated that the middle ambiguity 
tolerance group scored significantly higher than the low and high 
ambiguity tolerance groups (t = 4.22, p < 0.05; t = 3.24, p < 0.05, 
respectively). The results also indicated no significant difference 
between the low and high ambiguity tolerance groups (t= 0.89, p > 
0.05). Thus, the null hypothesis that there would be no significant 



9 


differences in FL reading comprehension among students with 
different levels of ambiguity tolerance could be rejected. 

Discussion of findings 

The findings of this study support Brown's (1987:90), 
Oxford's (1 990b: 1 42), and Scarcella and Oxford's (1992: 59) 
contention that a moderate degree of ambiguity tolerance is 
essential for the second/foreign language learning process and 
much or little ambiguity tolerance may hinder this process. The 
findings are also consistent with those of previous studies in the 
areas of anxiety (Backman, 1976) and risk-taking (Beebe, 1983). 
Backman (1976) found that the two worst English-learning 
Spanish speakers scored the highest and the lowest on the anxiety 
measure she utilized. Beebe's (1983) study revealed that "persons 
with a high motivation to achieve are ... moderate, not high, risk- 
takers" (p. 41). As ambiguity tolerance seems to be closely related 
to anxiety (Kishore and Pandey, 1980) and risk-taking (Oxford, 
1990b), the findings of this study can be interpreted in light of the 
relationships among these factors; that is, the high-, middle-, and 
low-ambiguity tolerance levels might interact in a complex way 
with the same levels of anxiety and risk-taking to produce the 
results obtained in the present study. The findings of this study 
can also be explained in light of the relationship that may exist 
between ambiguity tolerance and learning strategies; that is, the 
high-, middle-, and low-ambiguity tolerance readers might exhibit 
different reading strategies, which could, in turn, lead to the 
obtained results. 

Implications for instruction 

On the basis of the results of the present study, one can 
conclude that a moderate degree of ambiguity tolerance is 
essential for foreign language reading comprehension and much 
or little ambiguity tolerance hinders this process. Therefore, EFL 
teachers must take this variable into account, above all, they 
should help students develop a moderate degree of ambiguity 
tolerance through the following: (1) Creating classroom 

atmospheres in which low ambiguity tolerance students can make 



10 


moderate risks without fear of failure, or criticism from the 
teacher, or other students. (2) Tolerating less important errors 
made by low ambiguity tolerance students. (3) Making high and 
low ambiguity tolerance students aware of the clues for intelligent 
guessing. (4) Training high and low ambiguity tolerance students 
in compensation strategies. (5) Discussing fears of ambiguity with 
low ambiguity tolerance students so as to deliberately draw their 
attention to the fact that such fears are rootless and useless. (6) 
Asking high, middle, and low ambiguity tolerance students to 
cooperate in writing about ambiguous situations inside and 
outside of the classroom, and in synthesizing and evaluating 
literary works that depict ambiguous situations. 

Recommendations for future research 

This study suggests the need for investigating the 
relationships among anxiety, risk-taking, tolerance of ambiguity, 
and second/foreign language proficiency. Future research is also 
needed to determine the regresses or increases of EFL students' 
tolerance of ambiguity over a long period of time in a longitudinal 
study. It is also recommended that future research should 
consider the relationships among different levels of ambiguity 
tolerance and different levels of cognitive language operations. 
Finally, it is recommended that the present study should be 
replicated with students at different grade levels. 

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