ED 445 534
FL 026 408
El-Koumy, Abdel Salam A.
Differences in FL Reading Comprehension among High-,
Middle-, and Low- Ambiguity Tolerance Students.
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
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
Reproductions supplied by EDRS are the best that can be made
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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
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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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
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
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)
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
Number of Males and Females by Ambiguity
AT = Ambiguity tolerance
HAT = High ambiguity tolerance
MAT= Middle Ambiguity tolerance
LAT = Low Ambiguity tolerance
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
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
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
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.
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.
All statistical tests were carried out using the Statistical
Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) (Norusis, 1993).
ANOVA showing the differences in reading comprehension
among the three ambiguity tolerance groups
p < 0.05
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.
The mean difference for each two groups
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
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
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
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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