ESL Students’ Ought-to Selves

Part 2 of a 3-part series. In case you missed the last one:

As an end-of-semester assignment, I had my summer and fall classes (4 total; 2 intermediate multi-skill and 2 advanced academic writing) write about their ideal, ought-to, and feared selves. Besides being a recent buzzword in ELT, possible selves make an interesting writing assignment for both the teacher, who gets to find out his students’ motivations in a bit more detail, and the students, who get to describe their (hopeful) future lives. Now, in fairness to you, I should point out right at the start that I won’t be excerpting their writing here; I didn’t warn them that I’d be using this assignment for my blog and I am one of those teachers who doesn’t even share pictures with his students’ faces in them without asking each one of them individually. Instead of showing you what they actually wrote, I will be analyzing each of their answers for the prevalences of certain topics and concerns and then doing some basic statistics with these. As it turns out, this takes a lot longer.

My prompt for the ought-to selves section was:

“What can you, now, do every day to bring yourself closer to that future best version of you? What kind of things should you do? How should you ‘study’ or ‘practice’?”

Basically, I’m trying to get at how students think they should be behaving as ESL students – not what their goals are, but what the little ESL angel on their shoulder is telling them to do every day.

All screenshots of spreadsheets tend to look the same. This is the same image as the last post – did you notice?

This time, as I re-read all 75 (45 multi-skill and 30 writing – yes, fewer than for the ideal self) responses, I quantified mentions of input, output, interaction, and formal study, and further quantified subsections of those. Separately, I also counted specific mentions of maintaining a schedule, since that was fairly common and not a clear part of any of the above categories. Last, I computed averages and correlations between all of the responses together and separately for the two types of classes. As before, the writing classes wrote longer responses on average, 74.4 words vs. the multi-skill classes’ 52.1. Notably, both of these are lower than the averages for student responses to the ideal selves section (99 and 64 respectively). Perhaps students enjoy talking about the best versions of themselves in the future more than the arduous journey there.

Writing students mentioned every category more than multi-skill students did, even ones which are not typically a large part of a writing course. This could be a product of the tendency of writing students to be more specific overall, or it could reflect a clearer vision for how to make progress in their English. Responses that could not be categorized into input, interaction, etc. like “I will try harder and improve” were more common in the multi-skill students’ responses, as the lower average mention rate for all categories shows. On the other hand, multi-skill students were more likely to mention keeping a schedule, with 24.4% of responses containing some reference to X words per day, Y hours of reading every day, or similar phrases. 16.6% of writing students made similar statements, making this the only category in which multi-skill students (again, about 1-2 years lower in our program than the writing students) were more specific about their ought-to selvesthan writing students.

No noteworthy correlations emerged between the different categories, not even between input and formal study.

Here’s a handy graph with the average % likelihood of mentions by category.

Green = multi-skill, Yellow = writing, Blue = average of both


65.3% of responses overall mentioned some kind of input, including 53.3% of multi-skill student responses and 83.3% of writing student responses. That large gap was mostly made up of the subcategories of reading (including newspapers, articles, and books), mentioned by 60% of writing students but only 35.5% of multi-skill students, and TV/movies, mentioned by 46.6% of writing students but only 35.5% of multi-skill students. The greater importance given to writing may be partly explained by the fact that reading is a much larger part of the writing classes than the multi-skill classes. Only one subcategory of input was mentioned more by multi-skill students than by writing students: listening, found in 26.6% of multi-skill student responses and 22.2% of writing student responses.

As a teacher who got his MA in the post-Krashen era, I find this mostly encouraging, especially since many were accompanied with phrases like “without using Google Translate” or “to notice salient chunk-like features” (OK, no one said that one).


Output was the least mentioned means for improving one’s English mentioned, with a 25.3% average overall (17.7% for multi-skill students and 36.6% for writing students). Of the subcategories of output, only writing, with a mention rate of 33.3% of writing students, had a mention rate of more than 10%. Some forms that this took were keeping a diary, writing emails, and doing more academic writing (I suppose by writing essays for fun?). The other categories, incidentally, were “making mistakes” and “drills”, which I included because a few students mentioned them early on. Interestingly, no writing students at all mentioned doing drills, and the students who mentioned writing did not mention getting feedback on their writing, which is an integral part of all the writing we do in their classes.


Some form of interaction with other people was mentioned by 64% of students, including 57.7% of multi-skill students and 73.3% of writing students. Typical responses included phrases like “talk to more people” or “be less shy with strangers”. Responses that didn’t specify any particular types of people or situations were the vast majority, with 42.2% of multi-skill students and 66.6% (Satan’s statistic) of writing students. On the other hand, multi-skill students were more likely to mention talking to friends or family (15.5% vs. 3.3% for writing students) and using English at work (11.1% vs. 3.0%) as part of what they feel they should be doing every day.

What is most interesting about this category is that writing students mentioned some kind of interaction more often than multi-skill students did, although interaction is actually built into the multi-skill courses to a much higher degree than in writing courses. Then again, writing students were more specific in general, and as I mentioned above, more likely to mention all of the categories of English practice than multi-skill students were.

Formal study

80.0% of writing students mentioned formal study in their responses compared to 71.1% of multi-skill students, for an average of 74.6%. The most common subcategory of formal study was taking classes, usually in college and sometimes mentioning the next class by name. 42.2% of multi-skill and 46.6% of writing students mentioned taking more classes.

Studying alone was also mentioned by 26.6% of multi-skill students and 50% of writing students for an overall average of 36%. Last, vocabulary in particular was mentioned in 18.6% of responses overall, 15.5% of multi-skill 23.3% of writing. Again, writing students were more likely to mention specific ways of improving their English in every category, but were much more likely to specify studying alone. Perhaps this is because so much of multi-skill courses is collaborative and so much of writing courses is solo.

It’s certainly not a bad thing that students see formal classes as part of their path forward, but it is a bit dismaying that more than twice as many students mention taking classes as mention interaction as a part of their ought-to selves. I certainly don’t want to send students off with the impression that if they continue coming to classes, they can improve their English without having to have actual conversations with non-ESL students in their communities. I have a sneaking suspicion that some students may still see language learning as mostly a process of completing in a set of courses (in especially bad cases, by mastering discrete skills one at a time), at the end of which they will somehow speak perfectly grammatical, unaccented English. I may have to devote some more time in class to, ironically, downplaying the value of classes and promoting awkward but important things like talking to other people. For my part, it will be my job in the coming semester to reward input and interaction with points, whether by nudging students to spend more time at Trader Joe’s or just reminding them (and myself) that the goal of a language class isn’t just to get to a higher language class.

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