How do Swedish lower secondary students think and feel about their English? – Studies, skills, and self-esteem in a second language

Andrea C. Schalley1, Marika Kjellén1, Marie K. Tåqvist1, Ann Jamt2, Kajsa Krigström2, Åsa Lindström3, Susanne Malmberg Olsson4, Ann-Charlotte Rydberg4, Christina Thorén5, Michael Österman2, and Daniel Östlund3

1Karlstad University, Karlstad; 2Ferlinskolan, Filipstad; 3Fryxellska skolan, Sunne; 4Vålbergsskolan, Karlstad; 5Ilandaskolan, Karlstad

ULF (Utbildning, Lärande, Forskning) is a national initiative which aims to facilitate and conduct research in close collaboration between researchers and in-service teachers in primary and secondary school. During meetings within ULF, participating teachers reported on a large disparity between the proficiency levels achieved by students in the English lower secondary classroom, characterised by big groups of very strong students contrasting with those of struggling students. Still, teachers are expected to offer an equitable education to them all. To this end, we are exploring the nature of lower secondary students’ different proficiency levels and to investigate whether there are factors that correlate with (and thus potentially causally relate to) students’ proficiency levels. At a future stage of the project, we aim to develop and evaluate classroom materials and strategies for the teaching and learning of English that will be of assistance to teachers working with students at different proficiency levels.

Researchers from Karlstad University and in-service teachers from four different lower secondary schools in Värmland have jointly collected materials from nearly 300 students. The materials consist of two kinds of data. First, we distributed a survey and collected information relating to student demographics, their self-reported proficiency, the use of English in the classroom as well as outside of it, and various affective factors. These factors relate to foreign language enjoyment (i.e., positive emotions experienced by learners in the classroom), foreign language classroom anxiety (i.e., feelings of unease and apprehension in the English classroom), and self-efficacy (i.e., students’ belief in their capacity to use English appropriately). Second, students wrote an essay on the topic of My Media, based on the National Test in English for Year 9, 2015/2016. The students wrote the essays under National Test conditions. Detailed instructions had been provided, and the essays were written as part of the regular teaching and subsequently graded by the teachers involved. Additionally, the texts are currently being analysed linguistically and the outcomes of these analyses serve as a proxy for the students’ overall English language proficiency. Areas in focus for the linguistic analyses are vocabulary on the one hand, and sentence structure on the other. The students’ vocabulary use is studied with the help of measures of lexical diversity (i.e., the variety of words used in a text) and lexical sophistication (i.e., the proportion of infrequent or advanced words occurring in a text). Sentence structure analysis is based on various types and measures of syntactic complexity (i.e., the grammatical sophistication exhibited in a text).

While the data collection and analyses are still ongoing, there are already some preliminary results. One finding is that the essays written by girls received higher grades than those written by boys. At the same time, the girls reported having higher levels of anxiety in the English classroom, as compared to the boys. In fact, quite a few of the girls reported extremely high anxiety levels whereas none of the boys did. Many boys instead reported very low anxiety levels overall – something very few of the girls did. Another finding is that the large majority of students had high or very high levels of self-reported proficiency, especially the boys. In terms of self-efficacy, it was found that high self-efficacy scores dominated throughout the data set. When the four macro-skills were separated, it was obvious that the students perceived the receptive skills (reading and listening) as being even easier than the productive ones (speaking and writing). What is especially interesting here is that many students with a low essay grade still reported a high level of self-efficacy. It was only students with a failing essay grade who reported a markedly lower level of self-efficacy overall, even though some of these students still had a fairly high level of self-efficacy. As mentioned above, we were also interested in how students use English outside of the classroom. Interestingly, we have not found a strong relationship between gaming and essay grade so far, though further and more detailed analyses are needed. As for reading books, we found that not many students read books in English in their spare time, but that students with grade A read more than other students.

A few early findings relating to the linguistic measures used are available as well. First, as regards lexical diversity, the results suggest a positive correlation with essay length across the student cohort. In other words, students who write longer essays tend to have a more lexically diverse vocabulary. Furthermore, the results indicate that students with a high English grade appear to write longer and more lexically diverse essays than students with a lower English grade. Second, when it comes to syntactic complexity, measured as mean length of clause, no correlation with essay length could be found. In fact, the data set was characterised by similar levels of syntactic complexity throughout, high and low performers alike. Further analyses of other types of syntactic complexity may provide more insights.

As the study progresses, the data will be further processed, and a more complete set of results will inform the selection of intervention areas for the second stage of the study. The results will also be used to support the development and evaluation of materials and strategies for teaching and learning in proficiency-disparate classrooms. The aspiration is that the findings of the study may provide in-service and pre-service teachers as well as policy-makers with solid data to inform their decision-making regarding various pedagogical choices.

Would you like to know more?

If you are interested in reading more about the scales and measures on which we based our study, check out the following publications:

  • on the use of English outside the classroom: Coşkun & Mutlu (2017), Sundqvist & Uztosun (2023);
  • on foreign language enjoyment, foreign language classroom anxiety and self-efficacy scales: Botes et al. (2021), Botes et al. (2022), Dewaele et al. (2017), Torres & Turner (2016); and
  • on lexical diversity and sophistication and syntactic complexity:  Covington & McFall (2010), Zenker & Kyle (2021), Kyle et al. (2018), Kim et al. (2018), Lu (2017), Norris & Ortega (2009).


Botes, E., Dewaele, J.–M., & Greiff, S. (2021). The development and validation of the short form of the Foreign Language Enjoyment Scale. The Modern Language Journal, 105(4), 858–876.

Botes, E., van der Westhuizen, L., Dewaele, J.–M., MacIntyre, P., & Greiff, S. (2022). Validating the short-form Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale. Applied Linguistics, 43(5), 1006–1033.

Coşkun, A. & Mutlu, H. T. (2017). Investigating high school students’ use of Extramural English: A scale development study. Journal of Human and Social Science Research, 6(1), 571–590.

Covington , M. A. & McFall, J. D. (2010). Cutting the Gordian Knot: The Moving-Average Type–Token Ratio (MATTR). Journal of Quantitative Linguistics, 17(2), 94–100).

Dewaele, J.-M., Witney, J., Saito, K., & Dewaele, L. (2017). Foreign language enjoyment and anxiety: The effect of teacher and learner variables. Language Teaching Research, 22(6), 676–697.

Kim, M., Crossley, S. A., & Kyle, K. (2018). Lexical sophistication as a multidimensional phenomenon: Relations to second language lexical proficiency, development, and writing quality. The Modern Language Journal, 102(1), 120–141.

Kyle, K., Crossley, S. A., & Berger, C. (2018). The tool for the automatic analysis of lexical sophistication (TAALES): Version 2.0. Behavior Research Methods. 50(3), 1030–1046.

Lu, X. (2017). Automated measurement of syntactic complexity in corpus-based L2 writing research and implications for writing assessment. Language Testing, 34(4), 493–511.

Norris, J. M. & Ortega, L. (2009). Towards an organic approach to investigating CAF in instructed SLA: The case of complexity. Applied Linguistics, 30(4), 555–578.

Sundqvist, P. & Uztosun, M. S. (2023). Extramural English in Scandinavia and Asia: Scale development, learner engagement, and perceived speaking ability. TESOL Quarterly, Retrieved from

Torres, K. M. & Turner, J. E. (2016). Students’ foreign language anxiety and self-efficacy beliefs across different levels of university foreign language coursework. Journal of Spanish Language Teaching, 3(1), 57–73.

Zenker, F. & Kyle, K. (2021). Investigating minimum text lengths for lexical diversity indices. Assessing Writing, 47, 100505.