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Developing english skills through reflective portfolios in Hong Kong universities

posted on 2009-12-08, 00:00 authored by Juliana Chau
This research concerns the use of portfolios by teachers of English (L2) to assist non-native speakers in Hong Kong universities to complete their studies in English. Portfolios as an English learning tool have yet to win converts from the ranks of language teachers in Hong Kong chiefly because of concerns about reliability and fairness. Two recent initiatives in Hong Kong have, however, prompted a reappraisal of the place of portfolios in English language learning. They include the use of learning portfolios in secondary school and ePortfolios by university students for learning and employment purposes.

As an English (L2) teacher of many years, I initiated my research to investigate the experiences of seven university students in Hong Kong in using reflective portfolios for English learning. Three research questions framed my research: 1) in what ways can reflective portfolios impact on L2 learning strategies? 2) what are the effects of reflective portfolios on progress in L2 acquisition as perceived by students? 3) what are the perceptions of university students towards reflective portfolios as a method of L2 learning?

To gain a holistic understanding of the complex phenomena under scrutiny, a case study methodology and grounded theory were utilised, the former to organise and generate qualitative data, and the latter to analyse data from three sources provided by the seven participating students: semi-structured interviews, portfolio artefacts, and weekly learning diaries.

There were two levels of data analysis. For the first level, analysis focused on coded data from portfolio artefacts, diary entries and interview transcripts as reported by students. The second level involved analysis from the Confucian and sociocultural perspectives. I pursued interpretation and continuous refinement of the data by using techniques drawn from grounded theory. The findings revealed that students generally employed a wide spread of L2 learning strategies in the cognitive, meta-cognitive, and socio-affective domain, reported increased awareness of effective language strategies, and considered portfolios a means of supporting time management and record-keeping, and a site for extended writing practice through reflection.

The findings suggest that students display a cyclical, context-specific shift in learning conception from quantitative to qualitative. Connected to this is students’ apparent ability to formulate strategic responses to externally imposed demands. It is found that such responses are culturally triggered, underpinned by Confucian beliefs. Although the Confucian tradition emphasises respect for established authority, the findings point to students’ creative re-configuration of mental schemata to engender change in role enactment and power relations, with the portfolio as a mediating tool of their experiences.

Based on the findings, I argue that my research has addressed the three research questions and contributed to two crucial aspects of L2 learning. The first pertains to the need for a balanced view of individual effort and social context in second language acquisition, corroborating the significant link between context and learner engagement. Another contribution centres on an enhanced understanding of the relationship between portfolios, reflection and L2, where students’ diaries in English and portfolio artefacts enable them to engage in critical reflection and to identify strategies for L2 improvement.


Material type


Resource type




Degree type

Research doctorate

Degree name

Ph. D.


C Beavis, J Angwin


Faculty of Arts and Education


[School of Education]