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Exploring EAP through a complexity lens: A mixed methods study in North Iraq

Stacey Johnson, University Lecturer at Kadir Has University

Streaming in EAP (English for Academic Purposes) classrooms is not such a common practice, particularly in North Iraq. Having worked in the region for four years, I investigated streaming in EAP classrooms to explore the motivation, self-concept and engagement of EAP learners through a Complex Dynamic Lens (CDS) (Larsen-Freeman, 1997). This blog, an excerpt of the full study, summarises the perceptions of teachers and students on the relationship between ability grouping and academic motivation, academic self-concept and classroom engagement. 

Over the past few decades, the higher education system in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq (KRI) has witnessed radical reform. A ministry document published in 2009, ‘Road Map to Quality’ saw the introduction of English medium instruction (EMI) policies in universities to meet the high demand of students requiring English to compete in the job market of Kurdistan (MHESR, 2010). These policies invoked several challenges. Borg (2016) highlighted the frustrations of university lecturers in the KRI regarding the new policy, many of whom delivered their lectures in Kurdish or Arabic due to the students’ inadequate English levels. Consequently, streamed EAP classes were introduced to improve the standard and quality of English for pre-undergraduates. However, streaming remains a highly controversial topic among educators (Steenbergen-Hu et al., 2016) which questions whether streamed (single ability, SA) or non-streamed (mixed ability, MA) groups are effective in an EAP university setting. 

Material and methods 

A triangulated, mixed methods approach was used to investigate the three concepts of motivation, self-concept and classroom engagement. Five university lecturers and 16 EAP students in four EMI universities (A,B,C,D) were interviewed and observed in the classroom. An adaptation of the Motivation Orientation of Language Teaching (MOLT) classroom observation scheme (Guilloteaux & Dörnyei, 2008) was used as a guide. A 40-item questionnaire was also given to more than 400 EAP students across the four universities. 

Ability grouping and academic motivation 

All teacher participants agreed SA grouping positively impacted students’ academic motivation. Some teachers expressed MA groups negatively affecting students’ academic motivation as lower-level students become demoralised and demotivated among more fluent speakers. They also mentioned students and teachers struggling to cope in MA classes due to the difficulty of teaching large, mixed-level classes. 

Ability grouping and students’ academic self-concept 

All participants saw the process of streaming as likely to upset (particularly low-level) students, and have a negative impact on their self-concept believing it to be ‘discriminating, marginalising and stigmatising’. Students referred to SA grouping as ‘stressful, unfair and offensive’ in some cases.  

Despite the initial post-streaming distress, teachers and students expressed similar attitudes regarding the gradual development of a positive self-concept. Nevertheless, all teachers still preferred SA to MA classes for the benefits to their teaching (easier to teach, more level-specific resources, and so on). 

Ability grouping and classroom engagement 

All teacher participants still believed that SA students engaged more with level-appropriate activities rather than being ‘taught to the middle’ which led to disengagement. Some considered MA classes ‘a nightmare to teach’, ‘difficult’, ‘not beneficial for the students’ and admitted to ‘teaching to the middle’ despite perceiving the higher- and lower-ability students as less engaged. The observations and questionnaires confirmed this finding and showed that the SA university students more socially, cognitively and affectively engaged in their lessons. 

‘Overall, both teachers and students in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq preferred streaming due to the positive effect on their motivation, self-concept and engagement.’ 


Overall, both teachers and students in the KRI preferred streaming due to the positive effect on their motivation, self-concept and engagement which was confirmed through a multi-phase data set using a complexity lens.  

As the study took place at a time of extreme economic and political tension within the KRI, the results for the three concepts may have been skewed due to multiple external influences and so extra consideration should be given when interpreting the results of the study. Hopefully, this study will inform future education policies in the KRI, and educators will consider the findings when implementing streaming into their classrooms.


Borg, S. (2016). English medium instruction in Iraqi Kurdistan: Perspectives from lecturers at state universities. British Council. 

Guilloteaux, M., & Dörnyei, Z. (2008). Motivating language learners: A classroom-oriented investigation of the effects of motivational strategies on student motivation. TESOL Quarterly, 42(1), 55–77.  

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997). Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 18(2), 141–165.   

Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research [MHESR]. (2010). A roadmap to quality: Reforming the system of higher education and scientific research in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Kurdistan Regional Government. 

Steenbergen-Hu, S., Makel, M., & Olszewski-Kubilius, P., (2016). What one hundred years of research says about the effects of ability grouping and acceleration on K–12 students’ academic achievement. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 849–899.