From teacher-student communication to student-student communication in small group tasks
As established in the first section of this study, for learners to effectively learn a foreign language they must actively take part in communicative interaction. In the traditional language classroom and indeed still in many other subjects today, the majority of the communication that takes place is between the teacher and the students. However, this type of interaction is not authentic in the sense that it does not mirror the types of interaction that occur in the social context outside of the classroom. This can be attributed to the fact that the teacher and the student are not on an equal footing and do not stand to gain equally from their interaction. On the one hand, the teacher aims to encourage students to speak in order to assess their abilities and their understanding and to help them progress. On the other hand, the students’ responses rarely help the teacher to progress in terms of language skills even if they may provide new cultural knowledge thanks to the students’ diverse backgrounds and education.
Robert Sarrasin develops this idea in Problématique des interactions verbales entre élèves:
“Teacher-student communication only ever represents, even in the classroom context, a restricted range of interactions compared to those that are possible during pair work. Because the teacher’s interventions, due simply to the teacher status, don an authoritative character
(…) teacher-student interactions are characterised by a formal language use focussed on precision, whereas exchanges between students lead to a more spontaneous language use orientated towards exploratory aims.”
“La communication maître-élève ne représente jamais, même dans le contexte de la classe, qu’un éventail restreint d’interactions, par rapport à toutes celles qui sont possibles entre pairs. Ensuite, parce que les interventions du maître, du fait même de son statut, revêtent forcément un caractère d’autorité (…) les interactions maître-élèves se caractérisent par un usage plutôt formel et axé sur la précision, tandis que les échanges entre élèves induisent un usage du langage plus spontané et orienté vers des fins exploratoires.”
In teacher-student interaction, the student knows prior to speaking that his or her production will be validated or otherwise by the teacher and that the teacher’s concentration will then move on to another student. Therefore, in this case there is no real need to communicate as the student understands that if he or she is not able to effectively respond to the teacher’s question, somebody else in the class will probably be able to do so. However, in small group-based interaction tasks students experience an increased need to use the foreign language to communicate as they are no longer one student in a whole class but rather one student in a small group who must collectively arrive at a solution to the given task.
Given that interaction holds an important place in language acquisition, it is necessary to find a way of ensuring interaction in the classroom without using a frontal method of teaching, by which all exchanges pass by the teacher. Interaction must take up a significant part of the time students spend in the classroom and these exchanges must take place between students, without interference from the teacher. By means of the student-student small group configuration learners are able to encounter an authentic usage of the foreign language in real communicative situations. The number of students in each group is an important element to take into consideration. In L’apprentissage coopérant (1996) Robert Pléty explains: “if the number of partners increases, the information exchanged is richer and so the exchanges themselves function better.” (Translation) “si le nombre de partenaires augmente, il y a plus de richesse dans l’information échangée donc les échanges eux-mêmes marchent mieux.”
Though pair work is an obvious alternative to teacher-student interaction, larger groups of 3 to 4 students allow for more numerous and varied ideas to be exchanged and also incite exchanges more naturally and therefore create increased interaction and increased negotiation of meaning. However, some teachers may worry that by taking a step aside and handing over control to students in group tasks they are less able to control the accuracy of the productions and are therefore less able to help the students progress. Pléty provides a response to this dilemma: “With group work, learners are able to collaboratively identify the requested task, which enables them to orientate the work in the right direction and to limit errors, even though some will still persist, the learners will be able to inter-correct or auto-correct them.”
“Avec le travail en groupe, les élèves peuvent identifier à plusieurs la tâche demandée, ce qui permet d’orienter le travail dans la bonne direction et de limiter les erreurs, même si elles seront forcément présentes, mais permettrons aux élèves de s’inter/auto-corriger.”
Beyond the linguistic elements of interaction
When taking part in verbal interaction, beyond the need to formulate appropriate linguistic content, there are other elements to take into account that are not solely language related. Evelyne Berger develops this idea in her book Prendre la parole en L2 : Regard sur la compétence d’interaction en classe de langue: “Beyond formulating appropriate content, participation in any verbal interaction – including in the classroom – implies, for example, structuring speech in a pertinent and coherent way in relation to what preceded it. It implies adapting to the present situation and to the behaviour of others as well as managing problems relating to mutual understanding and other unforeseen events. It also implies keeping the attention and the interest of the conversation partner.” “Au-delà de la formulation de contenus appropriés la participation à toute interaction verbale – y compris en classe – suppose ainsi, par exemple, de structurer son discours de façon pertinente et cohérente avec ce qui précède, de s’adapter à la situation présente et aux conduites d’autrui, de gérer des problèmes d’intercompréhension et autres imprévus ou encore de s’assurer de l’attention et de l’intérêt de son interlocuteur.”
When learning a second language it is easy to focus ones attention almost solely on lexical, grammatical and phonetic accuracy when conveying a message. However, it is not these elements alone that produce coherent and meaningful social interaction and on focussing too much attention on these elements the learner risks by-passing resources and techniques that can improve the quality of interaction and generate more coherent discussion. According to Berger, the organisation of speaking implies a need for: “the participants to work on coordination and mutual adjustments, which require mobilising not only linguistic resources but also prosodic, gestural and sequential resources.” (Translation) “un travail de coordination et d’ajustements mutuels des participants, où sont mises en oeuvre des ressources non seulement linguistiques, mais aussi prosodiques, gestuelles et séquentielles.” She adds that thanks to “linguistic resources, combined with prosodic and non-verbal resources, the speakers initiate and form their turn to speak in such a way as to guarantee the attention of their partner and to demonstrate the way in which their turn articulates itself around the already established direction of the discussion.”
“ressources linguistiques, combinées à des ressources prosodiques et non-verbales, les locuteurs initient et formatent leur tour de parole de façon à garantir l’attention d’autrui et démontrer la manière dont le tour s’articule aux conduites antérieures.”
Therefore, it is not sufficient from a language teacher’s point of view to simply expect that when proposing group interaction tasks, students will automatically be able to ensure the smooth execution of the task. During group interaction learners are faced with a series of hurdles, some of which are language related and others which are related to interaction strategies. Some examples of specifically language-related issues include ensuring a certain degree of lexical, grammatical and phonetic accuracy and making certain that the message is communicated using the correct forms to convey the desired meaning. Students are also faced with the problem of knowing whether what they wanted to say has been understood in the same way by the other participants in the discussion, despite any accuracy issues. Students are also aware of their position as a learner in the language classroom and are keen to receive feedback on the accuracy of their language skills. However, we have established that during group discussion tasks, the teacher takes a step back to leave greater liberty and autonomy to the students. This means that the responsibility of correcting mistakes and helping with issues of accuracy falls on the discussion participants themselves. Consequently, this is an area in which students must receive training in order to effectively assume this role, which not only helps to improve their classmates accuracy but also their own. In terms of problems that learners may face in group discussion tasks that are not specifically language-related, one example is ensuring a coherent discussion in which the participants pay attention to linking their interventions to those of the others in the group. Efforts in this area create more logical discussions which arrive at a general conclusion more effectively. Another example includes ensuring a cohesive discussion in which all members are able to have their say and find their position within the group of participants. Without the teacher’s direct presence in the discussion task, students must be aware of the importance of creating coherence and cohesion as well as helping to improve accuracy and access to meaning in their discussions and they must be equipped with the necessary tools to do so.
Introducing interaction strategies into the classroom
Bajarano et al. argue that “appropriate classroom organisation and detailed task definition, although imperative, are not always sufficient for achieving successful non-native language interaction.”21 They attribute this difficulty to the fact that non-native speakers often face difficulties in communicative interaction tasks because they are not aware of interaction strategies that both native and non-native speakers employ in successful interaction.
They believe that it is necessary to train learners in the ‘Skilled Use of Interaction Strategies’ in order to improve the quality of interaction in communicative group tasks. They propose two types of interaction strategies: Modified-Interaction Strategies and Social-Interaction Strategies.
Modified-Interaction Strategies allow the listener and the speaker to “alter their interactions in order to facilitate comprehension of the intended message.”22 These strategies reflect the theory that “negotiation for meaning makes input more comprehensible to the non-native speaker and that conversational modification is an efficient way to bring about such negotiation.”
This type of interaction strategy is relevant to learners who need assistance in the target language in order to effectively reach communicative goals, which means that these strategies specifically concern non-native speakers. This takes into account the fact that non-native speakers, unlike native-speakers, are faced with the additional task of manipulating a foreign language during discussion tasks. As a result of this additional difficulty, lexical, syntaxical and phonetic errors often occur that may result in the inability of the other participants to understand and follow the direction of the discussion. Bajarano et el. propose four Modified-Interaction Strategies: checking for comprehension and clarification, appealing for assistance, giving assistance and repairing.
The strategy of ‘checking for comprehension and clarification’ consists of “comprehension questions asked by the speaker in order to check the interlocuteur’s understanding of the message (…) or by the listener in order to ask for clarification of the input.” Bajarano et al. add that this strategy enables participants in group discussions to “develop ways in which to find out whether as speakers they were understood by the other members of the group, or as listeners they can ask for explanations of words or expressions that may not have been understood.”24 In the following example, Student A checks whether as a speaker he or she has been understood and Student B seeks to confirm that as a listener he or she has correctly understood the meaning of Student A’s message.
Table of contents :
1. The role of interaction in language acquisition
1.1. The role of interaction in the learning process
1.2. The role of interaction in language acquisition
1.3. Redefinition of the status of the language learner
2. Training learners to become autonomous language users
2.1. From teacher-student communication to student-student communication in small group tasks
2.2. Beyond the linguistic elements of interaction
2.3. Introducing interaction strategies into the classroom
2.3.1. Modified-Interaction Strategies
2.3.2. Social-Interaction Strategies
3. Teaching experiments and results
3.1. Subjects and study model
3.2. Procedures for training learners in the ‘Skilled Use of Interaction Strategies’
3.2.1. Experiment lesson 1
3.2.2. Experiment lesson 2
3.2.3. Experiment lesson 3
3.5. Results and analysis
3.5.2.Use of Modified-Interaction Strategies
3.5.3.Use of Social-Interaction Strategies
3.5.4.The number of errors
3.5.5.Use of French
3.5.7.Confidence in communicative tasks