By Melissa J. Enns
Spoken language production has been a recurring theme in recent posts on oral corrective feedback and in guest contributor Jihoon Kim’s examination of off-task behaviour. Each of these posts has touched on the topic of pair or group work. Perhaps many of us have never stopped to consider why we use pair/group work or whether it’s really useful.
If you are a teacher, you are likely aware of the challenges of group work. Naughton (2006) comments on several reasons why teachers find small group communicative activities may be unsuccessful or undesirable. First, students can be noisy and distracted, over-rely on their first language, or have problems with group dynamics that hinder productivity. Similarly, groups may generate the absolute minimum amount of conversation required to complete the task, or one group member will dominate the discussion while others do not speak at all. Furthermore, even if learners engage in communication, they may not engage in the kinds of interaction needed for stimulating their linguistic development (more on that below). With all of these issues, does group work serve a valid function in language classrooms?
The answer is yes. Despite problematic aspects, there are notable potential benefits for acquisition. Swain (1995) argues that the chance to speak stimulates deeper mental processing of language than listening does. Group work also provides opportunities for learners to automaticize their use of acquired knowledge about language (Gass & Mackey, 2015). Communicative interaction allows learners to experiment with language by forming and testing “hypotheses” about language use with their peers; if the hypothesis is ungrammatical or not appropriate and peers demonstrate misunderstanding, the learner will be more likely to notice the mistake and modify her language use in the future (Naughton, 2006; Swain, 2000). Noticing gaps in L2 knowledge is a key step in adjusting language use to be more accurate.
Additionally, classroom interactions give learners opportunities to learn in a social and collaborative atmosphere, in which they can reflect on form (“grammar”) while engaging in meaningful conversation as they pool their knowledge and build new linguistic understandings together (Naughton, 2006; Swain, 2000). During group work, learners should engage in collaborative dialogue, or discussion in which they “engage… in problem solving and knowledge building” (Swain, 2000, p. 102). In doing so, they engage in meta-talk, or conversation about metalinguistic aspects of language (see my posts on metalinguistic knowledge for more on this topic), discussing appropriate language use and modifying their output accordingly (Swain, 2000).
These theoretical benefits suggest certain “dos and don’ts” for using group work in actual language classrooms. For one thing, group dynamics matter. This aspect is very contextual, so there aren’t fixed rules; however Naughton comments that learner proficiency, task type, gender, and other sociolinguistic factors affect interactions and recommends that teachers pay close attention to how they create their groups. Personally, I try to put one higher proficiency learner in every group, avoid putting friends together if they will distract each other, and try to set up groups in which I feel that members will have equal chances to speak.
Beyond social dynamics, a requisite of productive interaction is learners’ willingness to show signals of miscomprehension and discuss and correct their own and others’ utterances, despite the fact that disagreements, corrections, and miscomprehension might be considered face-threatening (Naughton, 2006). Common problems are that learners may not notice errors, discuss language use, or modify their utterances; they may communicate but fail to pay attention to linguistic forms such as verb tense; or they may feign comprehension to save face (Naughton, 2006).
To avoid these problems, it is important that teachers structure activities to create a safe atmosphere that is conducive to students’ investment in collaborative learning. Training students in using collaborative interactional strategies prior to activities is one way to do so. Naughton showed the benefits of such training in a study in which she provided it to EFL students in Spain. Their teacher instructed them in using four different cooperative interactional strategies:
- Asking follow-up questions to encourage continued interaction, foster active listening, and generate an appropriate social setting for communication
- Requesting and giving clarification to encourage comprehension (What does x mean?) and learning (finding synonyms)
- Repairing (or correcting) each other’s mistakes. Naughton notes that teaching this strategy creates an environment where questioning group members’ lexical and grammatical choices is a collaborative practice rather than face threatening.
- Requesting and giving help (one learner asks another How do you say swim in the past tense?)
Naughton found that prior to the intervention, students rarely engaged in the types of interactional behaviour that are important for acquisition; however, the training program was largely successful in fostering more effective interactional strategies. The author recommends that teachers use cooperative learning strategies in structuring of group activities, providing students with modeling and support for these strategies.
Kim and McDonough (2011) also demonstrated the role that pre-task modeling can play in a study in which Korean EFL students who were shown video models of collaborative interaction prior to an activity showed more collaboration, engaged in more meta-talk, and correctly resolved more of the form-related issues they discussed than those who were not shown the models.
Having read a little about the theoretical backing for group work and strategies for equipping students to use it effectively, what are your thoughts? In what way(s) might this information inform how you structure future group activities in your classroom?
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Gass, S. M. & Mackey, A. (2015). Input, interaction, and output in second language acquisition. In B. VanPatten, B. & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition, 2nd ed. (pp. 180-206). New York: Routledge.
Kim, Y., & McDonough, K. (2011). Using pre–task modeling to Kim, Y., & McDonough, K. (2011). Using pre–task modeling to encourage collaborative learning opportunities. Language Teaching Research, 15(2), 169-184.
Naughton, D. (2006). Cooperative strategy training and oral interaction: Enhancing small group communication in the language classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 90(2), 169– 184.
Swain, M. (1995). Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook & B. Seidlehofer (Eds.), Principle and practice in applied linguistics (pp. 125-144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Swain, M. (2000). The output hypothesis and beyond: Mediating acquisition through collaborative dialogue. J. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural approaches to second language research (pp. 97-115). Oxford: Oxford University Press.