Analysis of a classroom interaction
Within the field of education and language teaching over the last few years a distinct shift has taken place, resulting in many classroom interactions placing less emphasis on teachers and teaching and greater emphasis on learners and learning styles. This ‘learner-centred’ approach to education and ESL programs can be seen in many schools and language centres – indeed it is central to the approach taken at the school in question which will be used as the basis of the following classroom interaction study.
The school at which I currently teach has a large and successful language program running as part of an ‘International House’ attached to the main school. The International House supports upwards of sixty NESB students who are predominantly from East Asian countries such as China, Japan and Taiwan. The students arrive in Australia and are placed by the program directors into tiered ESL study classes. These classes accommodate beginner, intermediate and advanced/transition students – (transition students are preparing for admission into mainstream schooling and full immersion in the mainstream program.) A basic premise of the International School ESL program is that students must engage in meaningful activities, work in small classes and groups, take an active role in the learning process and feel they are part of a learning ‘community’.
When the students reach a level of communicative competency deemed by their ESL teachers and International House program consultants to be adequate, they are immersed in mainstream classes in the school according to their age. The following classroom interaction study aims to reflect on several performance standards and areas of interest – including what instructions are given to teachers, what aspect of language is expected to be learned in the lesson, what type of teaching resources and materials are used, what kind of learning is expected of the learners, and what teacher and learner roles are fostered in the classroom.
** Lesson analysis took place at the International House learning centre, with permission from Miss Kate Abrahams. The class consisted of seventeen ESL students, aged from 13 to 16 years – Intermediate level learning environment.
Instructions given to the teachers at the ESL centre ASAS:
The teacher of this particular class has been given quite clear instructions with regards to the learning aims and objectives of the language course which she is teaching. Students are enrolled in this particular course with the majority hoping to gain a ‘mainstream’ place in the school or similar high school in Australia. They require both communicative and socio-cultural elements in the curriculum – and it is the understanding of the language centre that the teacher will facilitate this throughout the course. Instructions are given for teachers to develop an awareness of different student learning styles and strategies, to take an active interest in their students’ lives, likes/dislikes and so on, and to provide a caring and supportive learning environment. Activities are aimed at providing students with opportunities to practice and produce language as well as learn and listen to language. The theories and work of the likes of Harmer reflect this ‘balanced’ approach (Harmer 1991: 41) and is certainly encouraged by the language school as an appropriate method of instruction and teaching.
Teachers are instructed to attempt to provide authentic and meaningful learning experiences – cognitive, mnemonic, metacognitive and affective strategies are encouraged to be utilized in the classroom also. As O’Malley and Chamot detail, cognitive strategies can help learners to make links between new and already known information (O’Malley and Chamot 1990: 167-168) and is highly desirable in a language learning classroom. Mneumonic strategies are suggested to teachers in the program such as when drilling some grammar rules and vocabulary but are not apparently widely used. Instructions on the use of metacognitive strategies in the classroom consist of several different learner surveys used by the school. Teachers are encouraged to have learners identify for themselves what kind of learners they may be, what problem solving strategies they may use, how to find task-relevant materials in the library and other areas.
Teachers are instructed to provide a comfortable, supportive and communicative learning environment for the students. The teacher involved in this research on a classroom interaction stated that “many of the students are far from home, living in the boarding house of the school or with ‘home-stay’ families and can be anxious and extremely home-sick and disoriented when they first come into the program…we are not just teachers, but have to be listeners, mentors and friends to these students whilst still maintaining a student/teacher relationship…it can be hard.” (K.A. 2004 interview)
Aspect of language expected to be learned from lesson:
Various aspects of language are apparent in the ESL classroom interaction witnessed at International House. The lesson highlights the importance placed on teaching not only written language, but also spoken language. Oral interactions between students and the teacher occur throughout the lesson, and indeed cater for a variety of learner styles and types. The interaction aims to teach students grammar and functions such as passive infinitive, causation construction and reflexive pronouns. Vocabulary introduced and expected to be learned includes words associated with houses, household jobs and professions. The importance of constantly building on the student’s vocabulary in context is made by the classroom teacher in preliminary discussions before the lesson. Researchers such as Krashen and Rivers have argued the importance of vocabulary acquisition in second language classrooms – and make the point that “adequate vocabulary is essential for successful second language use.” (Rivers 1983:125) Also interesting to note was the structure and sequencing of the tasks and learning activities in the lesson. The teacher responded to queries on this by highlighting the importance of the order and organization of the grammar and vocabulary tasks in the lesson and in the overall teaching program.
Aspects of language expected to be learned from this lesson revolve around grammar and vocabulary, but also include familiarity with areas of language involved in life skills, home and lifestyle; possible contexts include dealing with rental properties, looking for a new home, fixing problems in the home and dealing with tradesmen. It appeared that a cumulative strategy was encouraged by the language centre – tasks and units of work were generally centred around a ‘simple to complex’ sequencing arrangement. The lesson gradually introduced more difficulty, grammatical concepts and new vocabulary over a period of time – giving the students some time to process and build on prior knowledge. Researchers such as Bruner, and Lorch and Lorch have produced works on the significance of ordering learning activities and sequencing of language tasks. (Lorch & Lorch 1985:137-138)
Tasks during the lesson were varied, and focused on aspects of language such as vocabulary and verbal skills, and non-verbal reading comprehension and evaluation. Tasks have both implicit and explicit goals and outcomes for the students – an example of a task with explicit goals seen in the interaction is the task of reading the set passage from the “Reward” textbook. Students read for a specific purpose when they are trying to find the meanings for the words on their worksheets – (see Appendix 2) They are aware of the purpose of their reading, and this evaluation and comprehension exercise is successful in that is provides a meaningful exercise which integrates language, grammar, vocabulary and comprehension into a ‘manageable’ task for the learners.
Classroom environment and teacher/learner roles witnessed in interaction:
A communicative approach to teaching and class interaction is taken in the classroom. The classroom itself appeared to be highly supportive and student-centred; teacher and learners worked together in a co-operative and motivating environment. Ample opportunities were made for student interaction and communication throughout the lesson, with instruction that focused on relevant and meaningful task-oriented activities. The classroom operated using strategies based on social interactionist theory, such as that of Vygotsky and Bodman. (Meyer 2000: 228-231) Opportunities were made for students to realistically communicate in class and actively participate in the learning process. An example of this can be seen in the activity which called on students to choose their favourite house from pictures they had placed on the walls of the classroom. Students had a vested interest in the activity, were asked for their own opinions and likes/dislikes and thus felt involved and committed to the activity. Communicative functions arose naturally from the activity when students chatted with their classmates about why they had chosen a particular house. Maley makes the point that when an activity engages students in this way, they are often able to determine for themselves how successful they have been at getting their message across. (Maley 1980: 11) This was the case with several students who were able to justify their choices to the teacher and their peers -
“This is my favourite because it is big and has a nice pool”
“I like this house because it is new and has a big garden”
“It is my favourite because it is very large and has lots of rooms”
“I like the big outside rooms, it looks pretty and is different”
This activity was used also as a teaching strategy to introduce and scaffold new vocabulary, and provide students with a relaxed environment to learn new information. Egbert and Simich-Dudgeon highlight the importance of verbal interaction and activities which encourage students to speak, listen, and develop their vocabulary in a co-operative environment. (Egbert & Simich-Dudgeon 2001:22-24) Teacher questioning and input aimed to involve students, ask their opinions and views on the ‘subject at hand’, and control the cognitive load of the lesson.
“Why do you like this house Yushi?”
“This house is big – another word for that is spacious”.
“Do you like swimming – is that why you chose a house with a pool?”
“Kim likes this house because it is modern – that means it is new, not old or run-down”.
“This house is called a “Queenslander” – has anyone heard of that before….it has verandahs – and is often raised on stilts to let cool breezes in to the house” It was encouraging to note that many students appeared relaxed and motivated in the classroom environment. Taylor makes the point in much of his work on the subject, that active participation from students in the classroom is integral to a successful learning experience for many language students. He states that “activities undertaken in an atmosphere conducive to active participation…can be intrinsically motivating and can engage learners directly. (Taylor 1982:49) This activity drew on students prior knowledge, looked to identify concepts and skills the students both had and did not have, and aimed to introduce some new concepts, vocabulary in context and cultural meanings. This particular classroom interaction saw the teacher take on a clear and planned role in the first stages of the lesson – she set up the activities without making herself too ‘prominent’ in the classroom, and then became more of a ‘facilitator’ in the later stages of the lesson when students were working more independently. This lesson highlighted the teachers’ flexibility in taking on different roles to suit different activities and student needs in the classroom. Evidence of the teacher as a facilitator exists as discussed briefly above, however, the teacher also took on the role of ‘prompter’ and ‘participant’ – for example when role-playing as a tradesman with students reporting problems in the home.
“Hello, what seems to be the problem with your sink?”
“Did some food get blocked in the pipe?”
“The paint is peeling on your walls – do you want me to fix that?”
The role of the teacher in the interaction is flexible and ‘in tune’ with student needs and learning styles. The role of the teacher is both facilitative and controlling – and this lesson highlights the importance of flexibility and adaptability in the classroom. As Harmer states, ‘good teachers must be prepared to adapt and alter their plans… and (act not only as a controller) but in the role of prompter and participant also. (Harmer 1991: 239-241)
Material used in the interaction:
It was interesting to note that the teacher in question used a variety of different materials and resources in the lesson. A course book was utilized during part of the lesson, as well as supplementary materials such as magazines, handouts/worksheets, and flash-cards.
The lesson made some use of the ‘set’ textbook, ‘Reward Intermediate’ (Reward 2003) which appeared to be used rather more as a helpful aid and facilitator of language learning rather than as the major teaching tool in the program. The materials in the set textbook appear to be reasonably flexible and offer a balance of activities and experiences for the language learner. The textbook provides meaningful and realistic learning tasks but did need to be used selectively throughout the lesson. Students responded positively to the combination of using the textbook in conjunction with flash-cards, magazines, pictures and so on. Using a variety of materials is advised by the majority of English language teaching experts – it helps individual students to understand and develop their own specific language skills and learning styles. Materials used in the interaction can be classed as both ‘controlled, non-authentic’ texts and resources and authentic ‘real’ texts. Using actual pictures of houses from the “Gold Coast Bulletin” was just one example of allowing students to experience authentic materials in the classroom. The students are given a variety of ‘roughly-tuned’ as well as completely authentic materials such as pictures of houses, yellow pages advertisements for handymen and teacher role-play participation in class throughout the lesson. A selection of reading material, listening tasks, pictorial stimuli, and question and comprehension sheets as well as the course book were used effectively in the lesson.
Material appeared to be culturally sensitive, clearly structured and user-friendly which are all important considerations in the ESL classroom. The course book has a clear and uncluttered layout and presentation and appears to present a ‘balanced’ insight into English language and society. McDonough and Shaw highlight the need for materials to be balanced, usable, flexible and engaging for both students and teachers in order to be effective in the language classroom. (McDonough & Shaw 2003: 65-66) The visual material used in the interaction was engaging and interesting for the students; it sparked debate and communication amongst the students in the classroom. This was pleasing to note because again, it catered to different learning styles and attitudes – some students who apparently disliked reading and comprehension exercises thoroughly enjoyed looking at the pictures of houses, speaking about why they liked them and so on. The material in the interaction catered to learners who perhaps felt more comfortable in the spoken language situation as well as those students who preferred using written material and tasks.
After an analysis and observation of an ESL language classroom it has become clear that several language learning principles are involved in the lesson and overall program. The lesson embraced the idea of teaching as a learner-centred, humanistic activity – students are seen as social beings that need to learn in a realistic and communicative environment.
A balanced-activities approach underlies much of the lesson interaction and was followed by the teacher. The teacher made use of a selection of materials, teaching methods and strategies throughout the lesson in an attempt to provide a variety of learning experiences. The lesson and materials utilized ideas and concepts from a diverse range of language learning principles including the lexical approach, cognitive and communicative theories, affective and humanistic principles of language learning. A number of presumed principles of language learning and acquisition were also noted in the interaction and included the reading approach, communicative and cognitive principles, concepts of fossilization and natural order, and modality. A teacher is influenced by a great variety of language learning principles and theories, as well as their own particular beliefs, values, style and perceptions. The classroom interaction witnessed highlighted the diverse range of learning principles which are often presumed or followed by teachers in the classroom – and in turn influence the learning environment and experience of the language learner.
Abrahams, K. (2004) Interview – conducted at ASAS during interaction observation and planning exercises.
Carter, R & Nunan, D. eds (2001) The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Egbert, J & Simich-Dudgeon, C. (2001) Providing support for non-native learners of English. Social Studies Journal (92) 22-24.
Harmer, J. (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Longman.
Lorch, R.F & Lorch, E.P. (1985) Topic structure representations and text recall: Journal of Educational Psychology (77) 2, 138-141.
Nunan, D. (1988) The Learner-centred Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Maley, A. (1980) cited in Methodology in TESOL: A Book of Readings. Long, M & Richards, J. eds. (1987) London: Longman.
McDonough, J & Shaw, C. (2003) Materials and Methods in ELT. London: Blackwell.
Meyer, L. (2000) Barriers to meaningful instruction for English language learners – theory into practice, TESOL Journal (39) 4, 228-232.
O’Malley, J.M. & Chamot, A. (1990) Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rivers, S. (1983) cited in Nunan, D. The Leaner-centred Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Taylor, J. (1982) cited in Methodology in TESOL: A Book of Readings (1987) Long, M & Richards, J. eds. London: Longman