I should emphasize that this reticence only applies to interaction in English but it does seem to apply to groups of all nationalities, ages and levels.
- Why student to student interaction is desirable
- Problems we face when trying to increase interaction
- How we can promote an increase in student interaction
Why student to student interaction is desirable
Most people agree that learning anything involves participation. You can't learn to play a musical instrument without actually picking up the instrument and similarly it is difficult to learn a language without engaging with that language. Given that language primarily exists to facilitate communication, interaction in that language must have an important role to play in developing a learner's ability in that language. In other words, teachers need to promote learner interaction in order to help the learners succeed.
Maximising practice time
Learners need to practise as much as possible if they are to be successful. Interaction through pair and group work maximises the opportunities to practise as more learners speak for more of the time.
Collaborative learning, particularly through the use of collaborative tasks, has been shown to foster language development since learners can see a reason to use language in order to interact.
Related to the concept of collaboration is that of socialisation. Interaction does not only promote language development but it also fosters the development of social skills (e.g. politeness, respect for others) that people need to operate successfully in any culture.
Motivation is a fundamental aspect of successful learning. Interaction gives learners the opportunity to use language successfully and to measure their progress which in turn should lead to an increase in motivation.
Problems we face when trying to increase interaction
Interaction seems so desirable and sensible in theory but we all know that actually promoting and increasing it can be an uphill struggle. Let's consider some of the reasons for this.
It is unfortunately true that some learners are not enthusiastic about pair and group work, particularly in mono-lingual classes in which it is a little unnatural to communicate to someone who speaks your language in a language you are both less proficient in! I have taught many students who have told me that they don't like pair work because they might learn mistakes from their partners. There is actually no evidence to support this worry but it is still common.
I have met many learners who become very nervous and embarrassed when asked to speak English. As a language learner myself, I sympathise.
While theoretically the more students there are in a class the more possibilities for interaction there should be, this is not the case in practice. The more learners there are, the more difficult developing interaction can be since there are more people to monitor and, therefore, more chances of problems. In addition there is, of course, a greater likelihood of excessive noise which can mask bad behaviour and use of L1.
Pairing and grouping students appropriately in classes that have a wide variety of levels (e.g. secondary schools) is much more difficult than in small classes of a homogenous level.
Lack of motivation
If learners have no need to interact or don't want to, they probably won't.
Perhaps the most common reason for interaction in English breaking down, or indeed not starting in the first place, is that the students don't have the language they need to interact and, therefore, complete the task successfully.
How we can promote an increase in student interaction
This section will suggest some solutions to the problems outlined above.
Teaching process language
This is similar to classroom language but refers to the language that students need to interact. Examples could include: "What do you have for number 2?", "Do you want to start?", and "Sorry, can you say that again, please?". I introduce and/or revise before starting tasks and leave them on the board so the learners can refer to them while speaking. My learners copy them into the vocab record books too, of course.
Pre-teaching task language
I try to analyse tasks before using them in order to predict what language is critical to task achievement. If I think some of this language may be unfamiliar I pre-teach it before the students do the task. If there is too much language for pre-teaching, I find a more suitable task.
As well as providing language for tasks, where appropriate I try to provide ideas too. These can be brainstormed before the task and put on the board so that the learners have plenty of things to talk about.
Giving preparation time
I have often found that interaction breaks down because the learners haven't had time to think about what they want to say and how to say it. I plan to give some thinking time before starting a task during which the students can ask me or each other for support.
Providing a supportive atmosphere
I try to raise confidence by giving lots of praise and giving feedback on task achievement as well as language use. When monitoring I try to do so as unobtrusively as possible so the students don't feel that I'm necessarily listening to them personally. On the other hand in feedback I try to make it clear to the class that I have been listening to them and through feedback show them that there is a point to interaction and thereby overcome student resistance.
Varying the interaction and repeating tasks
When teaching large classes I plan to move students around so that they are not always talking to the same partner. A good way to do this I have found is by asking the learners to perform the same task a number of times but each time with a different partner. As well as providing variety of interaction, this approach also maximises practice of the language being worked on.
Having different levels of task
With mixed ability classes I prepare an easy, medium, and difficult version of the same task so students of different levels can interact together at a level appropriate to the language level. For example, after some listening practice students with different tasks can tell each other what they have found out.
Providing a reason to interact
I use tasks that actively provide the learners with a reason to speak and listen. Information gap activities are a good example of these (and these can be used repetitively if designed carefully) and students generally enjoy doing them. Using project work is another good example of a motivating and collaborative approach that promotes both realistic language use and interaction.
Interaction helps learners develop language learning and social skills and so maximising interaction in the classroom is an important part of the teacher's role. Interaction will not necessarily happen spontaneously, however, and in my view it has to be considered before teaching. The approaches suggested above all have this in common - they require forethought and are, therefore, a part of the lesson planning process.
Patrick Howarth, Teacher, Trainer, Portugal