Sociocultural awareness in ELT

The sociocultural element in learning is particularly sensitive in EFL because in acquiring a language there is, to some extent, an appropriation of a cultural identity too.

Claudia Connolly, Teacher, British Council, Paris

This article looks at the social entity of learning among children. It looks at how as teachers we are social agents and how we are managing the cultural contexts of our classrooms. We prescribe socially appropriate ways of participation, which we need to be aware of.

  • Child development
  • The social event
  • Patterns of exchange
  • Peer collaboration
  • Collaboration, participation and ground rules

Child development
As a teacher I see my classroom through 'Vygotsky eyes', everything is social. The educational psychologist Vygotsky believed that once children acquired language, language structured thought. From this perspective the child can gradually, through interaction with others come to have an awareness of herself or capacity for reflection. In this way we can see development coming from the social to the individual.

The social event
The zone of proximal development (ZPD) or scaffolding is the gap between what a child can achieve individually and what they can achieve together with others. This may be a peer or an adult. Communication is human, interpersonal and social. Within an activity or social exchange is a construction of knowledge, rather like brick laying, where the child is also learning how to learn, using language as a tool. The interactive process therefore becomes the social product. Learning a language, learning through language and learning to be a particular person are closely related.

Patterns of exchange
Often a teacher can fall into a role or pattern where they control the legitimate flow of knowledge between the teacher and the pupil. This has been identified by Edwards and Mercer as Initiation, Response, Feedback (IRF). For example the teacher will ask the class a question, knowing the answer already, and then control the legitimate feedback of answers from the children. If this pattern of exchange is overused in the classroom it can limit:

  • the potential of a 'handover' (an autonomous learner)
  • individual agency (being able to challenge and negotiate a concept)
  • expression of identity (bringing their home culture or cultural 'niche' into their classroom participation).

Fairclough, The author of 'Language and Power' describes how the patterns of exchange in school, over a period of time, will determine what sort of people the pupils will become. Finding out what the teacher wants to hear rather than the real pursuit of understanding is due to the asymmetrical relationship between pupil and teacher. However peer to peer talk is symmetrical and can promote cognitive development. One of the greatest importances of communication is when an idea has to be formulated and expressed, sharing the idea among essential partners who will test their assumptions.

Peer collaboration
Children can build on each other's learning development. They can do this through:

  • turn taking
  • negotiating and collaboration
  • justifying and reasoning.

Peer to peer talk is symmetrical and encourages the development of language and thought. The way in which children interact, and the degree of success, depends on the nature of the task and the medium, be it visual, oral etc., according to the children's personal learning preferences. The way a teacher sets up a task and the pupils' perception of it needs to be strategic and ground rules for collaboration need to be set out.

Collaboration, participation and ground rules
In order to make sure that there is optimum participation and cultural synergy, I try to mix the dynamics of the group:

  1. Starting the lesson with a whole-class activity, teacher led.
  2. then working in pairs
  3. and then smaller groups

I try to be strategic about mixing abilities and characters of children and mix the boys with the girls. From my experience boys have a tendency to interrupt and call out, being more impulsive than girls. Ground rules can be introduced to a class and taught in the same way as classroom language i.e. in whole phrases. During a group, set task such as a puzzle, gap fill, matching or sequencing game, I encourage the children to express their opinion and then to support it. I set a ground rule that a decision can not be taken until a majority of the group agree with the response. They can use set phrases such as:

  • I think that ……… (Expressing opinion) because………. (Supporting opinion)
  • What do you think? (encourage turn taking)
  • It's your / my / his / her turn.
  • I think you are wrong / right ……….. because………….

Nurturing these ground rules within a participation-based learning environment constructs 'cultural synergy'. In this way children are developing their first tools for critical analysis i.e. expressing and supporting their opinion. And this is being done at a young age and through a foreign language.

Further reading
Language and Power - Norman Fairclough, 2001 - Pearson ESL
Language and Power in the Modern World - Mary Talbot, Karen Atkinson, and David Atkinson, 2003
Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes - Vygotsky, L - Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978

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