sábado, 1 de agosto de 2009

Preventing real communication in class

Patiently correction leaves us all alone
(Tranquilize, by The Killers and Lou Reed)

Teacher-student interaction is an essential element of classroom discourse and one of the aspects that influences students the most concerning their attitude to schooling and future educational choices and opportunities (Hall, 2001:78; Hall and Walsh, 2002:186-187). According to sociocultural theory, learning is a process that happens through interaction, when one of the participants is – at least at that certain moment or for that specific task - more competent and able to help the less experienced participant, scaffolding the other’s knowledge or competence. Although, this does not apply exclusively to schools, no better description could be given to the classroom environment and the relation between teacher and students. When applied to language classes, the concept of interaction becomes even more crucial and complex since languages are not only the means of interaction, as in any other class, but also the subject itself being studied and practiced.

In this sense, “Classrooms are more than open spaces with furniture - they are cultural sites where children and adults enact a series of cultural practices” (Bloome et al., 2004:51). These cultural practices include “mutual understandings of their [teachers’ and students’] roles and relationships, and the norms and expectations of their involvement as members in their classrooms” (Hall and Walsh, ibidem: 187). Classes therefore should be understood as real social contexts where real people interact with each other as a community.

If interaction is such a natural part of learning, one should avoid the empty use of this word to say, for example, that we need to promote interaction in class and other statements that have become clichés in teaching in general and language teaching in specific. When students and teacher feel satisfaction with the activities they perform in class, this is a result of interaction; when a student (or teacher) is prevented from talking, this happens because a certain kind of interaction was present in class; if a student (or teacher) is ridiculed, this is interaction as well. We could go at lengths to imagine all the possible situations that may occur in a classroom and all of them would still be a result of interaction. So, once interaction is part of any class, instead of talking generally about the importance of interaction, one should be concerned primarily about the quality of interaction and its effects on learning.

One of the most common mistakes that a teacher can make in a language class is to forget about the language as a mean of interaction and approach it only as a subject. This usually happens when the focus on form does not lead to a better understanding of meaning, but it is done to the detriment of it. The language being taught becomes then something unnatural and difficult, in the students’ perception, and the class an environment where actually communicating something is not allowed or made possible.

The following excerpt is from an English class observed in a private language institute in Porto Alegre, Brazil, with eight 13-year old students. After complaining about the use of Portuguese by the students, the teacher addresses Paulo, who was the most talkative at that moment.

1 T: So, ask me something. Ask ME something.
2 Sara: Tenho que elaborar uma. [I have to elaborate one]
3 T: Alright.
4 Sara: Eu elaborei uma com [inaudible][I elaborated one with]
5 Paulo: Ah, como é que é “voltar”, sora? “Voltar”? [How do you say "voltar", teacher? "Voltar"?]
6 T: “Come back”
7 Sara: [inaudible] pegar água lá, [inaudible][get some water there]
8 Paulo: “Voltar” é “come back”? [Is "voltar" "come back"?]
9 T: “Come back.”
10 Paulo: Would you like to come back to the United States?
11 T: Ah... No.
12 Sara: Não? [No?]
13 Regina: Óóóó… [Expression of surprise]
14 T: “Would you like to go back”
15 Sara: Ah, achei que tu não quisesse ir... voltar... {I thought you didn't want to go... go back...]
16 T: “Would you like to GO back to?” No “come back” because I’m not there, I’m here. “Come back…”
17 Paulo: Voltar pros Estados Unidos”, não é? [Voltar to the United States, right?]
18 T: Não, tipo... “back”... [No, like... "back"...]
19 Paulo: Ah, não, ah, pára, tá, tá. [Oh, no, stop, enough, enough]
20 T: [inaudible]
21 Paulo: Ah, eu tentei. [I tried]
22 T: Yeah, yeah. You are doing fine. So, if I would like to go back to the United States, yes, sure. I would. But now I think that just for vacation. [She laughs]

After being requested to participate of the task and making a question that was correct according to the information provided and confirmed by the teacher (lines 6 and 9), Paulo first thinks that the teacher’s utterance in line 11 is an actual answer to his question, when in fact the teacher is ignoring the conversation to point an error in the question. While Sara is able to understand what is happening after the teacher recasts the question (lines 14 and 15), Paulo is not the only one to understand the teacher’s “no” as a real answer to his question, as Regina’s exclamation of surprise seems to indicate (line 13). Having his question unanswered and perhaps still unsure if he is being corrected or not, Paulo again tries to recover the conversation referring to the information he had requested from the teacher, this time in his mother tongue (line 17). As "go back" and "come back" are expressed by the same verb in Portuguese, "voltar", the mistake made by Paulo - as he is guided by the teacher - becomes the focus of the interaction in the teacher's view.

Paulo’s frustration in face of the teacher’s response is strong (lines 19 and 21), up to the point he suggests he is giving up his participation in that interaction with the teacher. His words express a refusal of the teacher’s attitude and the exposure he had trying to speak the target language and being corrected in unclear terms. Even though the teacher states “You are doing fine”, her attitude demonstrates that her opinion is just the opposite. She does not recognize or apologize for having contradicted her answer about “come back” and the topic is ended there as she moves to another student.

Not only was Paulo frustrated and disrespected in his role of a speaker, but the whole group was not allowed to discuss the topic that was about to arise from his question. In sum, real communication was prevented by the teacher as she endangered the quality of class interaction, approaching the language as subject instead of means of communication. Discussing about patterns of interaction in class, Hall and Walsh state that “teacher contributions that evaluated rather than encouraged tended to suppress student participation. (op. cit.: 191)

One could also question why the teacher asked Paulo to make a question. Was it so he could practice asking questions? If such was the aim, he did well, once the structure of his question was perfect. Was it to give the teacher a chance to talk about herself? If so, she did not take full advantage from the opportunity, given the lack of explanation in her answer or further development of the topic suggested by the student. One is therefore led to conclude that the teacher wanted the student’s participation in class – what meant speaking English at that moment – and that she was not actually interested in what he was asking her. While the student was asking a genuine question based on the knowledge of his teacher’s experience abroad, she was focusing on the exercise proposed and the language form being used.

In the interaction transcribed above, the participation of the student was requested but not valued by the teacher what reminds us that the participation of all students doesn't guarantee an interaction that fosters and promotes learning. Participation is not an end in itself. To promote learning, it is necessary that participation in class has a meaningful and respectful reception by the teacher who must be committed to support each student to attain full membership in the community that exists in the classroom. In a language class, communication must be above any other aspect, and the pursuit of language accuracy is only meaningful in the process to facilitate communication and not to prevent it.


Bloome, David et al. (2004) Discourse analysis and the study of classroom language and literacy events. Routledge.

Hall, Joan Kelly and Walsh, Meghan. “Teacher-student interaction and language learning”. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics (2002) 22, 186-203. Cambridge University Press.

Hall, Joan Kelly. (2001) Methods for teaching foreign languages: creating a community of learners in the classroom. Merril Prentice Hall.