LINGUIST List 11.2521

Wed Nov 22 2000

Review: Hall & Verplaetz: SLA thru Classroom, part 3

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Andrew Carnie at


  1. Ronald Sheen, Review -- part 3

Message 1: Review -- part 3

Date: Wed, 22 Nov 2000 15:32:59 -0500
From: Ronald Sheen <Ronald_SheenUQTR.UQuebec.CA>
Subject: Review -- part 3

Ch. 8 "How teachers can build on student-proposed intertextual links to
facilitate student-talk in the ESL classroom" by Maureen Boyd and Valerie
Miller Maloof.

As the title indicates, Boyd and Maloof focus on the positive effect of
the teacher's exploitation of student-proposed intertextual links by which
is meant student-initiated digressions from the text topic. They assume
that students learn through talking and that "Through talk we learn not
only the structural components of a language but also the communicative
application of them." (163) Their study therefore concentrates on
"...classroom discourse that engenders active student talk that leads to
second language learning." They do so by means of a micro-analysis of one
90-minute class, endeavouring to demonstrate how the teacher can transform
these digressions into useful teaching tools by affording them as much
importance as the contribution of the teachers, themselves.

Thus the analysis is largely devoted to quantifying the amount of
student-talk created by the teacher's strategies. There is, however, once
again no evidence of actual language learning provided. One is thus left
with the putative validity of the assumed positive correlation between
quantity of student-talk and language learning. However, as the authors
provide no reliable evidence that such activity can trigger the accurate
learning of "the structural components", the study provides us only with a
suggestion as to a means for increasing student-talk. What is needed, as
the authors readily accept, is a longtitudinal study to attempt to link
increased student-talk with increased language learning. What is puzzling
here is that given that such a study is an absolute necessity and as the
authors accept this, why they did not do so in the first place.

Ch. 9. "Teacher questions as scaffolding assistance in an ESL classroom" by
Dawn E. McCormick and Richard Donato.

As this study was potentially longtitudinal (a semester long course with
two classes twice a week) with only seven students, there was ample
opportunity for pre-testing, periodic testing during the study, and then
final and post-testing. That this was not done is unfortunate for the
principal purpose was to evaluate the effect of scaffolding in the form of
a teacher's questions as a means "of ensuring comprehension,
comprehensibility when speaking in class, and student ongoing
participation in the language lesson". The authors, nevertheless, still
feel justified in concluding that the study supports this assumption. They
base this conclusion on the analysis of 15 teacher-fronted activity
segments termed protocols. Of these, six are included in the article .
They are extremely short consisting of an average of 45 words. Here is one
of them (students indicated by initials, the teacher by "T"):

JE: What means pontoons?
T: What does pontoons mean? Repeat.
JE: Pontoons.
T: Yeah, what does, what does.
JE: What does pontoon mean?

It is difficult to understand what an analysis of such a brief exchange can
contribute to either an understanding of SLA or to improving classroom
practices that we do not already know. We know that if a student makes a
mistake and the teacher provides the correct answer or prompts thereto that
the student will probably be able to produce the correct form at that
moment. What is far less certain is the long-term effect of such teacher
intervention and it is that which we need to know in order to inform future
recommendations. Unfortunately, though the nature of the study allowed for
the carrying out of such research, McCormick and Donato opted for analyses
of exchanges such as those above in an attempt to validate the use of
questions as a means of scaffolding. Though they provide potentially
useful strategies for teachers, it is to be hoped that in their future
research, they will address the issue of demonstrating a direct
relationship between those strategies and actual language learning.

Ch. 10. "Identity and ideology : Culture and pragmatics in content-based
ESL" by Diana Boxer and Florencia Cort�s-Conde.

These two authors, in their own words, seek "to explore the following issues:

1. To what extent does classroom ideology (e.g., configuration, content,
and tasks) influence the amount of dialogue that goes on in L2 classrooms?
2. What is the relation between an open forum for dialogue focusing on
identity and ideology and RID (relational identity) development?
3. What is the relation of RID to linguistic and pragmatic development in L2."

As to the details of their study, it entailed "videotaped natural classroom
data from two ESL classes over two college semesters" each one of which was
given by a different instructor. The course focused on U.S. culture
through literature and film. There were 12 multinational students in the
first semester and eight in the second. The course was given on the basis
of 2 hours a day for each semester. However, only twenty of those hours of
the some 150 hours of each semester were videotaped. Though both
instructors perceived themselves as facilitators, the one in the first term
adopted a more open and democratic approach than the more authoritarian one
of the instructor in the second semester. The authors endeavour to
address the three questions by comparing the effects of the two different
teaching styles adopted by the two instructors. One student consulted
from each semester was chosen and he/she along with their respective
instructors were interviewed for about 90 minutes. Each representative was
asked to give their analysis of segments of the videotaped classes. Then,
"by comparing perceptions with practice, we (the authors) were able to
ascertain how pedagogical theories were translated into classroom

The potential for subjectivity and the lack of rigour in the above
procedures is self-evident. Just allowing the analyses of one student from
each semester to represent the perceptions of a heterogeneous group of
students is strikingly unreliable. This, however, need not concern us here
for in their discussion and conclusions, the authors apparently pay scant
attention to those analyses. The authors cite (page 212) the student
consultant from the first semester who makes the point that various
interactional tasks enabled him to see his fellow students in a new light
and learn about world problems. After this, we learn little more about
these analyses and are left wondering as to what purpose were put the two
90-minute videotaped analyses. In fact, the authors' conclusions are
largely based on assumptions concerning the effects of the different styles
of the two instructors and the authors' analyses of four short
transcriptions of segments, two from each semester.

So how do the analyses and the different approaches of the two instructors
allow the authors to respond to the three issues stated above and to what
extent are their conclusions based on reliable evidence?

As to 1 and 2, the authors, not unexpectedly, conclude that the approach of
the teacher in the first semester best promoted inter-student dialogue and
the open forum encouraged RID development. Interestingly, the four
transcripts presented do not in fact support this conclusion as the first
two in the first semester show four teacher interventions out of a total of
eleven whilst the two in the second semester, show nine out of 21 - hardly
a striking difference. However, be that is it may, is it really necessary
to conduct research to know that a teacher who takes a back seat and leaves
students to get on with tasks (as opposed to one who gives more importance
to teacher-fronted activities) will produce more inter-student dialogue and
promote RID.

It is the authors' conclusion concerning the second part of question three
which raises problems. That is, the degree to which RID promotes pragmatic
development. In order to justify such a conclusion, there clearly needs to
be reliable empirical evidence of pragmatic development. In fact there is
none. The authors simply assume that RID will lead to pragmatic
development because it will lead to more student interaction. On this
basis, they propose prescriptions for the classroom such as the following:
The teacher "must bring the culture into the classroom at the same time not
imposing the traditional hierarchical structure.". However, whilst
bringing culture into the classroom is obviously desirable, there is
nothing in the evidence provided by this study to support the second part
of the prescription and this, for several reasons: one, the teacher of the
second semester, according to the transcripts provided, allowed for ample
student participation; two, the imposing of a hierarchical structure does
not prevent the teacher taking a back-seat when needed as is indicated on
page 213 where the authors state with reference to the second semester
teacher. "He set the stage and let them (the students) talk; three, that
same hierachical structure is in fact part of the culture of the L2 so why
should students not be exposed to it; four, the authors appear to believe
that pragmatic competence needs necessarily to be acquired by student
interaction, discounting, unjustifiably, the value of direct explanation
from the teacher; and, five, most importantly, it is almost certain that
such an explicit approach is compatible with students' desires. Willing
(1988) in a survey of learning preferences, discovered an overwhelming
desire for ... the teacher-controlled classroom. This finds resonance in
the students identified in Carrell, Prince & Astika (1996) as the
"Sensing-Thinking-Judging" types who constituted the overwhelming majority
of students in their study and whom the authors expect " be guided by
concrete facts and sequential learning rather than by abstractions, to
prefer logic, rules and examples over social interaction, and to prefer
order, organization, and formalized, structured instruction" (p. 96), a
position echoed in Gefen (1993:136).

Ch. 11. "Mr. Wonder-ful: Portrait of a dialogic teacher" by Lorrie Stoops

The findings of Verplaetz demontrate the greater effectiveness of a highly
dialogic teacher in encouraging student participation and interaction
during teacher-fronted classes - a finding arrived at by a comparative
frequency analysis of both student and teacher interventions during classes
given by that teacher and two others. The finding is significant in that
it shows empirically that a non-threatening, maximally encouraging approach
is one of the more effective ways of increasing participation and
interaction on the part of less-proficient students. As the author rightly
points out, this is an important lesson to be integrated into
teacher-training programmes. I would go one further and suggest that it is
also an excellent lesson for experienced teachers. Having observed myself
teaching by means of video recording, I am well aware of the gap that may
exist between reality and one's self-perception of that reality. In my own
case, I discovered my teaching behaviour was far less encouraging to
student participation than I had thought.

These positive comments made, I have two reservations to express. First,
in comparative studies it is essential to have student groups of
comparative ability and standard. However, Verplaetze makes no mention of
the nature of the students taught by the three teachers. We, therefore,
cannot know to what extent the degree of participation and interaction was
a function of student make-up as opposed to the approaches of the three
teachers. Second, as previously noted, the author points out the
importance of showing empirically a direct relationship between the degree
of interaction and L2 development. In spite of this, this study does not
address this crucial issue even though its general design did lend itself
to such an enterprise.

Ch. 12. "A different teacher role in language arts education: Interaction
in a small circle with teacher" by Resi Damhuis

The study in this chapter shares some of the positive and negative
features. of the previous chapter On the one hand, it aims to show that
the teacher's non-traditional approach apparently encouraged the young
students to participate fully, and in doing so, shows them capable of using
"complex cognitive language functions and self-intiated input." However,
as the study is not longtitudinal we do not know the nature of the lasting
effect on the students' L2 development. Further, unlike Verplaetz's study,
there is no comparative data on the effects on a similar group of students
of a more traditional approach. We, therefore, cannot with certainty
ascribe the students' performance solely to the teacher's approach . This
said, however, that approach, given the age group involved, seems an
eminently sensible option.

Ch. 13. "Creating a language-promoting classroom: Content-area teachers at
work." by Maaike Hajer.

Hajer's study has the great advantage of maintaining a constant student
body taught by two different teachers thus allowing her, in theory, to
ascribe different rates of interaction to the different behaviours of those
teachers and thus justfying recommendations as to the best means of
promoting maximum interaction. Setting aside a number of unaccounted for
variables related to such considerations as teacher personality and gender
(one was male and the other, female) and emotional/physical state of
students at different times of the day, the author presents an excellent
means of studying the effect of different teacher behaviours on student
interaction. The study addresses the following three research questions:

To what extent and on whose initiative do pupils participate in content
lessons that have designated as interactive content lessons?
How intense is that participation?
Which strategies do language-sensitive teachers use that lead to intense
interaction in content classes.

To answer these, the author provides in depth analyses of the strategies
used by the two teachers both in teacher-fronted activities and in
one-on-one interaction between teachers and students as the former went
around the class, trouble-shooting. Readers particularly interested in
this aspect of teaching in content classrooms will find Hajer's analyses
and discussion here most instructive.

Hajer also distinguishes herself from the other authors by addressing,
albeit obliquely, the all-important question of the acquisition of accurate
language use. Thus, though she claims (p. 271) that the answering of her
research questions will "provide a deepened understanding of the ways in
which content teachers can contribute to L2 acquisition" (without actually
showing any evidence of that acquisition), her analyses reveal a crucial
feature of teacher-student exchanges. That is, that that students tended
to avoid actual creative productive language use, tending to rely rather on
"safe quotations from the textbook" (p. 283). She thus concludes quite
rightly that "It would be worthwhile researching whether active pupil
participation in classroom interaction, as part of improving L2 learning
conditions, could be triggered by a content curriculum, in which high
demands are put on conceptual learning, with productive use of the concepts
involved." (p. 284) However, what I find puzzling is that though the issue
of active productive language-use has been central to the interaction
debate for well over a decade, both this study and the others in this
volume while both implicitly and explicitly advocating an alternative
approach to SLA, manifest an inexplicable reluctance to avail themselves
of the valuable research findings available in much of the current work in
the focus on form movement. (See, for example, Doughty and Williams, 1998,
and particularly their final summarizing chapter). It does seem somewhat
unfortunate, for example, to raise the issue of accurate productive
language use in content- based classrooms whilst failing to refer to
research on that very issue. (See, for example, Doughty & Varela, 1998,
and Doughty and Williams, 1998.)

Ch. 14. "Classroom interaction and and additional language learning:
Implictions for teaching and research." by Joan Kelly Hall.

In this final chapter, Hall provides summarizing comments on each chapter
and then evaluates implications for future research. As to the first, she
makes many often justifiably laudatory remarks concerning the degree to
which the various studies emphasize the role that interaction plays in
creating solidarity, interpersonal relationships and positive attitudes
amongst students and thus putatively lays the foundation for additional
language learning. As to the latter, she provides summaries of the
findings concerning the myriad variables related to interaction. To her
credit, she admits that several of the studies " not actually document
specific changes in learners' use of language in their data."(p. 297). In
fact, as I have been at pains to demonstrate, not one of the studies
provides empirical evidence of long-term additional language learning
related to the various interactional strategies advocated in this volume.
In spite of this, Hall feels justified in concluding that the findings of
the various studies "...have added valuable knowledge to our understanding
of the links between classroom interaction and the accomplishment of
additional language learning and thus are useful contributions to the
construction of a more comprehensive theory of additional language
learning." This, I'm afraid, is yet one more illustration of the creation
of the various myths and questionable contemporary wisdom which have been
the bane of the pursuit of greater efficacy in the teaching and learning of
both foreign and second language languages whether they be in language or
content-based courses. In my view, this is yet one more example of applied
linguists getting so wrapped-up in the minutiae of their current focus of
interest that they fail to see the wood for the trees. (See, for example,
the current flood of articles on noticing, attention and awareness,
stimulated by Schmidt, 1993.)

Of course, inevitably, the editors and authors of the chapters in this
volume will contend that I have completely missed the point of their
alternative interaction-based approach to SLA. However, be this as it may,
there is one inescapable fact concerning legitimate research in foreign or
second language learning and that is that in order for that research to
have any value, it must necessarily be based on documented accounts of
actual language learning which has a long term effect on the proficiency of
the learners. Without it, studies amount to little more than handwaving no
matter how much they demonstrate that interaction will promote
student-solidarity, interpersonal relationships and positive attitudes.

Note: I would like to express my appreciation to Andrew Carnie, the review
editor, for his valuable comments on the original version of this review.
Needless to say, all errors of form or content are of my own confection.


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