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Review of  English Language Learners’ Socially Constructed Motives and Interactional Moves


Reviewer: Ozge Guney
Book Title: English Language Learners’ Socially Constructed Motives and Interactional Moves
Book Author: Thomas A. Williams
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 30.2577

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Review:
SUMMARY

“English language learners’ socially constructed motives and interactional moves,” written by Thomas A. Williams, aims to investigate (i) the experiences and attitudes of EFL learners towards language learning in Hungary, (ii) learners’ collaboration and contribution to task-based speaking tasks in the classroom, and (iii) different ways of meaning negotiation or the lack thereof in case of a communication breakdown.

Chapter One, “Why this? Why now?,” presents a brief summary of five chapters in the book as well as the justification for the current study. As the author explains, there is a paucity of research on speaking tasks taking place in actual language classrooms rather than in a laboratory environment. Also, there is no study investigating speaking tasks other than oral presentations in the local context of Hungary, where foreign language proficiency levels are particularly low compared to those of other European countries. The researcher offers task-based language learning and teaching (TBLT) as a solution to the problem of language teaching/learning in Hungary since the TBLT paradigm hones a variety of skills such as critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, collaboration, and communication with a focus on productive speaking skills rather than linguistic structures.

Chapter Two, “TBLT, interaction, FonF, and SCT,” presents the literature review building on three theoretical perspectives: task based language learning and teaching (TBLT), focus on form (FonF), and sociocultural theory (SCT). TBLT emerged as a subcomponent of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) to encourage real-world activities/ tasks where learners use language to achieve a non-linguistic goal through information gap, problem solving, decision making, and opinion exchange activities. Drawing a distinction between focus on form versus focus on forms is essential at this point. The former refers to focusing on communicative activities while paying attention to linguistic forms briefly, whereas the latter refers to dedicating lessons to teaching of grammatical structures with little in-class interaction. TBLT is informed by FonF as it encourages interactive teaching/ learning of English in student-centered classrooms. With its focus on communication, TBLT aligns with SCT as well; SCT promotes the idea that producing language forms or meaning making is facilitated, i.e. mediated, through interaction with and support from someone more knowledgeable - referred to as scaffolding (Vygotsky, 1987). There is a range of activities that learners can achieve with outside support but not on their own yet-- referred to as zone of proximal development (ZPD). Thus, acquisition of knowledge, i.e. language in this case, occurs when learners are cognitively ready to use new language forms communicating with others and then internalizing and using them independently.

Chapter Three, titled “A socially constructed approach,” lays out the methodology of the research study with reference to framework, research design, context, research questions, participants, instruments, and data analysis process. Framed within the “constructivist” paradigm as developed by Mannheim ([1936] 2010), this study builds on the idea that no single viewpoint is superior to others and that each point of view functions to complement another so that knowledge is socially constructed as a result of different viewpoints’ being mediated. Since knowledge construction is a social phenomenon, it shows variation from one society to another. In this respect, it is the responsibility of researchers to explore how knowledge is constructed in a particular society by focusing on people’s actions in everyday surroundings taking a step away from traditional positivist approaches. Therefore, this study has a qualitative research design with data collected in a speaking class (classroom-based research) through recording and analysis of learners’ performances of a speaking task called “Lord Moulton’s millions” as well as data from questionnaires and semi-structured interviews with learners. The study was conducted in a “Communication Skills” class at the Institute of English and American Studies, the University of Szeged, Hungary. The following research questions were addressed in the study:

What is the view and experience of these learners as regards English (and other foreign) language learning in Hungary?

How does their view and experience inform their attitude to the task-based language learning and teaching (TBLT) paradigm?

In what ways do these learners contribute to the implementation of speaking tasks in the classroom?

In what ways do these learners collaborate in interaction?

To what extent does learner interaction actually break down, as generally assumed, for meaning negotiation?

To the extent that negotiation for meaning is uncommon in this context, what might explain this phenomenon?

The participants were all native speakers of Hungarian. They were 18-24 year-old freshmen with a proficiency range of upper-intermediate to advanced level of English. In order to answer the first two research questions, the researcher administered questionnaires (44 participants) and conducted individual face-to-face interviews (18 participants), which make up the first phase of the study. The researcher explored the remaining four research questions in the latter task performance phase of the study, where 57 classroom participants (six of them from Serbia) were observed engaging in two speaking tasks. The questionnaire consisted of 13 items which were mostly open-ended, while there were nine interview questions based on the tenets of TBLT. Task-based speaking tasks were taken from Penny Ur’s (1981) reference book “Discussions That Work”. The researcher conducted content analysis for the data from questionnaires and interviews and conversation analysis for the transcripts from learners’ speaking task performance.

Chapter Four, “ Learner expectations, learner interactions,” opens with a literature review of (i) Hungarian learners’ expectations of English classroom instruction, (ii) teaching practices in terms of the extent to which Hungarian teachers of English follow the principles of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) versus traditional techniques such as translation studies, drills, and grammar exercises (iii) English Language Teaching (ELT) training and teacher education programs in Hungary, and (iv) theoretical background on beliefs of English language learners. This literature review is followed by results section and a discussion of questionnaire and interview findings that answer the first two research questions given above. The results showed that participants’ experiences of language teaching overall were characterised by teacher-, grammar-, and translation-oriented classroom instruction with particular focus on error correction and form, rote memorization, and individual work, all of which result in learner anxiety. However, participants had positive attitudes towards TBLT, hence implications of a possible paradigm shift in both language learning and teaching practices.

In sections to follow, the researcher continues to analyse the data from speaking tasks he observed in his “Communication Class”. Before presenting the findings related to the third research question, the researcher offers a review of studies on the part learners play in (re-)shaping the tasks with a focus on Kumaravadivelu (1991). How students actually interpret and benefit from classroom tasks might be quite different from the intended objectives of these tasks as designed by teachers or material developers. The data from speaking tasks also show that learners made changes to the tasks such as performing role play rather than doing discussions as given in task instructions. There were also procedural mismatches such as changes made in the decision making procedure by coming up with two possible solutions instead of one as suggested in the instructions. These examples show that tasks are socially constructed with contributions from both teachers and learners who modify tasks based on their experiences, motivations, and perceptions. Thus, learners’ active involvement in the tasks suggests the pedagogic importance of learner autonomy in language classrooms. Another finding from the data is that learners employed a variety of constructivists and collaborative processes such as co-construction, continuers, prompts, self- and other-correction, and collective scaffolding, all of which are reminiscent of Vygotskian theory (research question four). Interestingly enough, there was little room for negotiation for meaning in the conversations of the participants (research question five). One reason for such lack of negotiation moves among Hungarian learners is that rote learning of linguistic chunks rather than critical thinking is encouraged in the overall Hungarian education system. Learners are generally supposed to show a perfect mastery of linguistic structures with little room for flexibility in product- and teacher-oriented classes. Another reason is that interaction generally takes place among non-native speakers of English and thus might cause a feeling of artificiality for students, which, in turn, might have a negative effect on willingness to communicate. Finally, in the local context of Hungary, it might be considered to be arrogant or a face-threatening act among students even if they are encouraged to ask questions during classes.

Chapter 5, “Conclusions and future directions,” consists of a recap of findings presented separately, each with a corresponding research question, limitations of the study, and directions for future research. Among the limitations of the study, as referred to by the researcher, are the lack of quantitative data, lack of video recording for the speaking tasks, and a relatively small sample size. In this sense, similar studies could be conducted with different populations such as international students, pre- and in-service teachers for a comparative study. Also, to make sure that TBLT, as an intervention, makes a difference on learners’ speaking performance, pre- and post-tests could be employed in future studies.

EVALUATION

This book is valuable in two ways for researchers interested in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) and English Language Teaching (ELT), curriculum developers, coursebook designers, English language teachers as well as teacher trainees. First, the researcher focuses on TBLT as a highly advocated teaching approach in ELT and does this by collecting data from an actual classroom environment. The feedback data from learners themselves as they are engaged in task-based activities in a communication class may inform a diversity of stakeholders involved in language teaching, since content or activity may prove fruitless if not informed by the actual users of that content. Second, this book paves the way to change the traditional approaches to language teaching and learning in Hungary as an underrepresented region. The researcher pointed to a very serious and chronic problem in the country, which relies on teacher-, grammar-, and translation-oriented instruction; and he made a move towards its solution by offering practical solutions in the local context of a Hungarian university.

Another strong point of the book is that, with its qualitative research design, the study gives voice to its participants and provides an in-depth data regarding the reactions, thoughts, and attitudes of Hungarian learners towards TBLT as they are involved with the tasks in an actual classroom. The researcher has also generously shared all the data from questionnaires and interviews in the appendix section of the book. Although the researcher considers it a limitation (as mentioned in the limitations section by the researcher himself) that his findings are not generalizable, it is known that qualitative research is exploratory, aiming to provide a thick description of opinions, motivations and insights into a problem rather than generalizing the findings. In this respect, the researcher has done an admirable job presenting the experiences of Hungarian learners of English in their naturalistic setting, resulting in a rich understanding of the phenomena under investigation.

However, the book has some weaknesses relating to its literature review section (Chapter Two) and methodology section (Chapter Three). In the literature review section, the researcher includes many of the outside publications as they are cited in other resources. Also, this section contains detailed information on TBLT and some other theories of SLA, but they are all discussed independently from one another. In this sense, the researcher could have provided his reader with a better understanding of the literature if he had synthesized the main ideas rather then offering them independently and as cited in other sources. Also, the literature review section mostly includes previous theoretical research. The researcher discusses related empirical studies under the title of “research review” in Chapter Four of the book just before he presents the results of the study. Such an organisation may be unconventional for some readers, making it difficult to follow the contents of the literature review as divided between the two chapters of the book.

When it comes to the methodology section, there are three points that might be considered for further revision. First, the research problem derives from the issues related to ELT in the local context of Hungary, but very limited information is provided about the macro context of Hungary. The researcher briefly mentions a couple of times that language proficiency test results reveal that Hungary lags behind many European countries in terms of language proficiency, and such failure could be related to the regime change in the country. It would be helpful for the reader to have some information about how the regime change affected language teaching policies in the country. Secondly, although the researcher shares questionnaire and interview items, he does not give much information about the development process of these instruments or whether the questionnaire/interview items were piloted before the study. Finally, the researcher briefly mentions in a sentence that the qualitative data from questionnaires and interviews were examined through content analysis and speaking data with conversation analysis. However, he does not explain the nature of these analyses, nor does he provide any reference to an outside source on the basics of content and conversation analysis.

REFERENCES

Mannheim, K. ([1936] 2010). Ideology and Utopia: An introduction to the sociology of knowledge. San Diego, CA: Harcourt.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (1991). Language learning tasks: Teacher intention and learner interpretation. ELT Journal, 45(2), 98-107.

Ur, P. (1981). Discussions that work. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. Volume 1. Problems of general psychology. Including the volume Thinking and speech. R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton (Eds.). New York: Plenum Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ozge Guney is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics and Applied Language Studies program, University of South Florida. Her research interests include identity and issues of social justice with a focus on sexuality and religion in the fields of Second Language Acquisition and English Language Teaching.

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Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781527509160
Pages: 396
Prices: U.K. £ 68.99