A Plea for Classroom Interaction

Although things have massively evolved recently, many Romanian teachers still need to show more support regarding classroom interaction. Perhaps an inheritance of the rigid communist regime, the tendency to prefer the lockstep technique to the detriment of either pair work, group work, or blended learning remains a constant aspect of classroom organization in our country.

Why do teachers continue to use the lockstep technique? The answer relies on the teacher’s understanding of “control” and the teacher’s goal at the end of the lesson, be it accuracy or fluency (see Byrne, 1987: 6-7). Undoubtedly, accuracy is more easily achieved when working with the whole class, especially at an elementary level. However, once students reach an intermediate or advanced level, the focus can shift toward fluency. Besides, as we know, a teacher is very similar to an actor in assuming various roles, from conductor, organizer, and monitor to stimulator, manager, and consultant.

On the one hand, theoreticians enumerate the advantages of lockstep, too. For example, Harmer highlights that “all the class are concentrating” and “are usually getting a good language model from the teacher.” The whole technique is overall “comforting” for the students (1991: 243). On the other hand, one of the major problems of working with the whole class simultaneously is that students taken individually will never have the opportunity to engage in conversation practice and learn by trial and error. Moreover, communicative work falls behind whenever the teacher acts as a controller, and student autonomy is much more difficult to attain.

With a communicative aim, pair work becomes the students’ chance to work independently. In this way, their motivation increases because they face and talk directly to their peers, whose validation is essential, especially as it is similar to what would happen in a real-life situation. Depending on whether the pairs are fixed or flexible, the teacher needs to be prepared for a lot of noise, which can be controlled, but only to a certain extent. Even if the students make mistakes during pair work, the teacher should accept that the ultimate goal is fluency, not accuracy. For pair work to be as successful as possible, they should give clear explanations and keep the activities short and simple, check the students as much as possible, control the noise level, and provide feedback.

Apart from the immediate increase in student practice, pair work encourages students to cooperate. They learn to trust and help each other. Additionally, students must know that the teacher is still there for them, acting as a prompter, resource, or assessor. In the case of pair work, error correction comes second to communicative efficiency. If adequately managed by the teacher, noise and indiscipline can be significantly reduced. For pair work to have more chances to work, there should be an adjustment period during which students are given more straightforward tasks to perform so that they can get used to working together and feel more comfortable the next time they do such activities again.

Depending on the type of activity and size, group work is a collaborative technique that helps students share ideas and pieces of information in a comfortable and exciting manner. The teacher could choose to organize either mixed or same-ability groups, usually including several students ranging from four to eight. In mixed ability groups, fast and slow students work together, the former developing their explanatory skills and the latter being better motivated to keep up with their peers and more determined to prove their value for the group. In same ability groups, the faster students will have the opportunity to finish their tasks quicker and at a higher level. In contrast, the slower students can take their time solving the task and no longer feel the pressure from the teacher or the faster students to perform at high speed. Ideally, each student has a clear role in the group, each contributing to accomplishing the task given by the teacher.

Group work could lead to some problems; therefore, it “is only available when it motivates and enables good learning.” (Ur, 2012: 235) Teachers may fear losing control, especially with younger students who could easily forget the task and start doing something else entirely. Some students do not like group work, preferring a teacher-led classroom or working on their own. Whether this happens because of a generally accepted “cultural practice” or is a matter of individual learning style, the problem is genuine. It needs to be addressed with calm and patience. The teacher can name student monitors in each group to reduce the noise level or the counterproductive use of the students’ mother language. Their job will be, for instance, to check the use of the mother language and the understanding of the teacher’s instructions.

To avoid potential problems, teachers must form groups as quickly as possible without moving the desks too much. Mixed-ability groups should be the norm unless the teacher is interested in high-performance or remedial activities. The activities for group work should be carefully chosen so that the students feel encouraged to use English freely and effectively. Once again, the rules are to be clearly explained and fully understood to avoid misinterpretations. Moreover, the teachers should assume the roles of observers and facilitators, trying to interfere with group work only if something goes wrong and their intervention is mandatory. The amount of time allotted for these activities should be stipulated from the beginning, and the teacher should make sure the students stop when the time expires. Extra time should be allotted for each group to report their findings to the class.

Last but not least, blended learning has become a reality in contemporary times. Computer-mediated interaction could happen within the lesson, outside the lesson (asynchronous teaching and learning), and instead of the lesson (synchronous teaching and learning). According to Ur (2012: 239-42), blended learning within the lesson includes the interactive whiteboard and computers, asynchronous teaching is enabled by various digital tools such as emails, wikis, blogs, or Learning Management Systems, and online synchronous teaching allows the teacher and students to interact in real-time although they may be miles away. Blended learning is entertaining and productive for the digitally competent students the teacher now has in the classroom.

Regardless of the type of technique the teacher opts for, enabling student interaction is vital to increase effective communication and develop student motivation: “[…] it would be unsatisfactory if your talk dominated the lesson to the exclusion of participation from as many learners as possible.” (Scrivener, 2019: 58) A friendly, relaxed learning environment give students the time they need to listen, think, process the information, and speak when they feel confident enough to do so.

1. Byrne, Donn (1987) Techniques for Classroom Interaction. New York: Longman
2. Harmer, Jeremy (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching. London and New York: Longman.
3. Scrivener, Jim (2019) Learning Teaching. The Essential Guide to English Language Teaching. London: Macmillan Education.
4. Ur, Penny (2012) A Course in English Language Teaching. New York: Cambridge University Press.

prof. Cristina Chifane

Liceul de Arta Hariclea Darclee, Brăila (Brăila) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/cristina.chifane

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