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Too Loquacious to be Communicative: In Search of Opportunities for Comprehensible Output Bairbre Ní Oisín St. Michael’s International School Kobe, Japan March, 2011

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earcos action research grant 2010-2011 too loquacious to be communicative in search of opportunities for comprehensible output bairbre ní oisín st michael s international school kobe japan march 2011


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contents acknowledgements 3 introduction 4 what is the background of this action research 4 literature review purpose of this action research 5 why is interaction important for esol students 5 method 6 who participated in this action research 6 what did the participants do 6 how was the data collected 7 results and reflection 9 what was my weakness 9 what was my action plan 10 how effective was my action plan 10 what do i want to explore after this action research 12 conclusion 14 how do i feel about classroom interaction in the end 14 my message to the earcos community 15 how can the results of action research impact us 15 references 16 appendix 18 picture cards used in the pretests 18 picture cards used in the posttests 19 2


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acknowledgements first and foremost i would like to thank the east asia regional council of schools earcos for considering our professional growth and taking the initiative in launching the earcos action research grant this is a splendid opportunity not only for each educator to enhance their teaching and their students learning but also for all educators of earcos to be further unified as a learning community i feel honored to be nominated for one of the first awardees and i hope that many educators in the community will avail of this wonderful opportunity in the future my special thanks are due to mr bill oldread assistant director of earcos whose kind and encouraging words navigated me through the process i am grateful to mr paul grisewood head of school who recognized the importance of this action research for me and my students last but by no means least i would like to thank both my students and their parents who allowed me to set out this meaningful journey together i promise to make a continuous effort to become a better teacher 3


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introduction what is the background of this action research recently i had the good fortune to come across an insightful and implicative book entitled becoming an emotionally intelligent teacher in the book powell and kusuma-powell 2010 acutely pointed out that it is not always the case that enhanced knowledge and skills will automatically result in improved classroom instruction and therefore improved student learning p 38 i felt a strong affinity with the statement as the underlying reason why i had decided to carry out this action research was fully expressed in it in my capacity as esol english for speakers of other languages specialist teacher i have been striving to keep abreast with different curriculums methods theories research findings activities textbooks and so forth in order to find the best method for my students to that end i have been reading many teacher reference books and academic articles as well as attending lectures and professional development courses such activities surely help me to build a larger teaching practice repertoire however it does not mean that i can be more confident in the validity and effectiveness of my teaching in view of each students english language development as my students bring diverse english language needs into my esol classroom stemmed from the differences in their mother tongue culture age length of time they learn english and the way their english improves ironically the more i increase my knowledge the more i come to realize that it is highly unlikely that a single instructional approach or method is likely to be effective for all ells [english language learners genesee lindholm-leary saunders and christian 2006 p 227 in fact kumaravadivelu 2003 articulates that there is no best method out there ready and waiting to be discovered p 1 for language teaching and recommends us to review and improve the fundamental dimensions of our classroom stating as follows creation and utilization of learning opportunities in the classroom are ultimately in the hands of teachers and learners who are engaged in a joint exploration of learning and teaching p 47 i decided to scrutinize my classroom interaction with my students through this action research because it is an inescapable and inescapably crucial aspect of classroom life allwright 1984 p 159 regardless of the content of my lessons and i felt that enriching this aspect of my classroom was vital for me in order to serve my students various language needs individually but holistically note different acronyms are used to refer to non-native speakers of english who receive their education through english such as eal english as an additional language esl english as a second language and esol almost interchangeably with each other i apply esol throughout this paper simply because it is used at my school 4


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literature review purpose of this action research why is interaction important for esol students the importance of conversation and interaction for child language acquisition is described by hatch 1978 as follows language learning evolves out of learning how to carry on conversations p 404 she goes on to say one learns how to do conversation one learns how to interact verbally and out of this interaction syntactic structures are developed p 404 in order to engage in conversation and interaction successfully in the classroom esol students need both to understand their teacher and peers and to make themselves understood in english however it is only natural that they sometimes fail to achieve it due to their limited english proficiency in such cases it is important for them with the help of their teacher to make an effort to turn incomprehensible input and output into comprehensible input krashen 1985 and comprehensible output swain 1985 long 1996 suggests that it is negotiation for meaning or asking for clarification that enables them to do so and that their language acquisition is facilitated in the process because it helps them to provide each other with comprehensible input to give and gain feedback on contributions and to modify and restructure utterances so that meanings are made clear walsh 2006 p 22 in particular the importance of esol students opportunity for comprehensible output increases if we pay attention to the reason why swain 1985 1988 drew it she focused on the speaking and writing underachievement observed among canadian students who had learnt french through an immersion program and found out that there was a lack of opportunities for the students to talk and to be asked to repair their speech in a manner that was grammatically accurate or sociolinguistically appropriate swain 2005 p 472 interestingly they were on a par with their native french-speaking peers both in listening and reading if past experience is any guide i have to agree with her point as i have witnessed that esol students tend to have a problem in their speaking and writing even after they develop other skills fairly well as far as their speaking ability is concerned it is not necessarily the case that fluency is always accompanied by the same level of accuracy although the importance of classroom interaction for language teaching has been spread and recognized under the name of communicative language teaching it has been pointed out that many teachers actually fail to create a genuine communication rich classroom kumaravadivelu 1993 nunan 1987 in fact a teacher shoulders a weighty responsibility for the quality of his/her students interaction in the classroom as teachers have the rolegiven right to speak at any time and to any person they can fill any silence or interrupt any speaker they can speak to a student anywhere in the room and in any volume or tone of voice cazden 2001 p 82 it is my desire that i can be an esol teacher who can create a communication rich classroom where my esol students can actively ask for information seek clarification express an opinion agree and/or disagree with peers and teachers kumaravadivelu 1993 p 12 to move toward the goal i aimed to acknowledge and document present realities nunan 1987 p 142 of my classroom interaction to identify the weakest feature of it and to improve it through this action research 5


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method who participated in this action research as i mentioned earlier i am currently working as esol specialist teacher for an elementary school where the language of instruction is english the type and aim of the program for esol students may vary from school to school but our esol program focuses solely on improving their english proficiency so that they can have better access to the mainstream curriculum the participants of this action research were my 19 esol students from three grades whose ages were from 4 to 7 esol students at the school are always grouped according to their age therefore there were three groups of participants all participants had entered the school with little or no english and their english language needs were being catered for by pull-out esol lessons at the time of this action research what did the participants do as a part of my esol pull-out lessons i try to incorporate various tasks for the purpose of improving my students english proficiency they are useful and effective to achieve the goal as they require esol students to function primarily as language users in the sense that they must employ the same kinds of communicative processes as those involved in real-world activities ellis 2003 p 3 this action research focused on this part of my lessons and i audio-recorded my classroom interaction when my students and i were engaged in an information gap task the task utilized a pair of picture cards they were very similar except that one had five items that another did not in each task my students always held the picture card that had five more items and i held another the aim of the task was for my students to spot the five items in their picture card which my picture card did not have by interacting with me i used a commercially available material called missed out produced by frank educational aids an example of a pair of the picture cards is depicted below all the pairs of the picture cards utilized in this action research can be found in the appendix figure 1 an example of a pair of the picture cards 6


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how was the data collected i applied a one-group pretest-posttest design for this action research the diagram in figure 2 outlines an overview of the procedure pretest audio-recording and transcribing my classroom interaction intervention analyzing the transcripts and identifying a problem formulating an action plan posttest acting upon the action plan audio-recording and transcribing my classroom interaction figure 2 an overview of the procedure pretest i started this action research by audio-recording my classroom for two weeks each participant experienced three or four tasks in this period after that i transcribed the audio-recordings intervention i analyzed the transcripts from a qualitative perspective in order to specify a problem in my classroom interaction based on the analysis i formed my action plan to improve it referring to related literature posttest i implemented my action plan in the classroom for two weeks again each participant experienced three or four tasks in this period i audio-recorded my classroom and transcribed it in order to analyze and confirm the effectiveness of my action plan 7


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note on transcripts in all examples i refer to myself as teacher when only one student is involved in an example the student is simply referred to as student if more than one student is involved in an example i assign a number to each student sequentially as in student 1 student 2 etc and the same numbered student in the example represents the same student however the numbers assigned in one example are not carried over into the other examples for instance a student referred to as student 1 in one example may or may not be student 1 in the others as is often the way with young childrens conversation some utterances happened almost simultaneously and in such cases i subjectively decided the order 8


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results and reflection what was my weakness analyzing the audio-recorded and transcribed data allowed me to observe my classroom interaction objectively and uncovered many present realities nunan 1987 p 142 which i had never realized before while some aspects made me happy others did not and i started concentrating on the latter in order to identify an aspect which seemed to be the most problematic and therefore which i felt needed to be improved through this action research i found out that my interaction had had a tendency described by musumeci 1996 as follows in lieu of asking learners for an expansion or reformulation of their response the teachers often provided rich interpretations of students speech p 308 there had been many situations where my students sentences had been neither correct nor sufficient enough to be understood in such situations however i had sometimes understood exactly what my students had meant by myself without asking them for any further clarification in addition to it i had provided so much extra information for my students in some cases therefore i could not help feeling how loquacious musumeci 1996 p 314 this teacher was a good example to illustrate this aspect is as follows example 1 student cat is mummy s cat is no drying he inside like a water teacher student teacher ah you mean the basin the red basin like for washing ok a very very big bowl yeah yes i have a red basin i have a big bowl for washing in example 1 from the students first utterance it seems rather hard to understand what the student wanted to convey and to specify which item in the picture card the student was really talking about for some reason however i did understand what the student was talking about was the basin without asking any clarification or modification indeed i appear to understand absolutely everything the students say sometimes even before they say it musumeci 1996 p 314 in this example example 2 student there s a mouse and the the color is grey and blue and red and yellow and purple and it hangs to the line teacher student hmm there is a mouse he is hanging on the clothes line and he is wearing yellow shorts and a blue and red striped t-shirt i have this mouse yes although the students first utterance is clear enough to convey what he/she was talking about in example 2 there seems to be a lot of room for improvement in terms of the content and grammar especially in the part where the student enumerated the colors instead of asking the student to do it however i improved the students first utterance by clarifying and providing more detailed information 9


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i found this aspect of my interaction rather problematic as it seemed that i had denied my students opportunities for comprehensible output swain 1985 i pondered why i had had such a tendency and realized that i had held the wrong idea about interaction and tasks for one thing i had placed too much emphasis on having a coherent and flowing discourse walsh 2006 p 24 with my students as i mentioned earlier my students join the school with little or no english and are in need of developing their basic interpersonal communicative skills cummins 1984 for a long time they often have difficulty expressing fully what they want to say in english and even when they could it tends to be hard for them to do it without any grammatical mistakes therefore i realized that i had naturally established my own system to communicate with them by understanding them with limited clues and providing information from my side as much as possible furthermore i had not tried to correct their grammatical errors particularly as i had felt it to be too early punctilious and distracting for them what is more i had tended to focus on the outcome of the tasks rather than the process i had tried to navigate each task so that my students could have completed it as quickly and accurately as possible however i should have realized that the real purpose of the task is not that learners should arrive at a successful outcome but that they should use language in ways that will promote language learning ellis 2003 p 8 ellis further reminded me that whether learners successfully identify the difference between two pictures is not what is crucial for language learning it is the cognitive and linguistic processes involved in reaching the outcome that matter p 8 what was my action plan in light of the analysis above i decided to bring the following strategies into my interaction as my action plan 1 if i do not understand exactly what my students are talking about i will ask my students for clarification instead of using my rich interpretations musumeci 1996 p 308 when they make grammatical errors which i find too serious i will point them out and 2 i will not rush to proceed and finish a task remembering that allowing interactional space is clearly the domain of the teacher who has a responsibility not only to make sure that learners are interacting but also that they have time to reflect on and learn from their interaction walsh 2006 pp 30-31 as a result my students may not be able to find all answers and complete a task but i will accept it because ultimately the assessment of task performance must lie in whether learners manifest the kind of language use believed to promote language learning ellis 2003 p 8 how effective was my action plan i tried to act upon my action plan throughout the posttests in order to confirm its effectiveness i audio-recorded transcribed and analyzed my classroom interaction again fortunately i could observe that my action plan had made a positive impact on my classroom interaction in many situations i could confirm that i had been following my action plan encouraging them to try to extend or modify their original speech and that my students had tried to respond to my requests 10


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example 3 student do you have shoe two shoes teacher student two shoes where are these shoes student s name one shoes is hmm the front of the bag and second one is next to the ball in example 3 instead of simply answering yes or providing more information on where the two shoes were i asked the student to explain more as a result the student tried to explain where each shoe was with much more information example 4 student do you um see um she is wearing a ribbon um on her hair teacher student teacher can you say that again ask me again do you see a girl wearing a um red ribbon on her hair yes i do in example 4 the students first utterance was clear enough for me to understand however i knew that this student could repair the sentence and therefore i gave the student another chance accordingly the student could reformulate the first sentence in a more grammatically appropriate way adding extra information that the ribbon was red example 5 student do you have a bush in the flower teacher student teacher student teacher say again uhm do you have a bush on the flower do i have a no no no do you have a flower on the bush yes i do in example 5 the student made a mistake in the word order of bush and flower so i tried to let the student notice it at first the student misunderstood that his/her mistake was about the preposition and changed in to on then i gave the student a second chance and finally the student could change the order although their modified utterances were still not sufficient or perfect in grammar most of the time i did not ask for further clarification if i could feel that they had tried their best in fact swain 2005 emphasizes that the real importance of comprehensible output lies in the process of stretching their speaking ability and attempting to improve their original output in terms of its informational content and/or its grammatical sociolinguistic or discourse features p 473 from this viewpoint it seems fair to say that my action plan helped to provide my students with more opportunities for comprehensible output contrary to my expectations my students could indeed find all the answers successfully in the posttests 11


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what do i want to explore after this action research i would like to reflect on the next step after this action research here as action research is not conclusive mertler 2006 p 12 in addition to my students attempt to extend or modify their original speech i have confirmed another remarkable change in the posttests in the pretests interaction mostly occurred between me and one student alone and other students rarely joined in our conversation in the posttests however my students started doing so in order to ask their classmates for clarification which is illustrated in the following examples example 6 student 1 there s a bag a green bag hanging on the bed and a student 2 student 1 color it has yellow green and it s beautiful example 7 student 1 do you have a shoe teacher student 2 student 3 student 1 student 2 student 3 a shoe ahmm where where in the ground of the bed ah here oh this one the most likely explanation is that my frequent attempts to ask them for clarification actually triggered their sense of ease to notify their incomprehension and to ask their classmates for clarification in view of longs 1996 suggestion mentioned earlier the fact that they started doing these holds of great significance as it helps them to make incomprehensible input comprehensible and to receive more opportunities for comprehensible input krashen 1985 from their teacher and peers although i am happy to confirm this aspect it seems that they were not familiar with phrases to ask for clarification such as sorry pardon or i don t understand due to this they sometimes sounded rather rude or mean unintentionally as in example 8 example 8 student 1 do you have a picture student 2 student 3 student 1 teacher student 2 student 3 ha ha picture a picture instead of saying `ha can you say `pardon pardon pardon 12


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admittedly it is a difficult task for esol students to pick up on the small nuances of english expressions especially when they are young however it is the knowledge that they need to be taught explicitly and expand over time so that they can avoid making a false impression on others even after they come to speak english more fluently thus in the future i would like to teach them useful phrases to ask for clarifications along with the nuances and suitable situations to use them and observe if my students will start using them in an appropriate way thanks to the positive changes brought by my action plan i could often feel that my students and i were united toward a common goal in the posttests helping each other out after experiencing such moments i have come to grips with what kumaravadivelu 2003 really means by stating that it is only through collaborative work that teachers and learners generate classroom discourse and in generating classroom discourse they also generate a wide range of learning opportunities p 76 it is my desire that i will make a continuous effort to enhance the quality of my classroom interaction and my classroom can be such a place for my young esol students 13


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conclusion how do i feel about classroom interaction in the end although i am happy to confirm that i could provide my students with more opportunities to talk and that they tried to extend or reformulate their speech in response to my requests there were still many situations where my response did not seem ideal in the posttests in fact to be able to analyze audio-recorded and transcribed interaction is one thing and to be able to translate it into action in the real classroom is another when interacting with my students in the classroom i certainly cannot afford the time to think twice whats the best thing to say now and good decision-making on a moment-to-moment basis is naturally sought for creating ideal interaction walsh 2006 in this regard audio-recording and transcribing my interaction through this action research was a precious opportunity allowing me to analyze my interaction objectively to get a grip on present realities nunan 1987 p 142 and as a result to enhance the quality of my moment-to-moment decision making in my classroom under the current program applied by the school my role as esol specialist teacher is confined to a focused area of developing esol students english language proficiency however it is my desire that i could go beyond that in the esol pull-out lessons i would like my students to get equipped with knowledge which they can transfer and utilize in their mainstream classroom it is what perkins 1995 calls generative knowledge p 5 which he defines as knowledge that does not just sit there but functions richly in peoples lives to help them understand and deal with the world p 5 i believe that how to communicate and interact with others is surely such knowledge as it helps them not only to develop their english language proficiency but also to develop ways of thinking that will enable them to travel on intellectual journeys so that they understand and are understood in wider communities of discourse mercer littleton 2007 p 19 this action research set out with my doubt about the effectiveness of my effort to keep abreast with different curriculums methods etc in order to meet my students diverse english language needs my conclusion after this action research is that it is important for me to make such an effort as it certainly lays the groundwork for achieving the goal in an attempt to get closer to it however it seems more important both to remember that no single method or curriculum can cater for each esol students unique needs genesee et al 2006 and to recognize the potential of meaningful interaction which can go well beyond the planned method allwright 1984 p 165 to develop each students english language proficiency in this respect it is not too far from the truth to say that interaction is the most important element of the curriculum van lier 1996 p 5 classroom interaction indeed involves many factors and it seems too complex to figure everything out however i would like to rely on the following quotation as a lodestar and continue to sail toward a genuine communication rich esol classroom there is no set of rules of how to talk to a child if you concentrate on communicating everything else will follow brown 1977 p 26 14


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my message to the earcos community how can the results of action research impact us action research is done in order to benefit you and your students in your classroom mertler 2006 p 83 and therefore is not done to or by other people it is research done by particular educators on their own work mertler 2006 p 12 however this does not mean that we cannot learn from the results of action research conducted by others actually dr krajczar executive director of earcos makes a powerful statement that they will impact not only the researchers practices but also those of others with whom they share their findings krajczar 2011 para 3 i believe that the implications of this statement are twofold first it implies that we may be able to seek for direct relevance from the results of action research conducted in a similar setting to our own as they can serve as general guidance in the form of hypotheses to teachers who wish to develop their understanding of the particular situations in which they teach elliott 2007 p 126 in the case of the results of my action research for instance educators in a similar situation that is esol teachers or classroom teachers who teach lower elementary esol students may be able to find some information relevant and useful this nature of the results of action research is suggested by lincoln and guba 1985 as follows the original inquirer cannot know the sites to which transferability might be sought but the appliers can and do the responsibility of the original investigator ends in providing sufficient descriptive data to make such similarity judgments possible p 298 secondly we can reaffirm the significance of action research as a means of reflection the results of action research are indeed a proof of the advancement and improvement of each educators teaching through reflection by witnessing it therefore we can realize that experience alone is insufficient for professional growth but that experience coupled with reflection can be a powerful impetus for teacher development richards 1991 p 5 moreover in the book mentioned at the outset powell and kusama-powell 2010 explain that reflection is a conscious process of building up learning relationships with our students with which we can enhance the quality of our teaching and in turn our students learning in this respect the results of action research can also convey each educators attempt to establish such relationships with his/her students either way it is my hope that the findings of my action research can fulfill its role to impact many educators in the earcos community 15



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