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Learning through interactions

What do students learn from interaction? 

Interaction and negotiation
Certain types of learning activities, especially group activities where students need to exchange information with each other, help students engage in interaction and negotiation (back-and-forth conversation to agree on something).

Effective interactive discussion and negotiation leads to noticing, hypothesis testing, and metatalk.

When students are becoming aware of language, testing their hypotheses (educated guesses) about language forms, and engaging in metatalk, their language learning improves.

Organising groups that make the most of language-learning opportunities

Most teachers understand the value of group work in classrooms. Often, they plan for their students to work in pairs and groups.

Group interaction allows students to understand concepts they need for their curriculum learning. Working together, they negotiate new learning.

Different learning activities have different purposes. For example, activities where students either share different points of view or reach an agreement help them think about a range of opinions on a particular topic or idea. Such activities can also support students' language learning.

Engaging in negotiation and interaction

If you want your students to engage in negotiation and interaction that promotes language learning, there are ways you can structure their learning tasks. In the context of language learning and teaching, the word "task" describes a learning activity in which learners use the language they are learning for real communication. 

In a learning languages context, a task is an activity that:

  • requires the learners to focus primarily on meaning
  • has some kind of gap learners can close by communicating
  • requires learners to construct their own productive (meaningful) language rather than to manipulate language (simply reorder the words already used) that the teacher provides
  • has a clearly defined outcome (other than producing "correct" language).

Learners acquire language and develop fluency when they are engaged in tasks that allow them to create meaning for a purpose that is authentic (applies to a real-life setting). Often, these types of task are driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage comes from within because it is naturally satisfying. 

Language-learning tasks that use negotiation and interaction

The types of language-learning tasks that result in the most negotiation and interaction among students include tasks that:

  • require an exchange of information – participation is key (one person gives information to another)
  • require a two-way exchange of information in which both or all participants must contribute and gain information 
  • have a closed outcome (only certain outcomes or solutions are correct)
  • are new types of activity for the students
  • include detailed information and not much contextual support (that is, other bits that help explain or show the information, for example, from pictures)
  • involve familiar topics and familiar partners.

Jigsaw activities

Jigsaw activities create the conditions that lead to interactions helpful for language learning.

Jigsaw activities can be short, discrete activities (a planned one that yields a specific outcome). Or they can provide a way of structuring all the learning that is taking place around a particular topic or unit of work.

Jigsaw Classroom describes ways jigsaw learning can be organised and some learning outcomes that can result from it.

Input alone can teach a certain amount about a language, but interaction is also necessary for full learning.

This is because during the process of interaction, learners receive feedback on their own errors. This feedback is focused. It is at a level appropriate for the speaker. It is timely: someone give the feedback just after the speaker’s error.

As participants in interactions negotiate meaning (that is, talk with others to reach understanding or agreement), they seek clarification from others and check their understanding.

Exploring your practice

What do students learn from interaction?

Reconstructing a strip story is a language-learning task.

What is a strip story?

This is a split-information activity. Each student is given part of a story or other text. They read the text several times, so they can become familiar with it. They could also memorise the text.

Then, they talk with others in the group. Each person shares what they remember about the part of the story or text they read.

After that, they work together and reconstruct the complete text, in the correct order, from recall or memory. To do this, they might have to repeat their bit – or each sentence from their bit – many times.

How to set up a strip story

To set up a strip story, choose a short but complete text – for example, a short narrative or a description.

Even a text as short as the following could be used with five group members.

Example of a strip story text
"A compound of sulphur that is easily recognised by its unpleasant smell is hydrogen sulphide (H2S).

It is a gas that is found in thermal places such as Rotorua, in New Zealand.

This gas is poisonous.

Small quantities are enough to cause dizziness, headaches, and nausea."

Steps in a strip story activity

  1. Cut the text into strips and distribute them among members of the group or class. 
    • You need as many strips as there are participants (about ten strips is the maximum number that works well for interaction). 
    • If your students are expected to memorise the text, s strip should not be too long.
    • The strip does not need to be a whole sentence; the first sentence in the “Example of strip story text” above would be a good one to split in two.
  2. After you have given the students a few minutes to read several times or to memorise their strips, collect the strips from the students.
  3. Now, ask the students to reconstruct the text. NOTE: do not help them or intervene in any way.
  4. Observe and take notes on what types of interactions take place between participants.
  5. Engage in some language analysis to find out why some sentences come before others.  This helps the students become aware of language forms.
    • For example, why we talk about "a gas" before "this gas" or why we generally use the word "it" only after the noun that "it" refers back to.

Activity follow-up

You could follow up a story strip activity in one of more of these ways.

Use a different text
Prepare a different type of text for a subsequent strip-story activity. Note, however, that the task will no longer be entirely unfamiliar to students, and they will have worked out some processes to get it done more efficiently, although probably with less language-based interaction.

Change the conditions
Vary the conditions of the task so it is less familiar to students than the first time they did the task. For example, you could change the group size or the length of text to be learned or memorised. Or you could give them parts of sentences rather than whole sentences.

Use students' first language
Bilingual Pasifika students who share a language can easily reconstruct a strip story in their language. If they are in two groups, each group could make the activity strips for the other group.