Empowering the Shyer Students

In 2014, the journal Language Learning & Technology, 18(2) published a tribute to Mark Warschauer who has consistently written thought provoking articles about using technology in the language classroom http://llt.msu.edu/issues/june2014/tribute.pdf

Here is one of his early articles, which demonstrates how technology can empower the weaker, shyer, less able students and help the vociferous ones sit back and learn through listening.

Warschauer, M. (1996). Comparing face-to-face and electronic discussion in the second language classroom. CALICO Journal, 13(2&3), 7-26.

Research Findings

by Shimer College at http://flickr.com/photos/49048842@N02/8247904864 cc-by-2.0.

This article investigates the participation levels of EFL students from different nationalities (mainly Filipino versus Asian) in classroom discussion at a college in Hawaii. The software used at the time was Daedalus InterChange (real-time written communication) but today there are many easy to use digital tools such as Wikispaces which could fulfil the same task. The research found that in face-to-face discussions the Filipino students dominated while the quietest students, the Japanese, Vietnamese and Chinese, were almost silent. In fact, four of the five Japanese students contributed, on average, only 1.8% of the comments in a face-to-face discussion. Interestingly, in the written electronic discussion, the Japanese participation rates increased almost tenfold while the Filipinos contributed more equally and may have benefitted from listening more. Students felt they could express themselves more “freely, comfortably, and creatively” (Warschauer, 1996, p.16) in electronic discussion and the language produced was more complex, especially in regards to syntax. The small number of participants means that this research can only show trends. The research does, however, reflect previous studies that “those who are traditionally at the bottom of the totem pole” (p.8) benefit most from electronic discussions.

Implications for Practice

In a written chat format, students have more time for reflection, language is more formal and turn-taking is longer. However, electronic discussion can help learners formulate more sophisticated language and could be effectively used in the L2 classroom as a bridge not only to oral discussion but also to more complex written output. This would not only benefit Asian learners, who are traditionally taught to be silent in class and listen to the teacher, but also shyer students and those who feel less able. A second advantage is that the Filipino students were given the opportunity to listen more and this may have positive repercussions for their language intake and subsequent output. Natural spoken discourse is fragmented, includes confirmation and clarification checks, recasting and paraphrasing, which is not practised in an electronic discussion. However, the electronic version is still a discussion and this could be exploited pedagogically to benefit all the class through more equal participation. The study does not mention peer or teacher prompting and feedback, which are important strategies for developing students’ interlanguage systems so these techniques should be scaffolded into this type of programme. Today, there are many platforms for practising discussions orally which could supplement such written electronic discussion.