Issues in Educational Research, 8(2), 1998, 83-94.
Verbal interaction and English second language acquisition in classroom contexts
Paul J. Glew
University of Western Sydney, Nepean
In the light of second language acquisition research on interaction, this paper discusses the issue of integrating English second language (ESL) learners into mainstream secondary education. It questions what ESL students actually learn in the subject classroom and whether or not second language acquisition is promoted in that context and also explores why subject teachers with ESL learners in their classes should examine the amount and type of language practice they and their curriculum provide. The paper attempts to synthesise current insights into what actually takes place not only between teachers and ESL students but also for them as they interact. Findings illustrate how lesson content and the behaviour of teachers and students may prohibit or promote opportunities for interaction and negotiation in the classroom. Interaction that involves the negotiation of meaning and feedback that entails the negotiation of form may be critical components to successful second language development. With regard to behaviour, the roles of student ethnicity and gender are raised through a discussion on the effects of differential patterns of interaction participation in the classroom.
Instruction is beneficial for the second language learner (Long, 1983a). It can "simplify the learning task, alter the process and sequence of acquisition, speed up the rate of acquisition" (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991, p.304) and improve the level and quality of ultimate attainment in a second language. Indeed, the empirical evidence that supports instructed second language acquisition (SLA) provides a rationale for the existence and development of programs and curriculum to integrate English second language (ESL) students into secondary schools. This paper explores the roles of instruction and negotiation in the classroom context in the light of research into the interaction that occurs in classrooms between teachers and second language (L2) learners.
The role of input, intake and interaction
Second language acquisition relies on comprehensible input being available to the internal processing mechanisms of the learner (Long, 1983b). The learner's focus must be on meaningful communication and input that contains language forms which are due to be acquired next (Krashen, 1981, 1982). Nevertheless, comprehensible input alone is an insufficient condition for second language acquisition to occur. Input must become intake. Input is data that the second language learner hears and intake is "that portion of the L2 which is assimilated and fed into the interlanguage system" (Ellis, 1985, p.159). Exposure to comprehensible input as posited in Krashsen's Input Hypothesis is therefore not enough (Krashen, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1985). Comprehensible input (CI) needs to become intake for learners to develop in their second language (Ellis, 1985; Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991). Those learners who engage in the regular use of their second language and receive the greater quantity of input will most likely demonstrate a greater ability to use their second language (Larsen-Freeman, 1991).
Input is made comprehensible through modifying interactional structures rather than through simplifying linguistic input (Long, 1983c). The interaction modifications used by native speakers fall into two broad groups. Firstly, there are conversational strategies to avoid conversational trouble. Secondly, discourse repair tactics may be used to repair conversation when trouble happens. A third group combines strategies and tactics to include a slow pace of speech, stress on key words, and repetition of utterances. Each group contains devices that the native speaker uses in conversations with the non-native speakers to modify the interactional structure. The process of such interactional modifications is described by Long (1983) as "the negotiation of comprehensible input" (p.131). Negotiation that involves the restructuring and modification of interaction may occur when second language learners and their interlocutors have to work to achieve comprehensibility by "repeating a message verbatim, adjusting its syntax, changing its words, or modifying its form and meaning in a host of other ways" (Pica, 1994b, p.494).
A curriculum perspective on interaction
One of the goals of the new foreign language curricula is to provide "the occasions for the student and teacher to find the discourse needed to negotiate both the expression and comprehension of meaning" (Lange, 1990, p.79). Therefore, the role of interaction and negotiation in English second language instruction raises some important questions for teachers of ESL students. Firstly, how do we implement our curriculum? Do we force our students into the position of having to negotiate with us about the meaning of the material we present or do we simplify input for them? Secondly, are we aware of what may influence classroom interaction? Some students may be more willing than others to engage in interaction with the teacher (Santoro, 1997; Wajnryb & Crichton, 1997). Finally, could it be that interaction, and in particular interaction involving negotiation, enhances the second language development of ESL students in secondary subject classes? Swain (1985) suggests that for second language learners to develop competence in the target language, the classroom context needs to provide adequate opportunities for target language use. Moreover, for comprehensible output to be produced, learners have to be pushed in their negotiation of meaning. Swain (1985) argues that comprehensible output provides "opportunities for contextualized, meaningful use, to test out hypotheses about the target language, and to move the learner from a purely semantic analysis of the language to a syntactic analysis of it" (p.252). Consequently, second language learners may benefit from teaching and learning innovations at the classroom level that promote the production of comprehensible output through interaction and negotiation. Schulz (1991) contends: "As for the importance of interaction, we need to examine the amount and type of practice we…provide" (p.23). The implementation of communicative interaction and negotiation tasks throughout the curriculum could have a significant impact on the language development of ESL students in content-based classrooms.
Another important aspect of classroom second language learning is the innate ability of the learner. Second language acquisition is considered to be the result of interaction between the learner's mental abilities and the linguistic environment (Hatch, Flashner & Hunt, 1986; Hatch, Peck & Wagner-Gough, 1979; Long, 1996). Even though "interaction may give the learner the best data to work with, the brain in turn must work out a fitting and relevant model of that input"(Hatch, 1983, p.186). The second language learner's awareness of the form of input and the attention the learner can give to that form may be critical to successful language learning (Pica 1994b). Furthermore, the learner's focus on form "must occur in conjunction with – but not interrupt – communicative interaction" (Doughty & Varela, 1998, p.114). In sum, while interaction may make an important contribution to the process of second language learning, the learner is still the vital processor of the form and meaning of the language. Long (1996) proposes "that environmental contributions to acquisition are mediated by selective attention and the learner's developing L2 processing capacity, and that these resources are brought together most usefully, although not exclusively, during negotiation for meaning" (p.414). Moreover, he suggests that second language development may be facilitated through the provision of negative feedback that is obtained by the learner during interaction involving negotiation. The following summary of a study by Schinke-Llano (1983) on interaction opportunities provides a context for the discussion of the issues of feedback, negotiation and the curriculum used with ESL learners in the classroom environment.
Opportunities for interaction and feedback in the classroom
Schinke-Llano investigated the verbal interactions that occurred between twelve native English speaking teachers and their students in public school classrooms. In each class, some students were native speakers of English, other students were non-native speakers that were fluent in English and a further group of students were non-native speakers with limited English proficiency (LEP). The teachers observed interacted less often with the Spanish-speaking LEP students than with the non-LEP students. Overall, the non-LEP students received 64.9% of the instructional content-based interactions and the LEP students received 39.1%. Schinke-Llano argued that the cumulative consequences of such differential treatment could hinder the LEP students' second language development.
From Schinke-Llano's findings, one could speculate that the number of opportunities the LEP students had to receive negative or corrective feedback from their teachers were also limited. Lyster (1998) suggests that corrective feedback involving the negotiation of form may help second language learners to modify their use of nontarget language forms. Furthermore, "corrective feedback that invites student-generated repair in the form of self- or peer-repair provides opportunities for learners to proceduralize target language knowledge" (Lyster, 1998, p.53). This kind of repair could result from a combination of repetition of learner error by the teacher with other types of feedback. Hence, it is conceivable that ESL learners who receive limited opportunities to interact and obtain corrective feedback from their teachers or native English-speaking peers may be restricted in their acquisition of the target language within the content-based classroom context.
Practical inquiry into teaching praxis and classroom interaction
The findings from Schinke-Llano's (1983) investigation suggest that either the teachers or the curriculum, or possibly both, lacked the ability to facilitate the learning needs of the Spanish-speaking LEP students in the classes. Viewing this from a curriculum perspective Schwab (1969) may contend: "The problems posed by the current drives towards ethnicity in education find curriculum specialists…massively oblivious and unprepared" (p.5). The treatment of the LEP students in Schinke-Llano's study was possibly a reflection of the teachers' attempts to implement a curriculum that was designed predominantly for native English speakers. If that was the case then could it be that the content of the texts used in the classes were culturally biased in favour of the native English speakers? Apple (1992) argues that "textbooks are really a form of cultural politics. They involve the very nature of the connections between culture and differential power" (p.7). Without evidence, these points are conjectures. However to educators, they warrant our consideration. Tyler (1949) posited a curriculum rationale in which learning experiences were built onto through "continuity, sequencing, and integration" (p.84). Therefore, one could assume that if the LEP students in Schinke-Llano's study did not receive adequate instruction to grasp the lesson content then not only was their language progress hindered but their educational progress was also.
Despite the overall findings of Schinke-Llano's study, it is important to note that a few teachers did not display a differential treatment of students in relation to their instructional interactions with them. This raises the question of what and how those teachers taught from the curriculum. Were they in some way modifying the curriculum or their classrooms or their teaching practices to accommodate the needs of the LEP student? A way is needed to modify teaching practices and "theory in the course of its application, in the light of discrepancies" (Schwab, 1969, p.12). Practical inquiry questions about the type of interactions teachers have with students of different nationalities and how different kinds of interactions influence learning could provide more ways of matching what is taught and how it is taught with the learning needs of more students. Ewert (1991) asserts the themes that underlie communicative action are emancipation and enlightenment. Raising an awareness of the cultural dynamics of classroom interaction and communication may be necessary if teaching practice is to be freed from both cultural and traditional pedagogical constraints which may limit students' learning. For a more egalitarian distribution of interaction to occur, teachers with ESL students in their classroom may need to begin observing the verbal interaction patterns of their students and themselves. They may discover not only their own patterns of discourse but also ways to modify and manage patterns of interaction in their classroom (Sato, 1990).
One way in which teachers may modify and manage interaction in their classroom is through their use of feedback. Successful second language learning not only requires opportunities for students to receive comprehensible input and produce comprehensible output but also for them to obtain ample feedback. In addressing the issue of feedback through error treatment, Lyster and Ranta (1997) suggest that "producing comprehensible output entails the provision of useful and consistent feedback from teachers and peers" (p.41). The provision of corrective feedback during interactions that occur in content-based lessons can highlight relevant language forms and make them more salient for the second language learner. Moreover, the use of feedback in error treatment can provide opportunities for learner uptake involving the repair of errors and an awareness of utterances needing repair.
Feedback and negotiation in interaction
The feedback-uptake sequence that contains negotiation of second language form may be a vital type of interaction for learners in the classroom context. Lyster and Ranta (1997) posit that "the negotiation of form involves corrective feedback that employs either elicitation, metalinguistic feedback, clarification requests, or teacher repetition of error, followed by uptake in the form of peer- or self-repair, or student utterances still in need of repair that allow for additional feedback" (p.58). The negotiation of form is the didactic function of negotiation as it involves corrective feedback to the second language learner. The other function of negotiation is conversational as it entails the negotiation of meaning (Lyster & Ranta, 1997). Pica (1994b) contends that the "twofold potential of negotiation - to assist L2 comprehension and draw attention to L2 form - affords it a ... powerful role in L2 learning" (p.508).
Participation in interaction involving negotiation may facilitate second language development as it can draw the language learner's attention not only to second language form but also to meaning. Second language learners engage in the conversational function of negotiation to assist comprehension, establish mutual understanding, and overcome communication difficulties. "When learners interact with native speakers or other learners, they often experience considerable difficulty in communicating. This leads to substantial efforts by the conversational partners to secure mutual understanding. This is often called the negotiation of meaning" (Ellis, 1985, p.301). This type of negotiated interaction may involve the clarification, confirmation, modification and repetition of utterances which the second language learner does not understand (Berducci, 1993; Pica, 1994a; Pica, 1994b; Pica, Young, & Doughty, 1987). "The result of the negotiation of meaning is that particular types of input and interaction result. In particular, it has been hypothesised that negotiation makes input comprehensible" (Ellis, 1985, p.142). Moreover, when a learner is required to make their output comprehensible, as is often the case in negotiation, this may assist second language acquisition (Pica, Holliday, Lewis, and Morgenthaler, 1989). Musumeci (1996) contents that negotiation in the content-based classroom is an important component in the second language learning experience. As the work of negotiation can lead to comprehensible input and output, it is arguable that exposure to English input in the content-based class without comprehension of meaning through negotiated interaction is insufficient for second language learning. In his most recent Interaction Hypothesis, Long (1996) suggests that "negotiation work that triggers interactional adjustments by the NS or more competent interlocutor, facilitates acquisition because it connects input, internal learner capacities, particularly selective attention, and output in productive ways" (pp. 451-452). Given that interaction may provide opportunities for second language learners to engage in negotiation, the remaining discussion focuses on the issues of how much interaction occurs in classroom contexts and who engages in the interaction.
Interaction in a communicative classroom
Through a study on the amount of interaction opportunities available to ESL learners in three classrooms, Berducci (1993) expected to find that more than half of the classroom interaction time "would be spent using the participation structures in which negotiated interaction could take place" (p.13). The findings revealed 86% of the time in one class and 80% of the time in another was spent in participation structures in which negotiated interaction could occur. A conversation-only class spent only 3% of the time in activities in which negotiated interaction could occur. Even though there was interaction in each class, hardly any of it consisted of meaning being negotiated and only an insignificant amount of negotiated interaction occurred between the students themselves. Moreover, the results indicated that it was primarily the teachers who negotiated with the students.
Although the teachers observed in Berducci's study acknowledged the need to replace more traditional teaching methods with a curriculum based on a practical communicative approach, which capitalised on interaction activity to promote language learning, this was rarely translated into the class lessons. The findings were very revealing in this regard, especially as one would anticipate that if teachers claim to use a Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach there would be considerable evidence of this in classroom interactions. This raises a number of interesting questions. Firstly, if negotiated interaction is crucial for second language acquisition then why was there so little time spent giving students the opportunity to engage in negotiation with the teacher and other students? Secondly, when negotiated interaction occurred, who received the opportunities to engage in it? Thirdly, are Berducci's findings an indication of the interactional nature of other classes? Furthermore, it poses the challenge for teachers of ESL students to find out more about the types of interaction that occur in their classrooms, and to also reflect on teaching practice and curriculum implementation which have the potential to facilitate second language development in the classroom context (Foster, 1998).
The impact of teaching approach, task type and gender
Berducci's findings highlight the fact that even though the teachers could use negotiation in their interactions with the students, they were either not aware of how, or were simply not able, to implement student-student activities to promote negotiation. Until the late 1960s when there was an increased demand for people to gainer greater oral competence in a second language, teachers practised a traditional grammatically structured syllabus (Richards & Rodgers, 1986). The syllabus often reflected the philosophy of the perennial analytic paradigm posited by Tyler (1949). In contrast to this, the CLT approach which has expanded since the mid-1970s reflects Schwab's (1969, 1971, 1973) practical inquiry paradigm in that it draws on a more practically focused eclectic method. Schwab (1969) contends that arts should "bring a theory to its application"(p.12). It may be that the teachers in Berducci's study did not apply the CLT approach to its full potential in their classes due to a lack of either theory or moreover a theory of application. Using an interpretation of Schwab's notions one could argue that communication involving negotiated interaction rarely transpired between the students due to an inadequate theory of how to apply the CLT approach in the classroom.
According to Musumeci (1996), teaching approach, lesson content and the classroom behaviour of teachers and students can prohibit or promote opportunities for negotiation. Pica et al. (1989) assert that "through the study of negotiation, what is emerging is an understanding and appreciation of what both learners and interlocutors contribute to the SLA process" (p.84). Interaction involving negotiation may be the essential data to consider in further investigations of the ways in which an interlocutor and second language learner work together in the classroom to produce both comprehensible input and output. A study on how information-gap tasks can provide opportunities for non-native English speaker (NNES) to modify their output to make it more comprehensible illustrates the importance of continued investigation. Although Pica et al. (1989) had not intended to study the relationship between gender and the production of comprehensible output, the results of their study on information-gap discussion tasks revealed that non-native English speaking Japanese males displayed greater control in discussion with native English speakers than Japanese females. The males introduced new, relevant topics and brought past learning experiences into the discussion. This meant they were able to maintain more control of the discourse, which resulted in the native English speakers having to signal their need for clarification. In contrast, the non-native English speaking females always kept closely to the given discussion topics. This resulted in an absence of negotiation. These findings corroborate those of Gass and Varonis (1986), who found that "men…dominate in conversations with women in ways that provided opportunities for producing comprehensible output" (pp.349-350). Women, however, were found to initiate more negotiation of meaning than men in dyads that involved both female and male second language learners. Overall, the research suggests that gender, task type and even ethnicity may influence a second language learner's opportunities to participate in interaction and produce certain types of comprehensible output.
Ethnicity and verbal interaction in the classroom
With regard to the ethnicity of English second language learners, a study on ethnic styles in classroom discourse provided exploratory results on the relationship between ethnicity and the distribution of verbal interaction in the classroom. Sato's (1990) investigation indicated a relationship between ethnicity and the number of speaking turns taken by ESL students. The Asian students in her study took considerably fewer speaking turns with their teachers than the non-Asian students. Moreover, the Asian learners self-selected less often than the non-Asian learners and were also called upon less often by their teachers. It is of interest to note that the Asian American and Caucasian American teachers behaved no differently towards the students. The Asian American teacher called less often on the Asian students than the non-Asian students despite any ethnic ties she may have had with them.
There may be several reasons for Sato's findings. Firstly, the Asian students may be restricted in their turn-taking behaviours because they adhere to an interpretation of the student-teacher relationship which pre-allocates speaking rights in the classroom to the teacher. Secondly, such student-teacher perceptions may create a spiral effect in the classroom, whereby the teacher calls on the Asian students less than the non-Asian student because she perceives unwillingness among the Asian students to talk (Sato, 1990). Nevertheless, the outcome of these two phenomena is that the ESL students who are unwilling to initiate discussion and rely on the teacher to allocate speaking opportunities end up completely losing those interaction opportunities. Indeed, "the role of interethnic differences...and interaction with native speakers remains an issue of fundamental importance" (Sato, 1990, p.117). Further investigation is called for to not only go beyond the Asian-non-Asian dichotomy and identify potential differences among those within the ethnic groups represented in classes but also identify in detail the types of verbal interaction in which ESL students and their teachers participate in the classroom (Glew, 1995).
Gaining a further teaching and curriculum perspective on what happens in the context of real secondary subject classrooms for ESL students and their teachers is necessary. Exploration into these classroom contexts could give not only a greater insight into the types of interaction that transpire between the subject teacher and the ESL student but also a better understanding of what occurs for them through their interaction. It is essential that further consideration be given to ways in which mainstream secondary school subject curriculum and teachers provide ESL students with opportunities to engage in verbal interaction that has the potential to promote second language development. Within the context of the classrooms in the present discussion, it is evident that opportunities for instructional interaction and negotiation may be determined not only by the types of interaction that teachers and students elect to engage in but also by lesson content, gender and ethnicity. The issue of gender influence on interaction and the Asian-non-Asian dichotomy may be extended to not only describe differences between Asian and non-Asian ESL learners but also identify interaction participation differences that may exist between males and females in different ethnic groups within the same class. Continued investigation of these areas in the content-based classroom may provide more insight that could empower teachers to identify the teaching methods, lesson content and learning environments with the greatest potential to promote the second language development of ESL students in secondary school contexts.
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