Let us talk about it - A qualitative study of deployed strategies and teacher cognition pertaining to conversation in the ESL classroom
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This master’s thesis explores the use of strategies and teacher cognition pertaining to conversation, or oral interaction, in the English as a second language (ESL) classroom. The setting is an upper secondary school in Mid-Norway. Two ESL teachers and their classes at the VG1 level, in programmes for specialization in general studies (“studiespesialisering”), contributed to the project. The purpose of the present project was twofold. The first was to observe, analyse and discuss the actual communication strategies (CSs) being employed in the ESL classroom during conversations, including the observed effectiveness of these strategies. The second was to explore teachers’ beliefs and practices, or teacher cognition, pertaining to both CSs and language learning strategies (LLSs) relating to conversation. Thus, this is a qualitative study combining two research methods: observations and semi-structured teacher interviews. The theoretical framework of this study is based on sociocultural as well as cognitive theories of language learning, i.e., a socio-cognitive approach. Emphasis is furthermore placed on teachers’ beliefs and practices, as teacher cognition and practices are deemed to be mutually informing. The first two research questions sought to explore the deployment and observed effectiveness of CSs by both pupils and teachers. Key findings of the observation studies suggest that teachers employ an implicit and practical approach to the teaching of CSs, preferring modelling and scaffolding to more explicit instruction. Furthermore, the pupils were seen to utilize a range of CSs across a variety of situational contexts, most of which to a large degree helped them achieving what I perceived to be their communicative goals. The data also indicated positive learning environments characterized by mutual support and respect. Five research questions aimed to explore teacher cognition relating to strategy use for oral interaction. Here, findings from the interviews indicate that albeit seemingly not accustomed to conceptualizing the various “practical tools” as CSs, the teachers were knowledgeable about these and able to reflect on the manner in which they were employed by pupils. Explicit teaching of CSs in the ESL classroom was limited to teaching of words and phrases (formulaic language) pertaining to situational language, and one of the two teachers questioned the usefulness of explicit instruction in a whole-class setting by referring to the pupils’ individual differences and needs. Both teachers deemed there to be a learning potential inherent in the use viii of CSs, albeit dependent on the situation in which they are employed and related primarily to the learners’ ability to efficiently retrieve vocabulary. As to the teachability of LLSs pertaining to conversation, findings suggest that teachers do not address these explicitly in a whole-class context, preferring one-on-one discussions with their pupils. Moreover, the teachers appeared to consider conversation practice to be a very important LLS, be it inside or outside the ESL classroom, and there seems to be more focus on working explicitly with strategies in the classroom as they relate to the written language. With regard to metacognition, i.e., learners’ ability to set goals and monitor and evaluate the usefulness of CSs and LLSs relating to conversation, findings indicate that they are cognizant of their own strategy use to a certain degree and primarily as it pertains to formal settings and situations involving assessment. Findings furthermore suggest that ESL teachers find it both desirable and feasible to engage in strategy work, favouring a small-group or individual – and thus safe – approach when addressing strategies relating to oral competencies explicitly. Combined findings of the observation studies and interviews indicate that teachers have adopted a predominantly practical and implicit (and thus not time-consuming) way of teaching CSs and LLSs; modelling and scaffolding in the classroom as well as strategies aimed at increasing conversation practice, reducing anxiety and, above all, promoting safe learning environments. One of the main implications of this study is that CSs can be successfully taught through a practical and implicit approach. I nevertheless argue that decision-makers and teaching communities/schools would benefit from a closer consideration of whether ESL teachers in general are sufficiently educated in strategy use relating to oral interaction, or whether there is untapped potential in a more explicit approach to CSs and LLSs, suggesting this as an avenue of further research. A related issue that may be fruitfully explored is whether teaching and assessment practices relating to conversation are fully aligned with Norwegian curricular goals and the actual future needs of learners. A further implication of this study is that ESL teachers need to always assess teaching practices, implicit or explicit, in light of establishing and maintaining safe learning environments adapted to the individual needs of speakers and learning communities. The contribution of this study is increased knowledge about teacher cognition and strategy use in the Norwegian ESL classroom relating to the genre of conversation, offering also an empirically based “taxonomy” of CSs employed by pupils and teachers.