Teacher-student blogs: interaction and effectiveness

Rachel Wicaksono, York St John University, York, UK

Background
In June and July 2006 an Italian university student, Antonio Tanzola, and I kept a blog for the BBC Learning English website. Antonio wrote a daily account of his activities and I responded with advice on writing skills, grammar and vocabulary. In addition, readers posted their comments and questions.

Interaction in the blog: Self-evaluation of teacher taIk (SETT)
To explore patterns of teacher-student interaction in the blog I used a framework developed by Walsh (2006), known as SETT. The framework provides teachers with a way of describing their talk and linking it to lesson aims. It assumes that lessons are made up of a series of episodes or ‘modes’, each with different aims and interactional features: • managerial instructions); • materials (using materials to elicit, check, clarify and extend learners’ contributions and provide practice); • skills and systems (focussing on accuracy, helping learners produce correct forms and correcting mistakes); • classroom context (focussing on fluency, establishing contexts in which learners can communicate at length). (organising learners, starting/stopping activities, giving/checking

Managerial mode
My posts included very little teacher talk in managerial mode. This may be because the format of the blog (one student writes, one teacher responds) was decided in advance and needed no further organisation or explanation. Furthermore, writing can convey meaning more concisely than speaking and can be re-read, therefore achieving managerial-type interaction more efficiently than in a ‘real’ classroom.

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Materials mode
Interaction that focussed on ‘materials’ was difficult to identify, perhaps because of differences between the blog and a ‘real’ classroom. Walsh’s examples of materials include a gap-fill exercise, reviewing a unit from the course book and watching a video clip. He categorises all these episodes as ‘materials’ mode because, ‘turn-taking, turn sequence and topic management all flow from the material’ [my italics]. In the blog, all of the turn-taking, turn sequence and topic management flowed from the written text we co-created.

Skills and systems mode
In this mode (which made up about half of my ‘teacher talk’), I usually wanted Antonio to pay attention to specific features of his English. For example, describing how he forgot to eat dinner during a football on television, he said, ‘I realised that I wasn’t been eating anything for 20 hours.’ I corrected his sentence to, ‘I realised I hadn’t eaten anything…’ and wrote about the Past Perfect. In his next entry, Antonio provided evidence of translating, analysing contrastively, and transferring, In the last post I wanted to write, ‘I hadn’t been eating’ but I used ‘be’ instead of ‘have’. When I don’t pay enough attention I often make this error because of the different Italian auxiliary verb. Anyway, I would like to ask you if the Past Perfect Continuous can be used in that situation instead of the Past Perfect? The skills and systems mode pushed Antonio to extend and clarify his output. For example, he wrote, ‘The most important [place] has surely been ‘Certosa di Padula’, which I’m going to shortly talk about.’ I asked whether he intended to say that he was going to talk about the place soon (shortly) or in a few words (briefly). In his next post Antonio described the monastery and then wrote, ‘I’ve just briefly talked about ‘Certosa di Padula’!’ He continued, In the sentence ‘[…] I’m going to shortly talk about’, which I wrote in my last post, I meant ‘not in detail’ and so I incorrectly used ‘shortly’ instead of ‘briefly’. It’s a funny mistake, Rachel, isn’t it? The sentence meaning in fact changes completely but doesn’t become unrealistic.

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Classroom context mode
I usually began with some comments about my activities or some questions for Antonio, the ‘classroom context’ mode. This was most commonly followed with a section on ‘skills and systems’ and then rounded off with another classroom context section. In using this sequence I was attempting to establish rapport with Antonio; providing a platform for the suggestions and corrections that were sandwiched in the middle.

Was the blog useful?
Antonio used the interaction to notice and re-structure, two processes believed to assist with language acquisition. In addition, he thought about his learning strategies and asked questions about English that were relevant to his own needs. He mentioned the convenience of being able to learn anywhere, at any time of day. Whether the blog was more efficient for the readers is more difficult to assess, and would provide an interesting focus for future research. Walsh, S. 2006. Investigating Classroom Discourse. Oxford: Routledge. r.wicaksono@yorksj.ac.uk

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