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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 (organising learners, starting/stopping activities, giving/checking


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).

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