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Learning a Second Language through Classroom Interaction

Steve Walsh & Paul Seedhouse, Newcastle University
This paper considers a number of the conceptual and methodological problems involved in
analysing how L2 learning is related to classroom interaction. We firstly critique ‘linear’
approaches to learning through interaction, in which a superficially identifiable interactional
phenomenon is extracted from its interactional environment for quantification. We propose
that a variable and holistic approach to analysis is necessary to portray the relationship
between learning and interaction. A variable approach portrays the different varieties of
interaction which occur in L2 classrooms. In each of these, there is a different relationship
between pedagogy and interaction and this has an impact on our conceptualisation of
learning. A holistic approach is necessary because of the complex, multi-layered nature of L2
classroom interaction.
The first part of the paper argues that the conceptualisation of ‘learning’ developed in this
seminar needs to incorporate the process of learning as embodied in classroom interaction. A
brief introduction is provided to the CA position on socially distributed cognition (Drew,
1995; Schegloff, 1991). . CA aims to “identify ways in which participants themselves orient
to, display, and make sense of one another’s cognitive states (among other things)” (Drew,
1995, p. 79). The organizations of sequence, turn-taking, and repair are employed by
interactants in order to display not only their social actions but also their understandings of
the other’s social actions to each other; these organizations constitute part of the architecture
of intersubjectivity.
This position is then applied to interaction in L2 classrooms. Classroom interactants are
displaying to each other their understanding of each others’ utterances, and of what is being
learnt, by means of and by reference to the organization of turn-taking, sequence and repair.
This demonstrates what Schegloff (1991) means by “the embeddedness, the inextricable
intertwinedness, of cognition and interaction” (p. 152). CA analysis not only demonstrates
what understandings the interactants display to each other, but also how they do so by
normative reference to the interactional organizations. In other words, we gain access to their
displays of understanding to each other in the same way that they gain this access: by
reference to the interactional organizations. This is what is meant by developing an emic
It is argued, through analysis of data, that a part of what is meant by the cognitive or learning
state of a learner involved in L2 classroom interaction is inextricably entwined and engaged
with the unique sequential, social and contextual environment in which he/she is engaged.
This part of the individual’s cognitive state or learning state can be portrayed in situ, that is,
in that unique sequential environment.
It is proposed that a CA analysis of learning in relation to classroom data can be conducted in
three stages. Firstly, what can we say about the learner’s actual developmental level or
current ability in L2? Secondly, what can we say about the learning environment in terms of
input to the language learning process and facilitation of upgrading as a result of the
interaction? Thirdly, how does the process of instructed L2 learning progress? The argument
is illustrated by analysis of extracts of L2 classroom interaction.

features of classroom interaction which can make the teaching/learning process more or less effective. scaffolding. by promoting extended learner turns and by allowing planning time. Essentially. 1998). . then. a teacher who demonstrates CIC uses language which is both convergent to the pedagogic goal of the moment and which is appropriate to the learners. re-iterating and so on. a teacher is helping learners to say what they mean by using the most appropriate language to do so. CIC entails teachers being able to shape learner contributions by scaffolding. Lyster. both in this and previous studies (see. and from a teacher’s perspective. and complex interactional repertoires in the L2’ (p3). Interactional space is maximized through increased wait-time. in line with seminar objectives. According to Swain (1995). CIC facilitates interactional space. In a decentralized classroom in which learner-centredness is a priority. developing interactional competence in a second language involves learners ‘co-construct[ing] with their interlocutors locally enacted. this entails an understanding of the interactional strategies which are appropriate to teaching goals and which are adjusted in relation to the co-construction of meaning and the unfolding agenda of a lesson. 1997). Secondly. a kind of paraphrasing which serves the dual function of checking meaning and moving the discourse forward.The second part of the paper then offers a conceptualisation of classroom interactional competence (CIC). to contribute to the class conversation and to receive feedback on their contributions. In the data. We also consider how the approach outlined might be able to combine fruitfully with more product-oriented approaches focussing on individual cognitive states. the focus will be primarily on teachers’ CIC. Finally. CIC encompasses the less easily definable . Firstly. we recognize that there are many factors which combine to produce interaction which is conducive to learning. Thirdly. their expectations and goals. According to Markee (2008). The process of ‘shaping’ contributions occurs by seeking clarification. 1992. Cullen. Jarvis and Robinson. Here. Elsewhere. it is still very much determined by them. progressively more accurate. by resisting the temptation to ‘fill silence’ (by reducing teacher echo). for example. Although CIC is not the sole domain of teachers. where learners are given adequate space to participate in the discourse. paraphrasing. which we define as teachers’ and learners’ ability to use interaction as a tool for mediating and assisting learning. we reflect on how the methodology of Conversation Analysis (CA) has shaped our findings and our conceptualisation of learning. 1998. and the interplay between teacher and learner language. In this paper. the relationship between language use and teaching methodology. maximising interactional space in the planning stage of a task enhances output and promotes comment and confidence among learners. or repairing learner input. modelling. there are a number of ways in which CIC manifests itself.yet no less important . fluent. through shaping the discourse. CIC is concerned to account for learning-oriented interaction by considering the interplay between complex phenomena which include roles of teachers and learners. Interactional space may be incorporated into the preparation phase of a task when learners are given time to prepare and clarify both the task and the language they will need to complete it. Essentially. the process of taking a learner’s contribution and shaping it into something more meaningful has been termed appropriation. these interactional strategies may be the only opportunities for teaching and occur frequently during the feedback move (Willis.