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Applied Linguistics 19/1 1-2) © Oxford University Press 1998

A Classroom Perspective on the


Negotiation of Meaning1
PAULINE FOSTER
Thames Valley University

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It is widely argued that engaging in communicative language tasks helps a
learner develop in an L2 in several ways Tasks provide an opportunity not only
to produce the target language, but also, through conversational adjustments,
to manipulate and modify it Checking and clanfying problem utterances
{'negotiating for meaning') ensures that task participants receive comprehens-
ible input and generate comprehensible output, both of which have been
claimed as crucial to second language acquisition (SLA) Task type is considered
significant, with those tasks requiring an exchange of information most likely to
prompt negotiations for meaning This paper reports a classroom observation of
the language produced by intermediate EFL students engaged in required and
optional information exchange tasks in both dyads and small groups The results
show no clear overall effect for task type or grouping, though there was a
discernible trend for dyads doing a two-way task to produce more negotiated
interaction However, it was noticeable that many students in the small groups
did not speak at all, many more in both dyads and small groups did not initiate
any negotiated interaction, and very few students in either setting produced*
any modified utterances Such positive results as were obtained seemed to be
due to the disproportionate influence of a small number of the students, and so
were not typical of the group as a whole The setting of the study within a
classroom, as opposed to a venue especially arranged for data collecting, is
suggested as a significant variable, with important implications for group work
research methodology It is also suggested, contrary to much SLA theonzing,
that 'negotiating for meaning' is not a strategy that language learners are
predisposed to employ when they encounter gaps in their understanding

INTRODUCTION
Small group work in EFL classrooms is a widespread practice, enthusiastically
endorsed in much of the literature It is seen as beneficial m several ways it
increases the amount of class time available to an individual student to
practise speaking the target language, it decreases the amount of time students
spend listening {or not listening) to other class members interacting with the
teacher, it avoids the anxiety and self-consciousness that prevent some
students from speaking up in front of the whole class, it allows the teacher
more opportunity for individual instruction In sum, it can help to create a
positive and relaxed learning environment (See Long 1977 for a full
discussion ) Investigation of the language produced by small groups has
2 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

tended to justify these hopes It has been found, for example, that when
interacting in small groups students talk more than they do in teacher-fronted
activities (Pica and Doughty 1985), that they do not talk less accurately or
carefully (Porter 1983), and that they have the opportunity to practise a
greater variety of speech acts (Long et al 1976)
Other research has focused on whether students working in dyads or groups
can provide each other with the Comprehensible Input (Krashen 1981, 1982)
that has been claimed to be a cruaal element in second language acquisition

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(SLA) For Krashen, SLA proceeds by learners understanding target language
input (Y) that contains some forms just a little beyond their present scope
('i+l') and which are therefore, according to the natural order of SLA, 'due' to
be acquired next When learners successfully comprehend the meaning of
language that has examples of new linguistic matenal, their interlanguage has
necessarily advanced In considenng how learners manage to understand the
meaning of language whose forms they have not yet acquired. Long (1985)
concludes that general knowledge, knowledge of the context, and the ability
to interpret extra-linguistic clues all play a role, but the most important way
learners make input comprehensible is by interactional adjustments, I e
requesting the interlocutor to clanfy problem utterances and thus render
them comprehensible In this way, successful communication is assured and
the learner gets exposure to new target language forms Empirical studies by
Varonis and Gass (1985), Gass and Varonis (1985), and Doughty and Pica
(1986) have suggested that non-native speakers (NNSs) do indeed use
interactional adjustments to generate a supply of Comprehensible Input
When confronted with a gap in understanding, they signal the problem and
request clarification from their interlocutor, who then obliges with a
repetition, elaboration or simplification of the onginal utterance
A This is your 2 term7
B Pardon me7
-> A 2 term, this is this term is term your 2 term
C Yeah, How long will you be7 Will you be staying7
D / will be four months
C four months7
-* D until April stay four months here
E You know heating7
F So it is a heat exchanger
~* E radiator
(Examples from Varonis and Gass 1985 77)
The results of studies of 'negotiation for meaning' indicate that it is more
likely to occur in groups of NNSs than in teacher-led classes (Rulon and
McCreary 1986, Doughty and Pica 1986) especially if the speakers are from
different language backgrounds (Varonis and Gass 1985) If these speakers are
engaged upon a task that obliges them to exchange information, then the
PAUUNE FOSTER 3

incidence of negotiation for meaning increases further (Doughty and Pica


1986)
Although Krashen (1982) has rejected the idea that active production of the
target language (as opposed to mere comprehension of it) is equally important
to SLA, this position has been challenged by Swain (1985), who claims that a
supply of Comprehensible Input is insufficient to the language acquisition
process unless it is matched by an obligation on the part of the NNS to
produce Comprehensible Output The students in her study understood the

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target language extremely well, but had not achieved an equal proficiency in
producing it because, she believed, they were under no pressure to speak or
write with precision and coherence A subsequent study {Pica et-al 1989)
showed that group work could produce this pressure A NNS paired with a
native speaker to work on a task (especially an information-gap task) could
make phonological, morphological, semantic, and syntactic modifications to
utterances when prompted by a clarification request from the native speaker
Whether or not NNS/NNS dyads (such as one would find in a classroom)
could prompt each other to make such modifications was unfortunately not
addressed, but Pica (1994) concludes from a review of the research into
negotiation of meaning that by both assisting learners in L2 comprehension
and causing them to manipulate L2 forms it has a significant role in second
language acquisition
There is empirical evidence therefore that group work is benefiaal to the
language acquisition process, providing a non-threatening atmosphere for
students to practice using the L2, and encouraging the production of
Comprehensible Input and Output through negotiated interaction However,
none of the studies mentioned above has demonstrated a direct relationship
between the incidence of negotiated interaction and an increase in language
proficiency They were not designed to test this, and indeed it is very hard to
see how the influence of negotiation on language learning could ever be
measured, given the obvious difficulty in isolating one form of interaction
from all others Nevertheless, from this field of research two clear implications
have emerged for the classroom given the right task <e g describing a picture
to a partner who can't see it), students can be led into carefully checking,
clarifying, and modifying problem utterances, and the more often students
engage in such 'negotiations for meaning', the better for their interlanguage
development
But before teachers begin incorporating plenty of information-gap tasks
into their class plans in the belief that these will be especially benefiaal to
their students, it is as well to note that there are two important limitations to
the research reported above which make it difficult to generalize from them
First, and more briefly, the range of subjects used was very narrow (the
majority were ESL students at American universities), and therefore one
cannot be confident that subjects from a wider range (e g older, or younger,
or learning in different contexts) would produce the same results Secondly,
these studies were all earned out by researchers on groups of NNSs who had
4 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

either volunteered their time, or who had been 'lent' by their teacher How
far the performance of NNSs under research conditions reflects their
performance in the classroom is therefore largely unknown Although it
should be self-evident that performance in one set of circumstances cannot
predict with any confidence performance in a different set of circumstances,
the studies mentioned above (and many others in the field) do not consider
the setting of the research to be a significant intervening vanable Indeed, if
context is mentioned at all in the description of the research, it usually

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commands no more than a few lines In wholly experimental studies we may
only be told that subjects were audiotaped, but not where or how When
established ESL classes are used we may be told that the researchers were
not present dunng audiotaping, but no information is given on how far the
normal class procedures were followed (Rulon and McCreary 1986 are
unusual in stressing that they wished to avoid unnecessarily disturbing the
classes they were studying, but they state without comment that they asked
the groups they were recording to go into separate rooms ) That language
performance is vanable and can be affected by self-consciousness and levels
of formality is well established in LI sociohnguistic research (see, most
famously, Labov 1972, and Trudgill 1983) There is also an impressive body
of L2 research suggesting that the degree to which learners are able to
carefully monitor their L2 production has an affect upon the phonology
(Dickerson 1975, Schmidt 1977) and also the grammar (Schmidt 1980) For
Tarone (1983) the learner has a whole range of interlanguage styles and,
depending on the task he is given to do, can select from the vernacular (in
which no conscious attention is paid to speech) to the careful (in which
grammatical and phonological judgements are consciously made) There is
no reason therefore to suppose that the style adopted by learners in an
undisturbed classroom will be the same as that adopted by learners in an
experimental set-up (who may be all too aware that their language is being
recorded for analysis)
The penis of ignonng the possible influence the setting may exert on
student performance have been pointed out before As long ago as 1974
Jacobovits and Gordon were arguing strongly that research findings cannot be
allowed to guide educational practice if they are based on abstraction and
investigation under controlled conditions For them what really matters about
any new idea or theory of language learning is not what the researcher might
find out about it, but what the student in the classroom does with it (p 90)
Van Lier (1988) and Nunan (1991) have repeated these warnings, but
without much impact on research methodology Nevertheless, it is clear that
SLA research has to be willing to move into the environment of an
undisturbed, intact classroom, and not confine itself exclusively to places
organized for or disrupted by a research expenment
PAULINE FOSTER 5

The Research Study


It was to see 'what the student in the classroom does' with the negotiation of
meaning that the present investigation was undertaken Specifically it sought
to observe the extent to which NNSs would produce (a) talk in general, and
(b) modified interaction in particular when engaged in group- or pairwork in
a natural classroom setting It also sought to see if task type (optional or
required information exchange) and participant structure (dyad or small

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group) could be seen to affect the amount of language and modified
interaction individual students produced Questions m three areas were
addressed

• Language Production Does the obligation to transfer information dunng a


task cause students to talk more7 Is there a difference in the amount of
language produced by students working in groups compared to those
working in dyads7
• Comprehensible Input To what extent do students in dyads and groups
negotiate for meaning (1 e use comprehension checks, confirmation checks
and clarification requests) in order to make input comprehensible7 Is the
obligation to transfer information associated with a greater incidence of
negotiation of meaning7 Is such negotiating more likely to occur in groups
or in dyads7
• Modified Output To what extent do students in dyads and groups modify
their language to make it comprehensible to others7 Is the obligation to
transfer information associated with a greater incidence of modified
output 7 Are such modifications more often observed in groups or in
dyads7

The subjects
These were part-time students in the same intermediate level class at a large
municipal college, meeting three times a week for two hours They came from
a wide vanety of LI backgrounds (e g Korean, Spanish, Arabic, French) and
from a wide age range (17 to 41), with an average age of 21 They had been
assigned to the intermediate level on the basis of a written test and a short
interview At the time of data gathenng, the class had been running for more
than two months, and any student of inappropriately high or low proficiency
had already been transferred to a more suitable level The subjects can be seen
as highly typical of the very large number of part-time learners of English in
colleges throughout Britain
Twenty-one students from the class were observed in this study All but two
were female Each student is identified in the tables of results by mitial(s)
Some were observed for all four of the tasks, but, because of erratic
attendance or poor quality recordings, most were not Consequently, robust
cross-task comparisons of results are not possible except in so far as the
6 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

students who appear in the data can be regarded as a representative sample of


the class as a whole

The setting
As far as possible the setting of a 'real classroom' was preserved All
recordings were made dunng four scheduled lessons The teacher acted as
researcher, avoiding the need for the presence of a stranger in the classroom

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On each of the data gathering occasions the students were asked to do one
task which was presented as part of the normal class routine, and which was
selected from the text books used throughout the course The students did
the tasks all at the same time and in the same room, as is normal classroom
practice

The tasks
Four tasks were chosen for this study Two were done by the students
working in dyads, and two by the students working in small groups of four or
five All of the tasks chosen for analysis in this study came from books
designed to be used in a 'communicative' classroom Two of the tasks could
only be done if the participants shared individually-held information These
are here described as required information exchange tasks The other two
tasks provided the same information to all participants They are described as
optional information exchange tasks For the dyadic set-up, the tasks recorded
were as follows
1 A grammar-based task Students were required to compose questions that
would elicit the given answers The dyads had to compose a suitable
interrogative (For example, to the given answer, 'I see him once or twice a
week', the students would need to formulate a question such as, 'How often
do you see him 7 ') As there was no obligation to exchange information, this
task is classified as an optional information exchange {Task taken from Soars
and Soars 1987 )
2 Picture differences Each member of the dyads was given either sheet A or B
of a photocopy of 20 small line drawings Some of these drawings were
identical on both sheets, others had slight differences Without showing each
other their versions, the students had to establish which drawings were the
same and which were different This could only be done by students sharing
information, and is classified as a required information exchange (Task taken
from Klrppel 1984 )
For the small group set-up the tasks recorded were as follows
3 Consensus This was a discussion task in which students were set a problem
(I e they are made redundant) and given several possible courses of action
Once they had reached a consensus on which course to follow, they received
PAULINE FOSTER 7

a further piece of information which revealed the consequences of their


choice and set them a new problem to solve They again had to reach a
consensus, which entailed further problems and choices until the task ended
As all the information was available to all the members of the group, this task
is classified as an optional information exchange (Task taken from Soars and
Soars 1987 )
4 Map Each student received an identical map of a seaside area, plus a card

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containing extra tounst information which the others in the group did not
know The group had to agree on how to pass a weekend in the area without
spending more than £20 As this task could not be done without students
sharing their individually-held information with the other members of the
group, it is classified as a required information exchange (Task taken from
Khppel 1984 )

Data collection
Recordings were made at weekly intervals during scheduled classes The tasks
were all done as part of a normal lesson plan and were not presented as being in
any way 'special' The students knew that they were being recorded, but in
order to minimize any self-consciousness or anxiety they were not asked to
hold a microphone or to speak deliberately in the direction of the tape recorder
It was hoped that the recordings would thereby capture the students' most
'normal' group work interaction This had a cost, however Two tapes had to be
discarded because much of the interaction was inaudible Two further tapes
could not be used because students had not properly attempted the task (l e
they had showed each other their photocopies in Task 2) Also discarded was
one tape that had recorded only two and a half minutes of interaction before
the students declared the task finished There remained three recordings for
each task dyad Tasks I and 2 thus have six subjects each, and group Tasks 3 and
4 have 14 subjects each (As we have noted above, the same subjects do not
necessarily appear across all four of the tasks) For Tasks 1, 2, and 3 the first five
minutes of interaction was transcribed and coded For Task 4, in which a lot of
information had to be exchanged, the initial ten minutes of interaction was
transcribed and coded in order to give all the group members time to
contribute These scores were then halved to enable comparisons to be made

Transcription and coding


Unfortunately, there is little consensus on which is the best way to measure
speech production (See, however, Crookes 1990 for a discussion on each of the
main units of measure ) The two measures most widely used in previous
studies are the T-unit and the c-unit Gass and Varonis, and Pica and Doughty
use T-units, following Hunt's {1966) definition as a 'main clause plus whatever
subordinate clauses happen to be attached or embedded within it' All other
utterances are classified as interjections (single lexical items such as 'yes', 'no'.
8 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

and 'OK') or as fragments (false starts, repetitions, and non-clausal items)


Elliptical answers to questions, which abound in oral language, cannot be
counted as T-units (despite being normal, meaningful, and pragmatically
sufficient) and must be classified as fragments (along with false starts which are
meaningless and pragmatically insufficient) Pica et al reject the T-umt in
favour of the c-unit, defined by Brock (1986) as independent utterances which
provide referential or pragmatic meaning, 1 e utterances which are meaningful
though not necessarily complete By excluding false starts but allowing for

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ellipsis, c-umts are arguably more sensitive to the transmission of meaning and
a more appropriate measure for an investigation into oral language, and were
therefore adopted as the unit of measure for this study Apart from incidences
of students reading aloud from their texts (discounted because they were not
samples of students' own language production) the transcripts were therefore
coded for c-units In order to measure the incidence of negotiations for
meaning, the transcripts were also coded for confirmation checks (the speaker's
query as to whether or not the speaker's (expressed) understanding of the
interlocutor's utterance is correct), clarification requests (a request for further
information from an interlocutor about a previous utterance), and com-
prehension checks (the speaker's query of the mterlocutor(s) as to'whether or
not they have understood the speaker's previous utterance) (Definitions from
Chaudron 1985 ) To measure modified output, the transcripts were coded
according to four further categories semantic modifications (through synonym,
paraphrase, or example), morphological modifications (through addition, sub-
stitution, or deletion of inflectional morphemes and/or functors), phonological
modifications, and syntactic modifications (through embedding and elaboration in
clauses) (Definitions from Pica et al 1989 )

Results and discussion


Because complex statistical computations obscure what is happening at an
individual level, and because the purpose of the investigation was not to test a
hypothesis but to observe individual students' classroom performance, the
data has been left as simple totals and percentages In the tables that follow,
individual students are identified by mitial(s), a particular dyad or group is
identified by the number of the task it earned out (1, 2, 3, or 4) plus a letter (a,
b, or c) However, the designation a, b, or c does not mean that the grouping
compnsed the same students each time As we have already noted, it was not
possible to contnve this without compromising the naturalistic setting of the
study The data will be presented following the question posed earlier, I e
regarding language production, comprehensible input, and modified output

Language production
C-units were calculated to measure the amount of language produced by each
dyad and group and are shown in Table 1 Apart from task 3, which shows all
PAULINE FOSTER 9

Table 1 Number of c-umts produced


a b c Total

Dyad Task 1 33 88 40 161


(optional information
exchange)
Dyad Task 2 59 138 84 281

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(required information
exchange)
Group Task 3 91 117 72 280
(optional information
exchange)
Group Task 4 38 84 74 196
(required information
exchange)
918

of the groups producing c-units to roughly the same degree, the dyads and
groups have a very wide range of scores, for example, whereas for the picture
differences task dyad 2b produced 138 c-units, dyad 2a produced only 59, for
the map task group 4b produced 84 c-units, but group 4a only 38 Although
the required information exchange task for all the dyads consistently resulted
m more c-umts than the optional information exchange task, the opposite
was true for two of the groups where the requirement to exchange
information is associated with less language being produced
It is revealing to examine student performance at the individual level
Table 2 shows that group 3b shared the interaction fairly between them (with

Table 2 Number of c-umts produced by each student in the groups (students


identified by initial)
3a 3b 3c

Task 3 I V Ig J F C Su Ah E A V S Y Ar
(optional informa- 48 25 8 10 25 26 35 30 1 29 35 0 7 1
tion exchange)
4a 4b 4c

Task 4 C J F A l K A I g M R R o S V S u T
(required informa- 17 10 10 1 0 37 15 17 15 27 4 23 20 0
tion exchange)
10 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

student E as a notable exception) but in all the other groups one or two of the
students were dominant, with the other members remaining either quiet or
totally silent Students E, S, and Ar contributed little or nothing to task 3
Students K, T, S, and Al contributed little or nothing to task 4 even though it
required them to share information with their partners All were known to be
extremely quiet in the whole-class setting This suggests that the claim of
Doughty and Pica (1986 321) that a required information exchange task can
'compel' students to speak is overconfident, at least as far as small-group work

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is concerned

Table 3 Number of c-umts produced by each


student in the dyads (students identified by initial)
la lb lc

Task 1 C F 0 V A S
(optional informa- 17 16 40 48 30 10
tion exchange)
2a 2b 2c

Task 2 C R A S J Al
(required informa- 32 27 92 46 28 56
tion exchange)

In a dyad grouping it is obviously much more difficult for a student to


remain silent or to say only very little The figures-in Table 3 show that no
student in a dyad was able to remain totally silent Student Al, whom we have
noted as extremely quiet in class and who contributed only one c-unit in
group 4a, nevertheless dominated dyad 2c by producing two-thirds of the c-
units Even student S, who said nothing in task 3 and almost nothing in task
4, produced a quarter of the c-units m task 1 and a third in task 2 It is
interesting to note how the c-units are shared in the dyads For task 2, it
might have been expected that an equal distribution of information would
have . resulted in an equal distribution of talk, especially as the task
instructions had been for each student in the dyad to take turns m describing
the pictures to each other, and thus to alternate at being the giver and receiver
of information Dyad 2a did this and shared the c-units almost equally Dyads
2b and 2c did not For both of these dyads the distribution of c-units was very
uneven The transcripts reveal that student A in 2b and student Al in 2c
adopted a strategy of extracting information rather than waiting for it, thus
depnving their partners of the chance to give it In this example, S is supposed
to be describing a picture to A
PAULINE FOSTER 11

S There is rubbish in the urn


A Yes, in the urn (1 5) back
S Yes
A Yes
S After there is some
A Smoke7 Coming up7 Coming out7
S Yes
A And there is a man inside7 Someone inside7 Or not7

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S Yes
A Yes In the door, there is something in the door7
S Yes

Taken to an extreme, this tactic could reduce some information exchange


tasks to a format whereby the side holding the information need only answer
yes or no to the informed guesses of the other side
Tables 2 and 3 show how the students approached the tasks m different and
unpredictable ways If we take the grammar-based task 1, as an example we
can see a wide range in c-unit production Dyad la were very quiet, muttering
a lot to themselves and exchanging few words with each other Dyad lc found
the task hard, student A repeatedly 'thinking aloud' and then asking student S
for her comments Student S initiated very lmle interaction Dyad lb,
however, found the task stimulating and discussed energetically how to
complete the exercise, producing not only a high number of c-units in equal
distribution, but also, as we shall see later, a relatively high level of negotiated
interaction and modified output Thus an unpromising task, I e one that did
not require information to be exchanged, that was based on the potentially
uninspiring subject of the structure of interrogative sentences, and that was
moreover quite difficult, it is seen to produce a rather low number of c-units
for two dyads, but unexpectedly very many c-units for another dyad This
intriguing result for dyad lb will be discussed more fully in the conclusion
Tables 2 and 3 reveal that, whatever kind of task was employed, it was the
dyad setting that was the most successful in encouraging students to talk
Table 3 shows how unevenly students in groups shared c-units and therefore
how distorting the group scores of Table 1 are about how much language
students produced

Comprehensible Input
Negotiation of meaning was measured by determining the number of
negotiation moves (comprehension checks, confirmation checks, and
clarification requests) made by each dyad and group The scores for these
variables are shown in Table 4 The most negotiation moves {15 9% of c-
units) were produced by dyad lb doing an optional information exchange
task The least (0%) were produced by dyad la doing the same task
Similarly, the second highest score for negotiation moves (13 7%) was for
12 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

Table 4 Number of negotiated input moves as % of total c-umts


n % n % n %

la lb lc

Dyad Task 1 0 0 14 15 9 2
(optional information

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exchange)
2a 2b 2c

Dyad Task 2 8 135 16 116 7 83


(required information
exchange)
3a 3b 3c

Group Task 3 2 22 16 1 3 7 3 41
(optional information
exchange)
4a 4b 4c

Group Task 4 3 79 9 10 7 7 95
{required information
exchange

group 3b doing an optional information exchange task, and the second


lowest (2 2%) for group 3a doing the same task Students without the
obligation to exchange information reacted very differently in the amount of
negotiation they undertook However, the obligation to exchange informa-
tion, entailed by tasks 2 and 4, produced different results Despite the wide
differences in the number of c-units these tasks generated (see Table 1), the
incidence of negotiation moves was within a much narrower range 7 9% to
13 5%
An analysis of the way that individual members of dyads and groups shared
the production of negotiation moves reveals, not surprisingly, that some
shared more or less equally (e g dyad 2c and group 3b), others less equally
(e g dyad lb and group 4c), and yet others very unequally (e g dyad 2b and
group 3c) The required information exchange tasks, where one might have
expected the partiapants to share the responsibility for negotiation as each
held and needed information, show this result only twice, m 2a and 2c (both
dyads) On two occasions one member was very dominant in 2b student A
produced 14 of the 16 negotiation moves, in 4b student M produced 6 of the
9 The most significant findings in Tables 5 and 6, however, is the evidence
PAULINE FOSTER 13

Table 5 Distribution of negotiation moves within


the dyads (expressed as number of moves students
identified by initial)
la lb lc

Task 1 C F 0 V A S
(optional informa- 0 0 9 5 2 0

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tion exchange)
2a 2b 2c

Task 2 C R A S J Al
(required informa- 5 3 14 2 3 4
tion exchange)

that the majority of students were not overtly engaged in negotiating meaning
to any significant extent Of the 40 scores presented, only 6 are for more than
4 negotiation moves Twenty-six are for 2 or fewer negotiation moves There
are 16 zeros, almost all of which are from the group tasks
Presumably the students in the groups (if they were properly attending to
the discussion) were content to receive the comprehensible input generated
by someone else's negotiating (Similarly, Low Input Generators (Sehger
1983) used High Input Generators in a parasitic fashion ) In 3c, 4b, and 4c,
one student only took an active negotiating role, the others remained more
or less passive Perhaps they understood the discourse without the need to
check or clarify anything (After all, language can be syntactically very
deviant and yet still comprehensible ) Or perhaps they were not sufficiently

Table 6 Distribution of negotiation moves within the groups (expressed as


number of moves students identified by initials)
3a 3b 3c

Task 3 I V I g J F C S u A h E A V S Y A r
(optional informa- 0 2 0 0 3 4 4 5 0 0 3 0 0 0
tion exchange)
4a 4b 4c

Task 4 C J F A l K A I g M R R o S V S u T
(required informa- 1 2 0 0 0 1 1 6 1 4 0 2 1 0
tion exchange)
14 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

motivated to obtain an exact understanding of what was being said In


groups 4a and 3a none of the students felt the need to take an active
negotiating role
Table 5 shows that the required information exchange task for dyads was by
far the most consistently productive of negotiating moves We have noted that
it is difficult for a student to remain quiet when in a dyad, and when the task
design imposes an obligation to transfer and obtain information it may be
hard to avoid negotiation Thus student S made no attempt at negotiation in

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tasks 1, 3, and 4, yet produced two such moves for task 2 Her partner in task
2 was student A, who made 14 negotiation moves, yet in tasks 1, 3, and 4
made only 2, 0, and 1 Another student who appears in all the tasks is C, and
again the data shows that it was task 2 that prompted her most to negotiate
Table 6 shows that group 3b produced results very much against the trend
for the other groups Apart from student E, the members of the group shared a
high level of negotiation moves This would appear to be for the same reason
that this group produced so many c-units overall they enjoyed the subject
and debated it vigorously But it would appear from Tables 5 and 6 that
without the dyad setting and the need to transfer information, the general
trend was towards not actively negotiating for meaning

Modified O u t p u t
The incidence of modified output (l e utterances that were morphologically,
semantically, syntactically, or phonologically altered in response to a
negotiation move) was calculated for each dyad and group Individual
scores were also calculated This data is shown in Tables 7, 8, and 9 Most
modification moves were made by dyad lb doing a task that required
agreement on an appropriate and correct interrogative, but Table 7 shows the
other two dyads doing this task managing only one example between them
Interestingly, for each task type one dyad or group (l e lb and 2a) produced
far more modified output than the others, whose scores are very low and
within a very narrow range, 0% to 2 8% of total c-units A comparison of
Table 7 with Table 4 reveals that the (comparatively) high levels of modified
output for dyads lb and 2a might have been foreseen, as these dyads
produced (comparatively) high levels of negotiation moves The same
companson, however, would have predicted much more modified output
for group 3b than it actually achieved (3b is the second highest producer of
negotiation moves, but the third lowest producer of modified output) The
dyads in general show more modified output than the groups
The most notable feature of Tables 8 and 9 are the numerous zeros Of the
40 scores presented, 28 are for 0, and a further 8 are for only 1 By far the
highest incidence of zeros occurs in the group tasks The data reported by Pica
ex al (1989) shows that their 10 NSs made a total of 327 negotiation moves
dunng the three tasks they were set, and that the 10 NNS interlocutors made
327 responses, of which an impressive 116 were modified Although Pica et al
PAULINE FOSTER 15

Table 7 Number of modified output moves as % of total c-untts


n % n % n %

la lb lc

Dyad Task 1 0 0 7 79 1 2 5
(optional information

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exchange)
2a 2b 2c

Dyad Task 2 3 51 3 22 1 12
(required information
exchange)
3a 3b 3c

Group Task 3 0 0 1 0 8 2 2 8
(optional information
exchange)
4a 4b 4c

Group Task 4 1 2 6 0 0 1 1 3
(required information
exchange)

could conclude from their study that modified output is 'alive and well' in
NNS/NS interaction, whether it was alive and well in the present classroom
study is made clear in Tables 7, 8, and 9 In response to the total of 87
negotiation moves, modified responses occurred only 20 times, and 13 of
these were produced by three dyads In the remaining nine groupings,
modified output occurs hardly at all
What, we may ask, happened to the 67 negotiation moves that did not
receive a modified response7 Thirty received unmodified repetitions of the
problem utterance, or else a simple yes/no response The remainder, 37 moves
in all, did not receive a verbal response Audiotapes cannot help us
understand why these checks and requests seem to go unanswered They
may have been ignored or unheard, or given a non-verbal response, or
perhaps the speaker did not wait for an answer

A 'the sports field, swimming poo! and equipment may be used free of charge '
B Free of charge? What is that?
C (laughs) Yes
A sports day
16 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

A There is this one, this one, and after to camping site near Oldfield
B Oldfield?
C Anyway, the best thing I think is er camping

Unanswered signals of incomprehension were more frequent in the group


setting (24 of the 37 such moves) This is only to be expected, because the
groups were generally noisier, and also because requests for clarification or
confirmation were not always directed at one individual, and perhaps no-one

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in the group took responsibility for answering If we look further for reasons
why students in this study did not take up these opportunities to produce
modified language, we might suggest that the general informality of the
classroom and the absence of any strict requirement to fulfil the task inclined

Table 8 Distribution of modified output moves


within the dyads (expressed as number of moves
students identified by initial)
la lb lc

Task 1 C F 0 V A S
(optional informa- 0 0 2 5 0 1
tion exchange)
2a 2b 2c

Task 2 C R A S J Al
(required informa- 1 2 0 3 1 0
tion exchange)

Table 9 Distribution of modified output moves within the groups (expressed


as number of moves students identified by initial)
3a 3b 3c

Task 3 I V I g J F C S A h E A V S Y A r
(optional informa- 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 1 0
tion exchange)
4a 4b 4c

Task 4 C J F A l K A I g M R R S V S u T
(required informa- 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0
tion exchange)
PAULINE FOSTER 17

them not to pay close attention to the form of their language In the study
conducted by Pica et al (1989) the NNSs were in an experimental context
rather than an informal classroom and perhaps more focused on the task and
its successful completion, they were in dyads where it is harder to ignore
questions Most important of all, however, could be the fact that the NNSs
were interacting with NSs and would therefore have felt an inequality of
status regarding the language Any communication problem affecting the
smooth completion of a task may have been felt by the NNSs to be their fault

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and their responsibility to repair They may, in short, have felt more 'pushed'
to make their language comprehensible That the students in the present
study did not feel pushed into modifying their language is clear from the
frequency with which they passed over chances to do so The responsibility
for a breakdown in communication between NNSs is a shared one, as Gass
and Varonis (1985) have pointed out, because speaker and hearer(s) share an
incompetence in the language But this, rather than encouraging unembar-
rassed negotiation for meaning routines, could have the effect of discouraging
NNSs from the difficult and potentially frustrating task of modifying their
language in order to make it comprehensible A NNS, deciding that a
breakdown in communication is the fault of his NNS interlocutor, might not
feel obliged to attempt a repair
We have noted that of the total of 87 negotiation moves, 37 received no
response, 30 prompted unmodified repetition or simple yes/no answers, and
only 20 prompted modified responses Of these 20, only five were modified
syntactically and only two morphologically The most common modification
was semantic, in which students paraphrased "problem utterances or else
substituted a different word This occurred 11 times The remaining two
modifications were phonological In Swain's (1985) account of the need for
second language learners to produce Comprehensible Output it is the
manipulation of the syntax of the target language which is considered most
important to SLA Whereas the results achieved by Pica et al (1989) show
quite high levels of morphosyntactic modification, the students in the present
study were far less likely to try to modify their syntax In fact, in a total of 918
c-units this happens only five times

Summary and conclusions


If we return to the research questions posed earlier we can say that the totals
for c-unit production indicate that the obligation to transfer information did
not necessarily mean that students would talk more It was the dyad set-up
that was better at getting students to talk, regardless of task type As for the
negotiation of meaning, the totals for the groups and dyads reported in Table 4
show another wide range of scores For tasks 1 and 3, where there was no
obligation to exchange information, the range in scores was widest The range
was narrower for required information exchange tasks 2 and 4 Most
consistent at getting students to negotiate for meaning would appear to be
18 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

the combination in task 2 of the dyad setting and the requirement to


exchange information Regarding the production of modified output, the
totals for the groups and dyads reported in Table 7 show that it occurred more
often in the dyad setting than in the group setting, with the task type making
little difference Overall we might say that the dyad setting, coupled with the
obligation to exchange information, was the 'best' for language production,
negotiations and modified output
However, when the individual scores are taken into account, it is clear that

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even in this supposedly 'best' set-up, most students made only a few attempts
to negotiate for meaning, and all made .very few or no modified utterances
Across the data as a whole, the range in individual scores is so wide, and the
lack of participation by so many students is so striking as to make any statistics
based on group totals very misleading If we refer to Table 4, for example, we
can see that the percentage of negotiation moves per total c-units is higher for
the required information exchange tasks than for the optional information
exchange tasks, but this masks the fact that of the 16 such moves reported by
dyad 2b, 14 were made by one of the students Nor does Table 4 reveal that of
the nine negotiation moves reported for group 4b, six were made by just one
student and that another member of the group made none at all It is clear
from the individual scores reponed here that careful monitonng of what the
students heard and said was the exception and not the rule Such negotiated
interaction as occurred was confined to a few individuals and was invariably
short, with checks and requests being answered briefly (if at all) before the
interaction moved on Extended 'non-understanding routines', as reported by
Varonis and Gass (1985), did not occur even once
We now need to explore why so many of the students in this study were
disinclined to initiate or pursue negotiation for meaning It is not difficult to
suggest possible explanations To hold up the interaction every time there is a
problem utterance, and painstakingly to attempt to repair it is a sure way of
making the task frustratingly slow Similarly, indicating to others each time
you fail to grasp their meaning is a sure way of making yourself look and feel
incompetent It should not surprise us that students are unwilling to do it
This point has been well made by Aston (1986) group-work tasks designed to
maximize negotiation for meaning may end up de-motivating and discoura-
ging students by making them feel unsuccessful and ineffective Pica (1994)
acknowledges that too many clarification requests can be 'downright
annoying' but remains firmly wedded to the idea that negotiating for
meaning is a natural communication strategy that can be harnessed to
promote SLA But a different communication strategy (and one every native
speaker would surely admit to) can be employed when confronting a gap in
understanding pretend to understand and hope a future utterance will cast
light on your darkness (It very often does ) This strategy brings the happy
bonus of allowing a student whose understanding is incomplete, and whose
contnbution is limited, nevertheless to feel part of an English-speaking group,
with the attendant feeling of achievement The fact that in the data for this
PAULINE FOSTER 19

study there were so few signals of problems of understanding (87 in 918 c-


units) indicates that the students may have been predisposed to adopt the
strategy of 'pretend and hope', rather than the strategy of 'check and clarify'
The greater incidence of negotiation and modification in the other studies
could well be due to the tighter design of the tasks used, especially those
requiring information to be exchanged Also the experimental context may
well have made the NNSs more conscious of their language and more
concerned to do the tasks 'well' In the classroom setting, where such

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pressures on task design and performance are off, the tendency could be much
more to keep the interaction moving forward smoothly Students may well
have the (quite justified) perception that group work helps to make the
classroom a more relaxed and friendly place where they can practise the target
language Moreover, studies by Kumaradivelu (1991) and Gore (1995) have
both shown how the learners' perception of the purpose of a classroom*task
may differ very much from that of the teacher If students regard group work
as a light-hearted and informal part of class, rather than as a pedagogical
activity specifically designed to promote SLA, we cannot be surprised if they
are relaxed enough about communication problems to let them pass, thereby
missing opportunities to gain comprehensible input and to create modified
output If we think this is an undesirable state of affairs and would prefer our
students to pursue communication breakdowns until they are resolved, it is
probably necessary to show them how to do this, and why (Murphy 1986)
What is clear from the results of this study is that uncoached negotiation for
meaning is not 'alive and well' in the classroom, and, given the minute
number of syntactically modified utterances, is much too fragile to bear the
weight of the SLA theory that researchers like Pica have built upon it It might
be strengthened by the use of very tightly designed information-gap tasks, and
by teaching students to 'check, clarify, modify' But, as Aston has warned, the
cost could be very high, and Willis (1996) argues strongly that ensuring
learners approach a task in a particular way with particular strategies is simply
not possible The example from the present transenpts above, where the
dominant student in a dyad took control of the interaction despite the design
of the task, illustrates this perfectly
In common with much research into second language interaction, this
investigation was small and limited It does nevertheless call into question the
typicality of previous research into the incidence of negotiation of meaning
and the justification therefore of constructing an SLA theory upon it Farmers
would show little interest in research findings that told them a certain type of
wheat flourishes under narrowly controlled conditions Equally teachers can
be expected to show little interest in research that tells them negotiation of
meaning flourishes under narrowly controlled conditions, especially condi-
tions that would be very unusual in a classroom In fact, the teachers might be
expected to show even less interest because, unlike wheat, negotiation of
meaning has as yet only hypothetical value But even if it could be shown that
checking and clarifying problem utterances leads to more Comprehensible
20 A CLASSROOM PERSPECTIVE ON THE NEGOTIATION OF MEANING

Input and Modified Output, which in turn leads to increased proficiency in


the target language, we are still left with two uncomfortable caveats the
observation in the present study that learners appear to choose not to
negotiate for meaning, and the eloquent warnings of Willis and Aston that we
can't make them, nor should we try to Pica, Kanagy, and Falodun (1993)
accept that negotiation for meaning (when it occurs) is far more likely to be
over lexical items than over grammatical morphology (something observed
here), but they put this down to the type of tasks used in studies so far Pica

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(1994) calls for research based on tasks that will 'tap into grammatical
modifications' and which will presumably show if learners can be
manipulated into negotiations for meaning that will involve, for example,
verb tense and aspect' But this still leaves us with the problem of
generahzabihty An approach that seeks to influence learners' language
through ever more tightly designed expenmental tasks is moving itself further
and further away from the classroom
A different and perhaps more promising approach is being pursued by
Swain (1996) Output (I e saying or wnting something in the target language)
has a three-fold function it is an opportunity for language learners to notice
gaps in their knowledge of the L2 that need to be filled, it enables them to test
out hypotheses about the structure of the L2, and also to reflect consciously
upon the structure of the L2 Because most tasks used in research (such as
problem solving or discussion types) are 'communicative' in design and focus
upon meaning rather than form, they do not encourage, or even allow,
students to reflect openly on the language they are producing Swain proposes
that it is possible to design tasks that get students to produce language and
then reflect upon its structure, and that this in turn will cause them to modify
their output syntactically She cites classroom studies (Kowal and Swain 1994,
Donato 1994 and LaPierre 1994) in which students were given tasks such as
reconstructing a passage from a few prompts, a cloze test on appropriate verb
tenses, preparing in a group a short oral presentation All of these studies
showed students producing language and then reflecting together on its form
Two of these studies (Donato, and LaPierre) used specific post-task tests that
claim to demonstrate that negotiating over particular language forms can have
positive consequences for the acquisition of these forms Swain acknowledges
that such claims are rather contentious and, for some, unconvincing What is
interesting, however, is that the students in the present study who produced
the most modified output by far were dyad lb doing the grammar-based task
on the structure of interrogatives The conclusion one is drawn towards is
that, if encouraging the production of negotiated or modified output is a good
thing (and Swain's case for it is attractive), then tasks (such as required
information exchanges) that are designed to draw students into negotiating
meaning are on the wrong tack They are hard to design, can be frustrating to
perform, and classroom students don't behave in them as experimental
studies suggest they should Tasks that require students to negotiate the form
of their output should be easier to design, as we can see from the vanety of
PAULINE FOSTER 21

examples used in the studies cited by Swain, all of which would be familiar to
a classroom teacher Nevertheless, the fact that in this present study the other
two dyads doing the grammar-based Task 1 produced next to nothing in the
way of modified output should remind us that teachers can create
opportunities for modified output, not ensure that they will be taken
This paper has argued that some current claims in Second Language
Acquisition research are of academic rather than practical interest because the
researchers have lost sight of the world inhabited by language teachers and

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learners If language acquisition research wants to feed into teaching
methodology, the research environment has to be willing to move out of
the laboratory and into the classroom This means that researchers need more
than a good understanding of research methodology and SLA theory They
need the skills and expenence of an EFL teacher in order to be able to design
and implement worthwhile classroom studies without disrupting the class or
compromising the data They also need the judgement of an EFL practitioner
to inform their interpretation of the results and any practical applications they
might draw from them Because teacher-researchers are best placed to
identify and analyse individual voices on audiotape they can gather and use
a wider range of data than that available to experimental researchers who
measure scores for groups or dyads rather than for individuals As this study
has illustrated, individual learners may behave very differently dunng group
tasks and so group statistics are an unsatisfactory basis for research
conclusions All of these points are important considerations for future
research, and would help to ensure that findings are more robust, more
generahzable and, ultimately, more useful
(Revised version received April 1997)
NOTE
I The author would like to thank Professor Peter Skehan and four anonymous reviewers for their
very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper

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