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LTR0010.1177/1362168812457530Language Teaching ResearchStorch and Aldosari


Language Teaching Research

17(1) 3148
Pairing learners in The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
pair work activity
DOI: 10.1177/1362168812457530

Neomy Storch
University of Melbourne, Australia

Ali Aldosari
King Saud University, Saudi Arabia

Although pair work is advocated by major theories of second language (L2) learning and research
findings suggest that pair work facilitates L2 learning, what is unclear is how to best pair students
in L2 classes of mixed L2 proficiency. This study investigated the nature of pair work in an English
as a Foreign Language (EFL) class in a college in Saudi Arabia. The L2 proficiency of the learners
in such classes is often quite heterogeneous. Thirty learners allocated into similar (highhigh and
lowlow) and mixedL2 proficiency pairs (five pairs in each proficiency pairing) completed a short
composition. The audio recorded and transcribed pair talk was analysed for the learners overt
focus on language use and amount of L2 used. In our analysis we took into consideration the
effect of proficiency pairing as well as the dyadic relationship the learners formed. Our findings
suggest that decisions regarding how to best pair students in heterogeneous classes depend
on the aim of the activity, and that the dyadic relationship may be of greater significance than
proficiency pairing.

Dyadic relationships, language-related episodes (LREs), learners L2 use, pair work,
proficiency pairing, Saudi Arabia

It has long been observed that in teacher-fronted second language (L2) classes, it is the
teachers or very proficient learners that tend to dominate the class talk. The amount of L2
the learners produce in such classes is not only brief, but also serves a restricted range of
functions; predominantly to respond to teachers questions (Harklau, 2002; Long &

Corresponding author:
Neomy Storch, University of Melbourne, School of Languages & Linguistics, Babel Building 139, Parkville,
Melbourne 3010, Australia.
32 Language Teaching Research 17(1)

Porter, 1985; Pica, 2002). One way of providing learners with more practice in using the
L2 is to assign them to work in small groups or pairs. Studies (e.g. Ohta, 2001) have
shown that when learners work in small groups or pairs, they are more likely to use the
L2 for a range of functions normally reserved for the teacher, such as making sugges-
tions, asking questions and providing feedback. Thus group and pair work may provide
learners with an improved quantity and quality of L2 practice.
From a theoretical perspective, leading theories of second language learning consider
interaction between learners as promoting L2 learning. From a cognitive perspective
(e.g. Gass & Mackey, 2007; Long, 1996), interaction provides learners with opportuni-
ties to negotiate language input and, more importantly, to receive feedback that will
encourage them to modify their language output to make it more target-like. From a
sociocultural theoretical perspective, where all learning is said to occur in social interac-
tion with appropriate forms of assistance (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006), peer interaction
provides learners with opportunities for languaging (Swain, 2000, 2006; Swain, Lapkin,
Knouzi, Suzuki, & Brooks, 2009) and collective scaffolding (Donato, 1994). That is,
when working in pairs on a meaning-focused language task and encountering a linguistic
problem, learners can verbalize their deliberations. This verbalization (languaging) in
peer work means that learners can work together to solve the linguistic problem, pooling
their linguistic knowledge (collective scaffolding) and in the process deepening their
understanding of language use or co-constructing new knowledge of or about language.
However, one of the concerns teachers may have about the use of pair work, particu-
larly in foreign language (FL) classes where learners share a first language (L1), is that
learners may use their L1 rather than the L2 in their pair work (Carless, 2008). A small
number of studies investigating the use of L1 in group/pair work activities have shown
that students do not use their L1 to a large extent. For example, Swain and Lapkin (2000),
in a study of pair work in grade 8 French immersion classes, found that between 20% and
30% of turns were in the L1, but noted that the amount of L1 used correlated with L2
proficiency levels. Higher proficiency pairs made less use of the L1 than lower profi-
ciency pairs. Our study (Storch & Aldosari, 2010), which investigated the use of L1 by
EFL learners in Saudi Arabia as they engaged in a range of pair work tasks, also found
modest use of the L1. The amount of L1 used related to task type rather than to L2 proficiency
Another concern for teachers is how to best pair students in pair work activity. The L2
proficiency of learners in any one class may vary, and thus decisions have to be made
about whether to pair students with similar or different L2 proficiency. The available
research on the effect of proficiency pairing is rather limited, and the findings are some-
what mixed. Early studies (see review in Long & Porter, 1985) suggested that mixed
proficiency pairing may benefit learners because there were more negotiations in the L2
in such pairs than in pairs composed of similar proficiency learners. However, the study
by Kowal and Swain (1994), which contained both similar and mixed L2 proficiency
pairs, suggested that pairing students of different proficiency may result in the more
proficient learner dominating the interaction, particularly when the proficiency differ-
ence between members of the pair is large. This suggests that mixed proficiency pairing
may disadvantage the lower proficiency participant.
Leesers study (2004), however, showed that it is the more proficient participant
who may be disadvantaged when working with a lower proficiency partner. Leeser
Storch and Aldosari 33

investigated the talk of 21 pairs of Spanish (L2) learners completing a dictogloss task
(where learners compose a text based on notes taken from a dictated story). Based on
their instructors rating, the learners were divided according to their relative L2 profi-
ciency: (1) highhigh (HH), (2) higherlower (HL), and (3) lowlow (LL). Leeser
examined how proficiency affected the learners focus on language use by coding the
pair talk data for language related episodes (LREs). LREs are episodes where learners
attend to language use (Swain and Lapkin, 1998). Leeser found the highest number of
LREs in the data of highhigh pairs, followed by higherlower and lowlow pairs. He
thus concluded that although a lower proficiency learner may benefit from being paired
with a higher proficiency learner, the optimal pairing for high proficiency learners is with
fellow high proficiency learners.
A small number of studies, however, have suggested that role relationships in pair
work may be a more important consideration than relative L2 proficiency. For example,
Yule and Macdonald (1990) found that pairs in which the higher proficiency member
was assigned a dominant role (information giver) engaged in fewer interactions than
pairs in which the higher proficiency learner was assigned a non-dominant role (informa-
tion receiver). Watanabe and Swain (2007) compared the interactions of four core stu-
dents interacting alternatively with lower and higher proficiency learners, looking at the
number of LREs produced. Using Storchs (2002, 2009) model of dyadic interaction, the
researchers found that pairs who collaborated produced more LREs and subsequently
showed more evidence of learning than pairs where one participant dominated the inter-
action (see also Storch, 2002). Watanabe and Swain conclude that grouping learners of
different proficiency may be conducive to learning, but only if the pairs collaborate.
However, they admit that proficiency differences may lead to different patterns of inter-
action. Thus it is important to investigate whether pairs composed of similar proficiency
are more likely to form collaborative relationships than pairs of different proficiency.
Kim and McDonough (2008) also compared the number of LREs produced by pairs
composed of similar and different L2 (Korean) proficiency. Eight intermediate Korean
L2 learners were paired first with fellow intermediate learners and subsequently with
eight advanced learners to complete dictogloss tasks. The study found that the interme-
diateadvanced pairs produced more LREs than intermediateintermediate pairs.
Furthermore, in the intermediateadvanced pairs a greater proportion of the LREs
were resolved correctly. Kim and McDonough then considered the type of relation-
ships that the pairs formed. They found that proficiency level had an effect on the
relationships the pairs formed. Learners who worked collaboratively with a fellow
intermediate interlocutor tended to be more passive when they worked with a more
advanced interlocutor, while those who were dominant when working with intermediate
interlocutors were more collaborative when working with an advanced interlocutor.
However, the effect of the type of relationship the learners formed on the number and
nature of the LRE was not investigated in this study.
Thus the existing research suggests that pairing students of mixed L2 proficiency may
benefit both learners, but only if the learners work collaboratively. Whether learners who
work in mixed proficiency are more likely to form non-collaborative patterns of interac-
tion has not been sufficiently explored. Furthermore, researchers to date have only con-
sidered the effect of proficiency pairing on learners attention to language use (LREs) by
analysing their data in terms of the quantity and nature of LREs. They have not
34 Language Teaching Research 17(1)

considered what effect proficiency differences may have on the amount of L2 used. The
amount of L2 use is particularly important in a foreign language context, given that the
classroom may often be the only place where learners have an opportunity to use the L2.
Our study attempted to broaden the investigation of L2 use by learners working in
pairs. The study investigated what effect proficiency pairing and patterns of interaction
have not only on LRE production, but also on the amount of L2 use. Our study also
broadened the empirical base of pair work research by investigating the nature of pair
work in an educational context, which has to date received relatively little research atten-
tion. We conducted our study in Saudi Arabia with a group of adult learners of English
as a foreign language.

II The study
1 Instructional context
This study was part of a larger research project (in 2008 by the second author of this
article) into the nature of pair work conducted in an EFL class in a male-only college
in Saudi Arabia. Although all students in Saudi Arabia study English for six years at
high school, English is a compulsory subject for all first year students at the college.
The EFL classes at the college are not streamed for L2 proficiency or major. Classes
include students from computer science, where most of the instruction is in English, as
well as students majoring in the Arabic language, where no English is used for instruc-
tion. Moreover, some learners work part-time in American companies or had visited
English-speaking countries. Thus the students English proficiency in any one EFL
class is heterogeneous.
Observations and recordings of some randomly selected classes provided a better
sense of the context. The observations showed that the EFL classes tend to be quite large
(3040 students per class) and very much teacher-centered. The focus of most class
activities is on grammar and reading comprehension (from a set textbook). The follow-
ing exchange is fairly typical of the classes observed. Arabic words are in italics followed
by their English translation in brackets.

Excerpt 1: Class talk

37 T: for present simple simple present did for simple past So if we if
we are to negate drank how do we do that? How to negate drank? I I
38 S: did
39 T: did (writing on the board) aywah (ok) not
40 S: drink
41 T: drank?
42 S: drink
43 T: drink mumtaz (excellent) I did not drink negation With negation you
have to use the simple form I did not drink water. I did not drink water. Aaaa
if I say for example I aa ummm I write on the board Can can some one
negate it? I want some one to negate el (the) sentence.
Storch and Aldosari 35

As the excerpt shows, the teacher clearly dominated the classroom discourse (account-
ing for 89% of all talk in the recorded segment). The typical pattern of the teachers turns
were: an explanation followed by an elicitation (e.g. turn 37) or a repetition of a students
response to confirm that the response was correct, followed by a further elicitation (e.g.
turn 43). The students responses in the L2 were limited in both quantity and scope. They
were fairly short, often consisting of one word, and generally in response to an elicited
request (e.g. turns 38, 40, 42). Moreover, given the large number of students in the
classes, individual learners had few chances to speak.

Students from two parallel EFL classes taught by the same teacher were invited to
participate in the study. All the students were in the second semester of their first year
at college. Students were informed (in Arabic) that the study aimed to investigate
task-based interaction. Data were collected in two adjacent classrooms outside the
regular class time.
Sixty students agreed to participate in the study. These students were classified as
high, intermediate and low L2 proficiency by their English teacher. The criteria used by
the teacher to gauge the students L2 proficiency were predominantly the students high
school English scores (which ranged from 63% to 95%), their scores on two grammar
quizzes completed in class earlier in the semester, as well as his general observations
made over the semester. In this study, we selected only the relatively high and low profi-
ciency students. The 36 students (18 pairs) selected were assigned to one of three types
of pairs: pairs composed of two high L2 proficiency learners (HH); pairs composed of
a high and low proficiency learner (HL); and pairs composed of two low proficiency
learners (LL).

Although the larger study involved learners working in pairs on a number of different
tasks, here we focus on learners interaction when they jointly wrote a short composition
(see Appendix 1). The time given to complete the task was 20 minutes. All pair talk was
audio recorded and transcribed verbatim, with all utterances transcribed according to
how they sounded. The transcriptions formed the main source of data. However, because
of technical difficulties (e.g. recorder not activated at the beginning of the task), the data
of only 15 pairs (five from each proficiency grouping) were used.

IV Data analysis
1 Language related episodes
The data (pair talk) was in the first instance analysed for Language Related Episodes
(LREs). Drawing on the work of Swain and Lapkin (1998, 2001), LREs were instances
where learners self and other repaired language use or deliberated about the meaning of
36 Language Teaching Research 17(1)

linguistic items, choice of grammatical forms, spelling and pronunciation. In this sense,
LREs represent learners explicit attention to language use.
LREs were coded according to what aspect of language they dealt with: whether with
grammatical form (F-LRE), lexis (L-LREs) or mechanics (M-LREs). F-LREs dealt with
issues such as verb tense choice and use of articles; L-LREs dealt with word meanings
and word choices (including choice of prepositions); and M-LREs with spelling, punc-
tuation and pronunciation. Following the work of Leeser (2004), we also coded LREs for
the nature of their resolution, distinguishing between LREs that were resolved correctly
(), incorrectly () or left unresolved (?).
Excerpt 2 comes from the data of Amir and Mohamed (all names in this article are
pseudonyms), an HH pair. It contains an F-LRE dealing with word forms. Mohamed
suggests the word health and then Amir deliberates (turn 46) about the correct form of
the word. He verbalizes the two options (languaging), and Mohamed provides feedback
suggesting the correct word form (turn 47), which Amir accepts and repeats. This F-LRE
was coded as resolved correctly.

Excerpt 2: F-LRE
44 Amir: Smoke and drugs are a big problem
45 Mohamed: on health F-LRE (word form) ()
46 Amir: on health? Big problem on healthy?
47 Mohamed: on health
48 Amir: on health another problem

Excerpt 3, from the data of another HH pair, provides an example of an L-LRE. Here
we see some evidence of L1 use in deliberations over word meanings. The data comes
from the pair Bareq and Kalid. Kalid asks Bareq for the meaning of the word plant. Bareq
provides the meaning in the L1, and Kalid repeats both the L1 and the L2 equivalent. The
LRE was coded as resolved correctly.

Excerpt 3: L-LRE (word meaning)

Data Coding

94 Bareq: nuclear planet yeah

95 Kalid: plant? What does plant?
96 Bareq: masna (factory) L-LRE (word meaning) ()
97 Kalid: masna factory nuclear factory.

Excerpt 4 comes from the pair talk of Rashed and Karim, an HL pair. The excerpt
contains two LREs. The first, an L-LRE (turns 7374), deals with the choice of
prepositions and was coded as resolved incorrectly (the students wrote on the
heart). The second, an M-LRE (turns 7980), deals with pronunciation and was
coded as unresolved.
Storch and Aldosari 37

Excerpt 4: M-LRE
Data Coding

73 Karim: affect aaa on

74 Rashed: inside the aaa on the heart.
75 Karim: heart L-LRE (prep) ()
76 Rashed: and
77 Karim: is that aaa right?
78 Rashed: yeah
79 Karim: and aaa blood we are breath smoke M-LRE (pronunciation) (?)
breath or brief?
80 Rashed: I dont know

2 Amount of L2: Words and turns

All pair talk data were then analysed for the amount of L2 talk. Two measures of L2 talk
were used: the number of L2 words produced and the number of turns that were wholly
or predominantly in the L2. In computing the number of L2 words, we simply subtracted
the number of L1 words (Arabic) from the total number of words produced (L1 + L2).
Turns which were considered predominantly in the L2 were those which contained an
equal or larger number of L2 words than L1 words. Thus for example, in Excerpt 3
above, turn 97 was counted as a predominantly L2 turn because it contained only one L1
word (masna) out of the four words in this turn. L2 turns (wholly or predominantly in the
L2) were analysed for length (in words).

3 Patterns of dyadic interaction

We then coded our data for patterns of interaction. We based our coding on Storchs
model (2002, 2009), which distinguishes between four patterns of dyadic interaction:
collaborative, expertnovice, dominantdominant and dominantpassive. The patterns
are distinguished according to equality and mutuality. Equality refers to the level of con-
tribution and control over the task, and mutuality refers to the level of engagement with
each others contributions. Pairs coded as working collaboratively show high levels of
equality and mutuality. That is, in such pairs both learners contribute to the task and
engage with each others suggestions. In dominant/dominant pairs, although both mem-
bers of the pair contribute to the task, what distinguishes them from collaborative pairs
is their low level of engagement or mutuality with each others contributions. In such
pairs, learners tend to ignore or reject each others contribution. In dominant/passive
pairs, one learner takes or is afforded control of the task; the other participant contributes
little, and there is little engagement with each others contributions. In an expert/novice
pattern, one participant also seems to take a more leading role in the pair activity, but
what distinguishes this pattern from the dominant/passive pattern, is that this dominant
participant tries to encourage the so-called novice to contribute to the task. In coding
for patterns of interaction, inter-rater reliability was checked by a panel of three raters
(including the two researchers). Each rater coded six randomly chosen transcripts.
38 Language Teaching Research 17(1)

Disagreement only arose over the coding of two transcripts, and this was resolved via
discussion. All transcripts were then coded by the second author in consultation with the
first author in cases of doubt.
The following excerpts illustrate the three patterns of interaction found in our data:
collaborative, expert/novice and dominant/passive. Excerpt 5 comes from the pair talk
of Ali and Naser, an LL pair, discussing factors which impact on peoples health. As
the excerpt shows, both learners contribute to the text creation. They co-construct their
ideas by elaborating on each others suggestions (e.g. turns 5860), offering counter
suggestions (turns 65, 69) and providing feedback to each other (e.g. turns 63, 73).

Excerpt 5: Collaborative (LL pair)

58 Ali: do the do the sport
59 Naser: Yes and swimming and aaa and swimming
60 Ali: walk
61 Naser: swimming and
62 Ali: walked
63 Naser: walkeding the aaa
64 Ali: or do any anything do anything do any sport
65 Naser: do something to help to help us
66 Ali: maybe this aaa
67 Naser: some reason to and what about you
68 Ali: not all reason
69 Naser: not all reason but some reason smoking, over weight, eat too
much and suffer from dibet.
70 Ali: and
71 Naser: yes drive
72 Ali: be careful
73 Naser: drive safety about health

Excerpt 6 provides another example of collaborative pair work, this time from the data
of Amir and Mohamed, an HH pair. As in Excerpt 5, here too there is evidence of co-
construction of ideas, where the learners repeat and then elaborate on each others sugges-
tions (e.g. turns 2526, 2931). The learners seek and reach agreement about the structure
of the text (e.g. turn 2627) and about who should be the scribe (e.g. turns 2324). What
distinguishes this collaborative talk from that of Ali and Naser in Excerpt 5, is clearly the
length of some of the L2 turns (e.g. turns 25, 27) and their greater grammatical accuracy.

Excerpt 6: Collaborative (HH pair)

23 Amir: The main reason first of all I will write?
24 Mohamed: yeah
25 Amir: First of all, the main reason the main reason that affect that affect our
health that affect our health is the
26 Mohamed: the food Now go to the next sentences. What you think?
Storch and Aldosari 39

27 Amir: We write down the main reason after that we make supporting This
is first main the main sentence contain the food that contain a lot of
fats agree?
28 Mohamed: No good
29 Amir: and and sugars
30 Mohamed: and meat
31 Amir: sugar and meat This is a new
32 Mohamed: ok period
33 Amir: aah
34 Mohamed: period
35 Amir: period
36 Mohamed: full stop. I mean this is enough for the sentences.
37 Amir: yeah

Excerpt 7 shows an example of expert/novice interactions. The excerpt is taken from

Gamal and Sahafi, an HL pair, discussing the kind of food people should eat to maintain
good health. Gamal, the higher proficiency learner, seems to take a greater responsibility
for task completion. He takes on the role of the scribe and encourages Sahafi to partici-
pate by asking him overtly to provide or confirm ideas (e.g. turns 65, 71, 75). He also
provides corrective feedback (e.g. turns 75, 77) and checks on Sahafis knowledge of
vocabulary (turn 77).

Excerpt 7: Expert/novice
64 Sahafi: more vegetables
65 Gamal: <writing> all kinds of food right?
66 Sahafi: yeah
67 Gamal: of food We say meat rice
68 Sahafi: juice rice
69 Gamal: something like this
70 Sahafi: yeah
71 Gamal: What else? Umm following some kind of books, they are for-
biddening a lot kind of food. Like meat, like milk ok? Let see
what else what about the food what else. Health also about the food
also sport or messid food. <writing> also sport are important
72 Sahafi: important
73 Gamal: to keep
74 Sahafi: to keep health
75 Gamal: to keep your health. Health good. What kind of sport for
76 Sahafi: Walked
77 Gamal: walking what else biking you know biking bicycles
78 Sahafi: yeah
40 Language Teaching Research 17(1)

Excerpt 8 provides an example of a dominant/passive relationship. The excerpt comes

from the pair talk of Talal and Saber, another HL pair, and is typical of their interaction.
As the excerpt shows, Talal, the higher proficiency learner, produced long monologues
and Sabers contributions were often limited to single word turns, expressing agreement
and asking permission to begin writing. Indeed in the entire interaction of this pair, the
average length of Talals turns was 16.65 words and that of Saber 2.73 words.

Excerpt 8: Dominant/passive
1 Talal: I think we had to choose the second subject we can talk about it.
Aaa its about health. Health is very important or people must be
concern about health because they had to keep his health good. So,
I think therer three things that we have to follow to keep our health
our health good. The first thing. The first thing is kinds of food.
Food must be good must be rich of aaa good elements.
2 Saber: Yes
3 Talal: Aaa the other thing the second is sport We have to do sports
every day we have to do the exercise every day Third is to keep
ourself away from the the pollution sources
4 Saber: Yes
5 Talal: We well talk about all of these things First food we have to to
take food or to make our food I mean we have to take more than one
kind of food every day, specially fruits and aaa we must we must eat
foods every day and drink milk in the morning and I think those are
very important for us. Aaa the other thing is the aaa sport we have
do the sport every day aaa walking and playing football and and
do any do any kind of sports aaa.
6 Saber: Write?
7 Talal: Yes you can write now.

We report our findings for LREs and amount of L2 use first in terms of proficiency
pairing and then in terms of patterns of dyadic interaction.

1 Proficiency pairing and LREs

Table 1 below summarizes the findings for the LREs found in the data. Proficiency pair-
ing clearly had an effect on the number of LREs produced. As the table shows, the HH
pairs produced the largest number of LREs (n = 67), followed by the HL (n = 47) and
LL pairs (n = 24). The largest proportion of LREs dealt with lexical items, regardless of
proficiency pairing, but particularly so in LL pairs (66% of all LREs). There was a
greater focus on form among HH pairs (33% of LREs) compared to the HL (21%) and
LL pairs (25%), and a greater focus on mechanics among HH and HL pairs than
among LL pairs. Most of the LREs were resolved correctly (over 75% in the case of
HH and HL pairs; and 67% in the case of LL pairs). A very small proportion (3%) of
all LREs were unresolved. It should also be noted that there were variations between
pairs in terms of the number of LREs generated, as reflected in the range.
Storch and Aldosari 41

Table 1. Number and type of LREs.

Proficiency pairing HH HL LL

LRE focus
n 22 10 6
Percentage 33 21 25
M 4.4 2.0 1.2
Range 28 04 12
n 29 27 15
Percentage 43 57 63
M 5.8 5.4 3.0
Range 113 015 07
n 16 10 3
Percentage 24 21 13
M 3.2 2.0 0.6
Range 07 05 03
n 67 47 24
M 13.4 9.4 4.8
Range 328 220 110
Correctly resolved 51 (76) 36 (77) 16 (67)
(percentage of total LREs)

Table 2. Amount of L2 talk (in words).

Total words L2 words L2/total words (percentage,

(L1 + L2) with range given in parentheses)
HH (n = 5) 2902 2695 93 (7599)
HL (n = 5) 2980 2897 97 (94100)
LL (n = 5) 2791 2695 97 (9199)
Total (n = 15) 8673 8287 96

Table 3. L2 turns: Number and length (average).

Total turns L2 turns (percentage L2/all Average length of L2

(L1 + L2) (n) turns in parentheses) turns (in words)
HH 532 489 (92) 5.53
HL 456 431 (95) 6.88
LL 484 461 (95) 5.56
All pairs 1472 1381 (94) 5.99
42 Language Teaching Research 17(1)

2 Proficiency pairing and the amount of L2 produced

Table 2 shows the amount of L2 (in words) produced by the learners. It shows that L2
words formed 96% of all talk, and proficiency pairing did not seem to have an impact on
the amount of L2 used. The slightly lower percentage of L2 talk (93%) found in the data
of the HH pairs compared to HL and LL pairs was mainly due to one HH pair whose
talk contained a relatively large amount of L1 words (forming 25% of their talk).
Table 3 shows the number of L2 turns (i.e. wholly or predominantly in the L2) and the
percentage they formed of total turns. The table also shows the average length of the L2
turns in words for each proficiency group and for the entire data set. As Table 3 shows,
the proportion of L2 turns was high (over 90%) across the entire data set. The table also
shows that, on average, the length of the L2 turns was approximately six words. A closer
examination of the data for length of L2 turns for high and low proficiency learners in the
different proficiency grouping (see Table 4) showed that the average length of L2 turns
for high proficiency learners in HH pairs was 5.53 words, whereas when paired with a
low proficiency learner it was 10.71 words. The average length of turns for low profi-
ciency learners in LL pairs was 5.56 words, but only 3.04 words in HL pairs.
Furthermore, although HL pairs produced slightly longer L2 turns (6.88 words) than the
HH and LL pairs, the difference in length of L2 turns for learners in three pairs was
quite substantial. For these pairs, the length of L2 turns for the high proficiency learner
was about 15 words, whereas for the low proficiency learners it was about three words.

3 Patterns of dyadic interaction

Three patterns of interaction were evident in the data: collaborative, expert/novice, and
dominant/passive. Table 5 shows that whereas all LL and the majority of HH pairs
collaborated, in the case of HL pairs, the patterns varied. Only one pair worked collabo-
ratively, two formed an expert/novice relationship and two a dominant/passive relation-
ship. In all cases, it was the relatively lower proficiency learner who was the novice or
the passive participant respectively.

4 Patterns of interaction and LREs

Table 6 shows the number of LREs per proficiency grouping and pattern of interaction.
The table shows that, on average, pairs that collaborated produced the highest number of

Table 4. Average length of L2 turns (words) and learners L2 proficiency.

L2 proficiency Proficiency grouping Range Mean

of learner
Low LL pairs 2.6510.67 5.56
HL pairs 1.185.19 3.04
High HH pairs 1.7114.95 5.53
HL pairs 5.7216.44 10.71
Storch and Aldosari 43

Table 5. Patterns of dyadic interaction.

HH pairs Pattern of HL pairs* Patterns of LL pairs Patterns of

interaction interaction interaction
Said & Masr Expert/Novice Musa & Aziz Expert/Novice Ali & Naser Collaborative
Sami & Expert/Novice Omar & Thabit Dominant/ Salim & Anees Collaborative
Mustafa Passive
Amir & Collaborative Talal & Saber Dominant/ Naif & Nabeel Collaborative
Mohamed Passive
Basim & Basri Collaborative Gamal & Sahafi Expert/Novice Fahad & Salam Collaborative
Bareq & Kalid Collaborative Rashed & Karim Collaborative Hathal & Obaid Collaborative
Note: * The first name in HL pairs is the high proficiency learner.

Table 6. Dyadic relationship, proficiency grouping and number of LREs.

Number of LREs per pair Total number Mean

HH (n = 3) Amir & Mohamed: 11 53 17.67
Basim & Basri: 14
Bareq & Kalid: 28
HL (n = 1) Rashed & Karim: 20 20 20.00
LL (n = 5) Ali & Naser: 8 24 4.80
Salim & Anees: 2
Naif & Nabeel: 10
Fahad & Salam: 3
Hathal & Obaid: 1
LREs in collaborative pairs 97 10.87
HH (n = 2) Said & Masr: 11 14 7.00
Sami & Mustafa: 3
HL (n = 2) Musa & Aziz: 10 24 12.00
Gamal & Sahafi: 13
LREs in expert/novice pairs 38 9.50
HL (n = 2) Omar & Thabit: 2 4 2.00
Talal & Saber: 2

LREs (10.87) and those that formed a dominant/passive relationship, the least (2). If we
take the learners proficiency into consideration, and especially in the case of low profi-
ciency learners, we find that when low proficiency learners worked with fellow low
proficiency learners, they tended to produce few LREs (ranging from 1 to 10 and averag-
ing 4.8) even when collaborating. However, when low proficiency learners were paired
with high proficiency learners, such pairs produced more LREs but only when they
formed a collaborative or expert/novice relationship.
44 Language Teaching Research 17(1)

Patterns of interaction had other, more qualitative impacts on the LREs. In expert/
novice pairs, the expert often offered assistance by providing repairs and checking that
the novice knew the word meanings (see Excerpt 7 earlier). In collaborative pairs there
was more evidence of both learners pooling their resources in solving their linguistic
problems. Thus, for example, in Excerpt 9 we see evidence of what Donato (1994)
termed collective scaffolding. Mohameds suggested sentence in some countries it have
cold weather (turn 68) is first self repaired for use of pronouns and verb form they has
(turn 72). Although the repaired pronoun choice is correct, the repaired verb form is
incorrect. In turn 73, Amir repairs the verb form but the word order is incorrect, and this
is subsequently corrected by Mohamed in turn 74.

Excerpt 9: Evidence of collective scaffolding

64 Mohamed: In the cold weather we should
65 Amir: we should wear the clothes
66 Mohamed: yeah
67 Amir: thats right
68 Mohamed: In some countries it have cold weather
69 Amir: Yeah In some countries
70 Mohamed: in the world
71 Amir: in the world
72 Mohamed: they has
73 Amir: the weather they have
74 Mohamed: they have cold weather
75 Amir: cold weather

5 Patterns of interaction and amount of L2 use

Given the high proportion of L2 words found in the data of all pairs (over 90% with the
exception of one HL pair), clearly the relationship the learners formed in their pair work
had no impact on the proportion of L2 use and number of L2 turns. It did, however, seem
to have an impact on the average length of L2 turns. Table 7 summarizes the average
length of L2 turns for high and low proficiency learners, taking the nature of their dyadic
interaction into consideration.
Table 7 shows that low proficiency learners produced longer L2 turns when collabo-
rating, either with a fellow low proficiency learner or with a high proficiency learner.
When collaborating, the length of L2 turns averaged five words; when working in expert/
novice or dominant/passive relationships, their average length of L2 turns was two
words. In contrast, high proficiency learners produced longer stretches of L2 turns when
working in expert/novice and dominant/passive relationships, particularly with low
proficiency learners.

Our study was motivated in part by Leesers (2004) findings about the effect of profi-
ciency pairing on attention to L2 use (LREs) and the mixed proficiency of the students
Storch and Aldosari 45

Table 7. Average length of L2 turns (words), L2 proficiency and dyadic relationship.

Proficiency grouping Relationship Range Mean

Low LL pairs Collaborative (n = 5) 2.6510.67 5.56
HL pairs Collaborative (n = 1) Not applicable 5.19
Expert/Novice (n = 2) 2.403.23 2.82
Dominant/Passive (n = 2) 1.183.22 2.22
High HH pairs Collaborative (n = 3) 2.385.37 3.58
Expert/Novice (n = 2) 1.7114.95 8.04
HL pairs Collaborative (n = 1) Not applicable 5.73
Expert/Novice (n = 2) 5.7213.93 9.83
Dominant/Passive (n = 2) 11.7216.44 14.08

in our study context. Attention to L2 use is one of the key reasons to use pair work in L2
classes. It is this attention, whether in the form of feedback (Long, 1996) or languaging
(Swain, 2006), which is said to facilitate L2 learning. Our study found that there was a
greater focus on language use among HH pairs than in HL and LL pairs. These find-
ings are in line with Leesers (2004) findings. The LL pairs seemed more intent on task
completion (generating ideas for the composition) than on deliberations about language
use. Deliberations about word meanings seemed to predominate, and the learners at
times resorted to their L1 to provide definitions.
Leeser concluded that low proficiency learners gain most by being paired with a
higher proficiency learner, whereas the high proficiency learners have most to gain when
being paired with a fellow high proficiency learner. Our study, as did that of Watanabe
and Swain (2007), suggests that it is not just proficiency pairing but patterns of interac-
tion that need to be taken into account before conclusions are drawn. HL pairs produced
more LREs than LL pairs, but only if they formed a collaborative or expert/novice pat-
tern of interaction. If they formed dominant/passive patterns, they produced very few
LREs. High proficiency learners produced more LREs in collaborative pairs, with either
a fellow high or a low proficiency learner. There were fewer LREs when they formed
expert/novice relationships with high or with low proficiency learners and least when
they formed dominant/passive relationships.
The other reason for using pair work in L2 classes is to afford learners the opportunity
to use the L2. In this study, use of L2 predominated in the pair work activity, evident in the
high proportion of L2 words (96%) and L2 turns (94%). The learners, regardless of profi-
ciency pairing or pattern of interaction, used their L1 to a very limited extent. Thus con-
cerns that may be held by teachers, particularly in EFL contexts, about learners reverting
to their shared L1 when working in pairs, were not borne out by the findings of this study.
A number of factors may explain our findings. One such factor is the relatively high
L2 proficiency of the learners. Even the low proficiency learners were not beginners.
Other studies which have reported modest use of L1 in pair work activities were also
conducted with very proficient L2 students, in English as a second language (ESL)
(Storch & Wigglesworth, 2003) or immersion classes (Swain and Lapkin, 2000). Another
factor was that pair work provided the learners with opportunities to use the L2. Such
opportunities were not available to them in their regular teacher-fronted classes (as is
clearly evident in Excerpt 1).
46 Language Teaching Research 17(1)

What is more, as the above excerpts clearly show, the L2 was used for a broad range
of functions (e.g. making suggestions, counter-suggestions, providing explanations).
These functions are normally not practiced by students in teacher-fronted classes, yet
they reflect the kind of functions that language serves in authentic interactions outside
the L2 classroom (Long and Porter, 1985). This is important given that in an EFL setting,
for some learners, the classroom may provide the sole opportunity to practice using the
The length of the learners L2 turns in the pair activity were, on average, longer (6
words) than the one-word turns observed in the teacher-fronted EFL classes. However, if
we consider proficiency grouping and pattern of interaction, the findings suggest that
high proficiency learners produce the longest turns when paired with a lower proficiency
learner and when they form asymmetrical relationships (expert/novice or dominant/pas-
sive) than when they work collaboratively in HH or HL pairs. Lower proficiency
learners, on the other hand, produced the longest L2 turns when they worked collabora-
tively, either in LL or HL pairs.
Thus the findings suggest that the optimal pairing of students may depend on the goal
of the activity. If the goal is to develop fluency, then the optimal pairing for lower profi-
ciency learner is with a fellow low proficiency learner (LL). In this study, such pairs
tended to form collaborative relationships, and both members of the pairs produced long
L2 turns. Low proficiency learners, when paired with higher proficiency learners, tended
to form asymmetrical relationships (expert/novice or dominant/passive) and produced
shorter turns. For higher proficiency learners, proficiency differences were not critical:
they produced long L2 turns when paired with a fellow high proficiency learner or with
a lower proficiency learner, and indeed their L2 turns were longer when they interacted
with lower proficiency learners and formed asymmetrical relationships.
However, if the goal of the activity is to encourage a focus on language use, then
mixed proficiency pairing (HL) may benefit lower proficiency learners as long as they
do not form dominant/passive patterns. When working with a higher proficiency learner,
there was more attention paid to language use, particularly word meanings, and the
higher proficiency learner was able to provide definitions (often in L1) or alternative
forms of expression. Although high proficiency learners seemed to gain most by being
paired with fellow high proficiency learners, they also produced a large number of LREs
when paired with lower proficiency learners and formed collaborative and expert/novice
relationships. Watanabe and Swain (2007) found that the experts scored higher on post
tests than novices, benefiting perhaps from the teaching role they undertook.
These findings need to be interpreted cautiously. The study was small-scale, which
precluded the use of inferential statistical tests of significance. The task used was mean-
ing focused. Tasks with a more explicit focus on language use (e.g. dictogloss) may have
encouraged a greater focus on language than what was found in this study. Furthermore,
the L2 proficiency of the learners was not rigorously tested, and this may have affected
some of the findings.
Nevertheless, as other researchers have shown, when pairing students it is not only
proficiency difference which needs to be taken into consideration, but also the kind of
relationship learners form when working in pairs. Similar proficiency learners seem
more likely to form collaborative relationships than pairs where the proficiency gap is
Storch and Aldosari 47

large (see also Kowal & Swain, 1994). Mixed proficiency pairs may form dominant/pas-
sive relationships which do not seem to provide many opportunities for language prac-
tice, particularly for the lower proficiency learners, nor focus on language use. However,
the study shows that some mixed proficiency pairs may form collaborative and expert/
novice relationships that are conducive to L2 learning. A range of factors may determine
the kind of relationships learners form, including the learners goals (Storch, 2004) and
their perceptions of their partners L2 proficiency (Watanabe, 2008).
Our findings lend further support to the use of pair work in L2 classes, particularly in
foreign language contexts, where learners may have limited opportunities to engage with
the L2. Pair work can provide learners with opportunities to use the L2 for a range of
functions and to receive feedback from their peers. Our findings also suggest that deci-
sions regarding how to best pair students, particularly in classes of mixed L2 proficiency,
depend on the aim of the activity, and the kind of relationship learners are likely to form.
Such relationships may have more consequential impacts on opportunities for language
learning than the learners L2 proficiency grouping.

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or
not-for-profit sectors.

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Appendix 1
Joint composition
Choose one of the following topics and jointly write about 34 paragraphs about it.

1. Currently, the Saudi economy is facing some problems. Discuss these problems and try to
come up with possible solutions for them.
2. Health is a concern for many people. Discuss some of the things that may negatively affect
our health and how a person can maintain good health.
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