Stories from the Classroom

I thought I’d share here two stories from my own class that might illustrate some of the problems implementing a sociocultural approach within a specifically English as a foreign language classroom and what is says about, perhaps, cultural or contextual beliefs about classroom discourse.

The first was a girl of five in a new young learners class who, while I was organising an activity, turned to another student and said (in L1 Japanese) “Why does this guy keep talking at us?!” Before this, on the surface, she seemed quite badly behaved – she would talk a lot in L1 and run around the classroom – but once she said that I realised that she was merely interpreting her role within this classroom space in a fundamentally different way which explained a lot of her behaviour, and it stemmed from a clash of beliefs about the function of the classroom space and what was actually occurring within it. For her, the classroom was a ‘play’ space as opposed to a ‘learning’ space and so she interacted according to those beliefs. Within this ‘play’ space, she had no need for an L2. The L2 here becomes, in fact, a barrier to her perceived function of the space as it merely interrupted her play and she would react against it accordingly.

The second example was a lady in her 50s or 60s in a group general English class who, during a role-play activity, turned to me and said, in some distress, “Teacher, what should I say?!” I think in this case, and I’ve encountered similar examples many times, the problem was the result of more cultural beliefs about learning, the classroom and students’ role within it. For her, I think, the classroom is not, in fact, a ‘communicative’ space within which her role is to genuinely interact but is instead a ‘performance’ space, more like a test, where her role is to demonstrate knowledge of the correct answer and the teacher plays an ‘adjudicating’ role. A more open-ended situation like in a role-play, however, can lead the student to occasionally freeze, just as some people are better than others at open-ended test situations.

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Book: Language Learning and Teacher Education

I’ve been reading recently Hawkins, M.R. (Ed) Language Learning and Teacher Education: A Sociocultural Approach. It has a number of articles influenced by SFL and also similar approaches focusing learner identity within the classroom and, in particular, a Vygotskian perspective to classroom practice. The book moves through five parts, giving a very good account of a shift from a traditional approach to ESL focusing on individual learners in isolation to one in which learning is “embedded in and shaped by situated social interactions” (p. 3).

Parts 1 & 2 present a theoretical overview of this concept of learners engaging in the construction of what Gee describes as “socially-situated identities” (p. 17), not through ‘learning English’ but through participation in “Discourse” (p. 24) which is ways of enacting and recognizing social identity and activity through language. Parts 3 & 4 give a description of the pedagogical applications of this approach for the classroom in various contexts, mainly in Australian and US ESL programmes, while Part 5 discusses the implications of a sociocultural approach for language teacher education.

Overall, the book gives a very informative and stimulating introduction to sociocultural approaches to language teaching. I especially liked the point-by-point comparison of this to traditional Second Language Acquisition. I think the best thing about the book, however, is the inclusion of several learner stories throughout that really bring the real-world implications of teaching and learning a second language to life.