|STUDENT RESEARCH||© Czárl Bernadett novELTy Volume 6, Number 1. All rights reserved.|
Students on the outer in pair-work 1Introduction
Students busily working in pairs on different activities that require students to share information and ideas to enable a solution to be found or a compromise reached are becoming common in language classrooms. Hadfield (1992) points out a significant consequence of this tendency:
My research set out to find out more about students on the periphery
in language classes, about their general attitude to pair-work, about the
personality traits they share, and about the traits that are peculiarly
their own. An attempt was made to distinguish several ‘types’ of students
on the periphery in language classes, and find ways of dealing with their
inter-relational difficulties in the group and in pair-work activities
Arguments for using pair-work and group-work
Long and Porter (1985) have summarised the results of several research papers in the field to arrive at pedagogical and psycholinguistic arguments for using small group activities. It was revealed that working in small groups or pairs increases practice opportunities significantly (e.g. if 50% of the time spent on oral practice is dedicated to pair-work instead of lockstep practice in a class of 30 students, the individual practice time increases by over 500%). The quality of the language used by the students was also found to improve. Pair-work and group-work provide a natural, face-to-face setting during which students have to rely on themselves, take on roles, produce coherent segments of language, and use language functions otherwise used exclusively by the teacher (e.g. changing the topic, interrupting, asking for clarification). In addition, Long and Porter’s research shows that students perform at the same level of grammatical accuracy as in lockstep work, engage in more peer correction and in more negotiation, and have the opportunity to participate in lifelike two-way tasks.
It is essential that pair-work and group-work should contribute to establishing a positive affective climate in the group, which will have a significant effect on co-operation later on. In Dörnyei’s opinion (1990), the basis of any coherent group structure is the existence of mutual acceptance and respect between the members. For this to happen, they need opportunities to get to know one another. This process can be facilitated by physical proximity, interaction and co-operation, which are naturally involved in most group-work activities. Also, when a positive group atmosphere and a co-operative climate is created, students are more committed to each other, work harder, co-operate and interact more efficiently, which increases productivity (Dörnyei, 1997). Thus, group cohesion and productivity are closely connected, and affect each other mutually. Consequently, it is very important to start the chain of events in a positive direction.
Besides a co-operative study environment and a friendly atmosphere, it is also essential to lower anxiety for effective learning to take place. Brown (1994) emphasises the importance of satisfying the most basic human need -the need for security- otherwise students cannot be made to set higher objectives for themselves. Clément, Dörnyei and Noels (1994) state that many learners feel threatened when they have to speak in their new groups in front of several unknown people, and that this has a negative effect on self-confidence, self-perception of competence and consequently on effort and achievement. This vicious circle can be avoided by including some activities that lower anxiety, such as group-work or pair-work, which can also prepare students for being self-reliant, taking risks, and challenging their limits.
Establishing a positive attitude towards the language itself is very important. Dörnyei (1997) argued that motivation has about 50% influence on determining the achievement of a learner. He also found that small group activities, especially co-operative learning techniques, have a positive effect on most components of motivation, including language-use anxiety, perceived competence, interest in the course, expectancy, satisfaction, goal-orientedness, as well as on the norm and reward systems of the group and group cohesion.
Willingness to communicate
One of my hypotheses was that students on the outer in their language classes have a low level of willingness to communicate (WTC) in their groups because they have no fulfilling relationships with their peers; consequently, they do not like pair-work, where they are forced to communicate significantly more than in other contexts. McCroskey and Richmond (1990) also argue that the process can be viewed conversely, i.e. talk is important in establishing positive relationships, so people with high WTC do not find themselves on the outer. Therefore I hypothesised that both processes are possible, and can result in a negative attitude to L2 learning and in students finding themselves on the outer.
MacIntyre, Dörnyei, Clément and Noels (1997) emphasise that the two immediate contributing factors to WTC (and to actual language-use) are a desire to communicate and communicative self-confidence. For the first, interpersonal motivation and positive experience in communication are essential. For the second, general self-confidence and communicative competence are needed. It is easy to see from this list that students who have poor relationships with their peers can be in a disadvantageous position in language learning; for example, they have less motivation and less self-confidence. In addition, there are students who find it more difficult to establish adequate interpersonal relationships and to learn a foreign language. These two processes can reinforce each other: the lower a student’s WTC, the less chance the group has to get to know him; the fewer reciprocal relationships he has, the lower the motivation and self-confidence, the lower the WTC. In fact, the chain can also start at “lower self-confidence”, a personality trait, and the result may be the same: isolation and fewer chances to practise English.
The indigestible group member
Hadfield (1992) divides group problems into three categories: teacher-group conflicts, intra-group conflicts and the indigestible group member (p. 149). Indigestible group members are students who deviate from the group norms significantly and affect atmosphere and co-operation within the group. Within the category of indigestible group member Hadfield (1992) describes four subcategories (p. 153-155):
I carried out my research into the situation of students on the outer in a secondary school in Budapest. The participants were 70 students who took part in an intensive language program that prepared them for bilingual education. They were 14 to 15 years old, studied in groups of 10 to 13 students, and had 16 English classes a week with several teachers. They were chosen as participants of the research project because of the intensive nature of the programme and the group experience they were going through. The participants were also my students for a period of two months.
In order to reveal the general attitude of students on the periphery to pair-work, the characteristics they share and the features that make their situation different from that of other students, several questionnaires were designed and administered to the students and their teachers. A pair-work activity with student feedback was conducted. I observed the activity and made notes of my observations in a diary immediately after the class.
The student questionnaire was administered in Hungarian to all students after they had had 130 English classes together. It gathered information on several aspects that are thought to influence the language learning process. Previous language learning experience was investigated because it was assumed to influence attitude. Personality attributes (anxiety, shyness, extravertedness, etc.) were explored because they contribute to WTC (MacIntyre, et al., 1997). The questionnaire included questions about value judgements because significant differences within a group can generate conflicts (Kósáné, P. Balogh and Ritoókné, 1984). Willingness to communicate in L1 was also studied because it may be related to WTC in L2 (MacIntyre et al., 1997). Questions on group atmosphere and cohesion were framed because a good group is co-operative and is capable of solving problems such as the existence of students on the outer (Hadfield, 1992). The view of individual students about their groups can provide the researcher with valuable insights into the group’s life together. Relationships within the group had to be surveyed in order to see the group structure and the potential problems arising from it. The sociometrical questionnaire used in the research was an adaptation of Mérei’s D-4 type questionnaire (1996, p. 145.). Roles students attributed to each other were important because this was a possibility for students to express their opinions about everyone else in their groups (see the ELTE-Leeds project, the description and the questionnaires of which can be found in Kormos, 1998). Attitude to pair-work was surveyed in depth. Several question types were used (numerical scales, open-ended questions, choosing from various alternatives), which gave the possibility for both quantitative and qualitative analyses. Questionnaires were compiled by the researcher, taking the ideas for designing the questionnaires from the literature cited above.
The teacher questionnaire gathered information on the teachers’ attitude to pair-work; on their views of individual students and their groups as a whole; and on their general opinions about the situation of students on the outer, as well as their opinions concerning specific students. Most of it was identical with parts of the student questionnaire (relationships, roles, group atmosphere and cohesion).
The observed pair-work activity was integrated into one of the researcher’s classes with the groups. Students worked with a partner of their own choice on pairing cartoons with their captions and extending one of them into a sketch. Co-operation, creativity, persuading and helping each other were essential. Afterwards, students filled in a task-evaluation questionnaire in which they reacted to statements concerning the activity itself, the effectiveness of their co-operation, and their own and their partners’ participation (see Appendix). I also kept a diary to record observations about students on the outer.
In the first phase of data processing, sociometrical matrices were drawn for all groups using information from the student questionnaires. Only reciprocal choices were recorded. The criterion for students on the periphery was the existence of no or only one reciprocal relationship with other members of the group. Altogether 10 students out of 70 were found to be on the periphery, which is well below the national average of 30% calculated by Mérei (1996).
In order to find the difference between students on the outer and other students, 17 variables, each corresponding to one questionnaire item, were analysed statistically (one-way analysis of variance, using the SPSS [Statistical Program for Social Sciences] program). This way it could be determined which factors generally make them significantly different from their peers.
In order to reveal individual differences, a qualitative analysis was also carried out in the form of detailed case studies, which incorporated the information in the questionnaires of their peers and teachers, in the task feedback questionnaires, and my personal observations recorded in my diary.
Results and discussion
In what ways are students on the periphery different from their peers?
Contrary to expectations, students on the outer in their groups had positive rather than neutral attitude to pair-work (3.7, on a scale of 1 through 5, with 1 being the most negative value), while the total mean of all students was 3.96. The difference was not statistically significant.
Difference between students on the periphery and others, however, can be observed in several variables. Interestingly, these particular 10 students had significantly more previous experience in pair-work and more positive language learning attitude. This experience may have had an influence on their present positive attitudes and an expectancy of success higher than that of their peers. However, they had a much lower WTC in English (while their WTC in Hungarian was the same as that of their peers), which could have contributed to their isolated position, or could have resulted from it.
A lower WTC can be the consequence of differences in personality: students on the periphery are significantly less adventurous and much shyer than the others. In addition, they have significantly higher anxiety about failing to express themselves in English, alarmingly high anxiety about making mistakes, and general language-use anxiety. (The language anxiety variables show negative mean-values for all students.) This is surprising if we consider that they do not have lower perceived competence. It seems that they are more frustrated by the possibility of failure, or by failure itself. This fear can be the extension of a personality trait to language-use situations, and it can block the initiation of personal contacts, as well as experimentation with the language.
Another surprising finding is that students on the periphery also feel that pair-work is useful, despite their less sociable personality attributes and interpersonal relationships. It is even more surprising that they felt quite at home in their groups (9 students on the periphery liked their group, one of them liked it very much). This means that in general they had a desire to belong to the group, but they were not able to realize this aim.
It is very hard to give general advice about students on the periphery, but from the above results several conclusions can be drawn. These students are in need of more positive experience in English classes than the others: they need to become less shy, more adventurous and less anxious. If they do not feel uneasy in their groups and have high expectations, this is a good start. The feeling of belonging to a good group and encouragement from the teacher will help them to be more confident as time passes. It seems that students also need a chance to speak about their language-use anxiety and discuss their problems. Of course, the situation of each student is different, which will be discussed in the next sections.
Accepted or rejected
The main difference between the situation of the two most important types of students on the periphery is acceptance: “an unconditional regard for each other” (Dörnyei, 1990) or its absence. Some students are accepted and regarded as members with whom it is possible to co-operate, while others are surrounded by hostility and rejection, and are truly “indigestible”. Rejected students have generally less chance of meaningful pair-work than students on the outer as their WTC is more seriously influenced by three consequences of their isolation: less motivation, fewer occasions to engage in communication, and less chance of a rewarding experience. This is dangerous because it hinders both integration into the group and language acquisition.
The following description of the various types of students on the outer is based on detailed case studies of particular students. For establishing the specific types, information gained from the questionnaires and my observations were synthesised. As will become evident from the description of the various types of students on the periphery, the categories I established are different from the ones defined by Hadfield (1992). Among my participants, no one could be characterised as a social misfit or a frustrated leader. The category of insecure member was further refined, as insecurity can have various causes. New categories were also set up. The only type of learner on the outer that was identified both in my research and that of Hadfield is the rebel.
The anxious student was the student on the outer who refused to interact with others (I shall use he/his from here to include she/her). He was usually a misfit in talkative, outgoing groups. My observations showed that even if he was conscientious and kept up with the group, he avoided oral communication even in L1, wanting to hide, and preferring situations where he had to rely on himself or the teacher. From the questionnaires it turned out that he liked low-risk situations, where everything was predictable. I also found that the group atmosphere was not affected, only some students were slightly irritated by his silence. He was seen as an outsider, as he did not give the others the chance to get to know the person behind the anxiety. In general the questionnaires revealed that he did not like pair-work: it was too challenging for him. When working together with a friend, or the same partner for a longer period, their co-operation was more efficient and relaxed. From the questionnaires it also became apparent that the root of his low WTC and anxiety was low self-esteem, not negative experiences, bad relationships, low perceived or actual competence. Thus it is a constant personality attribute, independent of the situation, and it is also apparent in L1. In my opinion, he will not be able to overcome his anxiety if he is simply left to fend for himself, and it is essential that he learns to cope with challenging situations, stretches himself, and ‘he learns to swim’. For this, first of all, he needs a tolerant, supporting group where he can feel secure whenever he has to speak. In my experience, he needs a lot of encouragement, sometimes even nagging, positive experiences, time and attention. Gradual exposure to speaking in front of the whole group is recommended instead of throwing him right into deep water.
The silent student was very similar to the anxious one in many ways, but a similar problem had different roots and manifestations. The questionnaires showed that he had a positive attitude, high level of competence, an appealing personality for language learning, yet his perceived competence was very low? he seemed uneasy about using English with less than perfect proficiency, and having to speak made him feel insecure. As I observed, he did speak when he was assigned a task or asked a question, but he did not waste words or volunteer. He preferred group-work to other formats, and he had a positive attitude to pair-work as well. Speaking in front of the whole group was particularly demanding for him. His anxiety was only revealed in the questionnaire: he hated the frustration of not being able to say exactly what he wanted to. There was no tension between him and the group, but he was on the outer because he did not make himself seen and heard. However, he could work well with almost anyone in the group, for his anxiety came mainly from his own L2 insecurity, not from a particular person he spoke to. My experience showed that as his English got better, he became more confident in oral communication, was by far more willing to communicate, and made the effort to integrate. He seemed to be determined to learn English in his own way and needed a longer “silent period”. Thus as long as he participated and made progress, it was better not to nag him into speaking.
The reticent student seemed to be an average group member in many respects. He took part in the group’s life and kept up with the others. My observations revealed that he was shy but not over-anxious. He was reserved but friendly with the others and was interested in them. From the questionnaires I found out that he had a positive attitude and high anxiety. The source of his position was a small but important aspect of personality: he did not initiate interaction with people that he did not know well, even though he accepted others’ initiation. He felt uneasy in pair-work but coped well. Co-operation with a friend was not a challenge any more, however, pairing or grouping him with students who support him and initiate enough could help him to improve his position in the group and gain more confidence. In my experience, some communicative activities could even help him to learn or practise more consciously the communication strategies he lacks and develop a less reticent English language ego.
The hair-splitting student was a completely different type: he could even be at the centre of a group. In fact, in a way he was often the centre of attention. The questionnaires suggested that he was well disposed to language learning and establishing relationships, as he was outgoing, talkative, wanted to participate in everything and did not admit to being anxious or insecure. There were mixed opinions about him in the class: he was either liked or disliked, but respected and accepted on the whole. For so many different opinions of his character to be engendered, he would have had to participate in the group’s life. Interestingly, this is where I saw him to behave inappropriately: he was headstrong and was not co-operative and tolerant enough in pair-work, asking too many questions, and initiating too much. To make matters worse, self-criticism was not one of his strong points. His high WTC revealed him to be a contentious person, so the opinions that others had of him could change rapidly in any direction. In order to improve his relations with others in the group and his communication strategies, several small “tricks” can be used. Teachers can stage activities in which it is essential to listen, co-operate, compromise, and give and receive feedback on participation. He can also be entrusted with some responsibility (e.g. a task that involves leading or organising); his partner can be changed more often, and he and the others can even be asked to reflect on his role in the group.
The rebel was a misfit who had different tastes and opinions and did not hesitate to express these in a straightforward, critical manner. The questionnaires revealed that he had a positive attitude to himself and language learning; there were no signs of insecurity or anxiety. He tended to judge the group as a block of characterless students, from whom he had nothing to learn. On the other hand, the group saw him as an individual. This relationship can quickly change from peaceful coexistence and acceptance to open conflicts and hostility. As I observed, the alarming factor in his attitude to pair-work was the fact that he plainly refused to co-operate with students he did not like, and it was little use nagging him, as he was impatient, easily offended, dismissive and hurtful all at the same time. However, he could work really hard and motivate others if he was interested. In my view, the problem was that he perceived the impact he made, but was unwilling to compromise and wanted the others to accept him as he was. It might be a good idea to confront with the rebel when he is going too far, and ask him to think of others as well. With the rebel, random pairing can have disastrous consequences.
The unsociable student was the insecure and anxious one who did everything to attract the teacher’s and the others’ attention, often by asking irrelevant or simply meaningless questions and by criticising everybody and everything. My experience showed that it was very hard to make him work in class, co-operate with the others and do homework regularly. His high WTC in L1 and L2 resulted in the group’s low willingness to listen to him, but he did not give up, which could not only prove exasperating for him but also for the group. I also observed that pair-work was very demanding both for him and his partner: he needed the teacher’s attention, spoke loudly, disturbed the others, dominated his partner, and there was no meaningful interaction. Usually, the insecure student needs attention and warmth, but also needs to feel confident enough to renounce futile attempts to belong to the group. Open discussion may also help. In some cases, however, the unsociable student can bring a class/group activity to the verge of collapse.
The struggling student was a misfit whose proficiency in L2 was much lower than that of the others. Consequently, he was unable to keep up, he held up the others, was frustrated all the time, and after a while, made no effort to catch up. He was very difficult to work with because successful task completion or even meaningful interaction was hindered by his bad English and resulting attitude. Sometimes it was very difficult to tell which came first, his low WTC and negative attitude or his low level of proficiency, as these factors can reinforce each other’s effect and push the student into the outer. From the questionnaires it became apparent that there were no particular problems with his attitude to pair-work in particular, but pair-work was likely to be a frustrating and demanding experience for him and his partner. He needs a lot of help from the teacher, a patient partner, individual work at times, and opportunities outside class where his strengths can be more easily recognised by the others and where others can get to know him as a person, not only as a struggling student.
The hermit was the very peculiar type of student on the outer who had decided to be there. The questionnaires showed that he had an average attitude to language learning, an average personality; he did not immediately stick out in any sense. Yet he was indifferent about the community aspect of the language learning process, looked down on the group as something that distracts him. He had high WTC and made sure everybody in the group had an opinion about him; at the same time, he alienated the group from himself with his supercilious, conceited, and individualistic style. He was not aware of the cold atmosphere around him or it did not affect him. He had an indifferent attitude to pair-work; he could not adapt well to different partners, aims and situations, and as a consequence, he often could not contribute effectively. Of course, the teacher should not try to integrate him into the group at all costs. Nevertheless, meaningful communication and interaction can only be achieved through a discussion with the teacher where the causes and effects of his mode of behaviour are put on the table. Some “tricks” such as tasks in which he is given responsibility, or through which he can see how dependent he is on others, can be employed. Sometimes, he might simply be left to work by himself if he does not disturb others or ruin an activity.
The teacher’s pet was the type of person that irritated most students. It was not surprising that students totally rejected a person who was obsessed about completing homework, achieving good marks, and living up to the teacher’s expectations (even if this meant betraying his peers). This attitude can be a means only -a sign of anxiety, shyness, frustration or incompetence- to attract the attention of his peers? though it can also be an end in itself. My experience showed that pair-work was not likely to be a negative experience for the teacher’s pet if he could work with someone who did not reject him, and it could even be an opportunity to make him more responsible, less achievement-centred, and more independent of teachers’ expectations, correction and feedback. Open discussion of the problem can help, and it is very important that the teacher should in no way encourage the teacher’s pet to continue his behaviour. Group-building activities and a sense of belonging together are essential to make the teacher’s pet aware of what he can contribute to and learn from the group.
Who does not like pair-work then?
From the case studies it seems that it is not students on the outer of their group who cannot fully benefit from pair-work activities. There were 19 students out of 70 who assessed their liking of pair-work at 2 or 3 on a scale of 1 through 5 and only five of them were students on the outer. The statistical analyses showed that students who did not like pair-work were significantly different from their peers in five variables. They were found to be shyer, had lower WTC in English (not in Hungarian), had a lower opinion of their groups as a whole, as well as of the individuals in their group, and also about the usefulness of pair-work. It can be assumed that they do not like pair-work because they have to interact more with students they do not like very much, and use a technique of which they do not really see the point. However, the questionnaires indicated that they had the same attitude to language learning, the same perceived competence, and the same level of language-use anxiety as students who liked pair-work.
The steps that I would recommend teachers to take are simple but could prove very effective. First of all, students should be given the opportunity to discuss their opinion about pair-work with the teacher, express their doubts -mistakes going uncorrected is a major concern- and problems -many are hostile to the idea of random pairing each week or working with a weaker student. The statistical analyses of the questionnaires showed that students did not have enough experience in working in pairs in primary school: on average, they had worked in pairs less frequently than once a week, many of them never at all. In my opinion, if they are given some help in seeing the point, they will be more enthusiastic and active. Another piece of advice I would give is that teachers should spend a lot of time building cohesive groups and creating a positive atmosphere because the opinion that students hold of their group correlates strongly with the opinion they hold of pair-work. Special emphasis should be put on students accepting each other, even if they have problems getting on with each other.
The danger of high willingness to communicate
As pointed out in the literature review, researchers have discovered a connection between WTC and social position in the group. However, it is clear from the case studies that excessive WTC can contribute to the alienation of particular students, as happened in the case of the hair-splitter, the rebel, the unbearable student and the hermit. From my research it seems that the amount of communication does not always correlate with its relevance or effectiveness, and if high WTC (both in L1 and L2) accompanies low sociolinguistic, actional or strategic competence, communication can break down and relationships become harder to foster or maintain. In addition, the study identified some groups where the main problem was a student in the inner circle and not on the outer; i.e., a leader or frustrated leader with a high WTC who dominates student talking time, who wants to participate in everything at the expense of others and who volunteers all the time. Further research into this aspect of the question could prove very revealing.
The collected data and conclusions cover only a small segment of the factors that contribute to the complex subject of students on the outer. More classroom observations are needed to arrive at valid and reliable data for qualitative analysis. There are probably several other types of students on the periphery who are not included in my research because they did not appear in the sample. The research was carried out in a very special learning environment with a relatively small number of students available for quantitative analysis, so further studies are needed in order to draw more general conclusions. I suspect, however, that the pedagogical implications are likely to be relevant to other educational contexts.
I would like to thank my supervisor Németh Nóra for her support, and Holló Dorottya, Kormos Judit and Csala Judit for their encouragement and valuable remarks on the revised version of the paper. Thanks are also due to all the students and teachers who participated in the research.
Brown, H. D. (1994). Teaching by principles: An interactive
approach to language pedagogy. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall Regents.
Task evaluation questionnaire (source original)
I worked with this person: