English has today become an international language which is a means of communication among people from all over the world. In almost daily activities, people find themselves have to use English to understand some signboards on the road, to watch a film on television, to communicate with some friends, especially to deal with foreign partners. Accordingly, English language learning is of significance today in Vietnam, and its status in education systems and settings is an extraordinary one. Vast numbers of learners have looked on English as one of the most useful subjects in the curriculum, and spend more time on English than on other subjects (Rossner and Bolitho, 1990).
It is easily recognizable that whatever the purposes of learning English, most of the language learners target is the ability of using the language to communicate effectively. However, there are many reasons that affect the communicative abilities. Many learners, young and old, usually have problems in acquiring, developing and applying knowledge. They find it hard to improve capabilities of using English, to generate response and to give expression. Hence, as a language teacher, no matter what methodology I use, I have to explore and understand how learners learn a second language. And then, what I can do to help my learners apply their knowledge into contexts and situations naturally.
Searching for a solution of this problem, I found that the interaction in group work in classroom plays an important role in second language acquisition (SLA) of learners, which has not been proved much. However, I still want to do this research to express my opinion on this issue. To continue, I will give my experiments that I did in some of my classes. The conclusion will end the essay with the summary of the important points that I would like to emphasize.
In order to answer the question about the definition of interaction, Ziglari (2008) states that interaction has two different but related meanings: interpersonal and intrapersonal. The intrapersonal process can occur within one body, inner speech, or when different modules of the mind interact to construct meaning as a response to a phenomenon while interpersonal process occurs as a social behavior when people communicate in face-to-face activity through oral medium or written medium. In this research, I will only analyze interpersonal process through oral medium to find out whether interaction is related to SLA and its application on language pedagogy by the group work method.
To so this research, I use an idea of experimental study of Ellis (1999, p.153) that "the linguistic environment is carefully controlled in order to investigate the effects of specific features. Often a comparison is made between the effects of two different kinds of input on separate groups." In my opinion, classroom setting is the first environment in which learners have first chance to practise what they have learnt. Sometimes, the situation in classroom that forces learners to use English is the same as in the natural setting. It is agreed by Ellis (1999) that the type of interaction occurring in the classroom may have influences on successful outcomes of the learners. He also states it is hypothesized that classroom interaction is the major variable affect in SLA in formal setting. Abalhasan (1997) assumes the amount and kind of verbal interactions are important factors in SLA. The interactional features are supposed to promote SLA because interaction creates condition for language acquisition or makes incidental acquisition rather than intentional acquisition. Accordingly, learners will automatically construct new sentences when they are trying to use words and structures to perform their saying. Nowadays, a lot of books for learning English published and up-dated regularly to catch up with the change of life. We can meet many conversation and dialogue in some syllabus that is very natural and can completely be used in real life.
On the other hand, classroom interaction is proposed by Ellis (1999) for three types of analysis: a turn-taking analysis, a topic analysis and a task analysis while Ziglari (2008) gives some factors that influence interaction such as the nature of the task, characteristics of participants and participant structure. Besides, Ellis (1999) defines task as an activity that require learners to attend to what is being talked about rather than how language is used. He uses the term "activity" and stresses that the class should be on "activity" or "topic". Topic-oriented classrooms cause learners to control over the discourse. As can be seen, the task-based and topic-oriented discussion plays an important role in interaction.
For this reason, group work is chosen as an interactional method to facilitate task and topic in second language acquisition classroom. The University of Sydney defines group work as an activity that involves students working collaboratively on set tasks, in or out of the classroom. Group work includes any learning and teaching tasks or activities that require students to work in groups, and also any formal assessment tasks that require students to work in groups. According to this university, group sizes can vary from pairs to large groups of students. However, in this research, I just want to focus on the small group of 4 - 6 people (although a group of four seems to be ideal) because the normal size of a class in Vienam is big, often over 35 people per class.
Long and Porter (1985) demonstrates that the use of group work in classroom SLA has long been supported by sound pedagogical arguments. They have shown that for some years now, methodologists have recommended small group work (including pair work) in the second language classroom. Kagan (1992) also suggests foursomes and uses many cooperative techniques in which students first work in pairs, and then the two pairs of the foursome interact with one another. At the very least, groups should contain both males and females and students of different ability levels. If possible, different ethnic backgrounds and social classes should be represented as well to break down barriers among different types of students. In addition, Lightbown (2003) found the following:
Research on peer interaction has shown that learners (1) are able to give each other FL/SL input and opportunities for interaction, (2) do not necessarily produce more errors than they do when interacting with the teacher, (3) can provide each other with feedback, in the form of clarification requests and negotiation for meaning, and (4) benefit from more one-to-one conversation than they can get in a teacher-centered whole-class environment.
In Vietnamese classroom, there are normally over 30 students per class, so it is difficult to give the opportunities for the all members to share their ideas. Time barriers prevent some learners from talking even in the speaking class. In the case of group work, I want my learners to imitate and learn from each other through teamwork which offers them more chances to speak up in class and reinforces their desire to learn through cooperation. The most advantage of a group is teacher can use it as a toll to encourage mutual helpfulness and the active participation of all members. It can improve the quality of their talk under the positive affective climate in the classroom. The group goal is to help each member overcome problems and complete whatever task assigned. However, the activity in the group has to be observed by the teacher, to force every members to work and make a significant contribution to the success of the whole group.
Group work can create a more relaxed atmosphere that increase learner talk because some learners are always embarrassed when they face the teachers. In Vietnam, most classroom time is spent in "teacher talk" and that learners do not participate enough. This is partly because of teachers, partly because of learners themselves. To teachers, not all of them always succeed in generating learners' responses, in getting learners to volunteer or to speak up in class. They normally have to speak bilingually, which takes much time and makes them confused. To learners, they are unwilling to speak in English because of their lack of confidence in their language proficiency, because they are shy or afraid of making mistakes or being laughed at. In a small group, in contrast, each member has a chance to share their point of view. They feel comfortable among their friends, who don't give them marks or remarks. As a result, they will have more motivation, hence the more negotiation of meaning and amounts of comprehensible input (Kagan, 1992).
In a model group, some better learners will teach or help new comers and the weaker. It is due to the desire of showing their ability over others or the want to win other groups. In fact, learners who work in group tend to be more highly motivated to learn and tend to get along better with classmates of different racial, ethnic, and social class backgrounds (Freeman, 2000). By working with all types of people, learners can better understand other cultures and points of view (Richards and Renandya, 2002).
As a result of group work and interaction when doing some task together, learners will find it easier to approach their goal in SLA. They can not only study a lot from their peers but also put what they have learnt into practice. There are more exchanges among learners in small groups, so that they receive more personal feedback about their ideas and responses (Freeman, 2000). Furthermore, when contributing in the group, learners will have a chance to think critically about related issues and be able to apply outside the class as well.
I also do some experiments with my two classes at a college, which usually have 30 - 40 students each. All of them finished general English at high school because they have been studying English since they were in secondary school. Most of them have a fairly good knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. They can do some tests well, such as blank filling, reading comprehension, multiple choiceâ€¦ However, they cannot use their knowledge for communicating and writing essays. Therefore, all of them have a strong desire of studying English in order to communicate fluently and write comprehensibly. For this reason, I choose group work as a method to give them more opportunities of being exposed more to the target language.
As mentioned above, my classes usually have 30 to 40 students and both two classes have the same level. I divide one class , which is called A, into seven groups of five or of six students and for the other one, which is called B, I do not divide but keep the whole class. In A, groups are mixed - males and females, different backgrounds, different proficiency levels. By doing so, I want my students to learn from each other and learn how to get along with people different from themselves. Normally, the members of each group is stable for a period of time so that they can learn how to work better together, and to help create a spirit of togetherness in groups (Kagan, 1992). It means students are not working individually but rather cooperatively in groups.
Firstly, I give A and B a reading text and explain what they have to do. Of course, students in A work individually and students in B work in groups.
In A, some students open their dictionary and try to find the meanings of some new words while others try to do guessing, ask their friends and even do nothing but look at the reading text only.
On the contrary, B is very noisy with discussion in groups. They appear to be busy working in their groups and talk too much. Each member in groups try to find the meaning of a word and they share with each other. They work cooperatively on how those words are used in the context, negotiate with each other to get the whole meaning of the reading text. Meanwhile, I play a role as an observer. I moved around, from group to group, spending a little time with each group to see if they have any difficulties. However, I almost give no comment on their work.
Secondly, I begin to check and correct the results by asking my student to give presentation.
In A, some students volunteer when they think they have correct answers. But, when I ask others, some cannot give the answer, some give the incorrect one, some give the right one but do not understand much.
For B, I require each group to take turn to give their presentation. They explain new words by their own understandings, summarize the reading, and present their own ideas to the rest of the class. When one group is presenting, other groups can make questions to clarify anything they have not understood yet. Most of them give correct answers and can show that they almost understand the reading.
Thirdly, I give my students a topic related to the reading text and ask them to discuss in groups before giving their opinions. I also add that the score of any member will be the score of the whole group. This time, I divide students in A into groups due to their seat position and keep the old groups in B. I continue to do my job as an observer.
In B, because of being accustomed to working in groups, they easily start discussing and sharing their ideas. Some better students explain and instruct the worse ones how to give their presentation. Meanwhile, in A, students meet some difficulties. In some groups, better students talk too much while others keep silent while in other one, no one talk but look at each other.
Finally, I invite any member in each group to give presentation on the opinion of their group. I tend to invite the weakest one in each group more than the good one. Certainly, students in A speak English less fluently and plentiful than ones in B. I continue to do this kind of experiment with other classes and I get the same results as A and B.
However, I still have a lot of problems to overcome for some reasons. The first reason is not all students enjoy working in a group because they only want to work individually, to get remark for themselves. They hate having to share their knowledge with others or getting worse marks because of their group. The second reason is the different levels of proficiency. Some students tend to treat themselves as a superior because of being self-reliance and self-conceit, so that they want to work independently rather than joining a group. The third reason depends on students' favor. They prefer to be a part of this group instead of that group. Students will get interested in and cooperate well on tasks if they can be part of their preferable group, or they will stay passive and doing nothing. Therefore, sometimes I have to either persuade the students or follow their respectation. It is the problem of group work that is not easy to cope with.
In conclusion, as I have said, my goal is giving my learners a communicative ability, that is also my purpose in gaining the second language acquisition of learners. Group work is an activity in class which I use as a method to get that goal. In general, group work is not the best way, but it can contribute to the achievement of learners.
As we all know, the real situation of teaching-learning English in Vietnam is quite different from theory and other countries as well. At high school, hard and heavy syllabus put both teachers and students under pressure that teachers always try their best to complete the programme. Some teachers usually concern the result of their students that they pay attention to teach them techniques just to pass the exams. As a result, most students know nothing despite being able to pass all examinations and even put their feet into universities. They lose the necessary foundation to continue their study. All of things that students can do is ticking, crossing some multiple choice test but cannot write or speak.
For all reasons above, I always try my best to find out a way to help my students communicate in English by writing and speaking. I know this research is not really persuasive because of lacking so many proofs, but it is what I can do for my classes to improve second language acquisition of my students.