Sway Students in the Foreign Language Classroom

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  • Sway Students in the Foreign Language Classroom

    Christian Jan Faltis The University of Alabama

    ABSTRACTA sway student in the foreign language classroom is a student who is not only capable of displaying linguistic knowledge, but also knows when and how to interact appropriately with the teacher. This study examines how six sway students affected the organization of interaction and language develop- ment in a traditional high school Spanish class.* The data indicate that the teacher selectively organized in- teraction around sway students at key points in the development of a lesson as well as when non-swaystu- dents made errors. The overalleffect of sway students was that they allowed the teacher to progress effective- ly through the lesson, with the result of increased amounts of comprehensible input for the entire class.

    Introduction A typical beginning-level high school foreign-

    language classroom contains one teacher and up to 25 students. Students are arranged in four or five rows, with the teacher usually positioned in the front of the class throughout most of the period. Each student has a textbook and often an accompanying workbook for use in classroom activities. The teachers responsibility is of course to help each and every one of the students develop proficiency in the foreign language. But how does one teacher accomplish such a feat? The position taken in this paper is that the answer may lie in class- room interactional strategies orchestrated between the teacher and certain key students, sway students.

    A sway student in a foreign language classroom is a student who has learned how to interact verbally with the teacher in the foreign language. In this case, inter- actional competence refers not only to the ability to use

    Christian Jan Faltis (Ph.D., Stanford University) is Assistant Pro- fessor of Second Language and Multicultural Education in the Col- lege of Education, University of Alabama, University, AL.

    the foreign language, but to an awareness of the struc- ture of verbal interaction as well. Because of their in- teractional competence, sway students may serve a role in classroom discourse not considered in previous work: that of swaying the teachers instructional strategies at crucial points during the development of large-group language learning exercises. In doing so, sway students may contribute to the overall develop- ment of the class because they increase the amount of meaningful foreign language input.

    While research has shown that students do influence the teacher in a number of important ways [for exam- ple, when the teacher gears the teaching style in accord- ance with the students learning styles (6)], there is virtually no research on students who emerge as key participants in the interaction between the teacher and students. Lundgren (9) coined the term steering group to describe students between the loth and 25th percentiles in general ability who set the pace and supply norms for the teacher by determining the time spent by the whole class on specific lessons. In an early study on classroom life, Smith and Geoffrey (14) allud- ed to student court jesters: students with special in- teractional skill who influenced the teachers behavior in the class. They speculated that most classrooms have jesters, but did not explore the concept in any great detail. More recently, Seliger (13) studied the op- portunities for classroom language use that learners create for themselves. He posited two kinds of learners: High Input Generators and Low Input Generators. According to Seliger, some students are good at creating these opportunities and do so in a consistent or patterned manner while other students

    *This study was funded by a grant from the University of Alabama Faculty Research Grants Committee.

    Foreign Lunguage Annals, 19, No. 3. 1986 195


    play a relatively more passive role in the language class? (13, p. 251) The main thrust of his work was to determine whether HIGS achieved at a significantly higher level and better rate than LIGS; the organiza- tion of classroom interaction was not investigated. In fact, to date, no studies have examined how key stu- dents in foreign language classrooms exert influence on the teacher during the teaching of language content.

    This article describes how six sway students in a traditional high school Spanish class of 24 students af- fected the teachers organization of interactional strategies. Traditional is defined here in terms of the preferred mode of instruction; namely, the predomi- nant use of questions to which the teacher already knows the answer (8). Underlying the use of known in- formation (display) questions is a pedagogically- based need on the part of the teacher to control the in- structional form and content for all students in the class (3).

    In a traditional classroom, interaction between the teacher and students is organized around a basic three- part structure: inithtion-reply-evaluation (10). This basic structure is in turn composed of two adjacency pairs (12; 2). Two items form an adjacency pair when one item is conditionally dependent upon the other item. In this case, initiation-wply forms the first ad- jacency pair: a question by the teacher requires a response. Once the response is obtained, the newly formed pair becomes the first part of the second ad- jacency pair. An evaluation of the initiation-reply pair constitutes the second part of the second adjacency pair. Interaction is sustained to theextent that two ad- jacency pairs are repeated in succession. When the response to a solicitation does not immediately appear, the teacher may exercise one or more options until the desired response appears. As soon as the response is given, the teacher is free to evaluate the content of the reply and continue the interactional sequence.

    There are, however, only certain times during a lesson when teachers engage students in interactional sequences. %idly, teachers present a lesson in three identifiable, but often overlapping phases: preview, view, and review (1). During the preview phase, the teacher may call upon several students to display an in- itial understanding of the concept just introduced. The greatest amount of interaction takes place during the view phase, when students practice the new concept through a number of structured activities. During the review phase, the teacher summarizes the lesson, call- ing upon students intermittently to emphasize impor- tant points.

    In order to progress effectively from one phase to the next, the teacher must be able to select students

    who will respond correctly to requests for information. A correct response is required before a sequence can be evaluated and thus consummated. In other words, the teacher cannot move forward in the exercise without obtaining a correct response. 7%k means that the teachers first interactional move is highly depen- dent on the perceived ability of the student. The teacher must learn which students are most likely to respond correctly, which ones will risk responding to unfamiliar material, and which ones prefer not to talk at all. This information becomes crucial for making instructional decisions about which students to engage in interaction during the development of a language learning lesson and may ultimately affect the overall development of the class.

    A Study of Sway Students in a Foreign Language Classroom

    The purpose of the study was to explore when and how teaching decisions concerning interaction were af- fected by sway students. One classroom was selected for observation over a three-month period. The obser- vation focused on interaction between the teacher and students as the teacher progressed through daily lessons. n o major questions guided the study:

    1. Did the teacher organize interaction around sway students? 2. Did sway students increase the overall amount of comprehensible input in the foreign language?

    The first question relates to the way opportunities for interaction were distributed in class. The two most important interactional opportunities considered were those occurring at the beginning of a topic change and those occurring immediately after an incorrect re- sponse. The second question addresses the role sway students may have had in contributing to the overall development of the class by providing a continued source of comprehensible input, a source in addition to the teachers input. Important considerations were the quality and timing of the output produced by the sway students.

    i%extting. The study took place in a west Alabama 9th-lOth grade public high school. The class selected for systematic observation was a Spanish I1 class of 24 students who met five days a week for one hour a day. This class was selected from two other potential Spanish I1 classes in the area, primarily because the teacher was willing to allow the researcher and his assistant to enter and study the class for a full semester.

    Three ethnic groups were represented in the class: Black, Anglo, and Hispanic. There were 12 Black stu-

  • MAY 1986 197

    dents, 11 Anglo students, and 1 Hispanic student; 16 of the 24 students were female, 8 were male.

    Colorfully decorated with bullfight posters, stu- dent-made pifiatas, and a number of small pictures of the Spanish-speaking world, the classroom was organized into five rows of desks, with a maximum of six students per row. The front wall was fully covered with a chalkboard which was frequently used along with an overhead projector and screen to present language exercises. Figure 1 presents a birds-eye view of the classroom seating arrangement.

    Figure 1 Classroom Seating Chart

    Front of the Classroom

    Each time either the teacher or student initiated an in- teractio