Taking and Keeping the Floor in the Elementary Foreign Language Classroom: The Strategies of One Child104
University of Cincinnati
The hypothesis that oral practice is an important variable in second-language learning has been refined considerably over the past few years. Seliger (1977) defined practice as «any verbal interaction between the learner and others in his environment» (265). His description has since been amplified to reflect the importance of context (Cathcart, 1986; Tarone, 1983), task (Cathcart, 1986; Duff, 1986; Gass & Varonis, 1985; Rulon & McCreary, 1986), interlocutors (Johnson, 1983; Varonis & Gass, 1985), age (Scarcella & Higa, 1981), gender (Varonis & Gass, 1985), and ethnic group of learners (Sato, 1982; Duff, 1986). How learners gain practice in a particular setting is a function of strategies that they have developed. Rubin (1981) describes the learner’s strategy of creating opportunity for practice. Using this strategy, learners create situations to test hypotheses with native speakers, respond to questions addressed to other students, and otherwise find opportunities to practice actively their second language.
Practice may embody the purpose of learning or communication, hence the distinction made by Faerch and Kasper between learning and communication strategies (1980). These researchers define strategy as «a potentially conscious plan for solving what to the individual presents itself as a problem in reaching a particular goal» (60). It is not always possible, however, to distinguish one class of strategy from another. Learning and communication may occur simultaneously, in naturalistic contexts, or consecutively in formal FL contexts. Learning refers to how the learner discovers the L2 rules and gradually internalizes them; communication describes how the learner uses his/her interlanguage system in order to interact with another (51). How one young adolescent learner gained opportunity for practice in a formal classroom setting is the subject of this paper.
Krashen’s (1980) comprehensible language input hypothesis has been expanded to account for the active participation of the learner in the learning process. The importance of practice on product is reflected in the «comprehensible output» hypothesis (Swain, 1985) whereby the learner tests hypotheses and refines language according to the feedback that he/she receives. The learner must be pushed to produce language that is precise, coherent, and appropriate (248).
From attention on linguistic features of input and output, some researchers have focused on interlocutors. Studies have investigated native speaker/nonnative speaker (NS/NNS) peer tutorial groups (Johnson, 1983), small groups (Pica & Doughty, 1985), and child/child versus child/ adult interlocutors (Cathcart, 1986). Language behavior in small groups (Gass & Varonis, 1985; Rulon & McCreary, 1986) further suggest that the kind of task (divergent versus convergent) and the gender and ethnic group of the interlocutors may also influence the kind and amount of interaction.
Several researchers have pointed to the importance of
learners negotiating meaning (Long, 1983b; Ellis, 1984). In this process
learners interact in order to clarify, or negotiate meaning. This way the
learner does not simply initiate or respond, rather s/he builds meaning through
The distinction that is usually made between second language (SL) and foreign language (FL), and learning versus acquisition may be ones of degree rather than absolute105. Ellis (1984) believes it is more useful to distinguish between pure classroom second-language development (SLD) and impure SLD (2). A pure classroom would be one in which the learner is totally dependent on instruction for SL acquisition. Most available studies are either «pure-naturalistic», or «impure-classroom». Ellis agrees with Felix (1981) that in order to distinguish between naturalistic mechanisms and classroom mechanisms, however, the ideal would be to examine data collected from classrooms divorced from the target-language milieu.
By examining the context of interactions (i.e., teacher-directed, or student-directed), and the kind of language (modelled or communicative) it may be possible to compare whether the same mechanisms of SL acquisition can occur in the classroom as in a naturalistic context.
Most studies involving formal classroom language learning point to the artificiality of classroom discourse (Kasper, 1985, 1982; Pica & Doughty, 1985; Pica & Long, 1983; Tsui Bikmay, 1985). In the traditional classroom, turntaking (giving and taking the floor) is controlled by the teacher (Schmidt & Richards 1985). Communication is often limited to «display» responses by which knowledge is judged rather than shared (Mehan 1986). Classroom discourse is generally characterized by a routine of initiation, response, and feedback, as shown in a study by Politzer, Ramírez, and Lewis (1981) in which 90% of all student utterances were classified «replying». Teacher utterances included «eliciting», «informing», and «evaluating». Classroom discourse, moreover, has been characterized as rigidly controlled by the teacher. When a learner engages in discourse that is not teacher-directed, it must either be sanctioned by the teacher or go unnoticed by the teacher. In a classroom, therefore, there is less opportunity to engage in communicative discourse than in a naturalistic context. The conflict between the learner’s perception of language-as-communication and the teacher’s presentation of language-as-object is potentially counterproductive.
First-language classroom and naturalistic data provide evidence that the context or social environment of language interaction determines the level and number of conversational «floors» that are tolerated (Schultz, Florio, & Erickson 1982). Schultz, et al., define floor as the individual’s «turn at speaking that is attended to by other individuals» (95). Their definition, moreover, stresses the need for interaction in order to maintain the floor. These researchers found that differing cultural expectations for communicative etiquette led teachers to judge the actions of some children as misbehavior: the variety of conversational floors that existed simultaneously in the family context were censured by the classroom teacher106.
Despite the restrictions of the classroom, however, it has
been suggested that SL learning may be independent of the method by which the
student is taught (Dakin 1969). Most teachers recognize that some students are
more successful orally than others in a classroom context. Several hypotheses
have been suggested: Seliger (1983) identified some students as
«high-input generators». These individuals appeared to receive more
meaningful input because of their higher level of oral activity. They received
additional feedback from the teacher, which he concluded contributed to their
SL acquisition. In Allwright’s (1980) study, the need to communicate was
related to oral production: One ESL student, in particular, was adept in
manipulating the focus of classroom discourse to meet his communicative needs.
In a study of Spanish L1 kindergartners in a bilingual classroom, Strong (1983)
found that talkativeness and gregariousness were positively correlated with
some vocabulary and structure measures. The ethnic background of students has
also been studied in relationship with participation in the classroom (Beebe
1983; Sato 1981; Schultz,
et al. 1982). The age of the
individual appears to be related to the kind and amount of language that they
produce: Adolescents are considered to be more adept than younger children in
negotiating meaning (Harley 1986). In both the classroom and the naturalistic
context, learners with more extroverted personalities are thought to be more
successful in gaining oral competence (Krashen 1978). Ely (1985), for example,
found significant positive correlations between risk taking and classroom
participation, and participation and oral correctness. These more successful
language producers may employ distinct strategies in order to gain
Ervin-Tripp (1981) reminds us that children must learn how to get into and maintain interaction if they want to play. In a second-language context, they probably transfer semantic and discourse knowledge from their first language in order to be more efficient in interacting with other children. Chesterfield and Chesterfield (1985) present additional evidence that there is a natural developmental order of learning strategies in children. They cite several studies in which children use requests, game-playing, and attention-getting strategies in order to gain access to situations where they can practice linguistic and sociolinguistic competencies. From their study of preschool and kindergarten children, they suggest that all children will pass through the same stages of strategy development, though at a different rate.
The norms for child-child conversational discourse require a very different set of speech acts than for adult-child discourse (Hatch, 1978). In child-child discourse there is more evidence of repetition, which serves a variety of functions, including «language play», verbal dueling, bragging, arguing, shifting the blame, ordering, insulting, or simply keeping the conversation going (148-52). The opportunity for the child to engage in such discourse in the classroom, however, is obviously limited. In a study involving kindergarten children in a formal classroom, Cathcart (1986) identified different kinds of discourse depending on whether the children were in the playhouse, in the classroom, at recess, or engaging in free play. She found four different situational variables that affected language behavior: conversational control, interlocutors, task stage, and task type. She concludes, moreover, that language samples collected during play activities may not be the most «natural» (135). Rather language must be sampled from both classroom and play contexts in order to assess conversational competence.
In contrast with quantitative research, ethnographic research begins with a different question, «What is happening in this context?» Whereas in quantitative research a hypothesis is stated before data collection, in ethnographic research the hypothesis may be generated by the data. As data are collected, the questions begin to emerge, may evolve, or may be discarded. In this respect, ethnographic research is considered «data-driven». The goal is to search for patterns of behavior, of meaning, of interaction, of belief, etc., that can then be compared to similar phenomena in other contexts (LeCompte & Goetz 1982).
In the current study, a preliminary question was, «How do children gain opportunities for practice in a formal, teacher-dominated foreign language classroom?». The patterns that emerged suggested that some children were more successful than others in gaining oral practice opportunities. The study then focused on the context and conditions in which the language practice or communication was taking place. In describing interaction, a handful of children emerged as being more verbally active than others. The patterns of interactions suggested these children were more adept than others in taking and keeping the main floor, and in maintaining other floors simultaneous to the main floor of the classroom. In that respect, this is a study of deviant, rather than normal behavior. This discussion will focus on the strategies of one child, Cristóbal, in his efforts to take and keep the floor.
The study involved a fifth-grade Spanish class in an urban school system. The Spanish-language program begins in kindergarten with halfday instruction in Spanish, half-day in English. In grades 1-5, instruction in Spanish has been from 60 to 70 minutes per day108. The curriculum includes language instruction, reinforcement and enrichment in music, art, mathematics, and social studies. Teachers in grades kindergarten through 3 are native speakers of Spanish. The teacher for children in grades 4 and 5 is a non-native speaker of Spanish who has spent several years in South America. Beginning in grade 4, children must speak only Spanish while in Spanish class. This rule is rigorously enforced both by the teacher and by peer pressure109.
By Ellis’s (1984) definition, this classroom was «pure». Outside of class, the children had virtually no contact with Spanish. There are no Spanish-language television or radio stations in the community; Spanish-language reading materials are not readily available.
The location of Spanish class in the regular classroom obliged the Spanish teacher to adapt to its physical arrangement (Figure 1). Desks were in rows facing the chalkboard and the teacher’s desk. There was a set seating assignment, though occasionally a child’s desk was moved if he/she was disruptive in the regular classroom. There were two locations for the desks of chronic misbehavers: against the blackboard and next to the cloakroom.
Classroom routine followed a predictable course: the Spanish teacher turned out the lights, stood by the switch, and waited for all student attention to be directed toward her. Management phrases such as, «Socorro, te espero», or, «No necesitas nada en to escritorio», were routine. When the Spanish teacher appeared satisfied that students were ready, she turned on the lights and began the class. Each class began with a series of opening remarks that were followed by child responses regarding the day, date, weather, and Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish. Over the tenmonth period of observation, this routine was repeated in every class period observed. Opening remarks completed, the teacher directed the children in a variety of activities (songs, readings, pair and individual work). At the end of class, she again turned out the lights and the regular teacher resumed her class.
The study was conducted over ten months during which the researcher audiorecorded the proceedings of the class. A total of 54 classes were attended, of which 42 were coded for language samples110. Field notes were transcribed and coded according to the kind of speech (modelled or communicative), the context in which it occurred, and whether it was teacher-child, child-child interaction, or audible internal monologue111. (See Figure 2 for an operational ization of these terms.)
Despite the appearance of a classroom dominated by the
teacher with a rigid procedure, it became evident that some children were able
to break into the routine and take the floor, or maintain another level of
floor with other children, with the researcher, or by themselves112. The categories described
progress from more teacher control to less teacher control. One child,
Cristóbal, was especially deviant from accepted classroom procedure. His
deviancy was not only
The teacher controlled student oral input during the choral response segments (students recited or repeated after the teacher), and when students responded to display-type questions. Display questions were typical during the «routine» segments of the class (day, date, weather, etc.) and also within the class when a lesson required pat answers (e.g., the number of lines in a Haiku poem). The frequency of display responses recorded in Table 1 suggests, however, that students did not share the floor equally during the display-response segments of the class. With a low of 18 and a high of 93 (x=48, s=22), it is apparent that a few students were more orally active even at this level of participation. An examination of individual display responses is even more revealing: Comparing the kind of language in the upper range with the lower range reveals the tendency to be more elaborate. Whereas these responses were accepted113,
T: ¿Qué día es hoy? Guillermo.
G: Hoy es miércoles.
T: ¿Qué tiempo hace hoy? Andrés.
A: Hace fresco.
The following responses were typical of Cristóbal
T: ¿Qué día es hoy? Cristóbal.
C: El día es lunes. No, no es lunes, es martes ahora.
T: ¿Qué tiempo hace hoy? Cristóbal.
C: El tiempo de hoy hace sol y hace fresco, bonito.
Indeed, it became evident throughout the analysis that Cristóbal employed a variety of strategies in order to dominate the floor.
Second to display-response in terms of teacher control were
«initiations to the teacher». Although the teacher usually invoked
the handraise rule, students with personal information to
communicate could often gain the floor
by simply calling out, provided the teacher had not yet begun the core part of
the lesson. This kind of activity was especially prevalent during the first
third of the class, or during the routine activities. Table 1 (column 2) shows
that most students produced fewer initiations to the teacher than display
responses, that is they tended to volunteer less personal information.
Cristóbal, however, produced almost twice as many initiations to the
teacher as display responses. The following is a typical interruption to the
T: ¿Qué día es hoy, Andrés?
A: Hoy es jueves.
T: ¿Qué tiempo hace hoy? Miguel.
M: Hace sol y hace fresco.
C: (Hand raised)
C: Yo veo el programa de Double Dare y preguntan quién descubrió el río Mississippi y dicen que Hernán DeSoto y preguntan quién descubrió México y dicen Hernán Cortés, pero no es verdad.
T: No tienen razón, Cristóbal.
T: ¿Cuál es la fecha de hoy? Lurdes.
L: Es el ocho de mayo.
When students initiated information or questions to the teacher other students often joined in to agree or disagree, or to add additional information. In few cases, however, did individual students manage to elaborate or to expand on a statement. Often, they were interrupted by another student before they could complete a declaration. In the following exchange children competed to get the floor from each other as they tried to convince the teacher that she should allow the children to break a Christmas piñata since she had promised them they could last year. An overlap of the floor occurred between Eduardo and Miguel, then Miguel and Cristóbal, as each stole the floor from the previous informant. Cristóbal manages to get in the last word:
E: (Hand raised)
T: Dime, Eduardo.
E: Yo tengo... ¿puedo hablar inglés?
E: (One breath) Nosotros tenemos una piñata en el parque de recreo y tiene un dulce y señora dice que... cambia un dulce...
M: (Very fast) Tú vas recoger los niños de quinto grado porque...
C: (f; High-pitched) CUANDO MI CLASE EN EL CUARTO GRADO TU DICE QUE...
T: Bueno, no sé. Voy a pensarlo.
The teacher controlled the opening of the floor by recognizing Eduardo. She controlled the closing with her «I’ll consider it» statement. Miguel and Cristóbal, however, had neither her overt sanction, nor each other’s.
Interaction patterns also suggested Cristóbal’ s participation in cooperative problem-solving and negotiation of meaning. In the following exchange children tried to help another child supply an unknown word. The teacher had asked for objects associated with colors:
T: ¿El color?
C: El color es anaranjado. (f) YO SABES. Un DULCE de narANja.
REN: El sol. Una pera... UNA FRUTA. No es una pera.
L: Pera... (Spanish alphabet) P-E-R-A.
C: Pera. (Spanish alphabet) p-e-a-c-h.
SOC: Un tipo de naranja.
C: naranja, naranjo, dulce, muy dulce...
T: Ah. Mandarina.
In this sample children negotiated meaning with each other, yet still with the sanction of the teacher who formally opened and closed the unit. Cristóbal guessed correctly that the fruit was similar to a pear, but he did not know the word for «peach». His Spanish-spelling strategy of an English word was not caught by the teacher because another child interrupted with «a kind of orange», implying «tangerine». He managed to have the last word before the teacher closed the floor with «mandarina».
In contrast with initiations to the teacher, «Initiations to Other Students-No Verbal Response» were addressed to another student. They primarily served control functions, e.g., ¡Mira!, ¡Estúpido!, ¡Rápido!, to tease other students, to joke, or to fill in information when another student faltered. They were generally either unnoticed or not censured by the teacher.
Table 1, column 3, lists the frequency of initiations to other students. Under this category the disparity between those who initiated to other students and those who did not is even more apparent. Two students controlled almost 50% of this type of interaction. Two others controlled another 28%. Some 75% of the total student initiations, therefore, were controlled by a mere 17% of the class. Again, Cristóbal was the most active in trying to control verbal interaction.
Students spoke to each other during teacher sanctioned small
group activities and when they were not censured by the teacher. Table 1,
column 4 records the latter type of exchange, i.e., those that were controlled
by students. In contrast with the previous category, these initiations resulted
in an exchange of information or some other kind of response from a student
EV: Doctora T. no tiene mapo. (Referring to researcher)
C: No necesita mapo.
EV: No sabes nada. Necesita mapo.
C: Pero tú no sabes nada.
EV: ¿Qué tú dices?
C: ¿Qué es «mapo»?
EV: No, mapa.
C:¡Sí! ¡Mapa! ¡Necesita mapa! ¡Qué estúpido!
Via insult, Cristóbal cajoled Evita into discovering her error, mapo for mapa.
A final example of Cristóbal controlling the floor occurred during a segment in which several children negotiated both form and meaning of an utterance. Students helped Evita as she wrote the day’s weather expressions on the chalkboard, but Cristóbal is the one who effectively closes the floor:
T: ¿Qué tiempo hace?
EV: (Hand raised) Está noviendo. (Evita is writing at chalk board)
L: ¿NOVIENDO? ¿Qué es ESto?
EV: Está nevando. Es hace mucho frío... Hace mucho frío.
L: no es NIE...
SOC: BORRADOR. (Spanish alphabet) ne-v-a-n-d-a
L: (Very fast) O
EV: (To SS) ¿Mucho frío?
E: NO. FrESco
C: TÚ es frESco.
In this exchange, children teased Evita for the form she used- «noviendo» instead of «nevando». They also corrected her spelling, corrected each other, questioned the difference between cold («frío») and cool («fresco»). Cristóbal finished the discourse unit with the verbal jab: «You’re the fresh one!» The teachers failure to censure the interaction served as an opportunity for these children to engage in communicative language practice.
Children often used the whispered teasing comments to each other during instruction as in the following exchange between Cristóbal and Eduardo. The teacher was explaining Valentine’s Day:
C: (To Eduardo, p) ¿Qué es enamorado?
C: ¿En febrero?...El día es...
E: (p) TÚ NO SABES
C: Sí. catorce... Oh, LABIOS
E: (Disdainful look)
This whispered exchange allowed Cristóbal the opportunity to both clarify meaning and to tease Eduardo about being in love. Eduardo’s «You don’t know anything» was upstaged by Cristóbal’s swooning, «lips!»
These exchanges demonstrated a pattern of how Cristóbal, especially could take the floor, negotiate meaning, and close the discourse unit, often with a final insult. Some of these exchanges were overtly recognized by the teacher, others occurred as a subfloor to the main floor of the classroom.
The last category of student initiation observed is recorded in column 5 of Table 1. Of the few students who spoke aloud to themselves during the course of instruction, Cristóbal again dominated. These internal audible monologues served to comment on instruction, or to play with language. Although the teacher did not formally recognize these monologues, she did nothing to stop them.
Cristóbal seemed impatient that he would not have time to do his report on Magallanes:
C: (soto voce) ¡Rápido, rápido! Magallanes. Rápido, muy rápido. ¿Balboa? No. ¡Magallanes!
As Carla is giving her report, Cristóbal softly accompanies her speech:
CARLA: Balboa cruza el océano... Este es España. Cruzó el Océano Atlántico después a Panamá, y el costa del océano Pacífico...
C: (soto voce) No es mucho. No es nada. Cruzó... Océano Atlántico, Océano Pacifico, costa...
Cristóbal also audibly played with language. As on the other floors, this in-between floor provided opportunity to tease and insult. Miguel asked the teacher for a word that begins with the letter «M» for an acrostic he was doing of his name. Simultaneous with the teacher’s response, Cristóbal conducted the following internal monologue:
T: (Responding to Miguel)
C: (To self) Miguel. Miguel. Tiene una «m». Mucha habla. Miguel. Miguel.
In the following sample, Cristóbal and Eduardo
maintained dual monologues while the teacher
T: ¿Dónde se encuentra la América del Sur? (Recognizes S)
S: Cuatrocientos veintidós.
E: (To self) Cuatrocientos veintidós.
C: (To self) El mapa de los Estados Unidos. Veintidós. Veintitrés... uh... Noventa y dos, noventa y tres. Oh, yo veo. Yo sabe.
T: ¿Dónde está el Río Grande? (Recognizes ADR)
ADR: El Río Grande está aquí.
C: (To self) ¿Tejas?... Ah, Tejas. Hola, Tejas. YO TENGO TEJAS.
T: (To class) No es necesario dibujar la República Dominicana.
E: Yo sabes. Adiós República Dominicana. QUE FÁCIL.
Both Eduardo and Cristóbal seemed to anthropomorphize elements of their assignment. Cristóbal greeted Texas and Eduardo, perhaps having overheard the greeting, bade «good-bye» to the Dominican Republic, then commented on how simple it was to eliminate a country.
As noted above, students who had more turns at the floor overall, tended to produce more elaborate language even during the display-response turns. One student, Cristóbal, was especially active in dominating all levels of the floor, whether or not it involved the sanction of the teacher. He would correct himself, comment on and restate what he and others were saying, tease, and use other means to verbally control the floor.
Referring back to the map of the classroom (Figure 1), one will note that his behavior during the regular classroom was such that he was usually seated in a misbehavior zone. Other evidence of misbehavior included often having his name on the board for rule infractions and being the target of numerous disciplinary actions. It is noteworthy, on the one hand, that despite the physical limitations placed on him, he developed strategies to allow him to have an exaggerated share of the floor. The total number of display plus initiations is almost twice that of any other student. Seliger (1983) might call Cristóbal a high-input generator. However, not all of his behavior generated input; rather, it appeared to reflect well-developed language learning, communication, and practice strategies in order to function within the physical and social restraints of the classroom.
A final question deals with what effect these strategies may have had on Cristóbal’s second-language development. Whereas his oral ability appeared to be more complex than others in the class, his formal evaluation was based on traditional paper and pencil tests, and on teacher recommendation. In these areas, his behavior proved to be counterproductive: Based on his grades in other classes, Cristóbal was not allowed the following year to take content-area classes in Spanish.
This was a study performed in a classroom that had virtually no contact with the target culture. As an ethnographic study, the findings are entirely based on what can be observed without intervention of the researcher. Naturally, subvocalizations and thought processes that are important in language acquisition are not apparent. The study does, however, provide additional insight into overt dynamics of a formal SL classroom.
In the case of Cristóbal, we see a child who transferred strategies from first language in order to gain practice and communication opportunities. Speech acts that have been attributed to children in naturalistic contexts (insulting, teasing, playing: Peck 1978; 1980) were evident in Cristóbal’s behavior in the SL classroom as well.
In the traditional classroom, turn-taking or giving and taking the floor is controlled by the teacher (Schmidt & Richards 1985). This study, in contrast, provides evidence that some children can develop strategies to maintain other floors within the constraints of the classroom. Cristóbal often maintained a personal floor, with or without interlocutors, simultaneous to the main floor. In contrast with Schultz, et al.’s (1982) definition that a floor must have both a speaker and a listener, the current study argues for the definition of a third level of floor in the classroom. By means of an audible monologue, Cristóbal interacted internally, thus employing a practice strategy in which he was at once speaker and listener.
In Cathcart’s study of kindergarten children in a
bilingual classroom, she found that children’s discourse varied as a function
of interlocutor (adult or child), task (negotiating or already established),
and control. In the present study, a variability of language was evident with
regard to interlocutor: Directives, for example, were only used with other
children. Some children
Previous classroom research has provided evidence that the ethnic group of the learner may be a variable in determining how he/she will behave in different contexts (Schultz, et al.,1982). How the ethnic composition of this class may have contributed to the amount and kind of verbal interaction is a question that still needs to be addressed.
The age of the learner has also been cited as an important variable. Since the observed students were primarily adolescents, it is expected that they would be active in negotiating meaning. Longitudinal research should be conducted with younger children in order to gain understanding of the development of these strategies. Studies in «less-pure» classrooms, with older or younger children, with other ethnic groups, and with immersion and partial-immersion programs will add to our understanding of child practice strategies in the SL classroom.
Finally, further research is needed to better identify at what point positive learning, communication, and practice strategies, such as those displayed by Cristóbal are so disruptive as to become counterproductive. In Spanish class the omnipresent rule of «Spanish only» was more important than the social constraints attributed to a traditional classroom. Eventually, however, the distinction between classroom and play contexts must become more clear in order for the child to survive in an educational context. Additional investigation into what, if any effect, this exaggerated participation has on formal language-learning measures is also needed. Oral expressiveness in the formal classroom setting may not be measured by traditional testing procedures.
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