Education is the dialectical unity with teaching and learning, the pith of which is communication and interaction. English teaching requires meaningful interaction between teachers and students. It is exactly as Stevick (1980) has put it, success in learning a language depends more on what goes on between people in the classroom (Wu, 2006: 20). In China, great efforts have being made to promote meaningful interaction in English classes but the status quo is still far from being satisfactory.
The author thinks it necessary to conduct an investigation to discover the problems in classroom interaction, so the methods of teaching observation, questionnaire and interview with the teacher and students are adopted. The teaching observation focuses on the quantity and quality of verbal communication between the teacher and students, while the questionnaire concentrate on nonverbal communication of teachers.
This paper is hoped to discover the problems of English classroom interaction and the results of the paper might be helpful to provide effective measures.
2. Literature Review
2.1 Conception of interaction
The term interaction dates back to the American psychologist G. H. Mead (Yu, 2006:10). In general, interaction is a kind of action that occurs as two or more objects have an effect upon one another.
2.2 Conception of classroom interaction
Classroom interaction is the collaborative exchange of thoughts, feelings, or ideas involving a triangular relationship between the teacher, the students and the context of situation (Rivers, 2000: 4). It is one of the primary means by which learning is accomplished.
Through the chart we can summarize the three features of classroom interaction. Firstly, the teacher and students together engage in the class activities and are equally important. Secondly, classroom interaction is not one-way but the two-way effects on the teacher and the students. Thirdly, the purpose of classroom interaction is not purely for communication, but also creating mutual understandings of the teacher and students.
2.3 Patterns of classroom interaction
Classroom interaction can be classified into different categories. Here to name but a few.
In Western education, some scholars, for example, the British scholar B.J. Ashley, divide classroom interaction according to the principal positions of teachers and students in interaction into three patterns, namely teacher-centered interaction, student-centered interaction and knowledge-centered one. (Chen Kuixi, l992:155)
Withdrawing on the facts in China, Wu Kangning from Nanjing Normal University divides the subjects into three elements: teacher, student individual and student group. (Cheng, 2003: 64)
Classroom interaction can also be classified into cooperative interaction, antagonistic interaction and competitive-cooperative interaction based on the interpersonal state (Cheng, 2003: 65).
3.1 Research objectives
This study is designed to investigate the existing problems of English classroom interaction in junior high schools in Shanghai. The author will try to make proposals for improvement of classroom interaction. The research is designed to answer the following questions:
Does the English class provide ample opportunities for interaction?
Does the English class provide meaningful or authentic interaction?
How is the teacher’s nonverbal communication in class?
3.2 Research subjects
The research subjects are selected from two classes, 106 Grade Eight students in Nanhui No.1 Middle School and their English teachers.
3.3 Research methods
This study adopts the method of teaching observation, a quantitative method of questionnaire and a qualitative method of interview with the teacher and students.
Teaching observation is arranged to acquaint the author with the frequency and quality of verbal communication in class. A questionnaire is designed for students to give information on the teacher’s nonverbal communication in class and their responses toward the teacher’s nonverbal communication.
3.4 Data collection and results
3.4.1 Verbal communication between the teacher and students in terms of quantity
Analyzing from the proportion of these four kinds of interaction, we can see that classroom interaction focuses on interaction between the teacher and the whole class and that between the teacher and the student individual while interaction between students is infrequent. There is no interaction between the teacher and student groups.
As shown in Table 2, the frequency of interaction between the teacher and boys is close to that between the teacher and girls. The results of Table 3 display no distinct gender difference in class.
Table 4 shows that only nine students raise hands to answer questions voluntarily and nobody is willing to ask questions in class.
3.4.2 Verbal communication between the teacher and students in terms of quality
Seemingly, the total number of interaction is not small, but the duration is rather short. Each time interaction occurs, the teacher or students only mechanically read vocabularies or texts, translate sentences or practise grammatical structures with little real purposes. These are not real interaction.
3.4.3 Teacher’s nonverbal communication in class
Nonverbal cues are important parts of the communication system used for interactions. Many studies have established the importance of nonverbal communication in teaching. For example, Keith et al. determined that the nonverbal component of a classroom communication was more important than the verbal component (Smith, 1979: 633). Nonverbal signs happen as soon as the teacher enters the classroom, and cause psychological changes of students. In this part, the author designs a survey to examine the teacher’s nonverbal communications in class. The following chart shows party of the results.
We can find that all the students like the teacher smiling in class rather than bearing a serious expression. 80 students in 106 feel that their teacher smiles a lot in class and no one thinks that their teacher always pulls a long face, which indicates that the teacher does well in this respect.
The students express their appreciation to the teacher’s eye contact with them, and highlight that nothing is more annoying than teacher’s glaring at them. Nearly 77.4% of the 106 students praise their teacher’s eye contact with them.
The proximity of a teacher is also worth taking into account. As many as 100 students are satisfied with their teacher’s proximity between them while only six students resent that the teacher either is too close to or too far from them.
In the upshot, when asked whether the teacher’s suitable nonverbal cues will promote the students to listen more attentively and participate more actively, 76 students give the affirmative answer. In contrast, more than half are not sure whether the teacher’s disagreeable behavior will stifle their enthusiasm in class.
Through the observation, questionnaire and interview, the three questions raised at the beginning of the third section can be summarized.
4.1 Discussion addressing the first question
Firstly, the teacher and students have limited time to interact with each other in class, and there is an imbalance among the patterns of interaction. Secondly, hardly anyone has bothered to raise hand to reply voluntarily so that the whole class often falls into silence after the teacher asks a question. Several reasons for the problems can be found:
There are too many students in a class. So individual student experiences a less intense contact with the teacher and receive fewer work and social contacts (Blatchford et al, 2002: 116). This is exactly true that only a quarter of the students had verbal communication with the teacher in observation
The exam-oriented education also causes a drawback that teachers and students attach no significance to those non-testing points. Because there is no oral test in the senior high school entrance examination there is no need to carry out much interaction which seems time consuming. This is also proved right as the teacher and four of five students admit that they think in this way in the interview.
In the observation, the teacher in some cases did arrange the discussion within a group but only having interaction with one student as the representative. The teacher attaches little weight to interaction with student groups.
However, foreign researches indicate that the interaction between the teacher and student groups will perform positive effects on the cultivation of students’ innovation and cooperation and the behavior of the whole class (Hall & Walsh, 2002: 188). So unawareness of the value of interaction between teacher and student groups may also cause restricted classroom interaction.
4.2 Discussion addressing the second question
As far as the author is concerned, the quality of classroom interaction should outweigh the quantity of it.
Unfortunately, the classroom teaching remains at pseudo-communication level according to the transcripts of classroom interaction and the model of foreign language teaching (Rivers, 1972). Rather than being a simple exercise to rehearse linguistic skills, authentic interactions would have the learners involved in action using language that potentially offers them opportunities to transform their reality (Haley & Austin, 2006: 18).
The problem can be reduced to two issues:
Teachers may not have the edge on students in terms of the basic language skills. In this view, it is not difficult to understand why there is a lack of authentic interaction in class.
Negotiation refers to interactional modification made by learners and their teachers to deal with communication problems. It is an essential part of interaction. However, the teacher has problems in conducting negotiation so the class is lack of meaningful interaction.
Example. (T= Teacher; S= Student)
T: Okay, we have finished listening to the tape, and what is the main idea of this paragraph?
S: It tells the boy’s idea about water and electricity.
T: Okay, very good. The boy tells us some differences and also similarities. (Turning on the PPT to show the answer)
In this fragment, the teacher was guiding the students to summarize the main idea of the paragraph. The student gave an ambiguous reply. Then the teacher praised the student and went on to project the answer in a short time without any negotiation with students. If the teacher could exploit the details of the text by asking questions such as in what way is water different from electricity? when the student provided the equivocal answer, then the negotiation might be successful.
4.3 Discussion addressing the third question
The teacher investigated behaves well in most cases. But in the questionnaire, the teacher is said to sometimes glare at her students or cross her arms in front of them, which has repercussions on students and interaction.
Much has been discussed about the significance of teachers’ nonverbal communication. And students, as well, need to understand the effects of their body movements and facial expressions make. In the classroom observation, some students looked back and forth and some just angled their heads to one side. These body language signals their true feelings that they are not interested in the lesson or their minds wander, making the classroom climate not that satisfactory.
5.1 Accepting a variety of answers
To alleviate students’ anxiety in class, it is wise for teachers not to let students feel that they must come up with the right answer every time a question is raised; there is not always one right answer and different answers and voices are welcome (Bailey & Nunan, 1996: 162). This strategy has proved effective in relieving students’ anxiety in classes and promoting students to interact with the teacher dynamically.
5.2 Establishing unthreatening classroom climate
Language learning needs to position the learner in a communicative mode that creates the energy and enthusiasm to generate interactive sentence (Alatis, 1993: 163). However, there is often a vacuity of enthusiasm in class so that students are reluctant to involve in interaction.
Teachers must gradually attenuate feelings of psychological distance, intensify humanistic care to students, and should be clear that they be tolerant of errors students make (Rivers, 2000: 9). If this kind of unthreatening relationship is established, the atmosphere of classes can be more active.
For students, all that they can do is to dismiss their misgivings. A good language learner should have a strong drive to communicate or learn from communication without fearing to make mistakes because it is mistakes that make a true learner.
5.3 Encouraging more panel discussions or group work
Encouraging more panel discussions or group work is a good way either enabling the teacher to reach every student or providing students with more chances to participate in interaction. On the one hand, both panel discussions and group work are cooperative activities, so a good sense of team spirit among students can be cultivated. On the other hand, they are more able to experiment and use the language than they are in a whole-class arrangement (Harmer, 2000: 21).
Given the importance of classroom interaction in language teaching, the thesis holds an inquiry to know about the real situation of classroom interaction in junior high schools.
To get rid of these problems, teachers should enhance their awareness of the importance of classroom interaction and try to create an unthreatening atmosphere. They had better step out of the limelight and to guide, but not to conduct students.
However, this study has been assessed in a restricted way. The sampling scope is relatively small and unable to give a complete picture of classroom interaction in junior high schools in the city. Classroom interaction in each grade has its distinctive characteristics, so a wide range of researches is required to arrive at a deeper understanding of this issue.
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