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Foreign language learning with CMC: Forms of online instructional discourse in a hybrid Russian class

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Foreign language learning with CMC: Forms of online instructional discourse in a hybrid Russian class
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  Foreign language learning with CMC: formsof online instructional discourse in ahybrid Russian class Carla Meskill * , Natasha Anthony Department of Educational Theory and Practice, University at Albany,State University of New York, ED115 Albany, NY 12222, USA Abstract Where the role of instructor discourse has been the focus of much recent research on asyn-chronous online instruction, the anatomy of effective instructional discourse of foreign lan-guage educators has yet to be examined. Indeed, the majority of work in the area of foreign language and telecommunications has concentrated on student–student, student–peerinteraction and the power through autonomy these dyads encourage. Little attention has yetbeen given to specific language strategies used by teachers in online conversations that are instructional  in nature. The authors examine the online teaching strategies employed by theteacher of a first-year Russian class that integrated Computer Mediated Communication  Keywords: Computer Mediated Communication; Asynchronous; Teaching and Learning; CommunicativeLanguage Teaching; Form-focused Instruction; Instructional Conversations; Teacher online discourse 1. Introduction Contemporary approaches to foreign language instruction tend to adhere to prin-ciples established over the past four decades in the field of second language acquisi-tion as influenced by sociocultural theory. The sum of these principles form a generalapproach to instruction widely labeled ‘‘Communicative Language Teaching’’(CLT). Sociocultural or CLT approaches are based on the following key premises:that language is best learned through the active negotiation of meaning (Ellis,1996; Long, 1991) and that, consequently, a chief role for the language educator isto design, implement, guide, and scaffold such opportunities (Savignon, 1991; vanLier, 1996). Learners Õ linguistic development results from skilled instructors employ-ing verbal routines and techniques that guide learners in their communication at-tempts; indeed, instructor-scaffolded learner communication that focuses learnerattention on target forms is widely viewed as a key locus of language learning (An-ton, 1999; Belz, 2002; Cook, 2001; Ellis, 1996; Lightblown and Spada, 1993; Pica,1995). Such dynamic instructional scaffolds guide learner attention, comprehension,and production. Generating appropriate instructional supports at appropriate mo-ments can be difficult for both teachers and learners in real time: for teachers in thatdetecting ideal teachable moments and optimal strategies to support and augmentthese during real time communication with a number of learners is demanding atbest; for learners the rapid pace of human interaction in the target language canmean that what the best teachers may intend to happen through their guidanceand scaffolding efforts may pass right under students Õ radar as they focus on unfamil-iar words, structures, and the intentions of their interlocutors.Extending learner opportunities for engaging in communicative practice in the tar-get language via telecommunications has been widely lauded and numerous pilotCMC projects initiated and documented (Cummins and Sayers, 1997; Warschauer,1996; Warschauer and Meskill, 2000). However, the potential enhancements to theacquisition process whereby telecommunications-mediated language learner dis-course gets guided by skillful instructional scaffolding, and just what that instructor Ô verbal Õ support and guidance might actually consist of have yet to be explored.Through the examination of a skilled foreign language teacher Õ s online instructionalstrategiesandtheirimpactonlearnersandtheirlearning,wesuggestthatCMCaffordsboth instructors and students both the time and opportunity they may lack in the liveclassroom to work through the negotiation of meaning with a focus on form. We arenot in any way suggesting that CMC serve as a replacement for live instruction; on thecontrary, as a complement to live instruction, instructor-orchestrated CMC may en-hancef2f(face-to-face)learningbyprovidinganadditional venuetopracticeandrein-force f2f instruction. This study examines instructor strategies and learner responsesto these strategies within the CMC portion of a hybrid language class of first-yearUS college students learning Russian. How form-focused communicative language 90 C. Meskill, N. Anthony / System 33 (2005) 89–105  learning can take place online as an extension of the f2f component of a Russian lan-guage class with the direct aid of the instructor is examined. The framework and focusfortheanalysisoftheCMC componentaretheaffordancesofCMCthatfacilitate andsupport form-focused CLT, specifically how teachable moments are manifest,exploited, and responded to by teachers and learners. 2. Perspective Traditionally, the main role of the teacher in asynchronous online teaching envi-ronments has been to encourage student participation, act as coordinator for groupplanning, suggest alternatives, model certain behaviors, reflect on students Õ postings,remain present to learner needs (Anderson et al., 2001), and foster the sense thatthere is a learning community online (Mason, 1991). The mission and imperativeof foreign or second language instruction, however, requires specific elements of the instructional conversation that happens between teacher and learners. Simplyput, the instructional conversation in the language classroom is distinct becausethe medium of instruction is also the target of instruction (Tharp and Gallimore,1991). This is true of the live, communicative classroom where at any given momentan instructor is both assessing and responding to student learning in supportive,scaffolded ways that lead to learner attending and subsequent acquisition of the lan-guage while maintaining the natural flow of meaningful communication (Doughtyand Varela, 1998). The dynamics of a live language classroom are complex and mul-tifaceted. The sociocognitive demands on the part of both learners and instructor arehigh; learners must attend to what is otherwise new and challenging aural and writ-ten information while rehearsing verbal responses. Instructors must orchestrate com-municative activity while identifying, calculating, and scaffolding teachable momentswhereby learner attention and production will focus on the target forms and func-tions of the moment. In such contexts, teachable moments include teacher responsesto learners Õ interlanguage efforts and errors through various verbal techniques thatfocus on form while sustaining the communicative momentum.While offering optimal contexts for language acquisition to occur, for languageteachers to manage these as well as many additional oversight and orchestration taskssimultaneously is a substantial challenge. To successfully undertake the feat of run-ning instructional conversations while drawing appropriate attention at appropriatetimes to the language being used is indeed demanding. For learners as well, real timetarget language and meaning processing, rehearsing, and production while attendingto the forms the target language in real time is likewise daunting. CMC is a forumwhere such demands of real time communication can be compensated for through aset of affordances the medium offers foreign language learners and teachers.  2.1. CMC affordances In order to notice and attend to target language forms during real time commu-nication, talk must typically stop while words and sentences are written on the board C. Meskill, N. Anthony / System 33 (2005) 89–105 91  and/or explicated by a teacher or peer. As CMC consists of  Ô written speech Õ , targetlanguage forms are visually immediate and teachers or peers can highlight or other-wise call attention to those forms. Learners have the opportunity not only to see thelanguage being used to communicate, but to look at it as many times and for as longas they wish without disruption of the online conversation. These features – seeingthe target language, having the time and opportunity to reflect, use resources, com-pose, and edit responses – also mean for the teacher perfect opportunities to respondto the teachable moments she detects; moments that in real time may not have beenperceivable nor judged sufficiently relevant or teachable during rapid, fleeting f2f communication.As illustrated in this CMC transcript analysis, the teachable moments to whichforeign language educators can respond are plentiful. Indeed, the kinds of real timetactics of which form-focused communicative language teaching would ideally becomprised appear eminently realizable in CMC. Both teacher and students are affor-ded the needed time and visual anchors within the communicative stream to makeinstructional sense of the written conversation. For learners, this means time andopportunity to attend to and process the target language; for a teacher this meanstime and opportunity to recognize and respond thoughtfully to the kind of teachablemoments that render the conversation instructional  for second language acquisition.CMC allows teachers to employ a balanced approach to language instruction where-by communication is given preeminence while target forms are highlighted.  2.2. Research on CMC and foreign language teaching  While the role of instructor discourse has been the focus of much recent researchon asynchronous online instruction (Arbauch, 2001; Jiang and Ting, 2000; Mason,1991; Mazzolini and Maddison, 2003; Picciano, 1998; Procter, 2000; Wergerif,1998), the instructional  discourse of foreign language educators has yet to be exam-ined. In his 1997 list of questions that language in education researchers might inves-tigate in the near future, Warschauer includes the following: ‘‘What is the optimalrole for teachers to play in the computer-mediated learning environment? Howcan teachers make the effective transition from ‘‘sage on the stage’’ to ‘‘guide onthe side’’ (Tella, 1996, p. 6) that online education entails? What types of online inter-action by teachers facilitate learning, and what types stifle student initiative?’’ (p.478). To date only a very few studies examining CMC in teaching foreign languageshave addressed the nature and goals of instructor participation. The bulk of studieson CMC in foreign language education looks at contexts where the instructor Õ s influ-ence and power over the discourse have been reduced in favor of the expansion of student autonomy, control over discussion topics and directions, and learner initia-tive. Several of these studies point to a decrease in instructor participation in favor of student participation. For example,Kelm (1992)reported that 92% of the total mes-sages in computer conferencing in a Portuguese class were posted by the students incontrast to what typically happens in a live classroom. In analyzing the target lan-guage production of students of French,Kern (1995)discovered that in electronicdiscussions students produced 85% and 88% of the total number of sentences, while 92 C. Meskill, N. Anthony / System 33 (2005) 89–105  in live discussions they produced 37% and 60% of the total T-units. Likewise,Sulli-van and Pratt (1996)found that 65% of all turns in oral discussion in a French classwere made by the instructor, whereas in CMC the instructor took only 15% of thetotal turns.Warschauer et al. (1996)also found increased participation by ESL stu-dents in computer, as compared to f2f, interaction. Finally,Hudson and Bruckman(2002), comparing the results of discussions in an f2f classroom and an online discus-sion led by two instructors of French, found that the instructors produced 82% and84% of the total words in f2f classes whereas in the online classroom they producedonly 6% and 14% of the total words.This collection of studies clearly demonstrates the possibilities for quantitativechanges in a language instructor Õ s participation. However, CMC can also be viewedas a venue for qualitative changes in instructor behaviors as well. In some cases, aninstructor joins online discussions but only as a ‘‘mere participant’’ (Ortega, 1997),or ‘‘another voice’’ (Sullivan and Pratt, 1996). In other studies, the facilitative rolean instructor can play is emphasized. A language instructor can facilitate studentparticipation by acting as a coordinator for group planning, introducing a taskfor students, and then during the task circulating to help them: encouraging themto be responsible for their learning, acknowledging student initiative, functioningas ‘‘discourse gatekeeper (i.e., evaluator of the appropriateness of the languageand content of each student Õ s contribution)’’ (Kern, 1995, p. 469), and promoting ac-tive interactions between learners (Barson et al., 1993; Berge, 1995; Ewing, 2000;Heift and Caws, 2000; Kelm, 1996; Kern, 1995; Peterson, 1997; Wang and Teles,1998; Warschauer, 1996).Nonetheless,specificstrategiesforeignlanguageinstructorsemploytorenderCMCcommunications instructional  have yet to be investigated. Although some authorsmake general statements concerning the necessity and effectiveness of language assis-tance provided by an instructor (Kern, 1996; Stepp-Greany, 2002), they do not pro-vide specific examples of what such instructional scaffolding might consist of. A fewstudies (Barson et al., 1993; Beauvois, 1998; Gonzalez-Bueno, 1998) mention thepotentialinstructional role thatan instructor can playin aCMCenvironment.Barsonetal.(1993)andBeauvois(1998),forexample,mentionthatimplicitnegativefeedback can be incorporated in instructor Õ s messages.Gonzalez-Bueno (1998)points out thatan instructor can model certain expressions or vocabulary items in her/his messagesthat might be picked up easily by students. Some studies that do not treat the instruc-tor Õ s role directly nevertheless suggest online strategies and techniques that might besuccessfully implemented in online FL teaching practice such as modeling, saturation,negotiation of meaning, repetition, paraphrase, lexical elaboration, morphosyntacticelaboration, and recast (Doughty and Long, 2003; Kitade, 2000; Pellettieri, 2000; Sal-aberry, 2000; St. John and Cash, 1995; Tudini, 2003). 3. Context/method Using the discussion feature of Blackboard, a CMC component was incorporatedinto one beginning level Russian language course, Basic Russian 2, the first year, C. Meskill, N. Anthony / System 33 (2005) 89–105 93
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