As far as the English language is concerned, I have taught students at all proficiency levels—beginning to advanced. I have always found happiness and satisfaction whenever my students participate actively in class. So, what do I do in the classroom to encourage my students to interact with one another? It is very simple. I give them the chance to formulate the questions themselves and ask one another those questions.
As Brown (2001) puts it, interaction is a collaborative exchange of thoughts, feelings, or ideas between two or more people, resulting in a reciprocal effect on each other. He further emphasises that the interaction in various contexts is to negotiate meaning, to get an idea out of one person’s head and into another person’s head and vice versa. The following are steps I observe to create an effective interactive classroom lesson by providing a venue for promoting comprehension skills among students.
Warm-up. I usually ask students a few questions related to the text to activate prior knowledge. This is also to motivate students and prepare them for the lesson. Clarke and Silberstein (1977) stress the importance of activating schema or prior knowledge in learning. According to them, readers understand what they read because they are able to take the stimulus beyond its graphic representation and assign its membership to an appropriate group of concepts already stored in their memories. For example, in a social studies reading text, Who Discovered America? (Roger & Olsen, 1992), the following questions can be asked to activate prior knowledge:
- Who has been to America?
- What words come to your mind when you hear America?
- Can you name some of the famous American discoveries?
- Do you know who discovered America?
Some teachers may find this type of questions too elementary, but it is not always the case even for advanced students. Carrel and Eisterhold (1983) emphasise the role of prior knowledge in enhancing the reading and comprehension process. They explain that any given text does not carry meaning in and of itself. Rather, it provides direction for listeners or readers so that they can construct meaning from their own cognitive structure or background knowledge. One example cited by Hudson (1982) is the ‘restaurant schema’. Comprehending someone’s story about going to a restaurant depends, in part, on the schema that is instantiated as one listens. The listener would need to construct a correspondence between the schema he or she had activated and the actual information in the message itself. When both sources of information match sufficiently, the message is said to be understood. Thus, comprehension is not a matter of simply processing the words of the message, but involves fitting the meaning of the message to the schema that one already has in mind (Hudson, 1982; Rumelhart, 1980).
First reading of the text. I distribute the text to the class during lesson and ask each student to read a sentence. If the text has 20 sentences and there are 30 students, this will give 20 students a chance to speak by reading aloud. I have observed in my class that students enjoy the chance to speak through simply reading a sentence, which is a good start for interaction. Brown (2001) points out that this kind of reading serves to add some extra student participation. It also directs students’ attention to the lesson.
Questioning by the teacher. I ask questions to elicit main points and details of the text. If it is a heterogeneous class (mixture of students at different proficiency levels), it is suggested to write on the board, common questions such as WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHO, WHY, and HOW for the benefit of students who are less proficient. However, I make sure that I do not write the entire question, as students will copy it when I ask them to formulate their own questions later. This will defeat the purpose of encouraging students to think for themselves and promoting interaction by formulating and asking their own questions. By writing down their questions, the students’ attention is drawn to a specific item we want to stress, and this will help them to learn (Sharwood, 1980).
I try to vary the kind of common questions I will ask to cater to students at different proficiency levels, for example:
“Yesterday I saw the new patient hurrying along the corridor. He seemed very upset, so I did not follow him but just called to him gently. Perhaps later he will feel better, and I will be able to talk to him later.”
Some sample questions asked in response to the passage could be:
- What did the writer see yesterday?
- Was the writer in a hurry?
- Was the patient upset?
- What did the writer do because the patient was upset?
- What is the problem described here?
- Is this event taking place indoors or outside?
- Did the writer try to get near the patient?
- What do you think the writer said when she called to him?
- What might the job of the writer be?
- Why do you think she wants to talk to the patient?
The answers to questions 1–4 can be easily found in the text while those to questions 5–10 require students to infer. Questions 1–4 can be directed at less proficient students while questions 5–10 at advanced students. Constant practice through modelling by the teacher and students will gradually help slower students formulate inferential questions (crucial for promoting higher-order thinking skills) that can in turn aid comprehension.
Questioning by the students. I get students to formulate and ask one another questions. For example, student A asks student B, student B asks student C and so on. The teacher might want to emphasise that the questions cannot be repeated. This will force the students to formulate as many questions as they can.
Group work. Students can work in pairs to formulate questions and then ask each other those questions. After everybody has shared with his/her partner, I tell the class to form groups of three and repeat the processes of formulating and asking questions. It should also be stressed that they cannot repeat the questions asked by the member(s) of the group. Assign a group leader to take note and report to the class all the questions formulated by the group.
Group work provides opportunities to talk. For example, a class that is divided into five groups get five times as many opportunities to talk compared to a full-class organisation (Long & Porter, 1985; Ur, 2002). Brown (2001) enumerates other benefits of group work, namely: offering an embracing affective climate, promoting learner responsibility, and serving as a step toward individualising instruction.
Brown, H.D. (2001). Teaching by Principles: An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. NY: Addison Wesley Longman.
Clarke, M.A. & Silverstein, S. (1977). ‘Toward a Realisation of Psycholinguistic Principles for the ESL Reading Class’. Language Learning, Vol. 27, pp. 135–154.
Hudson, T. (1982). ‘The Effects if Induced Schemata on the “Short Circuit” in L2 Reading: Non Decoding Factors in L2 Reading Performance’. Language Learning, Vol. 32, pp. 1–31.
Long, M.H. & Porter, P. (1985). ‘Group Work, Interlanguage Talk, and Second Language Acquisition’. TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 19, pp. 207–228.
Roger, E. & Olsen, W.B. (1992). ‘Cooperative Learning and Social Studies’. In Kessler, C. (Ed.), Cooperative Language Learning: A Teacher’s Resource Book. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Regents.
Rumelhart, D. (1980). ‘Schemata: The Building Blocks of Cognition’. In Spiro, R.; Bruce, B. & Brewer, W. (Eds.), Theoretical Issues in Reading Comprehension. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Sharwood-Smith, M. (1980). ‘The Competence-performance Distinction in the Theory of Second Language and the Pedagogical Grammar Hypothesis’. Paper presented at the Contrastive Linguistics Conference, Boszkowo.
Ur, P. (2002). A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.