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The Languages Classroom: comfort zone or obstacle course? Capturing diversity and creating personal spaces for successful speaking practice Margaret Nicolson, Helga Adams,The Open University [email protected] Distance learning. Educational Arena.

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The Languages Classroom: comfort zone or obstacle course? Capturing diversity and creating personal spaces for successful speaking practice Margaret Nicolson, Helga Adams,The Open [email protected]
educational arena
Distance learningEducational Arena
  • Independent study with support of personal tutor
  • Infrequent face to face tutorials, largely for the purpose of speaking. Not compulsory
  • Changing population
  • Diversity
  • Students background : age, lifestyle, education, socio –economic circumstances, language learning experience
  • Tutor’s background: education, cultural experience, lifestyle profile
  • ‘Equal opportunities’ and ‘meeting your needs’ policies
  • Student expectations
previous research
Language learner negotiation of speaking activities

critique of commonly held views on task types, task content, group management and classroom language use.

Argument forgreater discrimination and eclectic choice in methodology to ensure successful and socially inclusive experience

Previous research
theoretical context
The third space (Bhaba, 1990)

Communication apprehension/speech anxiety, (Horwitz et al 1986, Young 1991, Daly 1991)

Identity construction and the language learning process (Norton et al 2003)

Rethinking of strategies in foreign language teaching ( Kumara 1994)

Need for ‘permanent process of self-critique in an endeavour to reconfigure our own discipline’ (Blommaert 2005 )

Need for alignment between pedagogy and socio-cultural influences, (Guangwei Hu, 2002).

Need for critical cultural consciousness, (Kumara 2003)

Pre-understandings in human encounters, (Stratton 2005)

Theoretical context
theoretical context obstacles to integration
Acculturation (Hall, 1995)

Critical moments (Pennycook, 2003)

Loss of established identity

Communication apprehension and language anxiety (Daly, 1991, Horwitz et al, 1986)

Language shock

Culture shock (Holliday et al 2005)

Need for creation of comfort zoneemergence of the third space

…‘should allow for individuals to redefine themselves in relation to the new, other meanings they encounter’ Fougère , 2003

Theoretical contextObstacles to integration
new research objective
Does student view reinforce hypotheses

Questionnaires on students’ tutorial experience

Target respondents: Students on OU beginners’ course in French, German, Spanish. (369 sent/response rate of 45.7%)

Reasons for non-attendance

Experience of/feelings about tutorials

Personal information in tasks

TL use

Pair/group work

Physical response

Opting out or adapting tasks

New Research objective
prior language learning experience
Prior Language LearningExperience
  • practised in the art of language learning  fewer barriers
tutorial attendance
Tutorial Attendance

acculturation more likely

‘participation in particular social practices instills comfort and aids progression’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991)

60% mostly or always

30% never or seldom

Importance of ZPD

‘I consider face to face contact with a language expert vital to this type of course.'

non attendance
Non attendance
      • Predominance of practical reasons
  • Apprehension
  • Fear of evaluation
  • Not enjoyable/ negative pre-understanding

‘The tutor was boring and difficult to understand. The room was very closed and there were no tea/coffee facilities.”

student orientation
Knowledge of what is expected

over 90%

Knowledge of why a particular activity

over 93%

No knowledge

Small percentage

Modified tutor behaviour through staff development

Student Orientation
personal information 1
Personal information 1

How students feel about providing personal information

Students who were unhappy or reluctant made up information

‘”Our tutor has always said that we can use true or made-up information as we wish.”

“ I think it’s very important to tell students not to divulge any info they don’t want to.”

personal information 2
‘…I feel uncomfortable sharing personal information in the class, because I am a gay man and don’t want to be judged by my classmates. I had a study buddy …the moment I told him I was gay, he ran a mile. This makes it difficult to participate in tutorials even though I do enjoy them, I just couldn’t face the last one. I am sure that the Uni would be 100 % supportive to this personal issue and I’m very happy and proud to be an OU student. I shall bite the bullet and get back to my tutorials, but I thought it might be useful …for the OU to have an insight to some of the issues their students face…I don’t feel I need help with this, I just wanted to let you know.’Personal information 2
target language use 1
Target Language Use 1
  • Classroom lingua franca

‘Classroom learning….shaped and managed by teachers as a result of informed teaching and critical appraisal’ (Kumara, 1994)

‘conducted in the foreign language first, then clarified in English’

‘Spanish is spoken appropriately-ie to explain tasks and to practice them and with increasing frequency. Grammar is explained in English. I would expect more and more Spanish to be spoken as we progress, and this is the case.

target language use 2
Target Language Use 2

How students feel about a lot TL use by the tutor and other students?

High level of anxiety

daunting, nervous, dismayed, intimidating, anxious, confusion, frustrated, excluded, embarrassed, stupid…..

The cod liver oil syndrome

“At first it was a little overwhelming but it helps to improve my language “

“Can be intimidating when the foreign language is being used, however I feel it is the best way to learn a foreign language”.

target language use 3
Competence / ability related issues

‘I think how you feel in relation to the above depends on the level of your ability in relation to the class; I have been on other courses (non OU) where I have felt negative about such a situation.’

‘Used by the tutor at a reasonably slow speed – felt happy and enthusiastic. Too fast by others of a higher level than course – [felt] excluded.’

‘I feel put on the spot sometimes, especially when I don’t understand but feel I can’t ask for an explanation in English.’

Self perceived low ability potential for language and other type of anxiety (Young 1991)

Target Language Use 3
pair and group work
Willingness to engage

“ I don’t mind, because it is essential for success, but I do find it difficult, because I am so shy, but learning is about stepping out of my comfort zones, so I am happy to try’

Questioning value

‘there is a limit to too much unsupervised pair work. Also depends on the level of other person as to whether it is helpful or not’

Physical movement


Feelings of nervousness/discomfort

Women more willing and confident than men

Pair and group work
pair and group work1
Issue of mobility and discomfort

‘ I also wanted to put a cross at embarrassed and nervous. I had a stroke and have a weakness down one side of my body. I appear normal to most people who are not looking too closely but I do have great difficulty negotiating tight places with obstacles like desks and people to deal with. I did almost come a cropper once when my left leg got trapped under my right when turning. Fortunately I got it out from under in time’

Pair and Group work
student choice
Student Choice

Opting out

Never: 63%

Sometimes: 21%

Adapting activity to suit needs

Mostly and always: 57%

Reliance on tutor to create safe atmosphere

‘…not pressurised to take part, tutor gauges who is comfortable.’

‘… I do not think that an overt offer of the option to opt out has been made but the tutor has always given extra assistance or varied the tasks where necessary e.g. if some hesitation or difficult with the task.’

Majority of students

Agency/Adaptability/third space

Minority of students

Classroom as obstacle course

Classroom as comfort zone

Sensitivity / Flexibility / Creativity

‘ The linguistic world is full of demands and requirements, opportunities and limitations, rejections and invitations, enablements and constraints….’ (Van Lier, 2000)

‘ A cautiously eclectic approach and ..well informed pedagocial choices, grounded in an understanding of socio-cultural influences’ (Guangwei Hu, 2002)

case study
'I have a hearing deficit; I am deaf in my left ear. At a recent tutorial I was one of two in attendance and we did some listening exercises which I found extremely difficult. At the end of the session I was given a talk on the need to work more on my pronunciation. This was given in the presence of another person. No doubt I need to be told, but I think this could have been done more sensitively. After this experience I lost some motivation with my studies and it has taken me some time to get back on course with the work'.Case study