Same Activity, Different Focus

K. Harris
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Portland State University
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This resource reports on the outcomes of a qualitative research study investigating how beginning language learners negotiate meaning during pair activities. Researchers found that paired activities produced meaning negotiation. They also found that while the task may be the same for all students the students would negotiate around different aspects of the language (e.g., meaning, structure). Researchers also found that students used this time to try-out new language. This resource provides teachers with a rationale as well as practical activities and ideas for incorporating these kinds of activities in their classrooms. It provides an example as to how a teacher can incorporate research into the classroom and use the data to improve instruction and student outcomes. An excellent reference list and links to videos and blogs are provided. Note: This resource is part of a larger document that provides further information and resources. It has not been reviewed by LINCS experts: 

What the experts say
Having students work in pairs is a common practice in the English as a second language classroom. In order to maximize the efficiency of this strategy, however, practitioners must know why and how communicative pair work facilitates second-language acquisition. Because this resource delivers clear, research-based answers to these two questions, it is extremely valuable, practical, and has immediate applications for the classroom. 

This research adds valuable knowledge to the field of adult language learning.  It takes an understanding of language learning developed through the study of children and applies it to adults.  The article gives concrete examples of how a structured pair activity provides rich learning experiences to beginning English language learners. Seemingly simple, the research provides support for a communicative approach to language learning and demonstrates that the interaction of students in a structured environment allows for the individuation of learning based on student level and need.  The author cites transcripts and provides links to video clips of actual pair negotiation to show different types of activities and verbal exchanges constituting the student-to-student language negotiation process. This allows practitioners to easily visualize the ways in which pairs may work on the same task but focus on different problem areas within the language – an idea of great importance to practitioners seeking ways to address the wide range of language-learning needs within a classroom.

In addition to citing the original study from the Lab School, the resource cites other pertinent research (Gass & Torres, 2005; Mackey, 1999; Nakahama, Y., Tyler, A., & Van Lier, L., 2001) to show that learners’ language development is facilitated as learners work in pairs to diagnose and resolve errors that impede comprehension.

The article also cautions teachers in how they interact with student pairs.  Balancing the need for teacher observation with the tendency for students to seek out teacher interaction can be difficult.  The article cites research indicating that when teachers approach student pairs, the learning activity changes in ways that may not be as effective.

While the research was fascinating, the authors could have been a little more careful in their statements and conclusions.  Some of their statements, such as, “teachers find that pair work is good for language learning,” could benefit from citations.  In other cases, their conclusions were overly broad. For example, “these findings suggest that students will learn what they need to learn in their pair-work negotiations.”

Despite these weaknesses, the article and the research described provide valuable information and insight into the differing ways that students interact in pair work.  It is a good resource for instructors looking for ways to enrich their understanding of the value of student interactive work.

In sum, the most useful features are:

  • The use of original research, including transcripts of student-to-student interactions, to illustrate different types of pair activities and negotiation of meaning among learners.
  • The citation of relevant research studies that support the author’s case for the benefits of pairwork.

Practical suggestions for using pairwork as a way to allow learners to self-diagnose the language forms that need improvement in order to ensure comprehension by a listener.

Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: Researchers videotaped 10 weeks of student pair activities. The interactions were transcribed. Of these forty student pair interactions from 20 days worth of data were analyzed by categorizing the types of interactions that occurred and language produced during the activities. An example of the transcripts is provided in the article.