Unit 3-Interaction in the Language Classroom – One Step Beyond
In this unit:
3.1 The Teacher’s Action Zone
3.2 Interactional Competence
3.3 Learner Interactional Patterns
3.4 Grouping Arrangements
One of the main ways in which students learn languages in a classroom is through taking
part in activities. But this does not happen automatically. We need to set up conditions
which will enable students to learn. We have an important role in creating these conditions
and then managing what goes on in order to maintain those conditions.
The aims of this unit are to raise your awareness of the conditions which support language
learning, in particular the creation of positive teacher-student relationships and the
effective organization of groups; to explore how these conditions can be set up and
maintained; and to examine how the decisions and choices you make as a manager can
affect students’ learning.
For many teachers, when we talk about classroom management, discipline or classroom
organization springs into mind. But an important part of managing classrooms is the
development of effective teacher-student interactions. These issues will be explored
through examining the teacher’s action zone within the class, learner’s interactional
competence, learner’s interactional styles, and the effects of grouping arrangements on
3.1 The Teacher’s Action Zone
The following notes were written by a teacher after teaching a lesson:
“Today I taught a lesson around a discussion on an environmental issue. The
lesson went very well. First, I introduced the topic by talking about
environmental problems in our city and got students to give examples of the
major environmental problems we face. This got lots of comments from the
class and everybody had an opportunity to say something and express an
opinion. After ten minutes I divided the students into small groups and asked
them to come up with a solution to one of the problems we talked about.
During this time I moved around the class, monitoring students’ language use
and giving feedback. After twenty minutes I got the group leaders to report
their groups’ recommendations and I wrote key points on the board.”
The following comments on the same lesson were written by an observer:
“When you were speaking to the whole class, the students in the middle front
row seats answered most of your questions.
When you moved around the class you spent much more time with some
groups than with others.”
These different perceptions of the lesson highlight the fact that despite a teacher’s best
intentions, teachers sometimes interact with some students in the class more frequently
than others. Although teachers generally try to treat students fairly and give every student
in the class an equal opportunity to participate in the lesson, it is often hard to avoid
interacting with some students more than others. This creates what is referred to as the
teacher’s action zone. An action zone is indicated by:
Those students with whom the teacher regularly enters into eye contact;
Those students to whom the teacher addresses questions, and
Those students who are nominated to take an active part in the lesson.
These students are located within the teacher’s action zone and are likely to participate
more actively in a lesson than students who fall outside the action zone. In many
classrooms, this zone includes the middle front row seats and the seats up the middle
aisle. If a teacher is teaching from the front of the class, students seated there are more
likely to have the opportunity to participate actively in the lesson because of their proximity
to the teacher (Adams and Biddle 1970 in Richards and Lockhart 1998). However,
teachers have their own personal action zones, for example, a teacher may:
Look more often to the right hand side of the class than to the left,
Call on girls more often than boys,
Call on students of one ethnic background more often that those of another,
Call on brighter students more often than others,
Call on students whose names are easy to remember,
Figure 1 shows a teacher’s action zone as recorded by an observer who marked on a
seating plan the number of times the teacher addressed the whole class and individual
students in the class, as well as the number of times individual students interacted with the
Although a teacher may feel that all the students in the class have an equal opportunity to
participate in the lesson, Figure 1 shows that this is not always so. During this lesson, the
teacher addressed the whole class nineteen times and interacted with only twelve of the
twenty-two individuals. It also seems that the teacher overlooked the students sitting in the
right and left rows, and had an action zone located in the center of the room. If active
participation is important in learning, then those students not within the teacher’s action
zone are at disadvantage.
1. If you are teaching a class, do you think you have a clearly defined action
zone when you teach? Does it favor some students in the class more than
others? If so, how could you change your action zone?
2. Some learners are often eager to be within the teacher’s action zone
because they like to play an active and public role in the lesson. Others are
happy to be outside the teacher’s action zone. Should all be active and
public participants in lessons? Why or why not?
3.2 Interactional Competences
While teachers need to be able to manage their interaction with the class in a way which
allows all students equal opportunities to participate, learners also need to learn how they
are expected to interact in the classroom. This has been described as learner’s
interactional competence (Tikunoff 1985a, b), which involves learning particular patterns of
interaction and behavior both vis-à-vis the other student in the class as well as with the
teacher. Interactional competence includes several dimensions of classroom behavior.
• Knowing the Etiquette of Classroom Interaction
Teachers establish their own rules for appropriate classroom behavior. For example, in
some classrooms, when the teacher enters the room at the beginning of a lesson, students
stand at attention, greet the teacher in unison, and sit down to wait for instructions. When
they wish to ask a question, they raise their hand. When asked a question, they stand to
give the answer. At the end of the lesson, they wait for the teacher to dismiss them before
leaving the room. In other, less traditional classrooms, however, students are often
engaged in classrooms tasks before the teacher enters the room. If so, the teacher waits
for a suitable moment to introduce a new teaching point. Students do not raise their hands
when asking a question, but get the teacher’s attention by calling out, “Excuse me.” When
students wish to leave their desk to consult another student, they do so without asking the
teacher’s permission. At the end of the lesson, students leave when they have completed
their assignments, without waiting for a formal dismissal from the teacher.
• Knowing the Rules for Individual and Collaborative Work
Students also need to know when they should work individually on a task and when it is
appropriate to seek other students’ assistance or cooperation. Individual teachers
establish their own rules and procedures for class work. However, when students are
unclear as to what the teacher’s rules are, they may behave in ways that the teacher finds
inappropriate. This is seen in the following comments by teacher.
“Some of my students can be a problem because they like to get up and
wander around the room when I ask them to do an assignment. They seem to
be more interested in talking to other students about their assignments than in
getting help from me.”
These learner behaviors may be influenced by cultural factors. For example, Phillis (1972:
37 in Richards 1998) noted the following differences between the classroom behavior of
American-Indian children and non-Indian children:
There is, on part of Indian students, relatively less interest, desire, and/or
ability to internalise and act in accordance with some of the basic rules
underlying classroom maintenance of orderly interaction. Most notably, Indian
students are lees willing than non-Indian students to accept the teacher as
director and controller of all classroom activities. They are less interested in
developing the one-to-one communicative relationship between teacher and
student, and more interested in maintaining and developing relationships with
their peers, regardless of what is going on in the classroom.
While some teachers establish expectations and procedures for appropriate classroom
behaviour very early on with a new group of students, others do not make their
expectations clear, which can lead to confusion on both the teacher’s and the learners’
• Knowing When to Ask and Answer Questions
Teachers generally expect learners to ask questions during a lesson, although the extent
to which they encourage active student participation may differ from one teacher to
another and form one culture to another. On entering a new class, a priority for learners is
to establish what their expected level of participation is and when and how they should
interrupt the teacher to ask questions. Teachers may have their own preferences for when
students should or should not ask questions. For example, some teacher prefer setting
aside a particular question segment within a lesson, rather than allowing the flow of the
lesson to be interrupted by questions. Other teachers prefer students to ask questions as
they arise. Students may also have different expectations about how to answer questions
form their teachers. In some cultures, students are expected to wait until called on and to
answer only when they are sure of being right. In language classrooms, however, students
are generally expected to participate actively, since answering questions is often regarded
as a way of practicing the language.
• Knowing How and When to Get Assistance or Feedback in Completing a Task
Learners also have to learn what rules operate for getting help during a lesson. Should
they ask the teacher? Should they turn to another student? Or should they keep silent to
avoid disrupting others? Tikunoff (1985) studied students in bilingual classrooms in the
United States to see how students knew if they were doing well in completing a class task
and where they went for help in the case of difficulty. Successful students seemed to be
aware of when they needed help as well as how to get it. This is seen in the following
comments from learners:
“When I don’t know how to do something, the teacher helps me, but it’s OK
not to go to the teacher if you don’t need help.”
“The teacher helps me when I need it, but it’s OK for friend to help too.”
“The teacher helps me during recess as well as after school if I need it”
• Knowing Appropriate Rules for Displaying Knowledge
Although classroom are places where students are expected to learn, there are rules
which govern how one should display the result of what one has learned. Some teachers,
particularly teachers from a Western culture, encourage learners to display what they have
learned in front of their peers. When a teacher asks a question and a student in the class
knows the answer, the teacher normally expects the student to answer the question.
However, students from some cultures may feel that publicly displaying one’s knowledge
in this way would be seen by their peers as showing off; hence, they might avoid
answering the question. Public display of knowledge, however, was found to be highly
valued by some students in a reading class studied by Bondy (1990). She found that
public demonstration of the ability to read was a source of status for some students in the
class. They made comments in front of other children which drew attention to the fact that
they could read and successfully engage in reading activities. “Reading seemed to be an
activity done for praise, reward, and public recognition”.
The process of arriving at a shared understanding of the appropriate rules for displaying
knowledge in a classroom is clearly an important issue for teachers and learners. It may
take some time for teachers and students to discover what assumptions govern the other
1. What rules govern the etiquette of classroom interaction in your institution?
2. If you are teaching a class, do you have a code of etiquette for your classroom? In
what ways does it reflect your view of your role as a teacher?
3. Can you give further examples which show how cultural factors in a context you
are familiar with influence the interactional competence of language learners?
3.3 Learner Interactional Pattern
The concept of interactional competence refers to the rules that students are expected to
follow in order to participate appropriately in lessons. However, because of individual
differences in learners’ personalities and their individual learning style, different patterns of
interaction can often be observed among learners in any one class. Good and Power
(1976) describe six different interactional patterns. The first four of these can be seen to
reflect how the learning styles discussed in unit two can lead to a particular classroom
behaviour. The last two interactional styles describe negative reactions to schooling and
hence cannot be linked to the learning styles discussed earlier.
Task-oriented Students These students are generally highly competent and successful in
completing academic tasks. They enter into learning tasks actively and generally complete
tasks with high degree of accuracy. They enjoy school and learning. They seldom need a
teacher’s help, but if they feel they need it they do not hesitate to ask for it. They are
cooperative students and create few discipline problems.
Phantom Students These students may not often be noticed or heard in the classroom,
although they are generally good students who work steadily on classroom tasks.
However, they participate actively in lessons only infrequently, and rarely initiate
conversation or ask for help. Because they do not disrupt the class or other students,
teachers and other students do not know them very well.
Social Students These students place a high value ob personal interaction. Although they
are competent in accomplishing classroom tasks, they tend to value socializing with
friends more than completing class assignments. They enjoy tutoring others in the class
and participate actively in the lesson, although their answers may not always be correct.
They tend to be popular with their classmates, but they may be less popular with their
teachers because their approach to learning can create classroom management problems.
They sometimes talk too much and do not hesitate to seek assistance from the teacher or
other classmates when they need it.
Dependent Students These students need the teacher’s support and guidance to complete
class tasks and tend not to maintain engagement on tasks without frequent reinforcement
and support. They need structure and guidance in completing tasks and tend not to work
well in large groups. They often depend on the teacher or other students to tell them if their
learning has been successful and if not, how to remedy the problem.
Isolated Students These students set themselves apart from others and withdraw from
classroom interactions. They maid avoid learning situations by turning away from activities
such as peer or group work. They show reluctance to sharing their work with others or
allowing others to respond it. Consequently they tend to be less proficient in completing
Alienated Students These students react against teaching and learning and are often
hostile and aggressive. They create discipline problems and make it difficult for those
around them to work. They require close supervision, and their learning problems are often
related to personal problems.
While classifications such as these capture some useful generalizations about students
interaction patterns in the classroom, most systems of this kind are somewhat arbitrary,
and students may not be classified easily in one category or another. They may favor one
interactional style for one particular learning task and then adopt a different style for a
different task, for example. The usefulness of classification systems such as this is simply
to serve as a reminder that individual students may favor different interactional styles and
that there is no single interactional style that can be regarded as ideal for all students.
1. Do you think the differences between Task-oriented, Phantom, Social, and
Dependant students apply to students in a class you are familiar with? If not, what
other kinds of differences in interactional style occur among the students?
2. Reflect on your own approach to learning. How would you describe your own
3. What type of interactional style do you encourage among students in your class? Do
you think you tend to behave differently to students according to differences in their
preferred interactional style?
4. With a partner, develop a questionnaire that could be used to identify the preferred
interactional style of learners.
3.4 Grouping Arrangements
While learners ay have individual preferences for the kind of interactional style they favor
in the classroom, the interactional dynamics of a classroom are largely a product of
choices the teacher makes about the learning arrangements he or she sets up within a
lesson. Most teachers use the following learning arrangements depending on the kind of
lesson they are teaching, though teachers use some more frequently than others.
Whole Class Teaching The teacher leads the whole class through a learning task. For
example, the teacher conducts a class discussion of an article from a newspaper, asking
questions about it and eliciting comments around the class.
Pair / Group Work Students work in pairs / groups on learning tasks.
Individual Work Each student in the class works individually on a task without interacting
with peers or without public interaction with the teacher. For example, students complete a
grammar exercise by going through a worksheet.
Choosing grouping arrangements that are appropriate for specific learning tasks is an
important decision. Some of the factors which affect grouping arrangements will be now
Group work vs. whole-class activities Group and pair work (henceforth group work) are so
much a part of our everyday teaching routine that we hardly pause to think before
partitioning the class to tackle some particular communicative task. But group work may
not always be the best option. There will be a time and a place for whole-class activities in
the English language classroom, just as there's a time and a place for group and pair work.
• In praise of group work
• In praise of whole class discussion
• Tact and sensitivity
• Variety adds spice to the classroom
In praise of group work
Group work came into the standard EFL teaching repertoire with communicative
methodologies in the 1970s. At that time, studies of contemporary foreign language
classes revealed that as much as 80% of lesson time consisted of the teacher talking to
(at) the students. In a class of, say, 30 students, it is evident that the learner hardly got a
chance to practice the language. Teacher Talking Time (TTT) became taboo and ways
were devised to stamp it out and train the students to actually perform in the language they
Group work was thus introduced into the EFL repertoire to come to grips with a particular
problem. Group work made it possible for the teacher to devote more time to the students'
oral production, which perhaps before had not been a priority of the foreign language
classroom. Thanks to group work, less confident students get the chance to put their
knowledge of the new language into practice in a non-threatening environment, away from
the critical eye and ear of the teacher. Instead of being dependent on the teacher, students
get used to helping and learning from each other. Meanwhile, the teacher is left free to
discreetly monitor progress and give help, advice and encouragement where and when it
In praise of whole class discussion
An important aspect of whole-class discussion is the welding together of the whole group
and the camaraderie that comes about when a whole group works together towards a
common goal. Moreover, there is diversity in numbers; the larger the group, the more
variety there is in the ideas, opinions and experiences which can contribute to the learning
process. This can stimulate a greater involvement in each member of the class.
Furthermore, whole class discussion is likely to be content based, rather than form based,
encouraging fluency and a more memorable and meaningful exchange among the
participants. It might also be more appropriate for the introverted and reflective learner.
Finally, if we are talking about classes of 15 students or so, there are likely to be many
opportunities of letting the whole class function as a single unit instead of dividing it into
The two techniques can go hand in hand. After a session of group work, a whole-class
feedback phase will give cohesion to the learning process. Ideally, the group work that has
gone before will ensure that everyone has something to say, and also a reason for
listening. Having "rehearsed" in a more intimate context beforehand, students may face
the whole class with more confidence in their ability to handle the target language.
Tact and sensitivity
Dealing with whole-class discussions requires the experience and sensitivity to strike the
right balance between neutrality and commitment, the tact to deal with explosive situations
and domineering students, the knowledge and the analytic mind demanded by the topic
under discussion, and the diplomacy to ensure a fair discussion with maximum
Dealing with group work demands just as much tact and sensitivity. The teacher may have
to decide whether to intervene to bring an enthusiastic discussion onto a more linguistically
fruitful path, or to stay in the background to allow the students to make their own
discoveries about the language and the best way to learn it. Should groups be of mixed
ability, so the more able language learners help the weaker ones, or would same-ability
groups be preferable, so that faster learners can progress at their own pace, while the
teacher gives extra help to individual learners in the slower groups?
Like any kind of praxis, group work can lose its meaning if it is handled in an automatic
and unthinking way. It was developed under particular circumstances to solve a particular
problem and it is not per se intrinsically better than any other technique. No technique is
the panacea for all our teaching problems and its value should be reviewed from time to
We are advised to take a regular look at the techniques we are using and, if one, such as
whole-class discussion activities for example, has fallen out of our active repertoire, we
should ask ourselves: Is there a good reason for this? It worked before; can it work again?
Although we build up a repertoire of tried and tested techniques and we cannot be
constantly 'reinventing the wheel', we also need to be wary of unimaginative and ritualistic
routine. Just as old numbers from our past teaching praxis may be found to have a value;
parts of our current repertoire may prove to have none. So from time to time it is worth
putting our group work practice under scrutiny and asking ourselves the same question: Is
there a good reason for doing this? Badly handled group work can be as detrimental for
the learning process as any other inappropriate technique.
Variety adds spice to the classroom
It is generally recognized today that individual learners have different learning styles,
strategies and preferences. It is also generally accepted that to be effective lessons need
a change of pace and focus to maintain the concentration of the learners. For both these
reasons it is important that we teachers have as wide and flexible repertoire. And for this
reason, asked to choose between group work and whole class activities, my inclination is
to say: Both!
Individual work, or “seatwork”, is generally the second most frequently used technique
patter in the classroom (just behind whole-class teaching). It includes such activities as
completing worksheets, reading a comprehension passage and answering questions,
doing exercises from a text or workbook, and composition and essay writing. Among the
advantages of individual work are:
• It provides learners with the opportunity to progress at heir own speed and in their
• It provides learners with opportunities to practice and apply skills they have
• It enables teachers to assess students’ progress.
• It enables teachers to assign different activities to different learners based on
individual abilities and needs.
• It can be used to prepare learners for an up-coming activity.
Among the disadvantages are:
• It provides little opportunity for interaction, both with the teacher and with other
• It is sometimes difficult to monitor what students are actually doing during individual
• Students may complete a task at different times and run out of things to do,
creating a classroom management problem.
For individual work to be accomplished successfully, a number of characteristics of
successful individual work have been identified (Good and Brophy 1987):
• It should be planned so that it relates to other kinds of learning arrangements,
rather that being an isolated “filler” activity.
• Students should be given specific tasks with clear goals. There should be
monitoring and follow-up to determine if students understand the task or are
completing it accurately.
• Tasks should be at the right level of difficulty.
• Students should know what to do when completing the activity.
1. What procedures can be used to minimize some of the potential disadvantages of
2. Learners sometimes resist pair or group activities because they prefer to learn from
the teacher rather than from one another language learner. Do you think this is a
legitimate objection? How can I be addressed?
3. What are some of the implications of moving away from whole-class teaching to
small group or pair activities? In what ways are the teacher’s and learner’s roles (a)
threatened, and (b) empowered?
The interactional dynamics of a lesson can thus be viewed as resulting from the interplay
between the teacher’s and the learner’s interactional styles, the moment-to-moment
demands of instruction, and the grouping arrangements that have been set up to facilitate
teaching and learning. Lessons thus have a constantly changing interactional structure,
which can either hinder or support effective language learning.