Tom Axtell
October 10, 1998



The purpose of this observation exercise is to become aware of the ways students learn by being active or by doing. I completed the exercise in two observation periods in the last weeks of the term in the spring of 1998.

I followed the professor's observation schedule and answered the questions about the learners during my first visit. For the second visit I followed an observation grid that I developed to capture details of the types of interaction that occurred in an activity that I understand is fairly popular in language classes - cloze/gap exercises. I was curious about the communication patterns, and I found this micro analysis interesting.


Part A: First Visit

i) Observation Report

Intermediate-advanced CEGEP students were given a text (2 paragraphs) on teen pregnancies to read. They were told to write a paragraph that would follow, to complete the short essay. They completed and read out loud their paragraphs. The purpose was to stimulate them to write coherent paragraphs on an interesting topic. The activity lasted about 45 minutes. This was followed by a listening and fill in the gap exercise that lasted about the same length of time. Its purpose was to recognize new vocabulary and develop comprehension skills.



There was a brief discussion on some of the points raised. The topic was the problem of teen pregnancies. A number of higher order cognitive skills were required to develop the arguments consistent with the lead paragraph. Students had to extend the argument, whether or not they agreed, that teen pregnancies were undesirable in our society. They all produced several supporting statements that re-enforced this view. The instructor's questions and points all supported the point of view that teen pregnancies were not welcome for a number of social and economic reasons. I feel that the learners thinking on this topic was somewhat prescribed by the text and the instructor's bias. The listening exercise was about the sex life of monkeys and it required comprehension of a scientist's observations and theories. Students were challenged to grasp the meaning of about 6 uncommon English words.



Students expressed their opinions and feelings about teen pregnancies. They appeared very comfortable discussing sex and the consequences of pregnancies. This was a topic they were very familiar with, as teens themselves. The norms of the group and Quebec society are so strongly against teen pregnancies that this potentially embarrassing topic could so easily be handled in the classroom. The listening exercise, again related to sex, provoked smiles and a touch of embarrassment because it dealt with the fact that the female monkeys engage in sex for the purpose of pleasure and do so very aggressively. This very provocative topic was handled with minimal comment or discussion. It was an entertaining item, and people enjoyed this.



Each read a sentence from the textbook paragraph. Then they read their own paragraphs. Learners, provided some follow-up comments, when prompted with a question from the instructor. They listened to the recorded story and read their answers for the gap handout. Learners were not just listening passivley, they had to be very attentive to what was going on as they each had to regularly respond to the instructor.



Communication was between the instructor and the individual learners. As students read their paragraphs the other learners had the opportunity to listen to what others had to say, and therefore could have gained vocabulary and heard other points of view, however, it is more likely that they were preoccupied preparing to read their own paragraphs, and that they were not listening to the others. Interaction between students was very limited. The listening activity provided interaction between the recorded interview and the listener.


Negotiating and interacting with others

The instructor's comments reflected the opening paragraph position and no alternative views emerged. The reasons that teens keep their babies (i.e., for love and companionship) were understood as valid from the pregnant teen's point of view, but was clearly not a view condoned by this group. The instructor and learners quickly formed a consensus that extended the view that teen pregnancies were not good. In contrast the listening activity did not provide an opportunity to negotiate meaning as a group.


Consulting other sources of info

Instructor and learners relied on their own knowledge and drew on anecdotal evidence that supported the argument. Statistics Canada reports, or newspaper stories on teen pregnancies for example would have allowed the students to deepen their knowledge of the issue, rather than simply re-enforce their views. The listening activity had only one source of information, the taped interview.


Ranking and making judgment

Using their own knowledge and experience on the topic of teen pregnancies the learners did some ranking in how they presented their points. Some were acknowledged as more important than others from a societal or individual teen basis. The instructor made comments such as "You guys seem to agree that ..." The alternative and controversial view held by some minority cultures in Quebec is that all babies are welcome in extended families and make their community groups stronger. This view could have provoked more critical discussion and thinking, however, it may not have resulted in more oral production. The listening activity was not effective for practicing ranking or making judgments.


ii) Follow-up Questions


Q. What was the balance of cognitive, affective and physical activities in this lesson.

A. The balance between cognition and feelings was what the instructor probably intended. A sensitive and provocative topic was kept manageable by being prescribed by the instructor's view, one with which students were comfortable. If any learner was troubled by the topic, it was not apparent. Because of the sensitive nature, the treatment by the instructor was appropriate. Alternative views could have resulted in more debate, which could have increased anxiety levels. I was delighted with the topical nature of the material. It was well produced and highly engaging. Treatment of the material seemed to lower affective filters so that people could produce their paragraphs. In this case, the instructor could have ventured a little more debate so that some more spontaneous discussion would have resulted. Not knowing the students of what is acceptable for classroom discussion, it would be hard for me to know how far to go in this direction. I would like to see a more lively debate, however, the sex topic may be too threatening for some people in this age group. There was no physical activity such as moving around the room, nor did it seem appropriate for the setting and material.


Q. What was the most valuable activity for the learner?

A. The first activity of writing a paragraph was a more comprehensive and fully developed activity than the listening activity, which the instructor had not even pre-viewed (one of the other teachers prepared this part). The writing and reading aloud and follow-up discussion was a complete and multi-faceted event. It was highly relevant. The listening activity was more entertaining, and less demanding. The two worked nicely together, thematically, and provided a good balance. The latter was held in the last part of the 3 hour class when people were becoming tired.


Part B: Second Observation

I returned to the same instructor's classroom, but this time with a group of advanced beginners. I focused on the first 51 minutes of the class when the most formal grammar instruction was scheduled. I was interested in how grammar was being taught because I felt weak in my own knowledge of grammar and I was enrolled in the course on Teaching Grammar. I wanted to describe and analyze the classroom interaction. Measuring interaction meant classifying types of interaction and finding a way to quantify it. The class worked on a correction of a take home exercise of gap/close exercises on verbs. It was the last class before the final exam and provided a grammar review. The first ten minutes of the class involved a number of administrative matters (framework), then, for 35 minutes, the class read, taking turns, their answers to two exercises. The instructor asked for agreement and provided correction.

i) Analysis

I discovered that interaction flowed in four ways: 1 Instructor to class, 2. Instructor to individual learner, 3. Individual learner to instructor, and 4. Individual learner to whole class. I categorized the teacher and student interaction separately. I identified five categories of teacher-talk: grammar points, questions, praise, framework and correction. There was three types of student-talk: read answers to class, response to instructor and questions.

I recorded each 10 second utterance during 51 minutes of instruction. I tallied the number of utterances to produce the tables below. I analyzed the data and provide some conclusions. Following the report on interaction, I answer the some follow-up questions.


Table 1:

Rank and percentage of time instructor spent talking by type



 % of Teacher's Talk

 % of Total Talk

 Grammar Points

























Table 2:

Rank and percentage of time students spent talking by type



 % of Student Talk

 % of Total Talk

Read answer to class




Responded to













N = 51 minutes


Instructor Talk

The instructor talked for thirty-five (35) of the total fifty-one (51) minutes of instruction. This breaks down into of categories of talk discussed below.


Grammar Points

The teacher spent a good portion of his time focusing on form. I was interested to see if the focus on grammar was actually as high as I remembered. This was called a grammar review lesson so it was easy to identify when exactly grammar points were being made. On a dozen occasions the rule was mentioned, "we use the past continuous when the action takes place in the past and....after adverbs, a subordinate clause...no s's on adjectives etc." Focus on form accounted for 43% of the instructor's talk and 30% of the entire classroom communication. I believe this is probably close to the ideal for a lesson that was essentially a grammar review. Over the course of a 2 hour period, which involved more communicative activities I believe the instructor probably devoted 30% of his instruction to grammar, which is, according to Lighbown, approaching the right balance.



The instructor asked a variety of questions of individual students to check that people understood the grammar point and comprehension of the sentence content. It was categorically different communication and provided learners with experience with the question form. Though I do not know if they are learning to ask questions themselves. Twenty (20%) percent of the teachers talk was questions and accounted for 14% of all communication.



Praise is important feedback to students. The instructor gave praise for participation and correct answers that was gratifying for the students. Reward in the form of teacher's approval appeared to be a motivation in the classroom. Praise accounted for 17% of all the teacher's talk and 14% of the entire classroom exchanges. This high number suggests high level of learner success and I believe may be an important indication that the teacher is focusing on building confidence.



Communication related to the administration of the lesson includes instructions to look at the handout, what time the exam is, attendance, discipline, introducing the guest (me) etc.. . In some classrooms framework talk accounts for 30% of the teacher's communications. When not only for discipline, framework exchanges are sometimes the most authentic communication in the classroom. The learner receives information they need to participate in the class. Framework communication accounted for only 14% of the instructors time and 10% of the entire classroom.



Error correction occurred within the grammar review exercise. This category included error correction that occurred outside of the specific corrections. It included pronunciation and spelling errors that occurred in spontaneous exchange. Five (5%) percent of the teachers interaction with learners involved error correction, or only 3% of the entire class time.



Students interaction was categorized mainly as responses to the teacher. There was very little communication between individual students, either as part of the class or informally. This is the area I felt that the instructor missed opportunities for helping students practice speaking. In both classes I observed, there was very little conversational English.


Spoke to class

Over a third (36%) of the student-talk, or 11% of all the classroom interaction involved their reading corrected sentences to the class. Their focus therefore was mostly on form.


Responded to Instructor

Nearly an equal portion of student-talk was answering the instructors questions. Some of these were related to the grammar points but most were questions testing comprehension of the sentence content and attempts to stimulate discussion.



Student questions to the instructor accounted for a about a third of their communication, or 11"% of all classroom interactions. These were questions related to grammar, content and framework. Approximately 2 of 46 minutes of interaction took place in French, most were questions to the instructor. The instructor spoke French on two occasions for very brief explanations.


ii) Follow-up questions


Q What was the result of the balance of interaction during the lesson?

A. The back and forth and turn-taking observed in this lesson period was fast-paced and required a high degree of thinking. It was intense and those that had correct answers and knew their grammar rules appeared to enjoy the activity. The balance between teacher talk (70%) and student talk (30%) I think is a good ratio for this activity. Overall, however, I would like to hear more student talk in my own classroom. The mix of instruction, questioning and praise from the instructor was appropriate.

The analysis shows that even in a lesson that focused explicitly on teaching grammar, a lot of interaction does not focus on grammar.


Q What aspect of the activity was most valuable for the learner?

A. Because this type of verb work is tested in their exams, I believe the specific grammar rule review by the instructor was very valuable and crucial for the learner. The instructor's single focus on form at this point in the 14 week course seemed to be very appropriate and effective.

The most valuable activity during the 46 minutes studied was practicing verb tenses in preparation for the final exam the next week. Students had the opportunity to read answers, check their skill and knowledge and review a number of critical grammar rules they may have forgotten. They all had about 4 turns at providing an answer. Learners were comfortable and familiar with the process. Each received help if they needed it, and praise if deserved. I think the production of the answers, while a fairly conventional activity, was probably the most valuable part of the in-class part of this activity because at that moment they were very actively focusing on the task. The easy-going and friendly manner of the instructor made what is sometimes an opportunity for intimidation, a chance for participation in a very positive event - confirming what all but a few had mastered. The quantity of praise-giving by the teacher, which was extended to nearly everyone, was interesting to discover and may be an important part of the motivation and reward structure. This was possibly one the most important aspects of his teaching and one that I will use.

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