The use of small group and pair work is supported by two major theories of language learning: the psycholinguistic theory of interaction, based largely on the work of Long (1983; 1996), and the sociocultural theory of mind, Vygotsky (1978). Both theories emphasise the importance of interaction for learning. However, whereas the psycholinguistic theory focuses on interaction, the sociocultural theory emphasises the importance of a particular kind of interaction, that of collaboration. (Donato, 2004)
Although literature on language pedagogy encourages pair work, students are reluctant, particularly with grammar-focused tasks. Noemy Storch’s (2007) study compared pairs and individuals in editing tasks. The study was conducted in four ESL classes. Class A was paired and class B individual. In C and D students were given the choice. Analysis showed no significant difference between accuracy of tasks completed individually and those completed in pairs. Transcribed pairs’ talk showed deliberation over language and grammar didn’t result in measurable improvement, whereas small groups’ language usage was quantitatively greater than that of teacher-led activities; although qualitative measurements aren’t discussed. (Long and Porter, 1985)
Small group and pair work, particularly in second language learning, according to Vygotsky (1978), mirrors social interactions between individuals in society. The more able, by providing assistance termed `scaffolding`, helps the learner achieve their potential.
`Peer scaffolding` occurs in group/pair work (Donato,1994; Storch, 2002; Aljaafreh and Lantolf, 1994). Learners participate in interactive activities, co-constructing knowledge, supported by the communicative approach. Studies of ‘collective scaffolding’ by Donato (1998; 1994) and Storch (2002; 2005) reveal a process of learners pooling linguistic resources to resolve language-related problems.
Working collaboratively learners create `dialogue` (Swain, 2000). `Collaborative dialogue` is co-construction of language knowledge, and is consolidative (Swain and Lapkin, 1998).
The use of small group/pair work in writing is limited in ELT. Found in the beginning (brainstorming), and the final, `peer review`, stage, which raises students’ awareness of audience considerations (Leki, 1993), and develops analytical, critical, reading and writing skills (Nystrand & Brandt, 1989).
The drawback is focus on product rather than process. When students are asked to `peer review`, focus is on error at sentence and word level (Lockhart & Ng, 1995; Nelson & Carson, 1998; Villamil & de Guerrero, 1996). The writing becomes an `object` while the writer’s text remains subjective and non-interactive with the reader. (Hirvela, 1999)
Wells, Chang & Maher (1990) argue students should write collaboratively, the singular text/plural authors approach (Ede and Lunsford 1990) assisting students` competency in content, structure, and language. Keys (1994) argues it fosters reflective thinking, especially if learners are making their ideas explicable. Storch (2002) shows that, in the process of co-authoring, learners consider not only language but discourse.
Although pair and group work are common in language classrooms, few have investigated the benefits of students’ jointly written texts.
According to Storch, when she asked students to write in pairs, they were reluctant. She asked students for a short text composition as the basis for a study. They were given a choice to write in pairs (18) or individually (5). Comparing pairs to individuals, fluency was measured in terms of the total number of words while accuracy and complexity was based on T-unit count and clause analysis. (As defined by Kellogg W. Hunt (1964), the T-unit is the smallest word group that can be considered a grammatical sentence, regardless of punctuation.1 Researchers use it as an index of syntactic complexity.) Individuals took 10 to 15 minutes, and pairs an average of 22 minutes.
The study found pairs` texts were shorter but better with more complex sentences. The average was 112 words, and individuals 137. Pairs were more accurate (0.07 mean error), and individuals (0.09). Most errors related to verb tense, use of articles and prepositions, and omission of sentence elements (in the subject position). Pairs` average length of T-unit (defined by Hunt as `main clause` and `subordinate clauses`, 1996, p.735) was 16 words, compared to 12 for individuals. Pairs` T-units were not only longer but averaged almost two clauses.
Individual writers produced overly detailed texts, restating information, rather than deductions based on the given chart. Pairs` texts were clear because they’d deduced their findings from the chart. All the pairs deliberated throughout, in line with Cumming’s (1989) observation that students` use `think aloud protocols` to generate ideas before linguistic formulations. Most of pairs collaborated by completing each other’s ideas, offering alternative suggestions, and feedback. This is `collective scaffolding`.
Collaboration afforded feedback, which explains the greater grammatical accuracy and complexity than individual writers. (Storch and Wigglesworth, 2007) Nelson & Carson (1998) report peers’ feedback isn’t respected and don’t pay attention to it. McCarthey and McMahon (1992) observe that this is because peers have no power over the text, which is owned by the author. In collaborative writing, students are receptive to peer revision because a text, commonly held, loosens proprietary feeling. Individuals are clearly more independent and don’t want to be mean `mouthpieces`, which can be a disadvantage of peer revision. Moreover, writing is an individual activity and students still have to write themselves. (Reither and Vipond (1989, p.855)
1 As defined by Kellogg W. Hunt (1964), the T-unit is the smallest word group that can be considered a grammatical sentence, regardless of punctuation. Researchers use it as an index of syntactic complexity.
Aljaafreh, A., and Lantolf, J. P. `Negative Feedback as Regulation and Second Language Learning in the Zone of Proximal Development`, Modern Language Journal, Vol. 78, # 4, 1994, pp. 465–483.
Donato, R. `Collective Scaffolding in Second Language Learning` in J. P. Lantolf & G. Appel (eds.) Vygotskian Approaches to Second Language Research, 1994, pp. 33–56.
Long, M. `The Role of the Linguistic Environment in Second Language Acquisition` in William, R., and Bhatia, T. (eds.) Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, San Diego: Academic Press, 1996, pp. 413–468.
Long, M. and Porter, P. `Group Work: Interlanguage Talk and Classroom Second Language Acquisition`, TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 19, # 2, 1985, pp. 207– 228.
Reither, J. A., and Vipond, D. `Writing Collaboration`, College English, # 51, 1989, pp. 855-67.
Storch, Neomy `Collaborative Writing: Product, Process and Students’ Reflections`, Journal of Second Language Writing, Vol. 14, # 3, 2005, pp. 153-173.
Storch, N. `Investigating the Merits of Pair Work on a Text Editing Task in ESL Classes`, Language Teaching Research, Vol. 11, # 2, 2007, pp. 143-161.
Storch, N., and Wigglesworth, G. Writing Tasks and the Effects of Collaboration` in M. Pillar (ed.) InvestigatingTasks in Formal Language Settings , 2007, pp. 157-177.
Swain, M. `The Output Hypothesis and Beyond: Mediating Acquisition Through Collaborative Dialogue` in J. Lantolf (ed.) Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning, OUP, 2000, pp. 97–114.
Swain, M., and Lapkin, S. `Interaction and Second Language Learning: Two Adolescent French Immersion Students Working Together`, Modern Language Journal, 82, 1998, pp. 320-337.
Vygotsky, Lev Semyonovich Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, 1978.
Wells, G., Chang, G. L., and Maher, A. `Creating Classroom Communities of Literate Thinkers` in S. Sharan (ed.) Cooperative Learning: Theory and Research, New York: Praeger, 1990 .