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Review of  Second Language Interaction in Diverse Educational Contexts

Reviewer: Yi Xu
Book Title: Second Language Interaction in Diverse Educational Contexts
Book Author: Kim McDonough Alison Mackey
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.3064

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When it comes to the topic of interaction in foreign language teaching and learning, one might easily expect research on teacher-student or student-student face-to-face communication in classrooms. “Second Language Interaction in Diverse Educational Contexts”, edited by Kim McDonough and Alison Mackey, approaches “interaction” more broadly. Aiming at adding novelty and diversity to what is typically discussed in the field of interaction work, each chapter notes some perspectives that had not been taken in previous studies. “Educational contexts” in different chapters include traditional classrooms, computer laboratories, and conversation pairs or groups for both learning and testing purposes.

The book is divided into three sections. The first six chapters focus on interaction in second language (L2) classrooms. Chapters 7 to 11 deal with interaction involving technology, including interpersonal communication enabled by technology (i.e. computer-mediated communication), as well as interactions between learners and technology. The last four chapters feature studies on interaction among collaborative pairs or groups for proficiency and placement test purposes, as well as research that examines interactional patterns among conversational groups outside the classroom.

Chapter 1, “Promoting attention to form through task repetition in a Korean EFL context,” by Youjin Kim, investigates how task variables affect the emergence of language-related episodes (LRE) in collaborative tasks. Noting that previous studies did not always differentiate the repetition of task content from the repetition of procedure in target-based language teaching (TBLT), Kim compares the interactional patterns of two participant groups, with one group experiencing three tasks with procedure repetition only, and a second group experiencing task content repetition. The study finds that repeating the task content produced more LREs (particularly lexical LREs) than repeating the procedure only. In addition to reporting quantitative data with number of LREs as a measure, the author also discusses student and teacher responses qualitatively. Students perceived task content repetition with less interest than procedure repetition, as they tended to lose motivation and willingness to communicative over time, while the teacher indicated that the activities would have been more helpful if key vocabulary, expression, and grammar points needed for the task were introduced before students engaged in those tasks.

Chapter 2, “Language-related episodes during collaborative tasks: A comparison of CLIL and EFL learners,” by María Basterrechea and María del Pilar García Mayo, compared LREs as a result of collaboration in two different learning environments, namely, in a traditional English as a foreign language (EFL) program and in a content-and-language-integrated-learning (CLIL) program. A CLIL program, according to the authors, “encompasses the learning of a non-language subject through a foreign language where the subject and language have a joint role” (p. 28). The authors assess how LREs affected learners’ production of the present tense –s morphology in a written text reconstruction task (i.e. dictogloss), which was completed either individually or collaboratively. They report a positive correlation between the quantity and quality (i.e. whether the LREs were correctly resolved) of LREs involving the grammatical feature and the correct use of the feature in written tasks. Further, Basterrechea and García Mayo observe that CLIL learners produced more LREs than EFL learners in almost all of the grammatical and lexical LRE categories, and that under the collaborative text reconstruction condition, CLIL learners outperformed EFL learners.

Chapter 3, “The impact of increasing task complexity on L2 pragmatic moves,” by Roger Gilabert and Júlia Barón, makes connections between task complexity, interaction, and interlanguage pragmatics. They examine how the increase of cognitive demands in interactive tasks (i.e. a more complex task versus a simpler task) affected the pragmatic moves of Catalan/Spanish bilingual L2 learners of English in both quantity and variety. They report that more complex versions of the tasks resulted in longer interactions, and learners used a larger number moves, but not necessarily more varieties of moves, when task demands were higher. Also, increasing the task complexity increased the use of suggestions and requests, but not other types of moves.

Chapter 4, “Tasks and traditional practice activities in a foreign language classroom context,” by Mackey et al., incisively points out that despite the attention given to TBLT, little is known regarding the actual differences in the learning outcomes of TBLT and traditional activities with rote practice and memorization. Using learners’ development of question formation (Pienemann & Johnston, 1987) as a measure, the authors conclude that both activities have benefits and limitations: traditional practices are beneficial for learners with anxiety and can transform passive knowledge to active knowledge, while through tasks, learners can more effectively use structures in context.

Chapter 5, “Building explicit L2 Spanish knowledge through guided induction in small group and whole class interaction,” by Elvis Wagner and Paul Toth, examines consciousness-raising analytic talk that promotes explicit knowledge among learners in small-groups and in teacher-fronted whole class interactions. Their quantitative analyses show that individual learners’ engagement in tasks varied greatly in terms of the amount of analytic talk, and those learners who contributed more in small groups were also more engaged during the whole-class task. Further, Wagner and Toth also demonstrate that using the L1 during analytic talk was useful. Meanwhile, their qualitative analyses show that analytic talk given by learner peers may be helpful, though the degree of benefit could vary, while analytic talk of the teacher constantly facilitates learning.

Chapter 6, “Classroom interaction and learning opportunities across time and space,” by Rob Batstone and Jenefer Philp, analyzes the interactions among 12 adult learners in an English for Academic Purposes program, with repeated episodes of recorded data over 17 weeks. This study qualitatively compares interaction in a public space (i.e. teacher-led discourse and group work involving all members) versus in private space (i.e. interaction within sub-groups that temporarily disengage themselves from the whole group in order to resolve issues arising from public discourse, which may involve L1 use or clarification questions and answers among sub-groups). The authors emphasize the significance of peer interaction for L2 development, as private space affords a “safe” environment for learners to try out new forms that they are less confident with, while teachers in public discourse can provide authoritative answers to queries. Through observations over time, the researchers also find that learners repeatedly use particular forms of interaction over time with different partners, and that multiple layers of related interaction tend to occur simultaneously.

Chapter 7, “The cyber language exchange: Cross-national computer-mediated interaction,” by Sannon Sauro, explores how corrective feedback provided through telecollaboration in text-chat facilitates learners’ attention to form. In addition to Sweden-based English learners, participants in this study involved two US-based tutors, an English native speaker enrolled in a teacher training program, and an L2 speaker of English in graduate school. Sauro reports that the tutors tended to elaborate their feedback. Possibly due to the tutor’s own educational background, the English L2 tutor focused more on target forms in giving feedback, while the native speaker tutor gave feedback on additional writing features such as spelling and punctuation. Further, Sauro identifies two types of learners’ responses to corrective feedback: recognition uptake and application uptake. Recognition uptake occurred much more often than application uptake, but uptake in general was limited because many Swedish students prepared pre-composed texts and relied on copying and pasting in text-chat, thus limiting the opportunities for uptake.

Chapter 8, “Using eye tracking as a measure of foreign language learners’ noticing of recasts during computer-mediated writing conferences”, by Bryan Smith and Claire Renaud, uses eye tracking as a novel methodology to track attention in text-based synchronous computer-mediated communication (SCMC) between L2 learners and their instructors of Spanish or German. They report that there was a trend towards a positive relationship between the number of fixations and posttest success. Regarding their second research question, about the relationship between recast and fixation, they find that the number of targets in recasts was associated with fixation duration. The authors conclude that learners most often fixated on target items in recasts, and that fixation, rather than the number or difficulty of targets in recasts, predicts posttest success.

Chapter 9, “A corpus approach to studying structural convergence in task-based Spanish L2 interaction,” by Joseph Collentine and Karina Collentine, uses corpus linguistic methods to investigate how advanced Spanish L2 learners’ output exhibits structural alignment to the prime, which are grammatical structures leading interlocutors to use the same or similar structures (p. 171) in task-based SCMC in a 3-D virtual environment. The linguistic structure under investigation is complex sentences containing nominal clauses. By comparing the target-prime proportion and the target-without-prime proportion in dyads in learners’ SCMC transcripts and in a Spanish L1 corpus, the authors claim that the learners converged on nominal clauses with a limited number of epistemic verbs involved, and that they showed more structural alignment than native speakers. When there is no convergence, L1 speakers used a variety of structures to communicate, while the L2 learners relied heavily on cause-and-effect structures. In addition to pointing out that structural alignment is a learning strategy in interaction for less proficient speakers, the authors also argue that SCMC in a 3D virtual world promotes syntactic and discourse strategy development.

Chapter 10, “Preemptive feedback in CALL,” by Trude Heift, examines how different types of feedback in a computer-assisted language learning (CALL) environment affected beginning and early intermediate level German L2 learners differently. Heift compared the effectiveness of two feedback conditions: feedback with 3-hints listing the top three most frequently occurring errors versus feedback with 1-hint listing only the most frequent errors. A control condition with no preemptive feedback was also used. The results suggest that both types of feedback were more effective than no feedback, and that beginning level learners benefited more from preemptive feedback that attends to form accuracy than intermediate learners. Retrospective interviews also revealed learners’ positive perception toward such feedback formats.

Chapter 11, “Learner perceptions of clickers as a source of feedback in the classroom,” by Ellen Johnson Serafini, discusses beginning Spanish L2 learners’ perception of clickers as a form of immediate feedback. Feedback types crossing two variables including explicitness in feedback (with or without metalinguistic information) and enhancement (textual response only or enhanced visual display) were investigated, and questionnaire response data were analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively. The study reports that learners’ perceptions regarding the clicker system’s effectiveness were highly positive. At the same time, learners’ responses varied depending on the particular type of clicker response that they experienced. The group of participants that experienced clickers with enhanced visual display perceived the clicker system most positively.

In Chapter 12, “International engineering graduate students’ interactional patterns on a paired speaking test: Interlocutors’ perspectives,” Talia Isaacs investigates the nature of interactions and learners’ perceptions regarding such interactions among L2 English speakers from different L1 backgrounds when collaborating in pairs for oral assessment purposes. Three types of pairings are identified: collaborative, in which engagement was mutual; parallel, in which both speakers initiated ideas but did not follow up on each other’s turns; and asymmetric, in which one speaker dominated the conversation while the other was relatively passive. Isaacs notes that parallel and collaborative interaction types occurred most often, and that dominant speakers had the highest estimate of their L2 speaking ability and their time spent using the target language in daily life. Interlocutors in collaborative pairs perceived their joint performance most positively, while the dominant members of asymmetric pairs were the least positive about interaction outcomes.

In Chapter 13, “The effectiveness of interactive group orals for placement testing,” Paula Winke discusses the reliability and validity of using task-based group oral performance in placement tests. Inter-rater reliability was measured using the scores from two sets of raters, and test takers and student teachers were interviewed so that their responses could be used as evidence of test validity. Winke reports that ratings in the pronunciation, fluency, and communication categories from different raters were reliable, with variations mostly coming from the category of grammatical accuracy scores. Further, results from the interview suggest that using group orals in placement tests can generally be successful, though the procedure may be difficult to implement among lower proficiency level learners because peer interactions, and negotiating with sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competence are often skills that beginning learners lack.

In Chapter 14, “Interaction in conversation groups: The development of L2 conversational styles,” Ziegler et al. explore the development of L2 conversational features when native speakers of American English learning German develop their L2 in group conversations outside the classroom. The authors first note that German conversational styles, in comparison with American styles, include a more argumentative format and frequent overlapping utterances from interlocutors (Brynes, 1986; Kotthoff, 1993). The authors find that through group interactions over six weeks, learners either became more engaged in conversations, exhibiting more control of the floor or participating more, or became more passive, if they were less able than the more advanced learners to adapt to the target language conversation style. Exit surveys and interviews indicate that despite the lack of uniformity in learners’ adoption of the German conversation style, almost all learners perceived interactions within conversation groups positively.

In Chapter 15, “The effectiveness of interactive group orals for placement testing,” Kim McDonaugh and Teresa Hernández González analyze English as a second language (ESL) learners’ group interactions when preservice teachers acted as conversation facilitators. The authors asked whether the interactional patterns between teachers and students in such a communicative context would differ from what might occur in the traditional classroom context. The authors first defined four types of interactional context: interaction for communication, for content, for management, and for explicit language learning. Preservice teachers were found to use comprehension questions like they traditionally do in classroom discourse, but typically used them in the language and management context. They also asked referential and clarification questions in the content and communication contexts, and such interactions resembled what generally occurs in informal conversations. Also, preservice teachers talked more than learners in such conversation groups, and they talked most often in management and language contexts. Based on such evidence, the authors suggest that the preservice teachers were likely to have perceived their role more as traditional classroom teachers rather than facilitators.


The volume makes a significant contribution to the literature in two ways. First, as the editors of the book point out, each chapter points out a gap in the existing literature, a topic that has not yet been explored, or uses a new experimental methodology to deal with a long-standing issue. For instance, Kim, in Chapter 1, notes that teachers’ perspectives are often overlooked in early discussions of task repetition, and thus includes the teacher’s viewpoint in addition to the students’ responses. In Chapter 8, while eye tracking has been extensively used in psycholinguistic studies, Smith and Renaud make the first attempt to use this method to track learners’ attention in SCMC. The literature review sections of all chapters also give comprehensive introductions to what has been traditionally done on the topics in question, allowing readers with or without extensive background on the subject matter of “interactions in SLA” to equally benefit.

Another positive feature of the volume is its wide range of content scope and rich variety of experimental and data analysis methods used. At the same time, it is still easy to identify a coherent theme within the sections, each of which contains four to six chapters. In terms of content, the second and the third sections of the volume provide particularly useful examples for those who wish to explore the application of traditional theories such as the Interaction Hypothesis (Long, 1983, 1996) in different contexts. In contrast, all chapters in the first section of the volume establish direct comparisons of different types of interactions in classrooms, in which the TBLT methodology is often involved. Several studies (e.g. Chapters 1, 3, and 5) use a combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses on different types of data. Chapter 3 is also unique in that it treats task complexity as a within-subject variable, while also carefully taking care of carry-over effects through a Latin Square design.

Due to the range of topics covered, a reference list of terminology used is necessary. The volume does a fair job in this aspect. Towards the end of the book, an index of terminology used, together with each item’s place of occurrence, is given. In some cases, a clear definition can be found, though not always when it first occurs in the book. For instance, while the notion of “tasks” occurs almost immediately as one opens the book, readers have to wait until Chapter 4 to find a clearly articulated explanation of the term, as well as the related concept of “TBLT.” Other recurring terminology includes “recasts,” which are explained by Smith and Renaud in Chapter 8, and “uptake,” which is explained by Sauro in Chapter 7. At the same time, some recurring terminology, such as “ecological context” or “ecological validity,” are not explained explicitly. While these terms are not uncommon in SLA studies, clear definitions may benefit readers from diverse backgrounds, especially since the volume can appeal broadly to those interested in classroom practices, assessment, pragmatics, cognition, and technology.

Although the range of topics that the volume covers is impressive, a few potentially interesting subareas are left unexplored. The chapters in the book mostly deal with EFL/ESL learners or learners whose L1s and target languages are both Indo-European languages. One is left to wonder whether similar claims can be made for learners with disparate linguistic or cultural backgrounds, or those learning a target language in a different language family. The authors of several chapters (e.g. Sauro in Chapter 7 and Isaacs in Chapter 12) briefly mention that different patterns in interaction can be caused by individual learners’ or language tutors’ cultural and educational backgrounds, but they do not go on to elaborate how one should consider the role of the learners’ L1 in research and teaching. For instance, could learners who are less active in oral interaction due to L1 cultural influences benefit more than others in private space and/or in CMC, where the “threat to face” is less of an issue? Questions related to L1 background as a variable are not investigated directly in the volume. Another topic that is not dealt with is “interaction in communication in the traditional written form.” Since “interaction” in the volume includes both oral communication as well as CMC, it seems desirable for discussions of written communication in L2 development to be included to some extent.

Overall, the novelty in several studies and the variety of experimental approaches adopted in different chapters encourage scholars familiar with the “interaction” tradition to consider this concept in new ways. Finally, due to the background information provided, the volume can also be a useful resource for researchers and teachers who are relatively new to the subject of interactional studies in SLA.


Pienemann, M., & Johnston, M. (1987). Factors influencing the development of language proficiency. In D. Nunan (Ed.), Applying second language acquisition research (pp. 45-141). Adelaide: National Curriculum Resource Centre, Adult Migrant Education Program.

Byrnes, H. (1986). Interactional style in German and American conversations. Text, 6, 189-206.

Kotthoff, H. (1993). Disagreement and concession in disputes: On the context sensitivity of preference structures. Language and Society, 22, 193-216.

Long, M. H. (1983). Native speaker/non-native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input. Applied Linguistics, 4, 126-141.

Long, M. H. (1996). The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition. In W. C. Ritchie, & T. K. Bhatia (Eds.), Handbook of Second Language Acquisition (pp. 413-68). New York, NY: Academic Press.
Yi Xu is an Assistant Professor of Chinese Language and Linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh. She is interested in foreign language pedagogy, computer-assisted language learning, corpus linguistics, and in using psycholinguistic methodologies in second language acquisition.