Much SLA research has viewed language learning from a cognitive perspective with a focus on what’s going on in the individual learner’s head – language learning as an internal mental process. Concepts like interlanguage, as well as theories like the input hypothesis and models like information processing, all view language learning through a cognitive lens. While this perspective does give us a useful insight into language learning, it doesn’t give us the full picture, and it has limited usefulness for the language teacher.
However, over the last 30 years, a sociocultural perspective on second language learning has gained greater prominence. Research has shown that second language learning can be facilitated by interaction, when learners make use of their second language for communicative purposes.
Collaborative group work is a highly effective way of making the classroom an optimal language learning environment. It encourages lots of interaction amongst learners, part of which will involve a negotiation of meaning, a process that has been shown to make input comprehensible. Collaborative tasks, because they happen in the here and now and often depend on visuals, also tend to make language comprehensible.
Pauline Gibbons argues that collaborative group work is also effective because its members have an equal status; in other words, they have an equal right to understand and be understood, so there is more likely to be a two-way, or symmetrical flow, of conversation. Teacher-student interactions are asymmetrical because, usually, the teacher is the one who asks the questions and the student is the one who answers; the teacher, in IRF interaction, is also likely to respond in some way to the student’s answer. It’s the two-way flow that is needed for interactional modifications to take place, modifications that facilitate a restructuring of a learner’s interlanguage, so this is more likely to happen in student-student interaction than teacher-student interaction.
Interaction pushes learners to produce spoken output which can also be used as a basis for written work and teacher-guided reporting.
Talk For Writing is a strategy that has children describe their stories or other written work to each other. By verbalizing their thoughts, children are pushed to produce output that can help them in written work, for example by getting learners to notice when they are having difficulty saying what they are thinking. The other members of the group can help each other find the right words.