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English teachers’ perspectives on classroom interaction: A phenomenological study

Bhim Lal Bhandari

Abstract

Classroom interaction is a crucial tool to involve learners in the learning process and enhance their learning efficiency. This study aimed at exploring English teachers’ perspectives on classroom interaction in learning English language. To achieve the purpose, this study adopted phenomenological qualitative research design and involved four secondary level English teachers purposively to collect their perceived experiences. Information was gathered using semi-structured interviews and informal discussions. The theoretical framework carried out by this study was Social Constructivism of Vygostky. The result showed that the English language teachers had positive perceptions towards classroom interaction as it engaged students in communicative activities and facilitated them to learn more effectively and naturally than learning on their own. Moreover, the teachers experienced that classroom interaction promotes learners’ autonomy, confidence, cooperation, a friendly learning atmosphere and the critical thinking abilities. This study also concluded that the English language teachers should go beyond methods for successful, effective, and research-based teaching and learning. 

Keywords: Classroom interaction, communicative activities, comprehensible input, learner autonomy

Introduction

Classroom interaction is two-way communication which facilitates learners to make meaningful and comprehensible input and output. In this regard, Brown (2000) explains, “interaction is the collaborative exchange of thoughts, feelings, or ideas between two or more people, resulting in a reciprocal effect on each other” (p. 165). Involving learners in interactions through group works and project works, teachers can increase opportunity of enhancing learning English. However, this sort of interaction and discourse in most classrooms is a one-way communication from teachers to students (Hurst et al. 2013). Such practices create students to remain passive and get limited opportunity for interaction and learning. In fact, meaningful interaction is the heart of communication and an effective way of learning language (Brown, 2001). Therefore,  language learning is the result of meaningful interaction with students in the target language. When students interact with each other, they use simplified forms of language. Consequently, it makes easy for them to understand the original texts. In addition, it increases their competency, autonomy and promotes the rate of Second Language (L2) acquisition and ensures the route of L2 interlanguage development. Therefore, it is important for the learners to provide interactional input for communicative effectiveness and corrective feedback and recast (Hedge, 2008). Thus, through interaction a language learner can get more opportunity to use language.

In order to get experience in English communication, the learners require regular interaction using the target language as it is the heart of communication (Brown, 2001). It is worthy to explore classroom interaction in learning English as it is significant for the teacher to build interactive and communicative teaching-learning activities involving learners. In this line, Jones (2007) states, “when students are working together in English, they talk more, share their ideas, learn from each other, get involved more, feel more secure and less anxious, and enjoy using English to communicate” (as cited in Sari, 2018, p. 47). Reflecting on my own teaching-learning, I feel that one cannot do everything individually however; the effort of a group makes everything possible. In this regard, Rivers (1987) claims that interaction plays a significant role in the language classroom as it increases students’ language store. Moreover, it contributes to the ongoing discourse of language teaching as the study promotes a shift from teacher-fronted teaching to a student-centered teaching. 

Interaction motivates students for their active engagement and participation in teaching-learning process. Therefore, the study about classroom interaction is considerably important and worthy to investigate and analyse. Without being engaged in communicative activities, we cannot expect learners to be competent language users. Gass (1997) and Long (1996) state that interaction provides learners with opportunities to receive comprehensible input and feedback (as cited in Muho & Kuran, 2014). Interactive classes encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning. However, only little attention has been paid to interaction in language classrooms and there has been only limited study on interaction between student to student and student to teacher in the context of Nepal. Therefore, it is an agenda to be addressed in my research.

To address the purpose, this study has aimed to investigate the following question:

  1. How do the English language teachers perceive the classroom interaction in learning English language?

Literature review

This section deals with the review of pertinent literature on classroom interactions. In doing so, at first, the previous studies on classroom interactions have been reviewed followed by theoretical background and policy perspective on classroom interaction. Based on the reviews of the previous studies, I present the research gap that has been identified.

Classroom interactions and its significance on English language learning (ELL)

Classroom interaction assists learners to be critical thinkers so as they get more opportunity to use language. It makes communication meaningful and encourages learners to comprehend and internalize not only linguistic features of language but also social, cultural, pragmatic discourse and other extra linguistic features of language. The learner-centered techniques or interaction patterns such as group work, pair work, open-ended questions, collaboration, full class interaction (Ur, 2008) and  involve learners in the target language interaction. Interaction helps them be active participants in their own learning process. Thus, interaction is considered as one of the major requirements to enhance the logical capacity of the students. Moreover, interaction is an effective strategy in teaching and learning English as students get opportunity to practice the target language.

Effective interaction can increase the students’ participation and their language performance in the classroom. It encourages them to work independently in the learning process. When students are engaged in direct classroom activities, they can learn better. The students who are active in classroom interaction can share and transmit the information and learn better. Meanwhile, those who are passive in the classroom will have less opportunity to learn language. Therefore, the quality of teaching and learning process in the classroom is mainly determined by how actively the teacher and students interact with each other. In this regard, Brown (2000) explains “interaction is the collaborative exchange of thoughts, feelings, or ideas between two or more people, resulting in a reciprocal effect on each other” (p. 165).  Thus, interaction occurs when two people give and receive messages in a communicative process.

Beside this, Jones (2007) stated learners share their ideas and learn from each other while working together. They get more involved, feel more secured and less anxious, and enjoy using language. A teacher requires designing tasks, project, group work, pair work etc. for promoting the interactions and other decision making activities (as cited in Nisa, 2014). Doing a significant amount of pair work and group work, receiving authentic language input in real-world contexts, the learners produce meaningful language. Such communicative classroom tasks prepare them for actual language use (Brown, 2007), which supports to minimize teacher’s talk.

The study conducted by Hussain and Bakhsh (2011) investigated the effects of classroom interaction on students’ academic achievement at secondary level . The study showed a positive effect of the classroom interaction on students’ achievement as the experimental group performed significantly better than the control group on the post-test. It indicated interactive learning actively engaged students in the learning process with various interactive activities in the classrooms. 

In the same way, Pujiastuti (2013) examined interaction analysis focusing on the investigation of the verbal classroom interaction, types of teacher talk, implications of teacher talk on students’ motivation, student talk and teacher’s roles in classroom interaction. The study indicated the need for the increased students’ talk to learn English. Another study of Sundari et al. (2017) revealed that teachers applied at least three types of interactional patterns in English as Foreign Language (EFL) classroom such as teacher- whole class interaction, teacher-fronted student interaction and student-student interaction which assisted students to communicate their ideas and feelings to each other to improve their language. 

Likewise, Sari (2018) examined classroom interaction in English language class in Indonesia and explored that learner-centered activity such as group work which forces students to talk to each other spontaneously; ask each other questions; and respond in a natural way. They learnt English from engaging in activities. Hence, it is important for the teacher to build interactive and communicative teaching-learning activities involving more students in interaction.

The aforementioned literature review showed the significance of classroom interaction for learning English language in foreign contexts in general. However, the classroom interaction in foreign contexts and community schools in Nepali contexts are not identical. Therefore, it is important to explore the phenomenon from Nepali perspectives. Moreover, as far as my knowledge, the previous studies have not explored the classroom interactions applying phenomenology design in Nepali context. Therefore, this study is different from others so that it could  fulfill the existing research gap in classroom interaction in ELL at secondary level community schools.

Theoretical perspectives

As a theoretical basis for my study, I adopted social constructivism learning theory developed by Vygotsky in 1978. This theory believes that learners construct knowledge individually based on their prior experience and new information. In this context, Jonassen (1991) asserted the basic belief of constructivism is that knowledge is actively constructed by learners rather than transmitted by the teacher; learners are active knowledge constructors rather than passive information receivers (as cited in Wang, 2008). I also believe learning is an active process that involves learners in learning by means of social interaction. Similarly, Vygotsky (1978) points out teachers, learners and peers must interact in order to share ideas and experiences to solve the problems. Learners learn language through the process of sharing and interaction that helps them learn together. Therefore, this theory is in favour of social interaction for better learning. Liaw (2004) states that social constructivists, however, argue knowledge is the outcome of collaborative construction in a socio‐cultural context mediated by discourse. Learning is fostered through interactive processes of information sharing, negotiation and discussion (as cited in Wang, 2008). This theory focuses on social interaction for learning language. Process-related awareness is crucial in the constructivist classroom along with learning awareness, language awareness and intercultural awareness. Holistic language experience is the soul of this theory in the language classes, which depends on a content-oriented, authentic and complex learning environment (Aljohani, 2017). So, individualization of learning and autonomy of learners is essential in the constructivist classroom.

Policy perspectives on classroom interaction

National Curriculum Framework (2007) and (new curriculum frame 2019) of Nepal has given special value to the promotion of teaching learning in the classroom by employing research-oriented and interactive approaches. It clearly states that the main objective of language learning is to develop language ability for lively participation in day to day social life. However, only few teachers activate their students and promote interactive learning in English classrooms as they have not realized the value of classroom interaction for effective teaching and learning activities.

Methodology

The present study adopted qualitative method. Qualitative research places emphasis upon exploring and understanding “the meaning individuals or groups ascribe to a social or human problem” (Creswell, 2011, p. 45). Within the phenomenological design, four trained English teachers from two community secondary schools of Rupandehi, Nepal were purposively selected for their lived experiences on classroom interactions. The research site was chosen because of easy access and the availability of the trained teachers in conducting classroom interactions. Out of four participants, three were males and only one was female. These participants were selected purposively based on two factors: whether they use classroom interaction in teaching and learning English; and their intention to participate in the study. The teachers were chosen only from secondary level because it is regarded as the level to give more interaction in the English language learning process. This also involves identifying and selecting individuals or groups of individuals that are especially knowledgeable about or experienced with a phenomenon of interest (Creswll & Clark, 2011).

Furthermore, this study adopted phenomenology as the research design because it is associated with lived experiences of an individual. In the process of information collections, phenomenology helped the researcher to capture and explore perspectives of teachers in classroom interactions. With the semi-structured interviews method, the teachers were involved as the participants to express their lived experiences in classroom interactions in ELL. The average length of the interview was about 40 minutes. Taking consent from them, the researcher recorded their experiences/views and later transcribed on Microsoft word processing. Then, the information were organized and categorized into different themes to generate the meaning followed by interpretation and analysis of the themes. During the information gathering, the researcher protected participants’ right to privacy, confidentiality and used their pseudonyms while analyzing.  

Results and Discussions 

This section presents findings gathered from the interviews on classroom interaction in ELL. First, the perceived experiences of teachers were presented then subsequent discussions were made against the findings.

Teachers’ perspectives on classroom interaction

Teachers’ perspective on classroom interaction included their perceptions, beliefs or understanding for the use of interaction for effective teaching and learning process. It deals with how English teachers perceive classroom interaction from their perspectives. The researcher asked how they interact with the learners and make them interact with their friends. In this regard, Suman responded, “I involve my students in interactive activities such as group work, debate, role play etc. so that they can share ideas with me and with their friends. As a facilitator, I support them on how to do the task”. His lived experience reveals that interactive activities encourage students to enjoy learning as the class is student-centered.

In this vein, Prem shared, “In my understanding, interaction is question-answer between teacher and students. It is a student centered technique which maximizes student talking time”. Perm’s response mainly highlights question-answer between the teacher and students, and the positive perceptions of the participants on interaction as it activates students in the class in different tasks, discussions and interactions. Regarding this, Nunan (1990) asserts, learners learn more by reducing teacher taking time” (p. 21). A similar perception of classroom interaction can be inferred from the response expressed by Manju who explained, “classroom interaction includes all classroom activities such as pair work and group work which make learning student-centered as teacher is one of the participants in communicative activities”. Manju’s perception in classroom interaction reveals the meaning that pair/group work-based learning promotes the speaking time of each learner and assists them to interact and work independently (Harmer, 2001). Thus, interaction increases learner autonomy.

Similarly, Shiva responded, “in the classroom, I speak less and provide more time to the students with different tasks”. This response mainly highlights his positive perception as it activates and engages students in interactions with different tasks. Manju and Shiva’s views are in harmony with “social constructivism which emphasizes the role of interaction in knowledge construction. Social constructivists believe knowledge is socially constructed through collaboration” (Sardareh & Saad, 2012, p. 346). Therefore, I believe classroom interaction is highly beneficial to provide opportunities to the learners to engage in learning language naturally. 

From the above explanations it is clear that classroom interaction-based teaching is the demand of the day that benefits and facilitates learners in understanding the subject matter. The participants revealed their positive perceptions of classroom interaction as explained by Rohmah (2017) who claims it is important for the teacher to build interactive and communicative teaching-learning activities involving more learners in interaction. His view is in harmony with the assumption of constructivism also.

Learning English through interaction

Interaction in the classroom plays a significant role in acquiring and learning the target language. It helps students learn more by communicating with their peers. When students are involved in interaction, they are expected to get more language exposure. Regarding this, Rivers (1987) asserts that through interaction, students can increase their language store as they listen to or read authentic linguistic materials, or even the output of their fellow students in discussions, joint problem-solving tasks, or dialogue journals’’ (as cited in Nisa, 2014, p. 125). Interaction increases students’ input and output in the target language. Regarding this, Prem stated, “in my view, interaction increases students’ competency and enhances appropriate skills for communication. Through speaking activities, they can construct knowledge”. His experience reveals that students become confident and competent when they get more exposure. Thus, they construct knowledge through interaction. This is supported by Luk and Lin (2007)  who claim that interactions in language classrooms are important social activities for students through which they not only construct knowledge, but also build confidence and identity as competent language users (as cited in Thapa & Lin, 2013). So, language teachers have to involve learners in social activities. His view is similar to Ellis (1990) who persistently advocates that the interaction is meaning-focused and carried out to facilitate the exchange of information and prevent communication breakdowns. Regarding this, Manju insisted, “I usually engage my students in group work, pair work, debate, language games, question answer etc. These activities enhance learning English as they decrease and minimize their anxieties”.

The above opinion of Manju illustrates how group work, pair work, debate, language games, question answers etc. assist the learners to increase classroom interaction and support to learn language. This idea is closer to Gillies (2006) who pointed out that free group discussion can help the learners to be clear of ideas. Moreover, co- operation in a group also contributes to a pleasing and encouraging environment to the learners and decreases their anxieties by facilitating them to self-learn and share information. This is supported by Ketch (2005) who asserts “conversation helps individuals make sense of their world. It helps them build empathy, understanding, respect for different opinions and ownership of the learning process” (p. 8).

Prem and Manju’s views are in harmony with Thapa and Lin (2013) who explain that in language classroom, interaction is an essential social activity for students through which they not only construct knowledge, but also build confidence and identity as competent language users (as cited in Nisa, 2014, p. 125). Therefore, orienting the students to interact with their teacher and fellow friends supports to build their knowledge as well as their confidence. Likewise, Naimat (2011) states, “interaction, for students, will strengthen the relationship, either among them or with their teachers since it gives them the chance to learn from each other and get feedback on their performance” (as cited in Nisa, 2014, p. 125). The idea is similar to constructivism as Vygotsky (1978) claims learning is the result of interaction between peers through collaboration.

Teacher as a facilitator

The success of classroom learning depends on the classroom environment and students’ active involvement. The teacher gives priority to student interaction in the classroom environment. As a facilitator, he or she facilitates learners to learn in course of teaching. Regarding the role of teacher in classroom interaction, Shiva emphasized, “As a facilitator, I facilitate my students to speak. I organize class hours; admire them and try to create a climate in which they can express their views spontaneously”. His lived experience shows that he manages class hours for their interaction creating a conducive climate in which they can express their views spontaneously. In this regard, Prem shared, “I plan lessons and give freedom to organize different interactive activities by giving guidelines and dividing them into groups for communication”. He organizes different classroom activities by dividing the students into groups then he facilitates them in the communication process. The above illustrations are supported by Glasersfeld (1989) who states that social constructivism emphasizes learners’ active participation in learning.

The above evidence also indicates that teachers facilitate the communication process among all the participants in the classroom with various interactive activities by providing prompts to do the tasks. The finding of the participant is in harmony with Wallace, et.al (2004) who assert that frequent collaboration gives chances to students in communicating meaningful ideas with one another and being active learners (as cited in Sari, 2018). Teachers play the prominent role and control the moves of lessons, manage who to talk, when to talk and how much to talk, and they also become students’ speaking partners and language models. Li (2006) states that when teachers create a safe and non-threatening learning atmosphere, students feel comfortable, participate and develop confidence then they learn and accomplish proficiency (as cited in Hurst et al. 2013). Thus, they make learning easier for them with a clear way to find the solution.

Maximizing student interaction in ELT class

In order to maximize student interaction in ELT class, the teacher should establish a friendly and relaxed learning environment. Routman (2005) asserts “students learn more when they are able to talk to one another and be actively involved” (as cited in Hurst et al. 2013, p. 207). In short, social interaction is vital to the learning process.

If there is a trust and supportive rapport among the learners and the learners to teacher, then there is a better opportunity for useful interaction. In this regard, Suman asserted, “I make pairs and small groups to maximize interaction. I ask questions on the topic and allow them time to listen, think, process their answer and speak”. It is therefore, learners get opportunities of using language with one another through communicative activities in class. Since interaction is at the heart of the social constructivist theory of learning, learners construct knowledge through interaction with others. Manju stated her lived experiences  “Increasing student talking time and managing seating arrangements properly, I allow the whole class to be involved in pair work for speaking. In addition, I encourage interaction between them rather than only between me and them”. She claims that she encourages student- student interaction in the class through pair work. The expression of Manju clearly shows that interaction engages all the students in speaking English. The view expressed by her is supported by social constructivism that requires students to actively participate in their learning process and reflect on their own learning (Vygotsky, 1978).

Thus, Manju and Suman  stress on interaction using pair and group works in English language teaching and learning. In this regard, Wallace et.al (2004) claim that frequent collaboration provides opportunities to the students in communicating meaningful ideas with one another and being active learners (as cited in Sari, 2018). They reported that when they engage their learners in interaction in English language teaching and learning, they find the students learning in collaboration, rather than depending on the textbooks. Likewise, Rohmah’s (2017) study explored that learner-centered activity such as group work forces students to talk to each other spontaneously; ask each other questions; and respond in a natural way. He concludes that it is important for the teacher to build interactive and communicative teaching-learning activities involving more students in interaction. In this line, Nunan (1990) claims, Learners learn more by reducing teacher taking time” (p. 21). By minimizing teacher talks, it  provides opportunities to the learners to work independently; they engage themselves in pairs, or in small groups. Similarly, constructivists also claim that interaction is a learner-centered activity in which there is high involvement of students. 

Students’ participation in learning English through interaction

Teaching and learning does not take place in a vacuum but students learn language through interaction. Language teaching and learning need group work so that they can exchange their ideas. In this regard, Confucius asserted, “tell me I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand”. When the learners take part in communicative activities actively, they construct meaning through the process of interaction. In classroom interaction, the learners can have verbal practices, non-verbal practices, pedagogical practices and personal practices. Teacher’s talk, teacher’s questions, error correction, student responses and students’ questions are verbal practices. 

In this regard, Prem inserted, “When students are asked to do the task in small groups in small classes, they engage actively; share ideas to each other and learn English”. This statement indicates that tasks in small groups or in small classes engage learners actively so that they can share ideas to each other. In this context, Louis (2006, p.1) asserts, “when learners participate in their own learning, taking an active part in making decisions, they might feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the process and learning becomes meaningful” (as cited in Breaute, 2016). The creative cognitive engagement of the learners inside and outside the classroom supports them to engage in learning English collaboratively. In this vein, Suman insisted:

By putting the students into pairs or small groups, I engage them in interaction. I encourage and facilitate them to express and share their own ideas, opinions and feelings with their peers. I establish a climate of cooperation in a friendly atmosphere.

The above illustration demonstrates that without active involvement of students in language learning, they cannot learn language naturally. Language learning will not be effective without allowing enough time for students to respond to the teacher. His view is supported by Scriverner (2005) who asserts that the teacher has to maximize the interactional activities in the classroom by setting friendly and relaxed learning environments as well as allow enough thinking and speaking time and turn to the students.

Shiva shared, “when my students of mix-ability work cooperatively, they solve the problem”. Working cooperatively helps learners develop important social skills. Learners with varied social backgrounds, intellectual skills, and physical capabilities work together to learn the subject matter, solve problems, and accomplish tasks (Adaba, 2017). They learn to accept the value of individual differences. A sound relationship needs to be established on the basis of mutual respect between the teacher and the learners. In this regard, Prem viewed, “my students enjoy working together sharing ideas to each other. They generate ideas in the process of interacting. They bring the solution doing the task collaboratively”. The extract above portrays the idea that teacher’s friendly behaviour supports their learners to learn more. The teacher claims that modified interaction provides them comprehensible input. This view is supported by Brown (2007) who stated that interaction is the basis of L2 learning, through which learners are engaged both in enhancing their own communicative abilities and in socially, constructing their identities through collaboration and negotiation.

Prem further added, “I believe students learn better through interaction with their friends and teachers. Interaction helps them improve critical thinking skills and use other students as well as teacher’s comments on their work to enhance their learning”. He believes when he involves students in communicative activities, they learn better from interaction and improve critical thinking skills. His view is supported by Routman (2005) who asserts “students learn more when they are able to talk to one another and be actively involved” (as cited in Hurst, et al. 2013, p. 207). 

Social constructivism also emphasizes the role of interaction and knowledge sharing in an individual’s understanding and knowledge construction. “Social constructivists believe knowledge is socially constructed through collaboration” (Sardareh & Saad, 2012, p. 346). A variety of interactional patterns in language classrooms may affect the language learning process as well as the development of language proficiency.  

Conclusion and recommendations

The study explores that English language teachers have positive perspectives on classroom interaction. The activities of classroom interaction like pair work, group work, and problem-solving exercises promote learners’ autonomy and confidence in learning, maximizing exposure to English language since they are the tools for comprehensive input. Moreover, the teachers experienced that classroom interaction promotes cooperation, a friendly learning atmosphere, and the critical thinking abilities of the students. The student-centered interactive activities keep the learners always active and enable them to learn effectively and successfully at their own pace. These findings of this study imply that the teachers are still in favour of communicative language teaching rather than context-sensitive techniques and methods of language teaching and learning in the present post-method era. The teachers’ preferences on communicative approach based interactive activities cannot fully value the learners’ differences and discovery-based learning. A gap is seen between teachers’ perspectives and the global trend of English language teaching and learning. In this sense, this study concludes that English language teachers should go beyond methods for successful, effective, and research-based teaching and learning. The learners should be engaged in context and individuals’ suit and sufficient exposure and activities to English language for making them able to compete in the global market.

Though this study contributes to an understanding of English teachers’ perspectives on interactive learning and also opens a space of discussion on method or post-method in the context of English language teaching in Nepal, it has some limitations in its scope and methodology.  Since it is a small scale phenomenological qualitative research investigating English teachers’ perspectives on classroom interaction, its findings may have limited applicability. Therefore, a large-scale study incorporating all stakeholders such as teachers, students and guardians needs to be carried out covering a greater area and huge population. The future researchers can conduct research using classroom observation technique and focused group discussion to uncover a detailed and more comprehensive picture of teachers’ and students’ perspectives on classroom interaction. Nonetheless, this study has indicated the need of teachers’ awareness towards post-method pedagogy in English language teaching to cope with the global challenges rather than only preferring communicative approach based classroom activities.

The Author: Bhim Lal Bhandari is a reader in English Education at TU in Butwal Multiple Campus, Rupandehi. Currently, he is pursuing MPhil in ELE at Kathmandu University. He is also a life member of NELTA, and has published about a dozen research articles in national and international journals. He has also presented papers in national and international conferences and webinars. His areas of interests include SLA, teacher education and ELT methodology.

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Can be cited as:

Bhandari, B. L. (2021, January). English teachers’ perspectives on classroom interaction: A phenomenological study [Blog article]. ELT CHOUTARI. Available at: http://eltchoutari.com /2021/01/english-teachers-perspectives-on-classroom-interaction-a-phenomenological-study/