Supporting students’ learning through the use of group work in ESL classroom: An exploratory action research

Abstract

For Burns (2010), Action research (AR) can be a very valuable medium to extend our teaching skills and gain more understanding of ourselves as teachers, our classrooms, and students. Some time ago, as a teacher, I was facing several classroom issues and I wanted to solve one of the issues immediately. Getting inspired from the study about Action Research, I carried out Exploratory Action Research (Rebolledo, Smith and Bullock, 2016) that helped me to explore my classroom issues regarding individual support to my students who were struggling to learn English. This article reports the finding of the four-week-long research on supporting students’ learning through the use of group work in a large ESL classroom where the teacher’s individual support was almost impossible.

Introduction

There is a clear statement of the problem that I faced followed by the objective of this study. Moreover, the way I explored the causes of problems and the way out might interest the readers. There is a collection and analysis of enough data in the exploratory phase. The review of the concerned literature is another part of the paper. My real intervention actions with different evaluation tools have been presented under ‘Interventions and evaluation’. The findings of my research have been mentioned in the conclusion. I have tried to see the relevance of my research findings in different classroom situations. Finally, the annexure part includes different evaluation tools, participants’ responses and etc.

Teaching context

The story begins when I was posted as a community high school English teacher to the comparatively remote zone of my district which was mostly attended by two ethnic community students: Magar and Tamang. The students from these two communities made above ninety percent of the total students. English was their third language after their mother tongue and Nepali language. Students were often found to be speaking in their mother tongue even in English lessons being in their ethnic cluster.

There were sixty-four students in grade 10 and I had a forty-minute English lesson every day except Saturday. Because of the large classroom size, group work was difficult. I generally made mass presentation in front of class and asked the students whether they understood but most of the students expressed that they were not able to get the points. I tried to approach some students individually to make them clear but individual guidance was not always possible because of time constraint. So, I had to leave the class without satisfying my students and due to the time constraint, I could not give them constructive feedback. As a result, the poor students never improved, the frequency and type of mistakes increased and learning became ineffective. The level of English of most of the students was below average. Most of them could not communicate with the level of the course designed for them. Neither the teacher had time to talk to them nor the parents in their home could solve their learning problems. I was disappointed that if I had been able to maintain some degree of individual support to my students, their learning standard would have improved. It drew my interest towards scaffolding students’ learning through group work. Therefore, I decided to carry out small classroom-based research to find out why the problem occurred and how I could support each individual in my ESL classroom.

My Exploratory Research

I started to explore the reasons behind why I was unable to support my students individually. I prepared the tools of data collection and began to explore with a detail plan.

The exploratory phase provided me with some interesting findings that answered my question why my students lacked individualized teacher support. The first finding that touched me was the way students formed groups. The students were actually sitting in their ethnic cluster and using their mother tongue to understand English. Secondly, most students themselves formed their own ability groups. As a result, most of the benches lacked the students who could offer learning support to their classmates. The concept of group work and individual support had not been developed among the students. Thirdly, students expressed that they never noticed their teacher making effort to make them work in mixed ability groups so that they could learn from each other. Finally, both teachers as well as students agreed that the teacher’s individualized support was impossible because of the large number of students. Therefore, I decided to lunch my intervention influencing these three reasons with an aim to bring some change regarding individual support to all kind of learners.

Review of the related literature

To find out the opinion of experts about the possibility of individual support to all kind of learners in large classes, I began to look for various studies done in this area. Our major problem was to enhance students’ current level of ability. Lev Vigotsky (1978) proposed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), a metaphorical space between the child’s level of current ability to solve a particular problem and the potential ability. According to him, enhancement can be achieved with the careful assistance of someone else, usually a more knowledgeable expert, i.e. a parent or a teacher or more capable learners during collaborative tasks. One implication of the Vygotskian approach for language teachers is that it is important to pay attention to individual differences and consider alternative ways and levels of assisting learners (Burner, 1985).

Moreover, a teacher’s story from Cameroon seemed very useful in my context. Theorizing the story of Kuchah Kuchah from Cameroon, Kuchah and Smith (2011) have presented the instances of managing very large under-resourced classroom. Focusing on collaborative effort on bottom-up language teaching strategy, they extracted some principles for ‘autonomy of learners’.

  • Getting to know/building rapport with pupils/students
  • Negotiating with pupils/students
  • Viewing pupils/students as resource providers/as resources themselves
  • Building up credit with the administration and with other teachers

(Kuchah and Smith 2011, p. 137)

The theory seemed effective while administrating group works. The study of the literature offered me some insights that collaborative tasks help a great deal in the classroom where teacher’s individualized support is lacking. The concept of Vigotsky’s MKO (more knowledgeable one) encouraged me to mix diverse ability students in a group so that the support consolidates. The ideas of Kuchah and Richard, extracted from large class practice, offered strategic and procedural steps for intervention that guided me to implement various group work strategies where I could make my students work in small groups with careful guidance from my side. In the groups students could learn from each other and slow learners got support from their peers.

Interventions and evaluation

During my intervention and evaluation phase, students were given an opportunity to work in groups. The well monitored scaffolding initially started by ‘learning leaders’ and afterwards guided by the slogan ‘learn from the friend next to you’ established a system where students in groups could learn from each other.  Details of intervention steps are given below:

Week 1

For the detail intervention steps, I followed the detail action plan. Different groups were formed and during the process of forming groups, I found that most of the students were working in their won ethnic groups and the fast learners preferred to work with same ability classmates. Especially the girls from Magar and Tamang family were enjoying their ethnic groups while boys were mixed together disregarding their ethnic origin. Thinking that manipulating the existing group dynamics I would be violating the students’ right to choose their friends; I consolidated the existing groups with very less manipulation. I convinced some more capable students to be in different groups and fixed the learning leaders in each group so that one would be more responsible for the group work. Every day I observed the students working in their groups and tried to ensure that the students were learning from their friends.

I conducted different short orientation sessions for all the students in different groups and for the learning leaders separately. These orientation sessions guided my students participate in group discussions and encouraged the learning leaders to closely monitor their group without making their classmates feel inferior. I maintained daily journal where I jotted the findings of my observation and my feelings that I had during the daily activities. My own daily journal was a good source of information for my research work. When the students were busy in their group activities, I observed them, monitored them and provided them the instant feedback.

After they worked in groups for six days, I launched a student satisfaction survey questionnaire which would inform me how satisfied the students were in their group and how far they were learning from their classmates. My observation report and daily journal indicated that the students were gradually contributing in group work.

Week 2

On the last day of week 1, student satisfaction survey was administered. The report was extremely satisfactory. Almost all the students responded they were hundred percent satisfied in their group responding the question: ‘Are you happy being in the group you are in?’ Out of fifty-five respondents, only two students responded that they would like to change their group although they were not completely dissatisfied. In the same way, almost all the students were satisfied with their learning leaders. More than ninety-five percent students agreed that they easily got desired support from their group members. Regarding the teacher’s support in the group, all fifty-five respondents agreed that the teacher’s support to the group was completely satisfactory.

Despite all these satisfactory results, more than fifty percent students thought that the teacher was not supporting them individually.  Though the group activities, sharing and support system seemed fine and effective, I experienced a threat, i.e. the students who had difficulty in learning were simply copying ‘the right answers’ from their groupmates. Then my focus, as my plan, was directed towards how to make the students learn from their friends rather than merely copying ‘the right answers’. When I asked the logic after the ‘right answers,’ most of the students were dumbfounded. I thought something must be done. So, I decided to lunch series of orientation session for every group separately so it would function like a close counseling session. In the counseling session, I tried to make my students understand the true meaning of ‘learning’. Throughout the week I was checking, observing and finding whether they were truly learning. For this, I checked the understanding of two students from each group every day for four days and filled my observation checklist. By the end of second week, the tendency of merely copying the right answers had been gradually changing into seeking for true learning.

Week 3

            This week I was more directed towards reducing the learning responsibility load of the learning leaders. I tried to make the learning leader’s role more indirect and hidden. At first, I collected the opinions from three learning leaders about the learning tendencies and improvements of their classmates. They reported that their friends were trying to learn and there was big change in their attitude in comparison to the previous week. The major change according to them was that the students began to ask questions and clarify doubts rather than just copying the right answers. Responding to the question how they feel about the responsibilities they have to take as leaders during group work, they said they were satisfied and happy helping their classmates. However, I wanted to reduce the direct responsibilities of learning leaders; therefore, with their consent, I dismissed the title learning leader and launched the slogan ‘learn from the friend next to you’. If the students wanted to be clearer, they would approach the friend next to them or whoever could support them. Doing this, I thought, the individual support from each other would be strengthened.

Every day, I encouraged all the groups to learn from each other. I reminded them there was no leader in their group. When the students were busy in their group, I monitored them and provided them with instant feedback. If some students consulted me regarding some problems, I encouraged them to find the solution in group with their friends. I watched the learning process of each group very carefully and recorded their improvement with the help of my observation sheet.

Week 4

I wanted to find out how the entire campaign had been from the prospective of the slow learners for whom this study had been launched. For this, I randomly selected twelve of them, two students from each group and administered questionnaires. Twelve students out of twelve responded that they would like to continue the practice and this practice brought some positive changes in their learning pattern. Almost all of them, ten out of twelve, believed that individual support system was really built in English class. In summary, students were satisfied with the practice and they said that the campaign was very useful.

 

Further, I received written responses from six slow learners and analyzed them. Most of the students responded that the practice of group work had really been fruitful, they began to learn instead of copying right answers. One of my students wrote- “At first, I used to be scared of asking questions and my confusions were never gone. But now discussing the confusion in group has been a very easy technique to solve any confusion” (Shuruma ma prashnaharu sodhna daraauthe ra sadhai confused rahanthe. Tara ahile samuhama chhalphal garda confusion haru samadhan garna nikai sajilo bhaeko chha). Another student wrote “The group leaders supported us immensely and they have been our true learning partner” (Toli netako support nikai thulo thiyo. Uni bata hamile sachchikai sikne awasar paayau). Similarly, another response was “We expect the same technique will be used for other subjects also” (Haami aasha garchhau ki anya wishayaharu maa pani yahi techniqueharu laagu garine chha.)

Conclusion

The exploratory phase of my classroom-based research gave me some useful insights into my actual problem and guided me through an action plan that I developed for changing the existing situation. From the intervention phase of my research, I learned that the student assisted individual support through effective group work is more useful, effective and possible in large class where individualized teacher support was not possible. Regular practice of working in groups helped students overcome hesitation and they began to clarify their doubts/confusion among themselves and got support from each other. Thus, making students work in mixed ability groups is the better way to scaffold students’ learning and it helps a great deal particularly in large classes. The practice of exploratory research carried out in my ESL class was extended to mathematics class and the report was very positive.

To conclude, this kind of regular practice of exploring classroom issues and solving problems within the classroom scenario made me more confident. I share my ideas with my colleagues and encourage them to carry out exploratory research during their teaching hours, without taking it as extra burden, for learning about their issues and solving problems.

References

Burns, A. (2010). Doing Action Research in English Language Teaching: A Guide for Practitioners. New York: Routledge.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. Readings on the development of children23(3), 34-41.

Kuchah, K., & Smith, R. (2011, June). Pedagogy of autonomy for difficult circumstances: from practice to principles. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 119-140.

Smith, R, Bullock, D & Rebolledo,P (2016). Champion Teachers: Stories of Exploratory Action Research. London: British Council.

Author’s bio:

Ram Prasad Aryal is an English teacher and a head teacher in Adarsha Secondary School, Gajuri, Dhading. He completed M Ed in English Language Teaching from Kathmandu University. He is a life member of Nepal English Language Teachers Association (NELTA). The core classroom practice is the area of his interest in ELT.

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