Theses Doctoral

Understanding-in-Interaction: The Case of the Adult ESL Classroom

Lo, Carol Hoi Yee

For decades, the majority of educational research has been preoccupied with understanding as a product—as various “learning achievements” and “subject mastery” to be measured and subsequently represented as statistics or test scores. This preoccupation is also observed in the field of second language education, whose attention has focused on how the outcome of language acquisition can be improved at a curriculum or activity level. However, what is equally important, and yet largely underexplored, is understanding as a process: how understanding is achieved and facilitated in and through classroom interaction.

To fill this research gap, this study respecifies understanding as a social and interactional phenomenon and investigates how it is enabled, managed, and restored in the adult ESL classroom in situ. Data comprise 27 hours of video- and audio-taped classroom interaction collected from two research sites serving adult ESL learners: an academic ESL program and a community-based ESL program located on the East Coast of the United States. Participants were two experienced teachers with over two decades of teaching experiences and 20 students with low to intermediate English proficiency. Data were analyzed within the conversation analytic framework.

Findings include three teacher practices concerning understanding-in-interaction. First, teachers can facilitate students’ understanding of grammatical errors by an embodied repair practice that I called “finger syntax.” By counting syntactic elements on fingers on display, the teacher can scaffold learners’ understanding of the location of the error, the nature of the error, and even the method of repair. Finger syntax can be deployed to initiate learner self-repair or demonstrate other-corrections. Second, teachers can answer students’ language-related questions by doing more than answering or doing approximate answering. In attending to both the what and the why, doing more than answering helps learners develop a principled understanding of a grammatical item. Doing approximate answering, on the other hand, is shown to be less responsive to students’ understanding troubles. In the absence of an agreement of what an ambiguous question actually asks, the teacher’s response deviates from students’ learning concerns to varying degrees.

Lastly, teachers can respond to trouble-laden learner contributions that result in a (potential) breach of intersubjectivity in a stepwise fashion. Specifically, their displays of understanding can be leveraged as a springboard for form-focused work, enabling a stepwise entry into linguistic feedback carefully aligned to meaning that a learner has struggled to articulate. Findings thus contribute to research on repair and corrections, on responses to learner questions, and on understanding-in-interaction in the context of the language classroom.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Arts and Humanities
Thesis Advisors
Waring, Hansun Zhang
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
June 15, 2022