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A sociocultural study of second language tasks : activity, agency, and language socialization Kobayashi, Masaki

Abstract

In recent years, an increasing number of second language (L2) researchers have employed the concept of task as a unit of analysis (e.g., Crookes & Gass, 1993a, 1993b; Ellis, 2003; Skehan, 1998). However, most studies to date have focused primarily on L2 students doing narrowly defined tasks in classrooms or laboratory settings. How do L2 students work together in and out of class time and over an extended period of time to undertake their in-class academic tasks? How do they benefit from their previous experiences when performing related and similar activities? Informed by sociocultural perspectives (e.g., Duff, 2003; Lantolf, 2000; Ochs, 1988; Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1991), the present multiple-case study examined ESL students' group project work as a means to their becoming more fully competent knowers and speakers about academic content/culture. More specifically, the study examined ESL students' academic discourse socialization through their undertaking of oral presentation tasks. Participants included 80 Japanese undergraduate students enrolled in a two-semester content course at a Canadian university. Data were collected through classroom and non-classroom observations of project work, in-depth, semi-structured interviews, audio-journals kept by key students, and audio- and video-recordings of their interactions. Eleven key students and their partners were observed as they participated in a variety of activities both inside and outside the classroom. Recorded interactions were analyzed using mainly the analytical tools of the ethnography of communication and linked with themes that emerged from the other data. Data analysis suggested that the instructor, together with her assistant, provided her students with various kinds of help for their undertaking of tasks. In particular, she organized the course in such a way that earlier tasks and projects would serve as scaffolds for the students' participation in subsequent ones. The analysis also indicated that students' task-preparatory activities as well as actual task performances were rich contexts for learning and socialization. Many groups prepared for their presentations by negotiating teacher expectations, task definitions and goals, roles and identities, the language and content of their presentations, and rehearsing their speeches. The analysis suggested that these collaborative sessions, conducted primarily in Japanese, seem to have allowed the students to move their detailed discussion forward with less frustration, maintain group harmony and pursuit of goals, and attend to the form and delivery of their speech. The analysis further suggested that in order to undertake their tasks, students often acted upon their cognitive uptake from previous events, and such continued engagement sometimes took place rather privately as inner dialogues (Volosinov, 1973) or in the absence of the researcher. These findings point to the need to take a behind-the-scenes look at contingency across tasks and contexts by using a variety of methods, including a detailed analysis of discourse, interviews, and journal entries that would together allow for a consideration of both etic and emic perspectives.

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