Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching
Volume 5 (2014) Issue 2 (PDF)
Promoting Dialogue using Weblogs in order to Co-Construct Knowledge
Sara Quintero Ramírez (Guadalajara, México) / María Luisa Arias Moreno (Guadalajara, México)
The use of classroom dialogue combined with technology offer effective learning resources to establish, expand and deepen learning dialogues between students, especially since younger students nowadays feel the need to employ more modern tools in their learning process. The object of this paper is to show the research results of a Spanish writing course with B.A. students in a Mexican context using dialogue to promote the learning not only of specific skills and strategies, but also to enhance the students’ thinking skills as well as linguistic creativity and reasoning. We wanted to find out if raising students’ awareness through the creation of a weblog where they would publish their texts, and at the same time were able to dialogue with their peers, would make academic texts more relevant to the students and help co-construct knowledge.
Key words: teaching-learning process, dialogue, weblogs, exploratory talk.
El uso del diálogo en el salón de clases combinado con la tecnología ofrece fuentes de aprendizaje efectivo a fin de establecer, expandir y ahondar en los diálogos de aprendizaje entre los aprendientes, especialmente en la actualidad en la que los estudiantes jóvenes sienten la necesidad de emplear herramientas más modernas en su proceso de enseñanza-aprendizaje. El objetivo de este artículo consiste en presentar los resultados de una investigación llevada a cabo en el marco de un curso de escritura en español con estudiantes de licenciatura en un contexto mexicano haciendo uso del diálogo para promover el aprendizaje no sólo de las habilidades y estrategias específicas, sino también para desarrollar en los estudiantes discernimiento a través de la creación de un blog en el que publicaron sus textos al mismo tiempo que pudieron dialogar con sus compañeros de clase, esto hizo que los textos académicos resultaran más relevantes para los estudiantes y los ayudaran a co-construir el conocimiento.
Palabras clave: proceso de enseñanza-aprendizaje, diálogo, blogs, habla exploratoria.
The aim of this study is to find out if the use of weblogs with academic purposes in a group of B.A. students was effective to enhance dialogue between them and the co-construction of linguistic and cultural knowledge. In order to do so, first the justification and the context of the study will be presented. Next, the literature review in which concepts such as dialogue, exploratory talk and weblogs in an academic context will be discussed. Then, the project will be presented (and its three stages) in the methodology section. Finally, the findings from the previous analysis will be offered and some conclusions drawn.
2 Justification and Context
The study was carried out on 30 first-year students studying for their B.A. in Teaching English as a Foreign Language at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. During this first year, they receive instruction in Spanish in order to first develop their writing skill in their native language, so that in the subsequent years they can develop this same skill in English - the target language in which they receive instruction during the rest of the B.A. The study was conducted over six months during a writing course in Spanish. Both researchers were also the teachers of this course. The course program was focused on the writing strategies and techniques about two types of text: description and narration.
It is important to state that students usually come from a traditional schooling environment which emphasizes the central role of the teacher in the classroom, promotes learning through memorization and suffers from a lack of opportunities for the students to express themselves in the classroom. Most of the time, this means that students play a very passive role. As a matter of fact, they are not used to critical thinking or making links between what they already know and what they learn in other courses.
Although they had previously worked in teams during their high school, students usually divide the task and work individually. They are not used to discussing their different points of view with their classmates or even with the teacher because, as has been already stated, in traditional schooling, the teacher is considered to be the only voice with authority to declare what is true and what is not.
Since the students of this B.A. are accustomed to a wide variety of technologies, they usually find traditional school activities (like reading academic texts, answering questionnaires for reading comprehension or writing specific text genres) rather boring. So they demand more dynamic courses with more modern educational tools. In other words, students nowadays feel the need to use technology in their learning process. With this taken into consideration, it was decided to use dialogue in class, combined with the creation of a weblog in which learners were supposed to open, maintain, expand and deepen learning dialogues between themselves and their peers.
3 Literature Review
3.1 Dialogism in Classroom Interactions
The concept of dialogue as a constant social process in generating meaning that occurs between people as subjects (Bakhtin 1981) is at the core of the Bakhtinian theory. This concept has been applied to different fields such as philosophy, literature or education. In the case of education, dialogue can be conceived as the discursive construction of shared knowledge through its co-construction and appropriation (Wegerif 2007). Indeed, as Moate (2011: 21) ascertains, students need to enter into a dialogue in a Bakhtinian sense, that is, a shared task with one voice answering another.
At the university level, although knowledge can be built through formal, institutionalized activities, it can also be constructed through peer learning activities which result in reflexive and critical reasoning. As a consequence, promoting dialogue in class becomes important, particularly if this dialogue is based on exploratory talk (Mercer 2000 & Wegerif 2007), as will be explained below.
Bakhtin (1981) also considers the implications for self-other relations in communication. He emphasizes the ways in which two individuals engage in a dialogue in order to create coherent understandings of themselves and the others that expand the representative boundaries of both. It is precisely at this moment of expanding the boundaries of both participants in communication that they co-construct knowledge.
3.2 Dialogue Promoted by Exploratory Talk
As has been stated before, promoting dialogue in class is important. For Moate (2011: 21), dialogue in education supports creativity, problem-solving, ingenuity, imagination and expression. According to Wegerif (2007: 77-78) and Mercer (2000: 98), there are three significant kinds of talk that can be displayed during the different activities in the classroom1:
a) disputational talk, in which scholars express their disagreement through short and individual exchanges in the classroom;
b) cumulative talk, in which students offer a positive comment on what the others had done or said through repetitions, confirmations and elaborations, but there is a lack of critical comment;
c) exploratory talk, in which the individuals present critical and constructive comments on what others had done or said.
According to our findings, the disputational talk and the cumulative talk seem to be the most common and basic structural talks that are offered in traditional schooling, the first one implying disagreement and the second one just accumulating knowledge. However, both lack critical thinking.
Since we are focusing on critical and constructive comments, the present study focuses on exploratory talk, which Wegerif (2007: 77) defines as the kind of talk in which arguments and reasons must be presented by participants in the classroom. Mercer offers the following definition that complements Wegerif’s idea:
Exploratory talk is that in which partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas. Relevant information is offered for joint consideration. Proposals may be challenged and counterchallenged, but if so, reasons are given and alternatives are offered. Agreement is sought as a basis for joint progress. Knowledge is made publicly accountable and reasoning is visible in the talk. (Mercer 2000: 98)
Furthermore, Wegerif adds that this kind of talk should be taught in classrooms as a way of improving thinking and learning, based on the idea, as Mercer contends, that reasoning is visible in talk. For Wegerif (2007: 85), exploratory talk cannot be presented without any regulations. Thus, for exploratory talk to be effective in the classroom, there is a series of rules that the participants must consider:
- Everyone in the group is encouraged to contribute.
- Contributions are treated with respect.
- Interactants ask for reasons and justifications.
- Everyone should be prepared to accept challenges.
- Alternatives are discussed before a decision is taken.
- All relevant information is shared.
- The group seeks to reach an agreement.
For the study with our B.A. students, all these rules were considered, and the whole group was encouraged to participate in the creation of a weblog in order to produce at least three academic texts. In their written participations, students were expected to give their reasons, and challenges were accepted.
3.3 Knowledge Co-Construction through a Weblog
Sun (2009: 88) affirms that well-designed Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) can encourage students to become aware of the content and structure of any academic subject. In addition to CMC motivating learners to write different academic texts, it also reduces anxiety and promotes autonomy and cooperative learning.
Wegerif (2002: 2) adds that the use of technology can draw people into dialogues which take them beyond themselves into learning, thinking and creativity. For him, technology provides a support and a resource that enriches dialogues in which thinking skills are taught, applied and learnt.
In the world of technology, besides other functions, blogs are frequently implemented for academic purposes, specifically for improving writing skills (e.g., Sun 2009, Murray, Hourigan & Jeanneau 2007, Lee 2010, Sun & Chang 2012). Lee (2010: 212) affirms that
Blog technology is a potential medium for encouraging reflective writing through self-expression and interactive exchange through social networking.
According to Sun & Chang (2012: 43), weblogs have changed the way of using the Internet from searching for information to creating information. Blogs are very different from Listservs, discussion boards or Wikis because they are really controlled by the bloggers; this makes the blogger feel that he/she is the real owner of the blog because he/she can organize it according to his/her own likes.
In academic settings, the effective use of weblogs facilitates knowledge co-construction because blogs constitute a tool through which learners have to share a common activity outside the classroom. Besides, weblogs enable the expression of critical (positive and negative) comments through students’ own voices of authority (Du & Wagner 2007).
Finally, Lee (2010) affirms that feedback provided by students in the blogs can stimulate interaction and discussion of ideas between peers. As a matter of fact, Lee demonstrates that the creation of a weblog has a positive impact on students’ writing skills and improves their motivation to write for an extensive audience.
4.1 Presentation of the project
As mentioned previously, the present research was carried out on 30 first-year students studying for their B.A. in TEFL at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. All of them were native speakers of Spanish and had graduated from high school. Although one would expect that their composition skills were well developed, their actual writing skills did not correspond to the required level for a B.A. Indeed, their writing skills are not fully developed in Spanish nor in English. Therefore, during the first year of the B.A. program, some courses are offered in Spanish in order to develop students’ composition skills in their mother tongue. During the rest of the B.A., courses are offered completely in English.
The present study was conducted over six months, i.e. a semester on the B.A. program, in which both researchers were the teachers of a general writing course in Spanish. The course focused on improving students' writing skills in Spanish so that they would be able to write appropriate academic and creative texts in other subjects on the B.A. The course program was focused on the main textual techniques and strategies used in description and narration.
Every student in the classroom was asked to create and keep a personal weblog for up to six months. In these blogs students were requested to write three different texts belonging to two typologies presented in class. We considered that the weblog would make students feel free to express themselves through editing it with images, photos and videos. The project consisted of three main stages:
a) writing the description of a place in 120 words;
b) writing the description of a person in 200 words; and finally
c) writing a story for children in 500 words.
These word numbers were chosen, taking into account the textual genre, i.e. the fact that a descriptive text is usually shorter than a narrative text. Once every phase of the project was completed, every student was asked to post some positive and negative comments as a feedback for a specific peer. In other words, students had to read each other’s work and then write some comments about it. So the main idea was that learners could express themselves through the blog and that they could interact collaboratively with their peers.
4.2 First Stage
The first and the second stages corresponded to the first theme of the program, i.e. description. The instructions for the first text were the following ones:
Write a 120-word description (10% more or less is possible) of a place which is important for you. Before you write the text, remember first to think what you are going to talk about, for whom and why. Afterwards remember to make an outline of your possible text. You can add any visual support that you want.
Once students wrote their texts, they had an assigned partner for whom they had to write feedback of the descriptive text. They received the following instruction:
Provide feedback to your assigned partner starting with the positive points and then state the negative points. It is important that you justify your feedback in both cases. Give suggestions that help him/her improve his/her future texts. Please take into account the following criteria following closely the instructions given: give feedback about a) punctuation, b) vocabulary, c) spelling, d) morphosyntax, e) cohesion and f) coherence. Some sentences that could be used are: a) I think / I believe your text is… because…, b) I advise you to pay attention to… for future assignments c) On line ___ you made this mistake because… End the feedback with a comment about the content: a) According to your text, I think your aim was to…, b) Your text made me feel…, c) Have you thought about…? What about…?
4.3 Second Stage
Instructions for the second stage were the following ones:
Write a descriptive text with a maximum of 200 words. Describe the physical and moral aspects of a person who is important to you. Before you write your text, remember to follow the same steps and pay attention to the same questions you used for the first text, think about the following: What am I going to talk about? Why? For whom? Remember to make an outline. Do not forget to use the appropriate connectors and qualifiers. Again, you can add any visual support that you want.
Once the students wrote their texts, they were asked to give feedback to their assigned partner. The instructions were the same as for the first activity.
4.4 Third Stage
The third stage reflected the second main theme of the course, i.e. narration. The instructions for the third text were the following ones:
Write a 500-word fairy tale for children (10% more or less is possible) following the plan / diagram used in class “Ten steps to write a fairy tale”. It is not necessary that your text covers all the steps, but there must be an introduction, development and ending. You can add any visual support that you want.
Once students wrote their texts, they were asked to read each others’ work and then give feedback to their assigned peer. However, there was an extra activity that was conceived in order to stimulate more involvement of students in the texts of their peers. Thus, this time the instructions for the feedback were the following ones:
Carry out your feedback using the same steps you followed for your previous feedbacks. However, this time you are also going to choose one of the characters in the fairy tale of your assigned partner and try to imagine that you are that character. Write your impressions / feelings: If I were X, I would have done this instead of that, because… If I were X, I would feel disillusioned/ sad/ happy/ overjoyed because… It seems to me that I would not have done what X did. If I were him, I would have done…, for the following reasons…
Once students followed the instructions, the different stages of the study displayed different results. In the first stage, most of the students followed the instructions regarding the type of text, but they did not respect the number of words. Twenty one out of thirty students (66,67%) presented a much longer text and 4 out of 30 (13.33%) students did not even complete 100 words. Example 1 highlights an introduction of more than 50 words of one student’s text; this student wrote her description in more than 180 words instead of 120 words as had been stated in the instructions.
I only have to close my eyes to be in that place, I’m almost there… The place where I left my childhood, my sorrows and a few smiles. Now I can feel the cold breeze caressing my flesh, smell the indescribable scent of salt and hear in the distance the walruses applauding as if they were welcoming me…
According to what happened in the description, we expected students to provide a constructive feedback for their peers, so they could improve their future texts. Nevertheless, the feedback was not really what we expected. Therefore, as Sun & Chang (2012: 58) state, in spite of the advantages in the implementation of blogs in an academic context, technology itself does not guarantee learning. Indeed, most of the feedback was neither really helpful nor constructive because it could be seen that student feedback was written arbitrarily and without any substantial analysis of the content or the form of the text. This may have happened for two main reasons:
a) students are not used to giving a critical comment to a peer because they believe they do not have the authority to do so and / or they are afraid of being too severe on a partner,
b) even if they were asked to give feedback following a specific model, they probably needed an example of what was expected.
For instance, in example 2, a student offers feedback of less than 40 words reflecting a very general and vague comment on his peer’s text. He gave a piece of advice about themes that his colleague could have written about, but he did not give any explanation that could have helped his peer to improve her texts in the future (Wegerif 2007: 85). Besides, he did not provide any comment on whether the instructions were followed, punctuation, vocabulary, spelling, syntax or textual characteristics. In other words, he did not follow the instructions.
Thinking that an example of feedback could have helped students to write theirs better, teachers provided every student with such an example. This feedback followed the same framework for all the students. First of all, the teachers suggested to evaluate the text’s strengths, then the author's mistakes or weaknesses and how to correct them for future tasks (spelling, punctuation, morphosyntactic and textual comments). Afterwards, the second student received feedback on his/her comments and the teachers gave him/her some ideas about how to improve them in future feedbacks.
In the middle of the semester, students were asked to pass to stage 2. This was the description of a person in a 200-word text. The texts were written more carefully, following the instructions. In example (3) a student portrays her sister by describing her physical traits.
This is well written, I think you are describing the San Francisco bridge. I think you could have described other things like the cars, the weather, if it looks better during the day or at night.
She is my sister. She is one of the best people I know, always happy, nice, spontaneous and intelligent. When I was a child, I admired her so much that I wanted to be like her because for me she is very beautiful outside and inside. She is so beautiful, even though she hates her cheekbones because they are not very prominent as well as her ears which she tries to hide behind her hair…
For this second activity, students provided better feedback to their peers. In fact, this time they followed the instructions, which was expected due to the model that had been given for them to follow. In example (4), the student's feedback begins with a positive comment which is followed by a series of comments to help her peer improve her writing techniques for future assignments. She provides some comments on what she believes a text should begin with, other comments on punctuation and the use of connectors, and ends pointing out that, in her opinion, the purpose of the text had been achieved.
Your description is very well written because everyone can have a clear image of your sister. But, I found some details which you can improve, for example in your first sentence you use the word “she” without previously introducing the character, I think this is wrong. You could begin with the name of the person. You have some commas missing especially in the first part of the text. Also when you mention your sister’s teeth a connector was missing, you only used a comma. Summing up, I think you achieved the teachers’ goals but there are minor details which are easy to correct.
At the end of the semester, the final challenge for students was stage three, in which they had to write an original fairy tale for children in a 500-word text, following a diagram presented in class. Twenty-six out of thirty students (86.67%) followed the instructions carefully ,and the texts that resulted from this activity were very creative, as can be observed in example (5).
The thief and the key
In a remote region isolated from everybody, there lived a thief very skilled in the art of robbery. He was so skilled that he became a legend in the towns where he robbed, since nobody knew why they woke up without a valuable object. His home was a hut far from all towns which was hidden inside the mountains…
Finally, the feedback and the extra activity, in which students were asked to choose a character and write their feelings and impressions, were very well done by most of the students. One sample of this final activity can be observed in example (6) where the student first provides a general positive comment about the story. Then she offers some comments on verb tenses and punctuation. Finally, she continues with the second part of the activity, i.e. the creation of a link with one of the characters of her story:
Hi (...) First I have to say that your story is very interesting, because the character you describe is very shrewd and evasive. However, I think the story is unfinished, but anyway the reader can imagine what is going to happen to this character. I would like to know what was going to happen next, using your own words. I observed that you began your story in past tense and then you continued in present tense. I think you should have continued with the same tense. I also see that you forgot to use commas where they were necessary, for example, after the connectors of temporality (…) If I were the thief you describe I would have put the key into the keyhole of the room I wanted to rob, then I would make sure that nobody were inside and, if there were, I would sort it out as best as I could to stop them from shouting; it is very likely that I would have to do something to leave them unconscious somehow, or if they were asleep…
As can be seen in example 6, students had no difficulties in doing these two final activities, the story and the feedback. This could be attributed to several factors: Firstly, the text genre (a fairy tale for children) and the number of words (500), which was not as reduced as had been the case in the first two activities, may have allowed students to show true creativity through the elaboration of an original and extensive text. Secondly, the practice from the two previous activities - the description of a place and the description of a person - allowed students to better develop this text, especially with regards to the first part of the feedback. Thirdly, in the extra activity, learners could be more involved and interested because it was not only the usual academic activity of offering feedback to the assigned peer, but also that of being part of the story and interacting with the author of the text and with the text itself.
Finally, this last activity allowed true exploratory talk with the participation of the whole group, as Wegerif (2007) and Mercer (2000) state. Since all the texts were in blogs, students could read them even if they did not have to (as a mandatory activity as part of the course). All the students’ texts received feedback with critical and respectful comments (all of them with positive and negative observations). Therefore, the authors could improve their texts and their general writing for future assignments. Most of the students provided consistent reasons for their critical comments. All the students accepted the comments, and 19 out of 30 students (63.33%) replied with a question or with another critical comment to their assigned peer when this was not obligatory, but only suggested by the teachers. Subsequently, peer feedback on the content prompted further discussion, just as Lee (2010) states. This was a very significant activity, because, for the first time, students established genuine dialogues without being asked to do so. Example (7) provides an instance of this ongoing dialogue that students established with their peers through their own initiative after they had received the usual feedback.
Thank you very much for your comments. I am happy to know that you understood the story very well. In fact your hypothesis is totally correct. I really like the ideas you offer me. I will consider them for my next story or as an alternative ending for my story. I will take care of the accents next time. Thank you for reading my story and commenting it. A hug.
During this project, every student had a voice of authority when he/she had to comment on the text of his/her peer. It is true that at the beginning, especially in the first activity, this was not an easy task for most of the students. It was difficult to move away from the traditional representation that only the teacher has the authority to correct a student’s text. Nevertheless, in the second and the third activities, students were able to give constructive comments more easily, and they were able to create dialogues between peers, without expecting the teacher's intervention.
The present research has shown that students were able to construct knowledge as a result of the dialogues established between their peers. This encouraged student-student interaction which had not been very common in this group because of the traditional schooling environment students came from. In other words, students recognized their peer’s voice and reacted in a positive way.
At the end of the project, students could understand that teachers were not the only ones who had a voice in the group. In other words, they realized that teachers are not the only ones who contribute to the construction of knowledge. Thus, everyone was persuaded that knowledge is supposed to be co-constructed by everyone who participates in the class. This was observed especially in the last activity in which students felt free to express themselves and to continue the dialogue between their peers without being asked to do so by the teachers.
Finally, we agree with Moate (2011: 21) when she says that dialogue in education supports creativity, problem-solving, ingenuity, imagination and expression. We consider that the creation of a blog encouraged our students to write their assignments more enthusiastically because they were not using the traditional tools used in the teaching-learning process, but an instrument that is usually related to pleasure and entertainment. Thus, even if the instructions for the activities were a limiting factor, students felt free to express themselves through editing the blog and through images, photos and videos they could add to their texts. Therefore, their blogs were really personalized. As Lee (2010) states, this factor highlights the sense of ownership in the blogs because they promote self-expression, self-reflection, and construction of knowledge collaboratively.
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1According to other authors like Moate (2011), there can be seven talk-types that capture the multi-layered, multivoiced context of school learning environments. Nevertheless, for this study, Moate’s proposal is not as relevant as the proposals of Mercer (2000) & Wegerif (2007).
Sara Quintero Ramírez
Doctora en Estudios Literarios y Lingüísticos
Universidad de Guadalajara
Departamento de Lenguas Modernas
Calle Guanajuato 1045
Col. Alcalde Barranquitas. C. P. 44260
María Luisa Arias Moreno
Doctora en Estudios Literarios y Lingüística
Universidad de Guadalajara
Centro Universitario de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades
Calle Guanajuato 1045
Col. Alcalde Barranquitas. C. P. 44260