Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching
Volume 8 (2017) Issue 2 (PDF)
Hossein Nassaji: The Interactional Feedback Dimension in Instructed Second Language Learning. Linking Theory, Research, and Practice. London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury 2015. ISBN 978-1-4725-1014-3.
The present hardcover publication represents current trends in foreign language methodology which stands for the pendulum swinging back from the communicative approach to forms of teaching that are characterised by methods which are closely related to language, its forms and its functions. This is what the author expresses in his preface when saying:
It is now widely recognized that language learners need to have ample opportunities for both communicative interaction and focus on form in the target language in order to develop communicative competence. The question that arises here, however, is how to enhance opportunities for both interaction and attention to form in L2 classrooms, and in particular, how to maximize opportunities for focus on form without losing opportunities for a focus on meaning and communication. (IIX)
According to the author, the answer to this problem lies in the use of interactional feedback, which offers both communication and language correction provided by the teacher. This combination is regarded as promising for the development of foreign language proficiency (IIX). Against this background, the book deals with „the role of interactional feedback in second language (L2) teaching and learning“ (IX) and takes theory, research, and practice in a classroom and a laboratory context into account, thus covering a wide range of approaches to the topic (IX).
The target groups addressed in the book comprise teacher educators and teachers, but also graduate and even undergraduate students. From the author's perspective, it is also apt as a textbook for university courses and seminars on second language acquisition.
The book is divided into four parts and ten chapters. Preceding Part One, the first chapter (1-19) has the function of clarifying important terms and concepts, such as corrective feedback (2-3), the notion of error (3-5), inclusive of a delimitation between error and mistake, the noticing hypothesis (11-13), noticing being highly important for language acquisition. This first chapter is concluded by reflections on focus on form (14-16), describing a concept which was introduced by Long (1991) and stands for a compromise position between the purely grammar-oriented approach (focus on forms) and the purely communicative approach (focus on meaning). Both form and meaning need to be negotiated upon, which is discussed thereafter, an example for each being provided (17-18).
Part One (Theoretical Underpinnings; 23-85) covers three chapter: one chapter on corrective feedback, onen on interactional feedback and one on the role of interactional feedback for language acquisition. In Chapter Two on the theory and pedagogy of corrective feedback (23-43), the nativist perspective (24-26), i. e. the hypothesis that, put simply, a person's innate universal grammar combined with positive evidence makes language learning possible, is contrasted with the interactionist perspective (27-28), in the framework of which negative evidence, offered through interaction, is considered indispensable for L1 acquisition. Both perspectives are discussed with regards to L2 acquisition (28-35) on the basis of the relevant research literature, the author implying that the interactional approach is more promising than the nativist approach (35). Corrective feedback is then analysed in terms of its importance in the grammar-translation method, the audio-lingual method, the natural approach, the cognitive approach, and the focus-on forms approach, each of which dealing with corrective feedback in a different way (35-38). The different approaches are objectively analysed and represent a very short history of foreign language teaching. Subsequently, research evidence on the positive effects of focus-on-form instruction and corrective feedback is given. The author summarizes his findings in the following words:
It should be noted, however, that although there is strong evidence for the effects of form-focused instruction and corrective feedback on language learning, there is also equally convincing evidence that traditional models of form-focused teaching, including Grammar Translation, Audio-Lingual, or strictly cognitive approaches, are also inadequate in developing learners' communicative competence in a second or foreign language (41).
This means that focus on form and corrective feedback will only take effect when integrated in a communicative context (41). Without this communicative orientation, any approach will be much less effective or even ineffective in language teaching.
Chapter Three (44-64) deals with types and subtypes of interactional feedback. After a definition of interactional feedback (45), two types – reformulations and elicitations – and seven subtypes are delimited: recasts and direct corrections belonging to the former, and clarification requests, repetition, direct elicitation, metalinguistic cues and nonverbal cues belonging to the latter (46). In the following, every one of these subtypes is analysed and supplemented with short, but expressive examples (47-61). The analysis and description of recasts is especially detailed, with recasts being subdivided into nine types: declarative, interrogative, isolated, embedded, incorporated, partial, full, corrective, and communicative recasts (49-52). Subsequently, different types of feedback are contrasted: implicit vs. explicit feedback, simple vs. complex feedback, the explicit-implicit continuum, extensive vs. intensive feedback, and immediate vs. delayed feedback (56-62). Reflections on interactional feedback devoted to written errors conclude this chapter (63-64). This chapter is also eminently analytical, the examples providing a high degree of concreteness and accessibility. This is a functional presentation of the underlying theory, which is aimed at practical application.
Chapter Four is entitled How Does Interactional Feedback Assist Language Acquisition? (65-85). An important part of this chapter is the relation that exists between interactional feedback (66-70) and input and output (70-72), respectively, and between interactional feedback and noticing (74-75) on the one hand and interactional feedback and testing hypotheses on the other, the latter being a trial-and-error procedure for learners to explore new linguistic areas (75-76). The description is supplemented with reflections made on interactional feedback in form of positive and negative recasts (76-78), interactional feedback in a focus-on-form perspective (79-80), and interactional feedback as a priming device (80-82), by which the learner's attention is focused on upcoming linguistic input. This chapter is rounded off by reflections on the sociocultural perspective of interactional feedback (82-84), sociocultural theory being the field besides the interaction hypothesis framework that has contributed to interactional feedback.
The charm of this first part – although being the most theory-oriented one of the book - consists in the combination of linguistic theory with numerous practical examples to support it. The theory presented here is therefore not regarded as an art in itself, but rather with its concrete implications for practice. This general orientation, which is reflected in the subtitle of the book, finds its substantiation in this first chapter already. What is more, readers whose primary aim is to be informed on the literature also find a resourceful description here.
Part Two Researching Interactional Feedback (89-149) comprises Chapters 5 to 7. Chapter 5 Feedback provides a presentation of descriptive research on feedback provision and learner uptake (89-108). The first point focused upon here is measuring the effectiveness of feedback (90-95). In this context, the word uptake is used to measure the effectiveness of feedback (90). Important types of repair that are taken into consideration here are full repair, partial repair, repetition, and incorporation (92-94), these terms being self-explanatory. Both uptake and repair have been researched upon in numerous studies, an outline of which is given in the subsequent subchapters (95-102). The notion of uptake may be of use in a language learning or acquisition context; yet, it has been criticised for not representing sufficient evidence of learning really having taken place (104). Yet, the author finds suggestive evidence for uptake (as repair and modified output) contributing to language learning, especially when self-repair is elicited by the teacher and when feedback is repeated by the student and even incorporated into new utterances (107)
The effects of feedback on learning are presented in Chapter 6 (109-131), which offers a review of experimental studies. The findings of experimental (i.e. pretest and posttest) studies in classroom settings or under laboratory conditions – beyond the limitations they have (118) - suggest that feedback does provide positive learning effects, especially when it is used in dyadic interactions and focuses on well-defined structures of the target language (117).
Chapter 7 (132-149) reports Comparative Studies of Interactional Feedback. The studies taken into account here referred to comparing recasts and elicitations (136-138), and to contrasting implicit and explicit feedback (139-142), conversational and didactic feedback (142-145), intensive and extensive feedback (145-146), and immediate and delayed feedback (146-148). According to the author, it is impossible to formulate a concrete result with regards to the effectiveness of the different types of feedback, as, due to the methodology used or the study design applied, findings differ considerably in the various studies cited (148).
Part Three (Factors Affecting Interactional Feedback, 153-197) embraces Chapters 8 and 9, the former one (153-177) being designated to the usefulness of interactional feedback so as to provide more concrete insights than was possible in the previous chapter. Feedback having been found to be effective in general, it is impossible to give an overall answer as to what type of feedback may be the best. Rather, learners benefit differently from the various types of feedback (175). This statement is also true for the linguistic constructions that feedback is provided for: for different constructions, different feedback is needed (154-156). As far as the characteristics of feedback are concerned, the author himself found in a study of his own that intonationally and verbally enhanced recasts – the former putting added stress on the target construction reformulated, and the latter adding verbal prompts like Is that what you mean? – are more effective than the so called unenhanced recasts, which are confirmatory in nature and neutral (i.e. without any informational stress involved) in form (157). Moreover, feedback given to high-proficiency learners may fall on less stony ground than that given to low-proficiency learners (159). The factor of gender does, however, not play a decisive role with regards to the effectiveness of feedback (160). Students with a higher literacy level are more prone to interactional feedback than those with a lower level of literacy (162). Age may play an important role for feedback sensitivity, but, according to the author, findings are not always convincing here (164). What is of importance for the effectiveness of feedback, however, is task characteristics. Thus, task complexity has been found to have a positive impact on feedback, especially the quality and quantity of the uptake of linguistic constructions and negative feedback (recasts) (168). Feedback has also been found to be more effective in EFL than in ESL contexts (171).
Chapter 9 focuses on the Perception and Interpretation of Feedback (177-197). The central factors presented here are learners' perception of feedback (177-190), teachers' and students' beliefs and perspectives towards feedback (190-193), and potential feedback preferences (193-195). Some interesting findings are the following ones (196):
- Students do not always identify feedback as such, even when responding to it;
- Teachers' and learners' perceptions may vary in such a way that teachers think that learners have noticed their errors whereas in reality, they have not. In such cases, teachers may not continue giving feedback to these students although the latter would deeply need it;
- Students seem to generally be open to feedback. However, there may be misunderstandings between teachers and students concerning the types of feedback that may be effective for them. Therefore, teachers should explain their own approach towards giving feedback to students. This step may lead to an improvement of students' perception of feedback.
In this situation, the author rightly assumes that more research is needed so as to make findings more reliable.
Part Three (199-218) features the subtitle of the book Linking Theory, Research, and Practice. It encompasses the concluding Chapter 10 (201-218) of the book, which, in addition to the very conclusions, also gives implications and pedagogical recommendations. This chapter is the most practice-oriented one in the whole book, giving answers to the following questions that are of central interest and that are cited here:
- "How can we enhance opportunities for interaction and feedback in the classroom?" (202-203)
- "How can we integrate feedback into meaning-focused interaction?" (203-205)
- "What kind of interactional feedback should be used?" (205-207)
- "What kind of errors should be corrected?" (207-209)
- "How can we enhance feedback effectiveness?" (210-218)
In this context, the following recommendation are given to teachers. They should:
- "Help learners notice the corrective nature of the feedback" (210)
- "Consider the type and nature of the target structure" (211)
- "Be aware that teacher intention does not always match learner interpretation" (212)
- "Target single rather than multiple errors in a feeback move" (213)
- "Consider learners' developmental readiness" (213)
- "Provide feedback in ways that promote opprtunities for modified output" (214)
- "Take into account the social and instructional context of the feedback (215)
- "Increase opportuniteis for negotiation" (216)
- “Take into account individual learner differences" (217)
These guiding questions and the respective answers provide invaluable information for teachers. At this point, the book enters the realm of real teaching tips which are of utmost importance for teachers, be they novices or experienced instructors.
What may have been hoped for by some readers, i.e. that concrete and definite answers be given to all the questions posed, cannot be expected of a book like the present one. Therefore, the author rightly says:
However, we would like to emphasize once again that language learning is a complex and gradual process and that we should not expect that a reaction in response to learner errors in the course of interaction or in the context of a few lessons would lead to immediate substantial effects on their learning. Improvement takes place over time and, therefore, for feedback to be maximally effective ít should be provided regularly and consistently over a long period of time. (218)
If teachers start from this assumption, they will succeed at last.
The high quality of the present book resides in several factors that go beyond its mere content:
- Before every chapter, the (learning) objectives are defined. The author, thus, establishes a kind of interaction with his readers.
- This interaction is maintained by the Questions for Discussion that conclude every chapter and that represent an incentive for the reader not only to memorize the content of the chapter better but to reach a deeper insight into the reflections made. These questions can ideally be discussed in methodological courses or even, possibly in a modified way, figure in university exams on the topic.
- The book contains a considerable number of highly illustrative examples, which help the reader understand the type of feedback focused on in the given context. In a minimalistic approach, even reading the mere examples would provide the highly practice-oriented reader with a lot of invaluable information. These examples also maintain the claim of the publication to be an academic textbook.
For this claim to be even stronger, even more figures (like the ones on pages 9, 10, and 46) might have been added to the very text so as to be of assistance to visual readers. This point may be taken as a recommendation for the next edition.
We here have a publication at hand that shows readers the high complexity of giving feedback in second and foreign language teaching. One of its merits is that it gives readers invaluable advice where this is possible, but admits that no definite results have been found where research findings are not yet sufficient or satisfactory. It is therefore to be hoped that numerous practitioners will read the book and have the patience to read it through from beginning to end so as to get sensitised for this important field of teacher-learner interaction in the ESL or EFL classroom. Apart from that, the present publication, as claimed in the preface (6), is definitely an important textbook for (under)graduate courses in SLA and Applied Linguistics. The linguistic goal the author sets for his book, i.e. to be "written in a very accessible way" (6), has definitely been reached.
Professor Thomas Tinnefeld
Saarland University of Applied Sciences