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The use of pair/group work is widespread in language classrooms, reflecting a focus on learner-centred language teaching and a desire to increase opportunities for interaction. This chapter examines the process of learners’ participation in a small group work task, focusing on the social nature of learning in the classroom context. It draws on data from a pre-intermediate level Japanese course at an Australian university, including video-recordings of learners of Japanese engaging in a group work task, as well as data gained from interviews incorporating retrospective stimulated recall sessions. The findings indicate that not only does each group show a unique approach, but also each learner within the same group engages with and experiences the task differently by reinterpreting the task based on their individual goals, histories and situations. The study also reveals the effects of peer influence on learners’ behaviour and highlights the multiplicity of aspects on which learners focus during their engagement with the given task. The implications for promoting better learning opportunities in peer interaction are also discussed.


In recent years, the influence of the communicative approach to language teaching has changed teaching and learning styles from teacher-dominant to learner-centred, and the use of pair/group work is now widespread in language classrooms. The effectiveness of pair work or small group work activities in the second language classroom has been discussed by many researchers and from different perspectives (Long and Porter 1985; Long 1990; Ohta 2001). In mainstream Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research regarding learners’ interaction in classrooms, researchers have tended to focus on the merit of pair work in terms of the increase of linguistic interaction in which ‘negotiation of meaning’ takes place (Long and Porter 1985; Long 1990), or factors which may affect the quantity of such interaction (Gass and Varonis 1985). In other words, their focus has mainly been on investigating cognitive and psycholinguistic processes. However, other researchers have suggested that many of the questions that remain unresolved in the SLA field are unlikely to be answered if approached only from a cognitive viewpoint which takes little account of context and social and affective factors (e.g. Yanagimachi 2002: 19).1

More recently, an increasing number of studies have been conducted on learners’ interaction from a more context sensitive perspective, using approaches based on Vygotskyan sociocultural theory and activity theory (e.g. Ohta 1995, 2001; Lantolf 2000; Swain 2000), or the language socialisation perspective (Morita 2000; Duff, this volume). What is common in these approaches is the importance placed on interaction as a place of situated language learning and use (van Lier 2000; Ohta 2001). They do not view learning as simple information-processing cognitive behaviour, but as a process of increasing participation in the social group (Rogoff 1990; Lave and Wenger 1991), or an internalising process based on social collaborative interaction with others (Ohta 2001). In these views, learners are not like computers which just process information, but are active agents who can control their own learning (Lantolf and Pavlenko 2001) in relation to the environment which surrounds them (van Lier 2000).

When learners engage in pair or small group work, they take more control over their own behaviour, and each learner interacts with others on the basis of his/her own motivation, academic experience, preferred learning style, expectations of the classroom and so on. In addition to the influence of individual factors, a pair/group inevitably consists of multiple persons, who will have multiple goals or orientations to the task. Therefore, learners have to negotiate and cooperate with each other towards the accomplishment of the given task. It is inevitable that learners will experience quite different processes and forms of participation, even when completing the same task in the same classroom. Therefore, it is necessary to study the interaction not only from a cognitive viewpoint, but also in its totality, including learners’ agency and the context surrounding the learners in order to investigate the complex language learning process in the classroom.

In this study, I will focus on a pair/group work task directed at learning kanji (Chinese characters) in a tertiary Japanese class. Unlike tasks such as role-play or conversation practice, in which each member of the group has a role in the exercise, students were not assigned pre-determined roles in the kanji learning task analysed in this study. In such unstructured tasks, learners have to take more control in deciding how to work together, either by taking independent initiatives or negotiating implicitly or explicitly with peers. Applying the activity theory perspective, I aim to investigate the process of learners’ participation in the task, their interaction with peers and the effect of individual factors which may affect their behaviour. The research specifically addresses two questions:

  1. What factors influence learners’ behaviour in pair/group work in the classroom?
  2. How do peers in the pair/group affect each other’s engagement in the kanji task?



Activity theory derives from the work of the Russian psychologist, Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1978) views mental development as an attribute of the subject’s interaction with the socioculturally constructed world. Vygotsky regarded the human mind as mediated, and believed that the process of development was achieved through the use of physical as well as symbolic tools. In other words, humans use tools such as computers to interact with their external environment, and establish or change a relationship between themselves and the world. Through one of the most important symbolic tools, namely language, humans direct and organise their mental activity, such as thinking, learning, or solving problems. In this view, new knowledge is first accessed on a social level, then internalised on an individual psychological level. In other words, learning is an internalising process of socially or interpersonally constructed knowledge through interaction (Vygotsky 1978; Mitchell and Myles 1998; Lantolf 2000).

According to Vygotsky’s theory, psychological development is shaped by the changes resulting from interaction with others or the world on the basis of social activities that individuals are engaged in throughout their lives. Following Vygotsky’s concepts, and focusing more on the difference between individual action and collective activity, A. N. Leont’ev, one of Vygotsky’s colleagues, constructed activity theory (Cole and Engeström 1993) to conceptualise the social context. Leont’ev (1981) used the practice of hunting as an example of a collective activity in which some people work to make noise to corner the animals while others are waiting to catch the animals. Through this example, Leont’ev explained that two separate actions are understood by the hunters only in the context of the overall activity of hunting which is motivated by the need to assuage their hunger. Each action leading to a specific goal, such as making noise, is taken and carried out in certain condition, such as in the rain. Thus, in activity theory, the context in which the action occurs and the motive that underlies it are necessary to understand the individual actions. According to Engeström (1987), each element is tied together by collective objects and motives that are realised in goal oriented actions. All elements influence each other, hence the activity is dynamic. Therefore, the activity will differ depending on the motive, objectives, goals and specific conditions.

To summarise, activity theory views human social activity as a framework for understanding the dynamic relationship between individual, social, cultural, historical, and institutional contexts. People engage in various activities based on their motives, and through interaction with others, people develop ways of participation or knowledge about the activity restricted or facilitated by the context. This activity theory framework gives the researcher a perspective from which to investigate interaction between learners in the classroom context, as in this study.

Based on the above concept of activity theory, some SLA researchers have analysed language learners’ behaviour from an activity theory perspective. One of the basic principles in the theory is that every human’s activity is driven by motives, needs, or objects, which are constructed socially and physically. Using this concept, researchers have examined individually-differentiated behaviour in the classroom (e.g. Gillette 1994; Donato 2000; Roebuck 2000). One of the most influential studies was conducted by Coughlan and Duff (1994), even though the data was not collected in a classroom, but in an experimental situation. Based on their interview data, which asked five students to describe a picture, they showed that the task was understood in a different way by each individual. They also found that even the same learner performed in a different way when asked to do the same task again later. With these findings as evidence, Coughlan and Duff (1994) demonstrated that even in a controlled experimental situation, the same ‘task’ given to each learner by a researcher becomes a different ‘activity’, when it is actually performed by each learner. Gillette (1994) compared three effective learners and three ineffective learners of French, focusing on the influence of learners’ goals on their participation in activities. Examining the different behaviour that each learner displayed, Gillette supports the Vygotskian psycholinguistic principle that the initial motive of activity determines the outcome of engagement in the activity.

Even though not specifically based on the activity theory framework, there are other studies which show similar findings about learners’ agency, in particular focusing on the finding that learners actively reinterpret the learning task and behave differently to the teacher’s expectations (Allwright 1984; Breen 1987; Nunan 1989; Block 1994, 1996; Mori 2002). For example, by using a conversation analytic framework (CA), Mori (2002) investigated the interaction between Japanese language learners and Japanese native speakers in a discussion session in a Japanese classroom. The learners interacted with the native speakers as though participating in a structured interview, which was different from the teacher’s intention when setting the task. Block (1994, 1996) examined how L2 learners, the classroom teacher, and an outside observer interpreted the purpose of a task in an ESL classroom in 14 different ways when he analysed recorded oral accounts of the task by the participants. Block pointed out that although the tasks the teacher prepared were goal-driven, and each had a specific purpose for that class, some learners did not see that objective and felt dissatisfied as each task seemed to stand alone and not to produce a coherent whole.

These studies have shown that learners are active agents in their learning, and behave in ways that are not predictable from the tasks which they are assigned. Breen (1987) explained that ‘task–as-workplan’ becomes the ‘task-in-process’ through learners’ reinterpretations during their engagement with the task in terms of its objectives, content, procedure and learning situation. Lantolf and Pavlenko (2001) further claim that the same overt behaviours of individual learners do not indicate the same cognitive behaviour as they are not engaging in the same activity. The present study adopts the distinction between ‘task’ and ‘activity’ discussed above and investigates learners’ processes of engagement in their ‘activity’ focusing on their motives and agency.



This research project is a part of a larger study which involved nine pairs/groups consisting of 19 volunteers in second year Japanese classes at an Australian university, and two teachers of these classes. All volunteers were of non-Japanese background and were foreign language learners of Japanese. Students were supposed to attend a one-hour lecture, a one-hour tutorial, and a two-hour seminar every week. Because of the large numbers of students, they were divided into two groups for the lecture, and six groups for tutorials and seminars. One tutorial group and three seminar groups were chosen and the data was collected over two weeks.

In this study, I focus only on the participants from two groups, each of three students. The two groups attended different seminar classes, but they had the same teacher and the classes had the same content. The profiles of the learners and the teacher are listed in the table below. Pseudonyms are used to protect the privacy of the participants. The six students were, Mary, Antonio, and Daniel in Group 1, and Rick, Michael, and Guy in Group 2. Each student participated in video and audio recordings of their interaction in their group work, and five of the students (excluding Guy) also took part in an interview session with the researcher. I also conducted an interview with the teacher. The teacher was not specifically targeted for audio and video recordings, however, there were some occasions where he was involved in the recordings when he came over to the specific pair/group to check their work.


The researcher collected data from several different sources: video/audio recordings of classroom interaction; the researcher’s observations of the class; and interviews with learners and teachers. In order to analyse the participants’ actual process of engagement in the classroom, a video camera recorded the interaction of the group of participants, and followed their activities as they moved around the classroom. In addition, a digital or tape recorder was distributed to each pair/group, and individual learners wore a lapel microphone, or sometimes two learners shared microphones attached to the recorder.

The researcher attended each class, and took observation notes on what was happening in the classroom, including the types of tasks being undertaken, and the participation of specific pairs/groups in each of these. This observation allowed the researcher to understand the learning environment.

Table 1: Profile of focal learners and teacher

*G1=Students in group 1. G2=students in group 2. T=teacher. F=female M=Male

In order to examine learners’ behaviour from their own perspective follow-up interviews were utilised. These gave learners the opportunity to provide introspective comment, which supplemented their actual interaction data. The interviews were conducted as soon as possible after the recording sessions; however, the interval between classroom recordings and interviews ranged from immediately after to one week, depending on the participants’ availability. This study adopted two different forms of semi-structured interviews. The first set of interviews were designed to elicit comments on the participants’ cultural and educational backgrounds, their purpose in studying Japanese, and participants’ overall perceptions about their participation in the classroom. The second set of interviews employed a follow-up interview format, as recommended by a number of researchers (see for instance Neustupný 1990; Fan 2002). This interview aimed to elicit learners’ retrospective evaluations regarding their behaviour when engaging in pair or group work activities, and enabled the researcher to detect participants’ awareness of various processes taking place in the encounter, which might not surface in the linguistic data (Neustupný 1990). In the follow-up interview sessions, video-recordings of participants’ conversations during classroom activities were used to refresh their memories; in other words, as a stimulus to recall. Finally, interviews were conducted with the two teachers in order to elicit information about the teachers’ intentions for the tasks. Each interview took approximately 30 minutes. These interview sessions were recorded on a digital audio recording device.


The task analysed in this study focused on the learning of kanji (Chinese characters). The usual method of learning kanji is for students to revise the kanji which are taught using flash cards in the classroom. Each week, the kanji studied in the previous class are tested in a kanji quiz, which is part of the assessment. However, in the week of the data collection, the teacher had prepared two different types of kanji learning materials: kanji flash cards, as well as Japanese newspapers and magazines published by the Japanese community in Melbourne. The teacher asked the students which they would prefer to use, and the latter was chosen by the majority of students.

Japanese newspapers or magazines were then distributed to each group which consisted of two or three students. Students were instructed to choose one article from the newspaper or magazine, and to highlight within it previously studied or already known kanji as well as new kanji appearing in the chapter of the textbook which they were studying that week.


The audio recordings in the classrooms and interview sessions were transcribed using conventions adapted from Ohta (2001), with notes added concerning relevant non-verbal behaviour viewed in the video recordings. One of the purposes of this study is to investigate the relationship between the interactions and the factors that might affect them. Therefore, in analysing the data, it is necessary not only to rely on the interaction data but to integrate all the other sources, including a learner’s introspection, in order to interpret learners’ behaviour from a holistic view point (van Lier 2000). The ethnography of communication framework (e.g. Morita 2000; Kobayashi 2003) is one of the analytic tools that approach the discourse in such a way. Even though the period of data collection in this study is not typical of an ethnographic study, this study follows the basic assumption of the ethnographic approach which considers the culture/characteristics of a group in relation to the importance of context and the subjective perception of the people involved (Erickson 1992; Nunan 1992). By using a micro-ethnographic approach (Erickson 1992), participants’ classroom interaction data were analysed in conjunction with observation notes and interview comments from both the learners and the teacher.



The teacher explained to the class that he had been in search of some new kanji materials to motivate his students in their learning, and thus had decided upon a newspaper task in addition to the regular kanji flashcards which the students were used to. The students often regarded the learning of kanji as a difficult, boring, and never-ending task, but the teacher hoped that exposing the students to authentic Japanese materials would renew their interest. Also, prior to the seminar classes, the students had been told in a lecture that now that they had studied 200 kanji they should be able to recognise 50% of kanji used in Japanese texts. According to the teacher:

I wanted give students confidence about the kanji learning by linking the lecturer’s comments in the lecture with the real practice in this seminar. (Teacher M. 15/09/05)

The teacher did not expect that students would understand the content of the articles; however, he wanted the students to be encouraged by their ability to tackle newspapers which were generally regarded as advanced for language learners at their level.

Despite the teacher’s intentions, individual learners seemed to perceive the task in different ways. Group 2 consisted of Rick, Michael, and Guy. When the newspaper was distributed to this group, Michael and Guy immediately started looking at the article and discussing what they were meant to do. However, Rick, who was seated about one metre from Michael, continued to look at the textbook, and did not take part in this pre-task discussion with his peers. The physical distance between Rick and other two seemed to make it harder for Rick to look at the article. However, this did not seem to be the only reason for his reluctance to participate in the assigned task. Rick had previously indicated his preference for studying with the usual kanji flashcards when the teacher had asked students to choose from the two kanji learning tasks. Rick explained his reluctance to participate in the group work as follows:

I preferred the usual kanji learning with cards because we have a quiz next week. I suppose it [kanji cards] can work for me. I didn’t feel we need to change it. But actually I just prefer to study kanji and vocabulary on my own at home, so I don’t really pay too much attention to kanji learning in the classroom anyway. (Rick. 19/9/05).

Rick clearly does not value the kanji learning activity in the classroom beyond its usefulness as preparation for the kanji quiz. Therefore, he negatively evaluated the newspaper task even before engaging in it, because it seemed to have no relationship to achieving success in the quiz. Rick’s study of Japanese outside the classroom also appears to affect his attitudes to kanji learning and his behaviour in the classroom:

I usually spend a few hours in a week for Japanese, mostly just using email. I’ve got my hotmail in Japanese, so that I can converse with friends and I can learn script coming up in kanji and hiragana on the mail. I found out when my mum’s Japanese students return to Japan, they want to keep up their English level. So we exchange emails, but it’s easier if I write in Japanese. But the problem is, sometimes when they use too much kanji and I have to go for the kanji dictionary, count strokes and look for it, sometimes it takes a bit of time. But I think it helps me to improve my kanji reading, and it’s the best way to understand how the kanji is used. (Rick. 19/9/05)

Rick stated that he started learning Japanese for communicative purposes. Each year, his mother teaches English to groups of students who come to Australia from a university in Japan, and his mother wanted him to be able to communicate with them. Through his mother, he has frequent contact with Japanese students studying English in Melbourne, and keeps in contact with them even after they have gone back to Japan. Through his experience of exchanging emails with his Japanese friends, he came to realise that email was a useful tool for studying kanji. Contrary to his reluctance in the classroom, at home he seems motivated and spends much time on kanji learning. For him, the purpose of learning kanji is clearly different for activities inside and outside the classroom.

On the other hand, Mary, who was grouped with Antonio and Daniel, seemed to interpret the task differently. Currently, Mary is applying for an exchange program, and she actively seeks the opportunity to learn Japanese both in and out of the classroom. Her enthusiastic participation in the classroom activities was observed throughout the period of the data collection, and on more than one occasion, she was asked by the teacher to refrain from answering some of the questions so that the other students could have an opportunity to participate more actively. In the kanji learning task, she took the initiative throughout the task, for example, by choosing the article and highlighting the kanji found within it. Mary seemed to view the kanji learning task as an opportunity to use authentic materials, to which she did not have much access outside the classroom. Mary offered the following comment about the task:

It was really interesting. I rarely have opportunities to see real Japanese texts at home, and I found there were big gaps between kanji in the text book and ones in the newspaper. I know there are different purposes for each kanji learning task, the normal one like flash cards, but this exercise was more practical, because if I go to Japan next year, I might have to read Japanese newspaper or any documents to get information. (Mary. 15/9/05)

As seen from the case of Rick and Mary, their motives for learning seem to have a great effect on their perception of the task and their behaviour in the classroom. From the activity theory perspective, their motives for learning kanji are directed towards their personal goals: in Mary’s case, this goal is to be able to gain information necessary for living in Japan; in Rick’s case, this goal is to be able to communicate easily with friends via email (for kanji learning at home) and to achieve good marks in the weekly quiz (for kanji learning connected with his formal study). Therefore, a perceived connection between a student’s goals and classroom activities seems to be one of the keys to prompt student participation. Even though both Rick and Mary were highly motivated students, Rick did not see the connection between the task and his goal, and hence this resulted in non-participation in the classroom. In addition, the availability of resources out of the classroom also seemed to affect learners’ participation indirectly.

The following section will explore how each learner participated in the group work and in particular, how each learner worked together with his or her peers.


The difference in learners’ perceptions of the task has been illustrated, along with the connection between a learner’s approach and their personal goals. However, since a pair/group consists of multiple persons, a learner’s behaviour may also be affected by their peers. In this section, the effect of peer influence on learner behaviour will be discussed.


At the beginning of the newspaper task, students were instructed by the teacher to highlight any kanji which they were able to recognise. However, students varied in their interpretation of this task. Extract 1 illustrates an exchange between Daniel (D) and Mary (M) in which they negotiated their approach to the task.

In lines 83 and 85, Daniel suggested that they use highlighters of different colours to indicate their level of understanding for each kanji. Mary was reluctant to agree to this; in fact, she continued to highlight the kanji with just one colour. On several occasions, Daniel was then observed correcting Mary’s highlighting with what he considered to be the correct colour. In line 89, Mary commented on her recognition of kanji. Even though she has been in Australia for 11 years, Mary is a Chinese kanji-background student from Hong Kong with good recognition skills of many kanji characters due to literacy skill in Chinese. Hence she has greater knowledge of kanji compared with Daniel and Antonio. In the follow-up interview, she commented that it was difficult for her to distinguish between the kanji as David preferred to do because she could often guess the meaning of the kanji. Mary explained her approach to the task:

The task was not difficult because I know Chinese (laugh). So like even before I learnt kanji, I could guess the meaning for the kanji. I just try to think Japanese and, you know, just use the words I know in Japanese, not kanji. (Mary. 15/09/05)

As seen from her comments, Mary did not seem to have difficulty interpreting the meaning of the kanji. Therefore she focused on the readings (pronunciation) of the kanji and linking them to Japanese words. In line 95, Daniel asked the meaning of the kanji in English. However, Mary did not answer his question, but instead read him the kanji even though it was not correct. In line 97, Daniel noticed her mistake, and Antonio corrected the reading in line 98. Then, in line 99, Mary confirmed the reading.

This extract shows that Daniel and Mary had different intentions in approaching the task which influenced their participation and their expectations. As in the above extract, throughout the task, Daniel tended to focus on the meaning, and Mary’s focus seemed to be on the reading and on relating the kanji (which she could already understand) to the Japanese words which they represented. However, as the task progressed, they began to work with each other and with Antonio in order to correctly read and translate the kanji. Having different focuses resulted in Daniel and Mary each contributing differently to the task, thereby extending its scope, and also contributing to each others’ learning. It cannot be said that the learners shared an understanding of the task from this example, as how to approach the task was not explicitly confirmed in the group. However, this example shows that even though Mary and Daniel approached the task differently in the beginning, they gradually adjusted their behaviour as they became aware of the needs and focuses of the other members.

On the other hand, Guy (Group 2) exhibited a different type of negotiation with Rick. From the beginning, Guy actively participated in the task, but he seemed to focus more on whether he could recognise the individual kanji or not, and paid little attention to the kanji compounds which Rick was most interested in finding. In extract 3, Rick asked the meaning of a kanji compound for ‘hand-made’, which consists of two kanji, ‘hand’ and ‘to make’. However, Guy simply repeated the reading of each kanji independently, and there was no further discussion between them. In line 104, Michael gave the readings of individual kanji, though the word was a kanji compound which consisted of two kanji characters, and the kanji were read incorrectly in this context. In line 105, Rick tried to explain that the two kanji were in fact a compound, but this was not considered relevant by Guy, and in line 108, Guy’s attention had already moved to the next kanji.

One important skill when learning kanji is to guess the meaning of kanji compounds by combining the meanings of individual kanji. Even though the teacher instructed students only to highlight the kanji that they could recognise, some learners like Rick continued to try to recognise and analyse the compounds. On the other hand, Guy’s primary focus was to fulfil the teacher’s requirements concerning the task, and thus he focused only on the recognition of the individual kanji. In doing so, however, he may have unintentionally limited his opportunity for learning by not extending the task to achieve – and exceed – his own learning goals.

Extracts 1 and 2 above suggest that learners approach a task with their own focuses which might differ from those of the others, but which are preferable for achieving their own goals. In some cases these differences may result in expansion of the task through the integration of multiple goals, as in the example of Mary’s group. However, in Guy’s case, active control of the learning process did not have a positive effect on his learning outcomes. In addition, Guy’s behaviour was unhelpful for Rick, whose interest had already gone beyond Guy’s goal.

An extreme example of a peer’s non-participation was observed in the interaction in Mary’s group. As mentioned before, Mary’s approach to this task differed from the other members in that it focused on the readings of the kanji. In addition, her lively personality and advanced knowledge of kanji allowed her to take initiative in the group and she continued to read the kanji one by one. When she encountered kanji she already knew, she sometimes skipped the kanji and kept going on at her own pace. Another member of her group, Antonio, was less proficient in Japanese than the others, and seemed to be unable to keep up with Mary’s reading speed. He frequently asked Mary or Daniel about where in the text they were up to or what kanji they were talking about. However, Antonio’s contributions to the discussion were not always acknowledged and at times were even ignored by his peers; hence he became quiet and passive during his engagement in the task. Antonio reported that he preferred to work by himself rather than sharing the task with his group because Mary did everything and he was left with nothing to do. Initially, he managed to participate in the task by practising the kanji reading after Mary or by asking the rest of the group the meaning of unknown kanji. However, his failure to receive help and his inability to keep up with his peers seemed to cause Antonio to be dissatisfied with his participation in the task and therefore to evaluate the task negatively.


The previous sections have described how each learner approaches the task differently, thereby resulting in the achievement of multiple goals during the course of the task. In addition to the complexity of multiple goals and approaches, an individual learner’s approach and participation seems dynamic and can change at different moments, rather than being definitive and fixed.

Taking Rick’s case as an example, I have already illustrated his negative evaluation of the activity as it related to achieving his learning goals, which seemed to then result in his reluctance to participate in the task. In fact, the video data showed that for most of the time Rick was reading the textbook by himself. However, on some occasions, he did make a contribution, in particular when he was asked questions by his peers.

In the following example, Rick was trying to teach the other members of his group a compound, not by giving them the answer directly but by assisting them gradually. In response to a request for help from Michael (line 161), who could not solve the problem with Guy, Rick gave him a hint in line 162. Lines 164 to 170 show that Rick knew the meaning of the compound, but continued to encourage his peers to work it out for themselves, even though he recognised they were still having problems. In line 166, Michael combined two meanings, and this enabled Guy to guess the meaning of the compound. In line 169, Michael linked the kanji compound with the Japanese word for ‘foreign countries’, and hence succeeded in understanding the compound. Rick finally confirmed the answer in line 170.

Even though Rick negatively evaluated the overall task, at that point in the exercise he seemed to have a specific goal; that is to answer his peer’s question. Other examples in the data also show that, when asked questions by his peers, Rick not only provided them with answers, but also attempted to explain the answers fully to them. At such times, it is obvious that his regard for his peers took precedence over his own study. The asking of questions by his peers, who identified themselves as novices, allowed Rick to see himself as an expert by comparison. Therefore, he invested his time and effort as such an expert, arguably taking on the role of teacher, and making the learning of his peers his new goal in the activity.

In addition to the explicit roles of expert and novice seen in the example of Rick and his peers, the following extract shows that learners sometimes have multiple roles as a result of engaging in different activities at the same time. Also, learners’ roles can change moment by moment, hence the activities in which they engage differ accordingly.

In line 160, Mary had problems with the Japanese words for ‘south’ and ‘west’, and her peers Daniel and Antonio were also unable to solve the problem. In other words, they were all novices at this moment. In line 172, as Daniel found the words in the textbook, he became an expert compared with his peers, and his goal then shifted from searching for words to teaching them to his peers. In line 173, Mary was still a novice; however, having checked the textbook and practised with Daniel (lines 174 to 177), she seemed to master the words in line 177. However, Antonio, in line 178, still seemed to be a novice; hence Mary shifted her role from novice to expert in order to focus on teaching Antonio rather than practising for her own benefit in line 179. In line 180, Daniel tested Mary’s memory of the words; therefore Mary’s role shifted again from expert to possible novice. In line 182, Daniel again tested his peers; however this time, Mary seemed to assume the role of expert by looking at Antonio who was a possible novice at this stage.

This extract shows not only that learners change their roles as a result of momentarily focusing on different goals, but also that these shifts are shaped by their positioning of themselves in relation to their peers. In other words, learners seem to actively create their own roles which arise from their relationships with their peers or from situational factors.


In this study, I illustrated how each learner perceived the task differently, and argued that learners’ perceptions seemed to be influenced by individual factors, such as their background and previous learning experiences, and in particular, their motive for learning kanji. These findings reconfirm the claims from previous studies that learners have agency and actively create their own learning. (e.g. Coughlan and Duff 1994; Roebuck 2000). Data indicate that not only does each group show a unique approach, but also there are multiple modes of participation depending on each learner within the same group. Regardless of the teacher’s intentions in setting the kanji learning task, learners in this study actively reinterpreted the task based on their goals in order to make the task more meaningful for them and for their peers. However, it was also revealed that learners’ active control over their learning did not always seem to bring a positive outcome for their language acquisition (Kobayashi 2005). This implies that learners’ active control is most likely to result in positive learning opportunities when they respond positively to the task.

In addition, due to the nature of pair/group work in which multiple agencies exist, learners negotiated in order to accomplish the task as well as to pursue their own goals. As seen in Mary’s group, sometimes the different focus of the learners resulted in a broadening of the task; on the other hand, as in Guy’s case, there were occasions in which the learners’ narrow interpretation of the task goals not only resulted in ineffective learning, but also acted as a distraction for other learners as a result. Also, it was observed that learners’ participation in the task differed moment by moment as a result of being affected by their peers or by shifts of interest from one aspect to another in the activity of kanji learning.

From an activity theory perspective, it can be argued that in the classroom, learners engage in multiple activities, or multiple aspects of a broader activity at the same time based on different goals, such as helping their peers, meeting the teacher’s requirements, focusing on their own or on other learners’ interests, or even maintaining good relationships with their peers. Spence-Brown (2001) explains the learners’ constant shifts in implementations of tasks using the concept of framing. According to Spence-Brown, learners frame the activity based on ‘socially derived understandings of different communication events’ and ‘constantly shifting and active construction of an event by participants’ (p. 474). For example, in this study, a student framed the activity as helping his/her peers on some occasions. In framing the task, the student assessed what is expected and required for the event. Based on her interpretation, the student oriented toward helping her peers, employing strategies such as waiting and giving hints. At other times, the student’s own learning frame predominated, and hence the student’s actions were based on her interpretation of what would be the most beneficial for her learning.

Therefore, in pair/group work, learners negotiate not only with their peers, but also with themselves in order to decide in which activity frame they should participate moment-by-moment. When participants’ framings of the activity are similar, in other words, when their goals are shared or at least related to each other, states of intersubjectivity are achieved in which participants direct their attention in a common direction (Van Lier 1996). Therefore, this intra- and inter- negotiation process seems to be a key for learners to maximise the learning opportunities in pair/group work, as learners seem to learn more effectively in groups of a collaborative nature (Storch 2002; Kobayashi 2003).

Although there are differences among individual learner’s interpretations of and intentions toward the task, and teachers cannot control learners’ interpretations, learners act through their assumptions and information from the teacher’s instruction (Roebuck 2000). Therefore, it can be said that learners try to create states of intersubjectivity, not only among the group members, but also between themselves and the teachers. Negotiating a teacher’s expectation of a group seems to contribute to achieving a state of intersubjectivity among the group members, as the teacher’s expectations are one of the factors that students negotiate to determine the direction of the task (Kobayashi 2003). By so doing, teachers and students are able to jointly focus on the activity with shared goals and direction.

From a pedagogical perspective, teacher’s clarification of a classroom task is of course important to facilitate learners in understanding the task better. However, helping students to understand the purposes and goals of the task is another important point which teachers have to consider in task implementation in classrooms. Not only can a teacher explain the purpose of the task from his or her own perspective, but he or she can also encourage learners to find or make connections between the task and their own goals so they can expand the task to suit their own learning. For instance, Rick believes that he knows how to take control over his kanji learning, and this belief seems to be fixed through his past experience. However, his beliefs are in fact preventing him from having new experiences in learning, which might change his beliefs or goals. Therefore, opportunities for students to reflect and revise their learning experiences are necessary.

This study shows how learners’ actual participation in tasks relates to individual factors, as well as interactive relationships with group members. Learning through peer interaction in the classroom is a complex and dynamic process, and group tasks have the potential to afford opportunities for learning, as well as to place constrictions on learning. Further studies are required to investigate aspects of the actual learning process, and the outcome of pair/group work, to facilitate better understanding of the dynamic process of learning in the classroom context.


1     Chiharu Shima was a postgraduate student at Monash University at the time of writing this article.


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Cite this chapter as: Shima, C.2007. ‘Effect of individual and social factors on learners’ group work activity’. In Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning, edited by Marriott, H; Moore, T; Spence-Brown, R. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 13.1 to 13.16.

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Learning Discourses and the Discourses of Learning

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