A Socio-Cultural Analysis of Learning English in Unassisted and Assisted Peer Groups at University in Vietnam
The fieldwork for this study was carried out in Vietnam over a period of three months with a class of 45 first-year university students who were learning English as a foreign language. The conceptual framework was sociocultural theory as developed by Vygotsky and his followers. The focus was on small groups of peers as they practised speaking English. The processes involved in learning and using English were explored by studying what occurred within two kinds of groups. In one kind there were five first-year students. In the second there were four first-year students and one fourth-year student. These are referred to as unassisted and assisted peer groups. Over the three months of the study all students in the class had an opportunity to work in an unassisted and an assisted group. Data were collected each week by audio- and video-recording an unassisted and an unassisted group discussing the same topic. The processes within each of the groups were compared on the basis of the social interaction and the use of classroom artifacts including the text book which supplied the topics for discussion. First-year students were interviewed following the classroom observations and they kept journals. Students reported their experiences of being assisted and unassisted and what they believed they had learnt from each. Information was also collected on support for learning the English language in the broader Vietnamese environment. The results showed that the discourse pattern of the unassisted groups was unpredictable whereas in the assisted groups the senior student conducted a series of dyadic interactions with each student in turn. In both kinds of groups, students discussed the assigned topics but the assisted groups spoke almost entirely in English while the unassisted groups used more Vietnamese. Analysis of the incidence of Vietnamese showed the kind of situations which produced it. There were differences in the management of the tasks, and unassisted students had more trouble getting started. Observations showed that the unassisted students often teased others and laughed more often. The experience of speaking English amongst peers produced both stress and enjoyment irrespective of the type of group. Students from both groups reported that they had learned new words associated with the discussions of the topics set by the textbook. The textbook was a major factor in guiding participation and structuring the continuity of the discourse. Unassisted students worked directly with the textbook whereas the senior student mediated the questions from the textbook. The textbook came from a foreign culture and the study illustrated how students used their knowledge of Vietnamese culture in giving responses to the questions in the text. The study showed a complex mediation process consisting of interconnected layers. Mediation occurred both through the oral language of the discussions and through the written language in the textbook and on the blackboard, through the classroom teacher's instructions, by peers in both types of groups, and between the senior student and peers. On the basis of the research findings recommendations are made for teaching practice in EFL classrooms.