Negotiation for Meaning: Interactive Writing Revisited

Marita Nummikoski, University of Texas at San Antonio

The recent trend to developing communicative competence in the foreign language class has often been misinterpreted as applying to oral proficiency only, and therefore, text-based activities have remained in the instructional background. The beliefs about the lesser value of textual activities, however, are in contrast with theories of second language acquisition and the corresponding empirical research, which claim that text-based activities, in fact, support and enhance language acquisition.

Theories of second language acquisition vary from emphasizing input (Krashen, Swaffar), to emphasizing output (Smith), to theories claiming that language is best learned by combining input and output in a meaningful communicative interaction with a speaker of the target language. Supporters of interaction theories maintain that communication is a two-way process between a speaker and a learner, where both have an active role of giving and taking, and that language is acquired in the process of negotiation for meaning (Hatch).

Of the few written tasks which are assigned to students of foreign languages, essay writing is one of the most open-ended. The problem with essay writing is, however, that while it is relatively free writing, the purpose of task is mostly to practice some recently introduced lexical or grammatical topics. Thus, the essay itself has little communicative value, as the reader/teacher is often interested not in the message but rather, in the quality of writing, and thus, the interaction is limited to corrective feedback.

In a foreign language classroom, textual activities with more communicative interaction include journal and letter writing. Typically, however, journal writing is initiated by the student and involves only minimal teacher participation. The teacher may provide corrective feedback and a few remarks on the quality of writing, but no new input of true communicative value. Another classroom activity, with more balance between the amounts of input and output, is letter writing, where two students of approximately the same level of proficiency communicate in writing (Pica). While the activity may be valuable as a reinforcer of skills that have already been acquired, such writing is unlikely to result in great increase in students' proficiency, as it lacks the important element of higher level input.

This paper proposes a different kind of writing activity, interactive writing, for intermediate level language instruction. The activity involves a written exchange between the teacher and students, where the teacher provides the input and framework for the subsequent student response. Unlike the journal and letter writing activities mentioned above, in interactive writing the initiator is the teacher, and the level of input is higher than what the students would be able to produce at any given time. The paper first briefly explains the design and results of an experimental study conducted several years ago on the effects of interactive writing assignments on the written language proficiency of students of Russian and then reports on the preliminary results of a second study where several aspects of the original experiment have been modified.