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Adult Peer Teaching in English

In the recent years, the learner’s role has started to change from being a receiver of knowledge in a teacher-centered traditional model to sharing some part of the responsibility with the teacher to deliver information (a learner-centered model). The literature about second language acquisition supports cooperative learning, with its focus on the group interaction and social learning. Interaction is a collaborative activity, leading the learners to use everything they have learned in the language and take an active role in the learning process (Rivers, 1987). Also, research in second language acquisition has been trying to encourage learners’ interaction and cooperative learning method.  For example, Othman and Poh (2005) found communication among learners in cooperative learning classrooms to be effective. Another study done by Chen (2005) shows a positive correlation between the cooperative learning approach and the increase in students’ listening and speaking scores.

One popular theory in second language acquisition treats the input that the learners receive as a basis for language development through the negotiation of meaning and interaction. The feedbacks to these interactions help making input more comprehensible, and push learners to modify their speech.

A very common saying states: “If students do not learn the way we teach, then let us teach the way they learn."  That is what educators have been trying to do through the use of peer teaching. The peer teaching approach emerged in the middle of the 20th century. Boud, Cohen , and Sampson (2001) are recent advocates of peer teaching as a useful approach in education. They described peer teaching as a necessary and important aspect for all formal courses where students could learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others. It is an embracing term that includes a range of labels applied in different practices, including peer tutoring, peer assisted learning, learning by teaching and others, which vary slightly in the details and practices. This study chooses to use the term peer teaching, which will be generally defined as the “suite of practices in which peers instruct each other in a purpose-driven, meaningful interaction”.  Peer teaching involves students learning new lessons and contents from and with each other in the way that involves sharing knowledge and experience. Students need to master the content to be able to clarify and explain it to the classmates in this method.

Many studies have shown effectiveness of peer teaching in different fields and contexts. However, not only has little attention been given to adult second language peer teaching but also studies that have investigated the issue have produced conflicting results. Some studies found that adult language learners experience improvement in their language and skills through the use of peer teaching. Other studies have concluded limited benefits or less motivation and improvement for the learners. Therefore, the aim of this research is to extend the knowledge base that currently exists in this field. This research explores the effectiveness of the peer teaching method, which will help raising of the awareness among educators with its potential applications and benefits within their educational setting. These will include students and teachers in order to discover areas that may require improvement. The institutions’ management may also use the findings when formulating policies.

Literature Review

The literature about peer teaching can be divided in terms of cross-disciplinary and second language learning settings. The cross-disciplinary studies address the students’ experience of peer teaching in traditional classes of different subjects.  The language, related to the setting of research, focuses on second language learners’ peer teaching at different ages and contexts.

  Peer Teaching Across Disciplines

 In different academic fields, peer teaching has been successfully applied and studied.  Wagner and Topf (2005) conducted a case study to explore the students’ experiences with learning by teaching juniors, majoring in architecture.  The data collection methods included peer review forms that were filled out after each session by all students and teacher.  Although there were a few challenges, such as weak communication between the group members, there were still many benefits for the students.  The study found that students showed an increase of their motivation, became more responsible, and met the course objectives.

Another study conducted by Streitwieser and Light (2010) investigated peer teaching in an undergraduate science class at North Western University.  The students were interviewed during the first few weeks and last few weeks.  Students taught their classmates in groups at the beginning of each session. The finding of this study showed what the students think about learning and how they understand teaching before and after they experience teaching.  These studies show effectiveness of peer teaching in different fields to reach a high level of academic knowledge for the students.

 Second Language Setting: Child Peer Teaching

The literature on peer teaching in second language contexts examines the peer teaching practices of children outside the classroom and inside. Tavener and Glynn (1989) conducted a case study of learning the second language by two children. Also, Angelova, Gunawardena, and Volk (2006) investigated peer teaching in a Dual language first grade classroom. These two studies found that children were able to learn language and skills from each other easier than learning from their teacher. Teachers usually rely on long sequences of verbal directions. Tavener and Glynn (1989) found that children used their own strategies without being asked to do so, which included paraphrasing, scaffolding, clarifying, and code switching.  Children combined all these strategies with physical instructions suitable to their cognitive abilities. Also, the closer in age they were the easier it was to learn from each other because they shared the same perspectives.

The results of these studies support Piaget’s views. He claims that interaction between peers is more valuable than between an adult and a child because the adult has the power, thus contradicting equality in thinking. However, adults have useful roles in guiding the interaction. Furthermore, Forman and Kraker (1985) and Light and Glachan (1985) followed Piagetian framework and found that collaborative activities between children at the same age led to more achievements.

All the above mentioned findings suggest that children’s peer teaching is a valuable experience for second language learners in an educational program. However, insufficient research has been conducted regarding adult ESL learners and their strategies in teaching. The findings of children’s peer teaching may not applied for the adults because some factors, such as motivation, aptitude, and maturation can change the results. In general, children are interested in tasks and helping each other. Usually, children are more cooperative than adults, who are less willing to change the way they used to learn easily.

Second Language Setting: Adult Peer Teaching

A study done by Mynord and Almarzouqi (2006) focused on the benefits and challenges of the peer-tutoring program where tutors and tutees were foreign language undergraduate students. The data was collected by interviewing some tutors and tutees; however, the researchers did not observe the actual lessons or discover the students’ strategies of students’ teaching and interacting. The study concluded that the most benefits were received by the tutors, e.g. tutor learning by teaching, increasing self-confidence, and building communication skills. However, the tutees were uncertain of the kind of benefits they were getting.  An important suggestion made by the researchers was that instructors should be involved in the tutoring by guiding the students to insure more benefits. This suggestion raises an extended question as to how we can apply peer teaching in the classroom. These findings were not consistent with what Lyttle (2011) suggested. He suggested that according to information processing theory and social learning theory the best way to learn is by teaching and imitating, which affects a person’s behavior and cognition and helps tackling more difficult problems in the future. Without a doubt, these suggestions build on and advocate Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. He supported less structured and more communicative interaction in foreign language learning. More specifically, Vygotsky believed that peer interactions are the key to the learners’ language development.

Wong, Krug, and Tucker (2010), Watts (2011), and Luk and Wang (2012) conducted studies in an EFL classroom at universities in Japan and concluded positive results about peer teaching. The students were allowed to choose the material they would present under general guidelines. The majority of the students reported in their questionnaire that they enjoyed teaching and gained much information from each other. These studies found that students are very able to learn and share experience with their classmates.

There are other studies that deal with peer teaching in the classroom that have conflicting findings too. Assinder (1990), a language teacher, was conducting an experiment by letting her ESL students from different countries teach their peers during actual lessons. Students chose their lessons and worked in groups for preparation. The teacher was available for any advice and consulting. Feedback sessions were held after each peer teaching. The data collection method included a questionnaire form and students’ oral evaluation of each other while watching their video recording. The study concluded that students increased their motivation, participation, communication, and confidence. Also, the teacher was able to learn about her students in detail. She studied their personalities and learning strategies. Later, Spratt and Leig, (2000) used the same method on their higher-level college students at the University of Hong Kong. In the first lesson, students were divided in groups. They used the first part of each lesson for peer teaching and the second part for teacher feedback. Different types of questionnaires were distributed with close end and open-ended types of questions. They found that the students were less motivated and gained few skills and improvements. It is possible that the cause of these conflicting findings is cultural. The first research was done in an ESL context, and the second one was done in an EFL classroom, where students all share the same first language and may feel uncomfortable teaching each other by the target language. Therefore, EFL students may not accept applying the same method, and it is not that peer teaching was not an effective strategy. Besides, there might be other reasons for the discrepant findings.

In summary, some of the research on peer teaching is on children’s second language learners and in different academic fields. These studies show the preference for peer teaching. However, a lack of consistency has been shown for adult second language learners’ teaching in their classrooms. Also, these studies have investigated the general students’ preferences for peer teaching strategy, without going in depth on how peer teaching affects learners’ English improvement or measuring how much more could the students learn by using this method. It is important that more research is conducted to further investigate the benefits and challenges for adult second language peer teaching.

This research project investigates the ways in which English as a second language learners (ESL) can serve as teachers to their classmates. The research focuses on the benefits and challenges of peer teaching in improving ESL students’ language skills in particular. The purpose of this study is to develop better understanding of the benefits and challenges of peer teaching in adult ESL classrooms from the students’ and the teachers’ perspectives.

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