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Literature Review
Task-Based and Spontaneous Chats: A Sociocultural Perspective



The present literature review discusses the use of tasks in Computer-Assisted Language Learning. It talks about the current view of language learning as a communicative, interactive and socializing process and its relation to Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). Within the interactionist view of language learning the task-based approach has shown to assist students in negotiation of meaning, a way for language learners to improve their language and which will be discussed here.


Four examples where tasks and negotiations of meaning have been studied in CMC will be cited in order to show that it is important to view negotiations of meaning and the interaction in chats from a different perspective. It will be argued that the pragmatic, sociolinguistic and socio-cultural aspects of second language acquisition are features that should be addressed more often in the analysis of synchronous CMC exchanges, in addition to the traditional form-focused analysis.



1.  Language Learning Theory


1.1  Experiential learning


John Dewey, one of the most influential of all American philosophers and the most important educational theorist of the twentieth century, challenged the way traditional schools used to view education and the transmission of knowledge. He brought attention to the fact human beings learn through experience rather than by passively being recipients of information transmitted from their educators.


In Experience and Education he wrote: When education is based upon experience and educative experience is seen to be a social process, the situation changes radically. The teacher loses the position of external boss or dictator but takes on that of leader of group activities (Dewey 1963:59). The point he is bringing forward in this statement is that in education based on experience the student has more self-control of his learning and the teacher should be a guide in that experience.


Deweys thoughts on experience in education have been influential in the development of language learning theory since learning by doing is at the core of the experiential learning theory and in language learning doing means using the language to communicate with others in meaningful ways. This has been a strong realization for language pedagogy since old methods of language teaching based on the behaviourist theory of learning were changed for methods based on cognitive approaches of learning, which later on gave way to constructivist views on learning.


The main underlying assumption of constructivism is that individuals are actively involved in constructing personal meaning, that is, their own personal understanding of the world, from their experiences. In language learning this construction of personal meaning involves other learners or interlocutors with whom the learner has his language experiences. This means that the language learning experience is one of communicating and making meaning with others, that is, it is embedded in a social context.


Williams and Burden (1997) make an interesting remark regarding the social factor of language learning:


Babies are born into social worlds, come to develop a concept of self as a result of their social interaction with others, and increasingly employ language to make sense of that social world and to help them play an effective part within it. Thus, an understanding of the social factors, which play a part in our increasing competence as language users, is essential for all language teachers. (Williams and Burden1997)


It is these factors of language learning that this study will make emphasis on and to which now we focus more specifically in the field of synchronous CMC .


1.2  Socio-cultural, and sociolinguistic aspects in synchronous CMC


Even though a few years ago researchers had not yet profoundly examined cultural and social dimensions of CALL and of learners engaged in CALL activities as Chapelle (2000) reports. These dimensions of language learning and use are of particular interest in synchronous CMC research where the participants are pairs or groups of distantly located students set in different sociocultural contexts, as it is the case in this research.


 Currently, a social turn is taking force in educational research and subsequently SLA and FLT researchers have begun to investigate language learners as agents in sociocultural contexts (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001:145). Accordingly, CALL researchers have also started to pay attention to social and cultural aspects of second language acquisition, as the following examples show.


The first example is Pellettieris (2000). She focuses her own study of chats in the development of grammatical competence, but she also acknowledges that current research indicates chatting can foster the development of sociolinguistic and interactive competence. She details two cases: Kern (1995), who reported that students in electronic discussions used a wide variety of discourse structures and noted that this variety was greater in the electronic discussions than in the oral discussions. And Chun (1994), who investigated the language production of first and second semester learners of German during 15-20 minute chats about current topics of importance. Chun (1994) found that learners produced a wide range of discourse structures and speech acts: students greeted each other, asked and answered questions of each other, initiated topic changes, and expanded on topics (Pellettieri 2000:63)


And the second example is Darhowers. Unlike other studies of chat presented later in this literature review (i.e. Blake, 2000; Pellettieri, 2000; González-Lloret, 2003 and Kötter, 2003), Darhower (2002) enclosed his study within a social theoretical framework. He examined nine in-class chat sessions of 33 intermediate Spanish learners and found that there are unique ways in which learners take ownership of the chat room environment and construct a dynamic, learner-centred discourse community characterized by discussion of topics of mutual interest, social cohesiveness and group belonging, joking, teasing, experimenting with identities and role plays (Darhower, 2002:273). All these are interactive features that cannot be overlooked if we are to frame language learning within a sociocultural view of second language acquisition.


1.3  Second language learners interaction through Synchronous CMC


CMC has increased the possibility for CALL practitioners to include the communicative component in the language classroom. Kelm (1996) highlights this feature of the networked classroom when he says network conversations provide students with a communicative setting that promotes the exchange of ideas over mere form. Other authors (Sutherland-Smith, 2002; Stevens, 1996) also suggest that in online discussion forums (a type of asynchronous CMC) there is more student participation than in oral or face-to-face (FtF) communication. Online discussion offers a less threatening environment (Warschauer, 1996) where students are often more willing to express opinions, to ask questions, to make aside comments, among other advantages of this type of communication. In other words they are more willing to interact with one another. However this is not the case with every student. Some students find the computer and technology in general a threatening or unappealing tool for language learning.


As with asynchronous CMC, in synchronous CMC there is greater chance for students participation than in traditional language courses where the instructor dominates most class discussions. According to Ellis (1994) target language communication is improved when learners talk with peers rather than teachers. Interaction with peers is at the heart of a Vygoskian view of learning, which emphasizes the social factor of learning. Vygotsky formulated the concept of zone of proximal development (ZPD) which means that within the social process by which learning occurs, learners are able to accomplish what is difficult for them to accomplish on their own with the help of someone more capable, such as a teacher or a peer (Vygotsky, 1978).


Interaction with peers is facilitated by CMC both in a time-delayed (asynchronous) and in a real-time mode (synchronous). Here it is important to note that Internet chatting may be better at fostering interaction than online discussion in a time-delayed mode because Internet chat mimics actual conversation more closely (although there are a number of differences) (Freiermuth, 2002:36). This characteristic of fostering interaction, a central feature in Second Language Acquisiton (SLA), is what makes chats a useful tool in the language classroom.


A way to encourage interaction with peers is by using tasks: activities that engage students in conversations where they usually have to find a solution to a problem or work on a common goal (see task design in point 2.3). Tasks are used not only to engage students in interaction, but also to put them in situations where they need to negotiate meaning (Long 1985, Chapelle 1998, cited in Blake 2000).


1.4  Negotiation of meaning


Negotiations of meanings are ways learners resolve their communication breakdowns and successfully convey meaning. Some examples of negotiation are clarification requests, recasts, confirmation checks, and reformulations, among others. Output modified through negotiation of meaning provides comprehensible input to language learners, as well as feedback on their production.


Negotiations of meaning have been widely studied in face-to-face exchanges of language learners (e.g. Gass & Varonis, 1994; Long, 1991; Pica, 1994 cited in Blake 2000). Moreover they have been recently studied in the context of CMC (e.g. Blake, 2000; Pelletieri, 2000) and it has been shown that they occur in a similar manner to oral interaction. Studies that focused on student dyads have pointed out a positive effect of negotiations of meaning on the quality of the students immediate production (Gonzalez-Lloret, 2003).


However a shortcoming has also been pointed out. Aston (1986), cited in Skehan (2001) has questioned the desirability of contriving interactions intended to generate extensive negotiation of meaning, and whose value is judged according to how well this is achieved. He proposes that such interactions can be irritating for students, and unrepresentative as far as natural discourse is concerned.


Another aspect to note is that the capacity to negotiate meaning would be part of a more general strategic competence, according to Skehan (2001). By this he means an improvisatory manner of using the language when problems are encountered because other competences are lacking (Skehan 2001:83). This form of using the language is the most common form used in the chat environment, where the chatters are constantly improvising in the use of language and recurring to diverse strategies when they cannot express themselves accurately.




According to Pica (1998), the emphasis of language learning through interaction and negotiation has been on the social aspects of interaction. However, most of the task-based research focuses on analysing how learners restructure their second language not on how they actually develop their communicative as well as their social competence in it. Current research indicates that chatting can foster the development of sociolinguistic and interactive competence (e.g. Pelletieri, 2000; Darhower, 2002; Tudini, 2003), but the examples cited below show that the emphasis made on most of the task-based research in synchronous CMC is on form rather than on other aspects of communication and language use.


2.1 Current research on task-based interaction in CMC


Blake (2000) studied 50 Spanish learners using synchronous CMC in order to find out which type of task lead to more triggering of negotiations of meaning. He noted that as Pica had predicted for oral communication, jigsaw tasks[1] were among the ideal ones. But most importantly he found that there was a predominance of lexical negotiations.[2]


In another study, Pelletieri (2000) also investigated 20 non-native speakers (NNS) using CMC and explored the potential that this medium holds for the development of grammatical competence in a second language. Her results from task-based interaction corroborate the findings from studies of oral interaction, which report that a great majority of negotiations are triggered by lexical items.


More recently, González-Lloret (2003) did a smaller scale task-based study using the computer as a medium to deliver information (textual or auditive). She designed multimedia software that 8 Spanish NNS used to carry out a task and observed the type of negotiations they engaged in.  Once again, in this case, lexical items were the triggers of most negotiations. She also reports that recasting was the preferred feedback form. Additionally, she points out the importance of analysing native and non-native speaker interaction as possibly an ideal generator of negotiations of meaning.


In line with González-Llorets reflection, Kötter(2003) examined the use of a CMC synchronous tool between NS and NNS. His study did not use the traditional type of tasks used as the means of producing negotiations (such as jigsaw and information gap tasks). He applied instead another form of interaction technique: project-oriented task. His participants were in the USA and Germany learning German and English respectively. Kötter found out that his students did not engage much in lexical corrections as happened with students in the other studies mentioned.


2.2 Aspects of task-based analysis that lack attention


As with many studies on task-based CMC and negotiation of meaning, what the mentioned studies have in common is that they look at how much students made corrections in terms of lexical breakdowns. The observations have predominantly a lexical focus over anything else, but they dont look at morphological or syntactic problems. And according to Blake (2000) more attention must be directed to this end, if the Interactionist Hypothesis is to be considered a principal stimulus for students internal syntactic restructuring, which is at the very heart of the SLA question (Blake, 2000:133).


Thus these studies show that in task-based synchronous CMC, second language learners essentially work on their vocabulary when they negotiate meaning. It could be argued that not only in task-based chats students negotiate meaning but also in spontaneous or free chat situations. In spontaneous chats students come across instances of negotiation of meaning especially of the kind suggested in the studies mentioned (i.e. lexical negotiations. Tudinis (2003) recent study with Italian learners chatting with native speakers in public chat settings confirms this idea. She found that negotiation is a feature of synchronous CMC, even in an unsupervised setting where the NS is unknown to the learner. (Tudini, 2003)


In line with this idea Sutherland-Smith (2002) claims that students work on their lexical development in a natural way derived from their motivation in online communication. She used online interaction in a 10-week intensive ESL course for undergraduates at Monash University, in Melbourne Australia, and reports that students appeared to work harder choosing appropriate vocabulary and completing reading tasks in preparation for online discussions than they did preparing for traditional face-to-face classroom discussions (Sutherland-Smith 2002: 33.) In sum, regardless of the use of tasks to trigger lexical negotiations in online chats, they are likely to appear in spontaneous chats, and also students are intrinsically motivated to work on their vocabulary improvement when using this media.


Another aspect overlooked in the task-based CMC research presented here is a slight negative effect that the emphasis on working on a task rather than on spontaneous communication could have, especially in relation to fostering students social skills in the target language. In the study previously mentioned, Kötter (2003) points out that his students identified as a constraining factor the lack of time to get to know each other. Several learners indicated that they may have behaved differently in different circumstances had they had more time to get to know each other and engage in social maintenance conversation.


To this regard, Fischer (1998) makes an interesting point that considers a broader vision of negotiation of meaning. He views negotiation of meaning in relation to understanding of concepts. He described how a contact between students in two different countries took a bad turn. His interpretation of the events was that nobody had spent enough time on building a positive relationship between those students. He says that misunderstandings or conflicting opinions can hardly be overcome if the communicating partners hardly know anything about each other. This, of course, is a particular case not to be generalised, but what is most significant from his reasoning is that the process of negotiating meanings can probably be pushed much further and much more successfully in true partnerships (Fischer 1998:153). And he rightly concludes that attention to personal relationships can make communication about content much more successful.


To negotiate meaning then, could be seen in a wider sense especially in conversations with native speakers where learners need to be aware of other aspects of language and communication that go beyond language structure. Besides lexical or grammatical problems, teachers need to advise students about pragmatic issues in language learning such as whether students address one another with the appropriate politeness when necessary, and if there are better ways for them to make a point in their discussions, which apparently was the problem Fischers students had. These nuances of the language can only be learnt through interaction, which is, as already mentioned, an element that plays a central role in language learning and teaching and which is facilitated by the use of synchronous CMC.


Therefore, a different viewpoint should be taken considering all the mentioned aspects of negotiation of meaning and task-based research in CMC that require attention: the prevalence of lexical negotiations and its manifestation not only in task-based but also in free chats, the acquisition of pragmatic aspects of the language and the promotion of social interaction.


To conclude this session on aspects of task-based analysis that lack attention it is important to remark that social aspects of the language are paramount to consider when analyzing communication of any kind. Sociocultural theory emphasizes that the locus of learning is not exclusively within the individuals mind but, rather, is a product of social interaction with other individuals (Darhower 2002:251).


2.3 Task design


The design of tasks for language teaching has been widely studied (e.g. Pica 1994; Gass and Varonis 1985; Long 1991, cited in González-Lloret 2003) and it is believed that Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) is the pedagogy that best fits the principle of learning by doing (González-Lloret, 2003). It is essential then that tasks are well designed in order to engage students in meaningful conversation and to produce successful communication and collaboration. Otherwise it should be expected that "students will lose interest in chat tasks that lack purpose or direction as quickly as they would any other poorly planned language task." (Freiermuth, 2002:39)


Two sets of criteria for good language learning tasks are presented here: Candlins and Cohens. Candlin (1987) remarks the centrality of tasks to the syllabus and how they can be selected and sequenced in a principled fashion. Some of his criteria are that tasks: should promote attention to meaning, purpose, negotiation; should encourage attention to relevant data; allow for flexible approaches to the task, offering different routes, media, modes of participation, procedures, should be challenging but not threatening to promote risk-taking; should define a problem to be worked through by learners; should require input from all learners; should promote sharing of information and expertise, among others.


Cohen (1994) singled out different characteristics that well-designed sociocollaborative language learning tasks should include:  have more than one answer or more than one way to solve the problem; be intrinsically interesting and rewarding; allow different students to make different contributions; use multimedia, involve sight, sound, and touch; involve reading and writing and be challenging (Cohen 1994, cited in Meskill, 1998:145). Well-designed sociocollaborative language learning tasks are always desirable, but many times practitioners do not have the resources or the time to prepare a task that includes all these requisites, but can still get students to take advantage of the media. For instance in the examples referred to above (Kern, 1995; Chun, 1994 and Darhower, 2002) students did engage in social practice of the language but in following a simple task as it is the discussion of a topic suggested by the teacher.


Dewey declared that the teacher must survey the capacities and needs of the learners and set the conditions to provide content to satisfy these needs and in so doing his planning must be flexible enough to permit free play for individuality of experience and yet firm enough to give direction towards continuous development of power. (Dewey 1963:58) This thought has direct relation with the dichotomy of task-based and spontaneous chats presented this research, which deals with a directed task imposed by the teacher on one side and on the other, with no task at all (free chat).


On a similar perspective, Ellis (2000) discussed two theoretical accounts of task-based language learning and their relevance for language pedagogy: the psycholinguistic perspective and the socio-cultural perspective. In the psycholinguistic perspective tasks are viewed as devices that provide learners with the data they need for learning; the design of a task is seen as potentially determining the kind of language use and opportunities for learning that arise (as for example in the Interaction Hypothesis). In the socio-cultural perspective, on the other hand, participants co-construct the activity they engage in when performing a task, in accordance with their own socio-history and personal goals; therefore, it is difficult to make predictions regarding the kinds of language use and opportunities for learning that will arise.


Ellis concludes that both approaches are of value to task-based language pedagogy and relates them to the two dimensions of teaching suggested by Van Lier: planning and improvisation. The psycholinguistic approach provides information that is of importance for planning task-based teaching and the socio-cultural illuminate the kinds of improvisation that teachers and learners need to engage in during task-based activity to promote communicative efficiency (Ellis 2000:193). Van Lier (1991) suggests that planning is one of two dimensions of teaching, the other being improvisation (i.e. the actual behaviours that arise during the process of a lesson which have not been planned for). He sees both as important for a teachers professionalism. Any lesson needs to achieve a balance between these two dimensions, he says. (Van Lier 1991:200)


It is conceivable that a potential way to increase learners sociolinguistic and cultural skills is to let them spend time solely on open and spontaneous chats with native speakers without the teachers recommendation of tasks. As Tudinis recent study reveals, learners do in fact modify their interlanguage when engaged in open ended conversational tasks with unfamiliar interlocutors in public online chats (Tudini 2003).


However, this is not to argue that task-based learning should be kept away from classroom practice. On the contrary, it is an aspect of language teaching that should be carefully planned and the outcomes of task-based research in synchronous CMC language learning should be evaluated in a different manner as has already been discussed here (i.e. considering social, cultural and pragmatic aspects of 2L learning).




Spontaneous chats give the opportunity to language learners to be engaged in real life conversations with native speakers. Current developments in discourse analysis suggest that there is a lot to be learned if one is to become an effective communicator. Discourse management, turn-taking skills, and a range of similar capacities, which underlie the negotiation of meaning in ongoing discourse, can only be achieved by actually participating in discourse. To this regard, Skehan recommends: if meaning-making is a jointly collaborative activity, then we cannot read about these skills, or even acquire them passively, but instead have to take part in discourse and realize how our resources are put to work to build conversations and negotiate meaning. (Skehan, 2001:81)


3.1 Spontaneous chats contribution to forming of communities of learners


In discussing the use of chats in language learning, Stevens (2002) who has widely worked with synchronous CMC in language teaching, reports that in many educational institutions in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) computers are configured to block chatting. He says that there is an impression that chatting is bad, and that students waste time doing it, and will do nothing but that if allowed unhindered access to the Internet (Stevens, 2002 see URL).


Many of us learned a foreign language usually by attending lessons in a classroom where there was no real communication. We learned through reading and listening to tapes, and doing exercises in workbooks and many times the exercises and tapes were contrived language designed to teach the form of the language, but not how to communicate in it, as Stevens (2002) also points out. Fortunately those times are gone and most of the material designed for language teaching today has a communicative approach in mind. But what is of most importance in this argument is that synchronous CMC has turned this situation around completely because the place for a foreign or second language learner to practice his/her communicative skills is no longer limited to the classroom. S/he can chat with native speakers of the target language at any time and learn those other aspects of the language that are being addressed here. Stevens (2002) puts it this way:

Now if I want to learn another language I can find speakers of that language online, meet them, get to know them, and really communicate with them. This is motivating because we are all human and have an intrinsic interest in one another and in each other's cultures. Earl Stevick, who wrote many books on teaching languages, has pointed out that language is often learned best while the focus of the activity is on something else entirely. Since then, there have been movements toward 'communicative' and 'constructivist' learning, which says to language teachers that activities meant for language learning should be those involving not only real communication, but communication that is truly meaningful to the students, and that is generated by them 'bottom up' and not directed from 'top down' (Stevens, 2002:URL)


His colleague Yaodong, from China, also reports that some Chinese teachers look down upon chatting online. And he rebuts this attitude by alleging that chat for non-educational purposes is still a social contact and can "educate" someone in personal relationships. Drawing on experience in working with projects for second language learning Debski (1997) affirms that using language no longer means pure transfer of information from person A to person B, but involves a social relationship between people (Debski, 1997:43). The use of synchronous CMC does foster relationships that spontaneously grow from time spent in chatting with people from another culture. In this way language is constructed by the students themselves from their engagement in the flow of conversations that are meaningful to them and through which they establish a sense of community.


Darhower (2002) in his study of the interactional features of synchrounous CMC in an intermediate L2 class reveals that his students not only engaged in extensive (on-task and off-task) discussions, but also showed communicative behaviours that served the purpose of social cohesiveness, which he seems to parallel with the construction of online communities when he cites Chun (1994):


Chun reported that her learners performed a wide range of interactional speech acts in chat rooms, including everyday social encounters such as greetings, leave takings, and the use of polite formulas These discourse functions, which Chun referred to as demonstration of minimal sociolinguistic competence, are an important part of the chat discussions in that they allow learners to share their feelings with each other and to demonstrate a sense of sociability. Such measures of social cohesiveness[3] enables learners to construct what Meskill (1999) refers to as a community of learners.


Social cohesiveness is promoted by synchronous CMC, which is one of the main channels of communication that keep communities of learners together. Members of Webheads, an online community of English teachers and learners, for instance, maintain constant contact and development through chatting and emailing one another about issues of their interest. They meet online once a week to discuss issues related to their professional life or just to have a chat and strengthen their relationships.


Strengthening online relationships is then an important factor in learning communities and is enhanced by the chat tool. Comparing how much students get to know each other in a traditional large university class to how much they can get to know each other in a networked class, Beauvois (1997) refers to the fact that in the former they do not even know their names because they are so many. Conversely if the same class maintains CMC synchronous chat, it raises a feeling of community due in part to the fact that students do know each others names because they appear with each message in the chat window.  And in addition to that small but significant personal component, students also experience the feeling of belonging from the participation in a discussion that is of their own creation. The feeling of belonging also comes from sharing thoughts, stories, feelings, and even personal questions that they may not dare to ask or answer in a face-to-face situation.






In both, Deweys philosophy of experiential learning in education and the constructivist theory of learning it is recognized the importance of the learners active role in developing his own understanding of the subject matter through his own experience. In language learning pedagogy, tasks are the means by which learners are engaged in having the experience of practicing the language and constructing and negotiating meaning when necessary.


Research in relation to negotiation of meaning in task-based synchronous CMC has mainly focused on analyzing only the linguistic aspects of language learning (be them lexical, syntactic or semantic) rather than observing as well how language learners harness the chat tool to develop their sociolinguistic and socio-cultural skills which can happen in task-based chats or possibly more ideally in spontaneous chats.


Language instructors who incorporate CMC in their lessons could assist students' develop their second language skills by getting them to accomplish specific tasks that trigger negotiations of meaning at the structural level, but also by letting them interact in this media by using it in a more natural way, to communicate their thoughts and feelings with their peers and with native speakers and negotiate meaning at another level. Or more specifically to make use of this tool for the purpose that is commonly used for, that is, to establish social communication among people at a distance. Again, this is not to say that the use of chats to increase lexical or grammatical knowledge of the language with task-based activities should not be carried out, since this is a need for language learners as well. Nevertheless, a different approach to chatting should be taken and to guide students towards autonomous learning by opening up the possibility for them to build communities of language learners on the Internet.


This study will compare spontaneous and task-based chats in order to see how social aspects of SLA are promoted. It is hoped to see what the influence of free chats is in students' interest in helping one another with their communication problems (negotiations of meaning) whether these are manifest in task-based chats or in free chats.



Questions to be addressed in this study are:


1. Do negotiations of meaning occur in free chats as much as in task-based chats?


2. What types of negotiations occur in each kind of chat?


3. What pragmatic and social use of the language is seen in both types of chats?


4. What differences do students perceive in their interactions in both types of chats?






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Webheads URL:

Revised on June 2, 2003.


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[1] With jigsaw tasks, the participants possess different pieces of a puzzleand work collaboratively to converge on a single outcome (Blake, 2000:124).

[2] And he also remarks that the scarcity of syntactic negotiations leaves unanswered or unsatisfactorily answered the issue of grammatical development, a main tenet of the Interactionist Hypothesis, which states that the conditions for SLA are crucially enhanced by having L2 learners negotiate meaning with other speakers.(Blake, 2000:121)

[3] All italics in this paper have been added by the author.