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Vol 32 No 2, April - June 1994
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Practical Ways to Promote Reflection in the ESL/FL Classroom
by Ali Yahya Al-Arishi

Can an ESL/FL class be too interactive? Underhill (1989:253) writes that in many classes "conspicuous action tends to be more highly valued" than the need of "all participants to pause unilaterally and stand back from, and reflect on, what they are doing." The use of a large number of spontaneous, nonreflective interactiv(ities) can reward, in Brown's (1980: 9394) distinction, the "impulsive . . . guess[ing]" student and penalize the "reflective" student who tends "to weigh all the considerations in a problem, work out all the loopholes, then, after extensive reflection, carefully venture a solution."

In a previous article (Al-Arishi and Tarvin 1991), my coauthor and I, making use of the eighteenth-century English philosopher John Locke's classification of the sources of knowledge involved in "human understanding," argued that two of these-- sensation and intuition --tend to prevail in the interactive classroom at the expense of the third reflection. Although this article will concentrate on some practical applications of a consideration of reflection in the ESL/FL classroom, I will begin by briefly summarizing some of the conclusions of the previous theoretically oriented article.


Concerning sensory perception as a source of knowledge, many of the currently popular interactive activities emanating from the Silent Way, Suggestopedia, Total Physical Response (TPR), Communicative Language Teaching, and the affective/humanistic domain exploit the senses through the use of sensual bombardment, physical movement, realia, and pictures in promoting language acquisition. In an integrated-activities classroom, "through the highly comprehensible input, the physical involvement, and the sensual quality of the words and action, the students become completely absorbed in the activity, making acquisition highly probable," Richard-Amato (1988:185) writes.

Although activities based on the "sensory principle," the term the seventeenth-century educator Comenius used to describe learning through direct sensual experiencing (cited in Pennycook 1989: 599), are valuable, a "look-and-do" classroom, "based solely on concreteness," Vygotsky (1978:89) writes, can have the dangerous effect of "eliminat[ing] from teaching everything associated with abstract thinking."


Concerning intuition, several explanations of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) involve a distinction between unconscious acquisition and conscious learning (Krashen 1982) and primary processes (those using automatic rules in unplanned discourse) and secondary processes (those using analyzed rules in planned discourse) (Ellis 1986). A principal implication for language teaching of this dichotomizing has been to stress automatic unconscious acquisition. What is sought is an intuitive grasp of the language, intuition as a source of knowledge being defined as "immediate apprehension" or "prelinguistic knowledge" (Rorty 1973:204, 206).

Language-classroom techniques manifesting a concern for an intuitive grasp of a language are brainstorming, fast-writing, and talking-off-the-top-of-your-head activities. However, promoting a spontaneous intuitive use of the target language, a principal achievement of the interactive language acquisition approach, can have an untoward consequence when the use of spontaneous response is encouraged in a communicative situation where time for reflection is needed.

The conspicuous-action/spontaneous-response classroom taps two of the major sources of knowledge--sensation and intuition. But are there not situations where the third Source-reflection--should be called upon? I believe that ESL/FL activities with basically a sensory or intuitive orientation should be complemented with those where "time and space" (Underhill 1989:253) allow students to reflect before, during, and after a language activity.

While "communicative competence can be said to be an interpersonal rather than an intrapersonal trait" (Savignon 1983:8), not all communicative negotiations need to be done in dyads, triads, and small groups. A learner, I believe, needs time to do some negotiating with herself/himself where "learning is typified by silent reflection" (Breen and Candlin 1979:100).


What is involved in this third source of knowledge, reflection? The psychologists Morgan, King, Weisz, and Schopler (1986:470) write that a person reflects when confronted with a problem. Toward an ordinary situation a person will simply respond intuitively, but for an extraordinary one, s/he will develop "tentative notions" about the problem. Defining, comparing, abstracting, and generalizing, the mind will proceed toward an evaluative or judgmental decision.

Thus, most communicative situations do not require reflective thinking; an intuitive, automatic response suffices. However, when all language activities are geared to produce only rapid responses in interpersonal communicative situations--which can result in a sort of "interaction for interaction's sake," where students "go through the motion" (Ellis 1990:116) of participating--there is a slighting of the students' desire and need to abstract, generalize, and synthesize intrapersonally before responding in an interpersonal situation.

Getting practical

In the language classroom, I believe, activities should be designed that allow for the use of introspection before, during, and after interaction. I will now discuss four types of activities that I have found can do this:

1. Complement brainstorming activities with brain-besieging activities. Brainstorming is one of the most effective classroom techniques for encouraging interaction. If students are going to read a factual article or fictional story about a pet, a teacher may preface the activity by asking the students to talk about pets they have had; this prefatory activity is best handled spontaneously, since little reflection is needed to discuss a favorite pet.

However, I have found that such an approach should not be used with more introspectively oriented topics. To preface a reading of a story about friendship by soliciting immediate comments from students about what they look for in a friend often will produce vague generalizations such as trustworthiness or honesty, thus encouraging students to believe that an ill-thought-through spontaneous response will always suffice.

I have not found brainstorming to be the preferred technique for such an activity. It is better to let the students read the story or part of the story about friendship; this will give them a perspective about friendship. If three periods of activities related to the story have been planned, during the second period the teacher might comment, "What does a person find in a friend that she or he doesn't find in an acquaintance?" By seeming puzzled about the answer to the question, the teacher will convey the impression that s/he is uncertain about the answer and that an immediate response is not being sought, that is, that the question needs reflection.

Hopefully, the question will lay siege to the brain of each of the students, and reflection will be encouraged in a situation that properly demands introspection. The question can be returned to at the end of the third session; the intervening "time and space" essential for reflective thinking will result in interpersonal interaction of perhaps a higher quality.

2. Develop activities that encourage hypothesis-formulating. Students need activities that allow them to use the target language to make discoveries for themselves: solve a problem, resolve a conflict, formulate a rule, or exemplify a principle. I believe Krashen's (1982:22) concept of input--"When communication is successful, when the input is understood and there is enough of it, i + 1 will be provided automatically"--stresses the quantity and passivity of the process too much. In reflection, as conceived by Locke (1961), however, the mind is selective and consciously active, "observ[ing] its own actions" about the sensual ideas it has received and "tak[ing] from thence other ideas."

Problem-solving activities can activate the input, much more so than is captured in input's complementary word intake. Either inductive (examples to generality) or deductive (the reverse) reasoning can be used. When the journal entries of my beginning students manifest some problems with English capitalization, I point this out to the class as a whole and append almost casually, "Of course, there are some rules for capitalization." The immediate response from the students is usually "Give us the rules. They'll help us in our writing." (Students, I have found, frequently see rules as shortcuts to learning a language.) My reply is, "I think you can figure them out for yourselves. We might work on that at the next class."

At the next class I give each student a handout, the top half of which contains a paragraph in which there are multiple instances manifesting eight rules of the English capitalization system. On the lower half of the handout, I have typed eight times, "In English a capital letter is used ____________ . Example(s) from the paragraph: __________ ." Students are instructed to work by themselves in formulating the rules, although they may ask yes/no questions of me or of other class members, such as "India is a country? Is Swedish a country?" As I walk around the class, I can see hypotheses being formulated, discoveries being made, and rules being written.

Input is being transformed into insight, not just intake. Although they may not know the word, each is saying her/his personal synonym for "Eureka." Toward the end of the period, interpersonal interaction is provided for, by allowing students to compare their rules in a small-group or whole-class segment of the activity. An inductive-reasoning activity such as this (see Savignon 1983:18990 for comparable deductive-reasoning activities), I have found, builds up students' confidence in their "control" over a target language.

3. Make use of process-oriented activities. Unlike the rule-formulating activity discussed above, the value of a process-oriented activity "lies in the proceeding, not in the end. During each stage of the process, students should experience an indigenous, distinctive sense of accomplishment, and at the end of the process-oriented activity the sum of these achievements should be equally distinct and greater than that experienced at any one stage" (Al-Arishi and Tarvin 1991:19).

Since I have found that most textbooks do not incorporate process-oriented activities, I have my students select and follow an unfolding newspaper story (an election, a debate at the U.N., or a sporting event such as the World Cup competition) or an ongoing TV serial. A part of several periods a week is set aside for students at the small-group or whole-class level to analyze what is happening, to compare and contrast this with what has happened, and to venture predictions about what will happen to the world event or in the TV serial.

"Time and space" for intrapersonal introspection are naturally allowed for in the lag time between reading the newspaper or watching the TV serial and the discussion in the classroom. Working with short stories in which students are given versions in which the ending is omitted and they must speculate on how the author resolved the story's problem is also valuable, and I must add that sometimes I don't close the activity by giving the students the author's conclusion.

This may seem to be an anticlimactic option, but I close the activity by saying something like the following: "All of your suggestions were quite creative; in fact, one of the six of those that you've had me write on the board is similar to the author's." I pause, then continue, "But I won't tell you which one. Frustrating, isn't it? But there are not always answers to everything, and sometimes when there are answers, a person won't find them. However, there is always the search, and you have shown yourself and, incidentally, me that you know how to search." To sum up, a process-oriented activity does not have to conclude with all students reaching the same conclusion.

4. Plan, but do not dictate, the synthesizing of activities. Not all knowledge comes gift-wrapped or neatly sequenced. The highest function of the reflective mind, the nineteenth-century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote, is to synthesize, to combine often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole. In synthesizing activities, meaning is created and potentiated by each individual student, who like Stern's (1975:312) good language learner "initiates the learning process and throughout adopts an attitude of personal responsibility for his[/her] learning."

Let me give an example: A synthesizing group of activities that I am planning will focus on some centuries-old abandoned fort-like watchtowers that dot the mountaintops around Abha, Saudi Arabia, the location of the university where I teach. I believe that my advanced-level EFL students have daily seen these towers from a distance, but with a seeing that is nonreflective. Some of the semester-long activities that I have planned are:

  • a conspicuous-action outing to one of these watchtowers, in which students will probably chatter like tourists, giving their immediate-response comments about this up-close view of the tower. At the next period, I will assign . . .
  • a do-as-you-like project as a follow-up to the trip. Some may choose to describe orally or in writing their impressions; others may choose to make a drawing or a papiermache of the tower. They will be free to work in triads, pairs, or individually. Most, I think, will assume that the activity has been completed after this second stage, but after a couple of weeks I will arrange . . .
  • a showing of a video compiled from TV coverage of the activities surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall, and later on . . .
  • a brief lecture by an invited psychologist about harmful psychological barriers (prejudice, contempt, etc.) that people set up in interpersonal relationships. Time will be allowed for questions from the students, and still later . . .
  • a period of short oral reports by each student on any aspect of the culture and heritage of our community. In preparing the report, students may use interviews with community elders, anecdotal accounts of oral history, or books on the history of our region. Some weeks later there will be . . .
  • a class-at-large study of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" (with its antinomies, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" and "Good fences make good neighbors").

The activities will be scattered throughout the semester, and nothing will be said to indicate that there might be a connection among them. At the end of the semester, I will ask each student to make a semantic map (Johnson et al. 1986) consisting of a large number of circles in which they write the titles of activities (of course, many more than those listed above are planned) that they thought were valuable. At the next class I will ask them to draw lines connecting the circles, using whatever relational criteria they wish.

Since the map is a private, personal synthesis, I won't set aside class time for the sharing of the content of each student's map, but some will probably do so outside of class. I believe (but also I won't know unless a student volunteers to show me a map) that some will connect the Frost poem with the Berlin Wall video and these poetic and real-life walls with one of the watchtowers around Abha that an Arabian ancestor climbed and vigilantly watched so that those in the town could get a good night's sleep. Perhaps psychological barriers of distrust and prejudice will be reflectively connected with those of physical barriering. Some may make connections with activities I did not put in my own pre-maneuvered cohesion. At least, I hope so.

Semester-ending semantic mapping can be used in any course, whether it be principally reading, writing, oral-aural skills, literary study, even grammar or linguistics. In all classes, students need to be able to reflect on what they have done and to make their own personal synthesis. Of the types of reflective activities, "synthesis-oriented activities best allow a student to stamp her/his validating mark on the learning process" (Al-Arishi and Tarvin 1991:22).


I hope that in this article I have provided some practical suggestions for those ESL/FL teachers who want to complement their conspicuous-action/spontaneous-response language activities with some that encourage reflection, the source of knowledge that I feel present-day language teaching has to an extent ignored. (On reflection, I must confess that I do not know if my article has answered the question with which it began, "Can an ESL/FL class be too interactive?" But then perhaps you, after reflection, can answer it better than I.)


  • Al-Arishi, A. Y. and W. L. Tarvin. 1991. Rethinking communicative language teaching: Reflection and the EFL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 25, 1, pp. 9-27.
  • Breen, M. and C. Candlin. 1979. The essentials of a communicative curriculum in language teaching. Applied Linguistics, 1, 2, pp. 89-112.
  • Brown, H. D. 1980. Principles of language learning and teaching. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.
  • Coleridge, S. T. 1978. Biographia literaria, ed. G. Watson. New York: Dutton.
  • Ellis, R. 1986. Understanding second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • . 1990. Instructed second language acquisition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Johnson, D. D., S. D. Pittelman, and J. E. Heimlich. 1986. Semantic mapping. The Reading Teacher, 39, pp. 778-83.
  • Krashen, S. D. 1982. Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
  • Locke, J. 1961. An essay concerning human understanding, 5th ed., ed. J. W. Yolton. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Morgan, C. T., R. A. King, J. R. Weisz, and J. Schopler. 1986. Introduction to psychology, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Pennycook, A. 1989. The concept of method, interested knowledge, and the politics of language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 23, 4, pp. 589-618.
  • Richard-Amato, P. A. 1988. Making it happen: Interaction in the second language classroom: From theory to practice. New York: Longman.
  • Rorty, R. 1973. Intuition. In The encyclopedia of philosophy, vol. 4, ed. P. Edward. New York: Macmillan.
  • Savignon, S. J. 1983. Communicative competence: Theory and classroom practice. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
  • Stern, H. H. 1975. What can we learn from the good language learner? Canadian Modern Language Review, 31, pp. 304-17.
  • Underhill, A. 1989. Process in humanistic education. ELT Journal, 43, 4, pp. 250-60.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes, ed. M. Cole, S. Scribner, V. John-Steiner, and E. Soberman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Ali Yahya Al-Arishi is vice-dean of the College of Education and associate professor in the Department of English at King Saud University in Abha, Saudi Arabia. He has published many articles and most recently coauthored "Rethinking Communicative Language Teaching" (TESOL Quarterly), which was nominated for the 1991 TESOL/ Newbury House Distinguished Research Award given to the year's outstanding article in TESOL.


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