Student Engagement in the Language Classroom
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Student Engagement in the Language Classroom

Phil Hiver, Ali H. Al-Hoorie, Sarah Mercer, Phil Hiver, Ali H. Al-Hoorie, Sarah Mercer

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eBook - ePub

Student Engagement in the Language Classroom

Phil Hiver, Ali H. Al-Hoorie, Sarah Mercer, Phil Hiver, Ali H. Al-Hoorie, Sarah Mercer

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About This Book

This book defines engagement for the field of language learning and contextualizes it within existing work on the psychology of language learning and teaching. Chapters address broad substantive questions concerned with what engagement is or looks like, and how it can be theorized for the language classroom; methodological questions related to the design, measurement and analysis of engagement in language classrooms and beyond; as well as applied issues examining its antecedents, factors inhibiting and enhancing it, and conditions fostering the re-engagement of language learners who have become disengaged. Through a mix of conceptual and empirical chapters, the book explores similarities and differences between motivation and engagement and addresses questions of whether, how and why learners actually do exert effort, allocate attention, participate and become involved in tangible language learning and use. It will serve as an authoritative benchmark for future theoretical and empirical research into engagement within the classroom and beyond, and will be of interest to anyone wishing to understand the unique insights and contributions the topic of engagement can make to language learning and teaching.

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1Introduction
Phil Hiver, Sarah Mercer and Ali H. Al-Hoorie
What is Engagement?
Although many educators or researchers have an intuitive sense of what engagement is, engagement is a notoriously slippery construct. It is widely accepted that engagement is multidimensional, although there remains some debate about its specific components (Reschly & Christenson, 2012). On closer examination, it becomes clear just how multifaceted engagement is and how difficult it is to empirically investigate in all its complexity (Hiver et al., in preparation). For many scholars, engagement includes affective, cognitive and behavioral components. At the very least, all definitions tend to include some combination of psychological and behavioral components (Finn & Zimmer, 2012).
Compared to the field of educational psychology, the domain of language learning is still just beginning to understand engagement as it is manifested specifically in relation to learning diverse languages in a range of contexts. However, there is a considerable body of work in educational psychology that can be built upon and extended in domain-specific ways (Fredricks et al., 2019). While there are differing perspectives and definitions of engagement, there is relative widespread agreement on several core characteristics.
One key characteristic of engagement is the notion of action. This feature of engagement as action is consistently reiterated across definitions and frameworks. Skinner and Pitzer (2012: 23) explain that ‘Engagement is the active verb between the curriculum and actual learning.’ Indeed, the role of action is key in distinguishing this construct from the related, and often confused, construct of motivation: ‘motivation represents [initial] intention and engagement is [subsequent] action’ (Reschly & Christenson, 2012: 14). Interestingly, many scholars refer to student engagement, but adopting an action perspective implies that it is the action, not the person, that is defining.
It is important to note that this focus on action does not imply that learners’ intentions are unrelated to the material contingencies of the learning environment or that the ways in which learners engage in learning activities should be distanced from their initial desires and intent to participate in learning. Engagement refers to how actively involved a student is in a learning activity (Christenson et al., 2012). However, as the contributions to this volume show, student engagement extends beyond mere action because it is goal-directed and purpose-driven. Engagement has immediate appeal, too, because it is a construct that looks at teaching and learning together. As we and other contributors discuss throughout this volume, engagement is intertwined with many other individual and situational factors and relates to broad aspects of students’ and teachers’ functioning in school contexts.
Carefully specifying what engagement is, what it looks like, and what it does can help increase our fundamental understanding of how learners get involved in opportunities for language learning and use. The consensus is that motivation can be distinguished from engagement in the sense that the intensity and the quality of student involvement in the learning activity or environment (action) differs meaningfully from the forces that energize and direct that behavior (motivation) (Martin et al., 2017). This is not to say that motivation ceases to exist when the action begins or that engagement does not in turn influence motivation. Throughout this volume, we have found it important to specify the boundaries of this construct, as educational research and the learning sciences do, for the sake of clarity.
Another characteristic, which has received differing degrees of attention and recognition in empirical work, is that engagement is situated and highly context-dependent across diverse timescales. It is in part a product of cultures, communities, families, schools, peers, classrooms and specific tasks and activities within those classrooms (e.g. Christenson et al., 2012; Pianta et al., 2012; Shernoff, 2013). Depending on the focus of investigation, particular contexts become more prominent and come into sharper focus. And, as with all nested systems, different contextual layers influence each other and extend their influence across various layers of engagement, all of which function across different timescales. For example, academic engagement in school settings is a long-term form of action that covers months or years, but within a specific classroom at school, there are task-level forms of engagement that function at a timescale of minutes or hours.
Engagement always has an object. We talk about being engaged with a topic, a person, a situation, or in an activity or task. This means that while definitions have often focused on the intrapersonal components of engagement, there must also be a commensurate understanding of its situated characteristic. A learner’s engagement does not emerge in a vacuum, but is inherently situated in a spatiotemporal context. Reschly and Christenson (2012: 13) highlight the importance of understanding the ‘person-environment fit’ of learners in their learning contexts to fully appreciate the essence of learner engagement, how it works and how it can be enhanced. As such, engagement research must be clear about the contexts and the timescales of relevance to engagement and its development.
A final characteristic is that engagement is dynamic and malleable (Appleton et al., 2008). Although at present, longitudinal research attempting to understand the trajectory of engagement for individuals and groups of learners remains rare (see e.g. Wylie & Hodgen, 2012), this characteristic provides great optimism for educators as it suggests that learners can become more engaged with the right kinds of intrapersonal and contextual conditions (Fredricks et al., 2004: 61). It also indicates the potential for well-constructed interventions capitalizing on the dynamism of learning engagement on various timescales. As engagement varies, it can be conceived of as a quality measured on a continuum. Learners may find themselves at various points on this continuum. Then too, for some it is unclear what the extreme points represent – high and low engagement, or high engagement and disengagement. Disengagement may in fact be a qualitatively distinct construct running along a continuum of its own (Reschly & Christenson, 2012).
In this collection, we have encouraged authors to be explicit about their definitions and use of terms to try to reduce some of the ambiguity that accompanies many terms in use (Reschly & Christenson, 2012). From our work on this volume, we conclude that engagement is a dynamic, multidimensional construct comprising situated notions of cognition, affect and behaviors including social interactions in which action is a requisite component.
Why Engagement, and Why Now?
Engagement defines all learning. Learning requires learner action, and action is perhaps the defining characteristic of student engagement. Without engagement, meaningful learning is unlikely. An engaged learner is actively involved in and committed to their own learning. Specifically in language learning, the notion of learner action for learning is deeply embedded in the dominant pedagogical paradigms of communicative language teaching (e.g. TBLT), which sees interaction and language use as critical for language development. The predominant line of thinking in many theoretical understandings of language acquisition (e.g. cognitive-interactionist approaches, sociocultural theory and complexity/dynamic systems theory) is also that learning occurs through meaningful use of the language. As such, it is immediately apparent why learner engagement should be of particular interest to scholars and practitioners in the field of language learning.
The growing recognition for the importance of engagement in the 21st century has made it one of the most popular research topics in contemporary education, to the extent that it has been described as ‘the holy grail of learning’ (Sinatra et al., 2015: 1). There are numerous, varied reasons for the growing interest in engagement, both in language learning and in educational research and practice more generally. One of the appeals of engagement as a construct is that it can provide a broad portrait of how students think, act and feel in instructional settings. High learner engagement has been linked to many positive outcomes in education (Fredricks et al., 2019). These include high levels of academic persistence, effort and achievement (Chase et al., 2014), high academic aspirations and increased mental health (Archambault et al., 2009) and low dropout rates and reduced high-risk behaviors (Griffiths et al., 2012).
There are also important policy implications of learner engagement. In formal education settings such as K-12 language classrooms, the emphasis on standards, outcomes and teacher accountability has intensified, and the progress and achievement of students faces greater scrutiny than ever. With so much dependent on their levels of success, students need to be engaged to actually take part in any meaningful learning. Socially and culturally in many educational systems, the makeup of the local communities which schools serve has become more diverse, pushing schools and teachers to manage a broader, more ambitious role in supporting their community. This is also perhaps why many educational systems keep close tabs on student engagement and disengagement to identify students who are struggling and could benefit from targeted interventions.
Engagement also resonates with practitioners because it is easily understood as an essential ingredient for learning and for quality instruction. Educators across the globe increasingly recognize the difficulties of keeping learners engaged and focused on their learning in the face of a myriad of distractions. As Barkley (2010: xi) explains, ‘For many of us teaching today, competing for the attention of our students and engaging them in meaningful learning is a profound and ongoing challenge.’ Although many language teachers will share a personal interest in motivating their learners, they will also recognize that even the most motivated learners can have their attention hijacked and their good intentions derailed (Mercer & Dörnyei, 2020). What many teachers witness in their daily classrooms are issues related to learner attention and action – problems of engagement. While understanding how to motivate learners remains a pressing concern, educators today need to know how to also engage learners – to help them focus on their learning with their heart, their mind and their actions. Studying engagement brings together teaching and learning perspectives, and for this reason it can help to identify the classroom and instructional conditions that shape learning outcomes and build engagement (Fredricks et al., 2004).
Relating Engagement to the L2 Classroom
A number of second language acquisition (SLA) researchers have begun pushing the agenda and making notable contributions particular to our domain (see e.g. Oga-Baldwin, 2019; Philp & Duchesne, 2016; Svalberg, 2009 for topical overviews). They have raised a number of issues that are specific to language learning. One important dimension of this work has been a consideration of ‘attention,’ which is critical to engagement – that is, a learner must direct their attention to the task in order to be truly engaged. Attention itself is the gatekeeper of our working memory, and the ultimate currency of our classrooms. The field of language learning is notoriously divided regarding the role of deliberate attention and awareness in language acquisition (Rebuschat, 2015), yet as Philp and Duchesne (2016: 51) explain, ‘Researchers of L2 [second language] acquisition have emphasized the need for L2 learners to pay attention to the connections between language form and its meanings in use.’ This has led Philp and Duchesne (2016: 51) to define engagement as being ‘a state of heightened attention and involvement, in which participation is reflected not only in the cognitive dimension, but in social, behavioral, and affective dimensions as well.’ Because engagement is ‘the major force of learning’ (Ellis, 2019: 48), engagement research in second language learning raises critical questions about the link to implicit and explicit learning mechanisms and knowledge, and the elements that learners’ attention is being directed to – including formal features of the language, the task, the content and/or the social interaction.
Focused attention is a core part of Svalberg’s (2009) model of engagement with language (EWL), which she defines as comprising cognitive, affective and social components. She explains that engaged learners are those ‘who are actively constructing their knowledge not only by mental processes but also equally by being socially active and taking initiatives’ (Svalberg, 2009: 246). Given the typical format of language learning contexts, Svalberg (2009) stresses the social nature of engagement and the importance of peer, group and teacher–student relationships, as interaction is defining for language development. This emph...

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