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Interact in class


To quote this text (Odier-Guedj, D., Interact in class,cerfa2.uqam.ca/node/205/edit)

Several terms co-exist to express that human beings enter into relationships to share meaning\ common goals on a day to day basis.
We will speak about language and its learning, the langue, and about interaction.

  • Langage and langue

The langage is the human capacity to use language. It is therefore innate and every human being is born with the potential to develop a tool that will enable him to communicate with himself and the others by means of specific signs culturally shared called "langue". This is the social aspect of language.
Langue is a codified system having two distinct but inseparable parts, which are according to Saussure
He explained the idea grounding his theory of language being made up of linguistic units that are composed of two parts – a concept or meaning and a sound-image – respectively, ‘signified’ and ‘signifier.’

  • The signifier: a sound-image that can be read (written signs) or heard (acoustic\ oral signs)
  • The signified: a concept or meaning associated with these written or spoken signs
  • The sign is related to the referent: It is the objet or the concept of the real world that the sign refers to. Language is socially instituted and responds to sets of phonological, grammatical and syntactic rules (Sauvage, 2003, Saussure, 1995).

Human beings use speech to speak a language. It is a singular expression, a personal creation that uses a common code, more or less shared, but always used. It is what is called the use of language.
"When you speak, you always speak to someone. It can be an absent or imaginary person if a physical individual is not present. But we are always in a social relationship between ourselves and someone else" (Sauvage, 2003: 39).

  • Learning to Speak

Learning to speak does not only involve managing linguistic signs in the sense of learning to pronounce the words or organize the words so that they make sense and convey a meaning. From birth, the child communicates even without mastering the language. He "enters" in language and not the other way round (Brigaudiot and Danon-Boileau, 2002, Van der Straten, 1991).

At the very beginning, the child understands more than he produces, but even then, his first vocalizations are already full of meaning. Familiar interlocutors, such as parents, interpret the meaning of these vocalizations and respond to them, thus giving the child the status of speaker and interlocutor. He then learns to consider a posture, as well as linguistic and social skills. The language learning process lasts for many years and is not only successive but also in spirals, as Hudelot (1984) puts it. All children do not learn to speak at the same rate, they do not really follow very fixed and programmed steps as it is the case with walking, for example.
The child needs support from the adult (or a more expert speaker) to develop his or her ability to interact. Other important aspects are the cognitive and motor development as well as the psychic processes in each stage. By exchanging in a climate emotionally safe, the child develops his ability to engage in language learning (Brigaudiot and Danon-Boileau, 2002). Thus, exchanges with adults gradually gives the child the possibility of taking into account other aptitudes involved in the interactions that allow him to express himself better and better, thus addressing new situations of interaction and so on . "The linguistic development of the child can be conceived as a process that is not linear but rather a loop or even better a spiral. The child's entry into the interactive circuit is a source of linguistic acquisitions which, in turn, will give the child the possibility of accessing new communicative circuits that will allow the acquisition of new lexical-syntactic abilities." (Hudelot: 1984, p.119; my translation)


Communication and interaction
In everyday language, these two terms are frequently used as synonyms. We consider it essential, however, to distinguish clearly the difference between communication and interaction speeches. 
Two models exist to define how and the context in which a message is transmitted and understood. Frequently, the Jakobson's model (1973) is used to evoke the communication model.
A transmitter uses a fixed shared code, via a clear channel, to pass a message to a receiver. This message evokes a real object. Many criticisms have been made to this model, being the most important ones (Kerbrat-Orrecchioni, 1980):

  • The fact that the addresser and the addressee share a unique code known by both. The addresser does not choose a fixed phrase from an available set according to what “he has to say”. He has to consider multiple constraints such as the speaker in front of him, what he thinks the speaker knows, the kind of speech (conference, dinner with the family, etc.), the succession of utterances, etc. The addresser can also use several codes at the same time gestural, verbal, paraverbal (intonation, tone).
  • The linearity of the message that will not be transformed from one end to another. The message is not decoded in the same way as it is encoded. The receiver interprets and understands the message in his own way. Exchanges may be considered as loops that begin when a person initiates them and end when the theme is exhausted or a new theme is presented.
  • The fact that only the addresser would be active. At the very moment he hears and sees the message, the addressee is already active to interpret. He gives the addresser different signs of his understanding and participation (head movement, blinking eyes, small words like: hum or ok, a request for clarification, he may even speak in the middle of the sentence, etc.)
  • The fact that the social conditions in which the people communicate are not taken into account. The social conditions, the relationships between the people, the underlying objectives of their words, are all elements that are taken into account when addressing a person.
  • The fact that the previous knowledge of the speakers is absent. Transmitter and receiver take into account their personal history, to adjust their speech, so as to explicit or implicit certain information, etc.
  • The fact that all messages would be explicit and informative.

When we speak, we do much more than inform. Each time someone speaks can be seen as an act of speech (Austin, Searle, Verdelhan, Bernicot). In speaking we act, that is to say, we ask, we observe, we pray, we tell, we make someone do something, etc. Some of our intentions are explicit, others implicit. We adapt our actions depending on the people facing us and our common habits of life.
On the basis of these remarks, we can consider situations where people communicate together, from another theoretical point of view, that of interactions.
We will no longer speak:

  • Of sender|encoder and receiver|decoder, but of speaker and listener to signify their active presence throughout the exchange,
  • Unidirectional message, but interaction loops. The structure of the exchanges is based on several turns of speech. We talk about keeping the interaction: one speaker initiates, the other responds and then share new meaning to continue exchanging, until the theme is exhausted or a new theme is proposed the loop is not finished.
  • A unique shared code but of multiple codes co-constructed during the exchange. There are clues to be grasped in the social and interpersonal context that inhance the meaning;
  • Communication but interaction, to introduce the social and interpretative aspect.

We can thus talk about a communication system

  • If it requires only minimal interpretation
  • If there is only one turn of speech
  • If it does not require a continuum of interaction.
  • In the case of conversations, of language exchanges, we’d rather talk about interactions.


  • Interaction

The Interaction is therefore seen as the whole framework of co-construction of meaning between two people who exchange. Interactants share clues that they interpret to try to understand each other.

These indices include:

  • The language used (organization of words in sentences, etc.)
  • Social uses (rules of politeness, position of the body, ability to speak or not)
  • Wider knowledge of the world (if we talk about the sea, we can expect boats, rescuers, pirates, etc.)
  • Structure of the exchange (how an exchange starts, how to choose the moment to speak, etc.) and genres (difference between a conversation and an oral presentation, a university conference or a political meeting, etc.)
  • What one knows about the interlocutor (his habits, previous experiences we share, his knowledge of the theme, etc.);
  • Interpretations of the meaning, the intentions of the other, etc.
  • According to Gumperz (1989), this co-construction oscillates between
  • Social patterns (rites of politeness, the way we speak in a group speaking according to social sphere: the same thing is not said about a subject at a family meal or at a restaurant with a boss, for example)
  • and
  • The permanent modification: depending on the individuals who interact, the codes are modified. If one knows his boss well one could attempt intrusions about his private life, for example.

From one round of speech to another, interlocutors will adjust their message to clarify their intentions, to direct their acts of language, to save face and so on. Kerbrat-Orecchioni says "to speak is to exchange, and it is to change while exchanging" (1998, 55; my translation).
Therefore the interaction includes both a creative personal component and a transmission of cultural background. Thus, each interaction shapes the relationships with other individuals, as well as with himself.
These distinctions between communication and interaction are important to be taken into account in schools in order to ensure that the pedagogical arrangements-accomodations go in the direction of making interactions possible and not a simple promote fixed static communication, barely present in everyday life.
Only interaction allows the development of creativity and self-expression.
A fixed immovable system –without the possibility of maintaining turns-roles of speech, of interpreting, of using different acts of language– necessarily restricts the possibilities of communication and expression. Even students with language and interaction difficulties can develop many faculties to interact, as long as teachers implement various strategies to help them understand codes, references to the world, knowledge about different interaction strategies, etc.

  • Students show various clues as to how they get into the interaction, but it is of difficult for teachers (or adults in general) to observe and interpret them, as these clues often rely on unusual clues: slight head movements, small stereotyped phrases that do not really mean what they are saying, changes in tone, movements of the body. Nonetheless, taking into account all these micro-clues can be very helpful.

Interacting at School

From this theoretical perspective, we can say that teachers are in constant interaction with their students. They co-construct interactional situations organized around specific learning objectives, both linguistic and academic. They use oral language to exchange, question students about their previous knowledge, build knowledge content to share, etc. (Guedj, 2010). These everyday interactions are the very tool of their work. When interacting with struggling students to use oral language, they develop many strategies that facilitate their access to meaning.
Teachers will certainly help the student to use words and phrases but, as it has been observed, this is not enough to interact. They must also have acquired an ability to share meaning, evoke common experiences, use and understand the meaning of different speech acts, adapt to social circumstances, identify clues that guide them in their interpretation, etc. (See Understanding tab). It is thus by living multiple situations of interaction in the classroom, that they will be able to create a varied and transferable background in new situations.

The teacher will explain, maybe more than usual, what he is doing and saying. He will use multiple scaffolds as with young children so as to help students in difficulty identify all the necessary clues they should take into account to interact.

These strategies will be organized to help students use language, non-verbal codes, social norms, etc. so that they be connected and co-construct meaning with their interlocutors, be creative themselves.
According to Lentin (2009) "The child learns through the interaction that takes place between him and the adult" (p. 124, my translation). "To learn to speak is not to learn words" (p.46, my translation) but to organize signifying elements, to be active. Memorizing lexical elements is only one of the parameters. To learn to speak, an interaction situation should be present. In the adult-child cognitive-linguistic interactions, the adult should propose reformulations, recapitulations instead of correcting. Learning implies the appropriation of new elements and transformation of cognitive structures, it not a mere addition of information. Goffard (2006) points this when studying autistic children. According to the author, "…for the autistic child, as for any other child, language must not become a nomenclature, a collection of labels, but a process of social interactions" (p.8, my translation).
This perspective allows us to reflect upon the fact that these students can understand or may know how to interact with others, but an unsuccessful search for co-understanding of each other's intentions and of the tools used to interact may sometimes hinder their communication abilities.
The teacher's work viewed in this light could be perceived as a constant adjustment to new adaptations and pedagogical gestures that would precisely respond to the identified students’ needs. Particularly for these students, teachers should offer them opportunities to interact and appropriate tools that will help them understand and interpret situations.
Students’ support: Development of Visual Tools to Encourage Students to Speak
Conversational norms can only be learned in situations. Thus, by reconstructing elements of the world (game scenarios, role playing, etc.) students will be able to test the relationships between concepts, words, and their uses in different contexts.
All the tools created can be conceived in such a way that they also allow interaction and not just communication (a direct message, without interpretation). Pictograms can be used to recall words or as a tool to learn the uses of a word according to the type of drawing that is illustrated.
Different shoring strategies can be used to foster language learning. Adults can implement Bruner (1983) 6 scaffolding functions:

  • Enrollment`Recruitment: Increase the child engagement to the task requirements.
  • Reducing the level of freedom:  by simplifying the task and thus making the resolution process easier.
  • Direction Maintenance: by trying to avoid that the student changes his objective while he is resolving the task and helping him to maintain the original goal.
  • Signaling dominant characteristics: to make the child aware of the discrepancies between what the student is doing and what he / she wants to achieve.
  • Frustration Control: try to encourage and motivate the student to keep his interest motivation by using a variety of means and by avoiding excessive dependency.
  • Demonstration or presentation of solution models: present the student's solution in a "stylized" form so that the student attempts to imitate it in the appropriate form.

The trusteeship interaction will be very useful. Initially described by Vygotsky and taken up by Bruner in her study of mother-child interactions, it evokes the fact that learning must be in the proximal zone of the child development. The more the child progresses, the more the caretaker must wipe out. In the classroom, this is reflected in an adaptation according to the level of aptitude of each student, even in a collective learning session.

NB. For references see tab “Bibliographic Elements”.
(Delphine Odier-Guedj)