March 2012
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Donna Fujimoto, Jean Wong, Noël Houck, and David Olsher

Donna Fujimoto, Osaka Jogakuin University, Japan

EFL teachers who attend the TESOL convention often find that the presentations are relevant for ESL but NOT for EFL. While there are many overlapping areas, EFL participants still have to pick and choose from what is offered. The aim of the 2011 Academic Session was to showcase conversation analysis (CA)―a research methodology that can clearly display the relevance of the foreign language context. While CA is not a new field, having been developed in the United States in the 1960s, it is relatively new in EFL research. The panelists believe that CA has much to offer the field of EFL, and at the same time, EFL can and already has truly enriched CA research.

There are clear reasons why CA is not widely known among EFL teachers. First, most EFL teachers get training in linguistics, and CA is not based on linguistics but comes from the field of sociology. Linguistics tends to focus on the words and what is being communicated; however, CA examines the socialactions of the participants. The study of the common, ordinary practices of daily life is of interest here, and this shows the influence of ethnomethodology, a field that was developing around the same time. CA researchers utilize audio- and video-recorded data and these are then transcribed in micro detail.

Another reason why CA is not widely known in EFL is because at the outset the founders of CA, Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson, were quite clear that researchers should be deeply knowledgeable about the language and social practices of the participants, and thus all the early research was in English using participants in the United States. As people from other countries learned the methodology, they naturally conducted research in their own language and contexts. Thus, it was not until the past decade that CA research on EFL language learners began to be published.

The name of the field, conversation analysis, is a misnomer and perhaps also contributes to the fact that EFL teachers bypass it. We all know that EFL teachers are teaching not just conversation but also important academic skills, so why focus on conversation? In fact, CA does not just examine mundane conversation, but also investigates interactions in institutional settings and about topics of great import. CA looks at any talk among individuals in any setting that the researcher thinks is relevant. Thus, a more appropriate term for the field is talk-in-interaction because it analyzes talk as it naturally unfolds.

Finally, there is no way to get around it: CA is extremely time-consuming and rigorous, and the average EFL teacher may not have the time or inclination to do this type of research. However, investing some time to get familiar with the methodology will enable teachers to read CA articles, and we are convinced that this will help them see what students are actually doing in and out of the classroom. It will certainly enrich our teaching.

Donna Fujimoto is a professor at Osaka Jogakuin University in Osaka, Japan, where she teaches English and comparative culture studies. She has published research in conversation analysis, pragmatics, intercultural communication, and narrative studies.



Jean Wong, The College of New Jersey, USA (in absentia)

Presentation summarized by Donna Fujimoto, Osaka Jogakuin University, Japan

Jean Wong became an ESL teacher in elementary school. Her family’s first language was Toisanese-Chinese, a language spoken in the south of China, and after school she would teach her mother the English that she had just learned. Years later when she was training to become an ESL teacher at UCLA in the early 1980s, she heard about conversation analysis (CA) and described her moment of insight as follows: “Gee, if I’m going to teach English, I should know how conversation works. I sashayed across the campus to Schegloff’s office” (Wong & Waring, 2010, p. 3). To her disappointment, she was told she could not take his course until after some prerequisites, and she got some readings about CA instead.

It turned out that the articles piqued her interest and she did take Schegloff’s CA course later. She ended up doing both her master’s and PhD using CA, but not without difficulties. Back then CA and Applied Linguistics were two very separate departments, so she had to navigate the separate bureaucratic systems as well as deal with the conflicting perspectives of the two fields.

Although in the 1970s a few researchers connected CA and English teaching, it was not until the 1990s that actual bridges were made between second language acquisition and CA. Looking at the situation today, there clearly have been significant changes that were unthinkable before. For example, previously there was a clear preference for focusing on ordinary conversation, but now all types of interaction are fair game. These can include interviews, media broadcasts, courtroom talk, doctor-patient interaction, classroom discourse, and tutorials.

When Jean was studying, CA focused solely on adult talk and not on that of children because it was thought that children’s speech would not enable researchers to get effective CA training. Today, not only is it allowed, but it is celebrated. We can gain a great deal by examining the way adults and children interact and how children interact with each other. Back in the late 1980s, working with nonnative English speakers was also not warmly welcomed in the CA camp. With Jean’s perseverance and with other researchers also researching learner talk, foreign language learning contexts are now old hat.

CA is now taking many new directions. Many more comparative analyses are now being produced. There is promising research on longitudinal studies of children, adults, and learners. Different fields, such as pragmatics, cross-cultural studies, syntax, and others, are offering new insights into how people behave. CA has truly come of age and it is definitely going places!

Wong, J., & Waring, H. (2010). Conversation analysis and second language pedagogy: A guide for ESL/EFL teachers. New York, NY: Routledge.

Jean Wong is associate professor at The College of New Jersey in the Department of Special Education, Language and Literacy. She teaches graduate courses in TESOL and in the reading program, and she continues her research in conversation analysis. In 2010 she published the book, Conversation Analysis and Second Language Pedagogy: A Guide for ESL/EFL Teachers, coauthored with Hansun Waring of Teachers College, Columbia University.



Donna Fujimoto, Osaka Jogakuin University, Japan

One of my main goals is to not just tell you but also show you how CA has enriched both my research and my teaching. I have been an EFL teacher for several decades, and I’ve been interested in many areas, but one in particular has taken up much more of my attention. I wanted to find out what students actually do when they are in small-group discussions. I noticed that when I got closer to particular groups, student behavior changed. Sometimes the language, the topic, and the informal atmosphere changed. Later I made it a regular practice to videotape students in discussion in communication classes.

Years ago I used discourse analysis to analyze discussions of novice-level students. I certainly learned some interesting facts about the group dynamics. For example, the more successful groups had a key person who took a managerial role in the discussion, and when no one took this role, there was no semblance of a discussion. Each person took a turn, made a statement, and then relinquished his or her turn. I used floor management to understand the interaction, and I learned through research readings that framing can be different between discussions among Japanese and that of Americans. In one study I focused on silences and even went to the point of counting and measuring them, but this was not getting me anywhere.

It was only when I changed to CA that my focus and my discoveries also changed. As a teacher for so many years, I had been trained to track errors, and my job was to help students correct their mistakes and to prevent them from happening in the first place. After doing CA, I realized that I had shifted away from focusing on errors and toward simply observing behaviors. By doing this, I realized that in fact the students know a great deal about the expected behavior in a discussion. I found myself zeroing in on what my students can do and not what they were unable to do.

Before CA I was irritated by several discussions. I remember complaining to myself that the students had made only a few completely grammatical sentences during a discussion, and most was not comprehensible. After retranscribing their talk in much greater detail and after learning more about CA methodology, I began to see my students differently. First, I learned that native speakers and highly proficient speakers do not necessarily speak in grammatically complete and correct sentences. Their talk is just as messy. Second, even though the students’ vocabulary and grammar were restricted, I began to see the discussion from their viewpoint and not from a teacher perspective. The students were clearly stating their positions. Finally, I found this group had actually conducted a debate with contrasting sides and rebuttals—an accomplishment that other more proficient groups had not done. They were able to successfully agree and disagree.

There are many more examples of how I have changed. In short, CA truly helped me to see.



Noël Houck, California State Polytechnic University Pomona, USA

Conversation analysis is an exceptional resource for teachers and researchers who want to find out what is really happening in interaction―how people actually talk, what conversational sequences look like, and how these practices differ across cultures and between speakers from different cultures.

I was first drawn to conversation analysis as a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Southern California. I loved looking at language patterns and initially found the current paradigms for describing grammar and phonology compelling. However, as I saw how, in expressing and understanding meaning, humans affect these patterns, I became much more interested in language in use. Initially I was drawn to pragmatics; however, the lack of empirical data was frustrating. It was only when, at the advice of an advisor, I took a course in CA with Emanuel Schegloff across town at the University of California at Los Angeles that, with my interest in the discovery of patterns based on minute analysis of closely represented data, I found a discipline I could relate to.

As a linguistics graduate student, I was discouraged from working on a dissertation in conversation analysis. However, after receiving my doctorate in 1984, I returned to examining the realization of speech acts in use―particularly of face-threatening responsive acts by learners of English. With Susan Gass, I collected data from refusal role plays between native speakers of English (NSEs) and native speakers of Japanese (NSJs). The challenge of real, messy data stimulated my interest in collecting natural data on another face-threatening responsive speech action in real interaction

In the mid-1990s, as a teacher in a TESL graduate program in Japan, I began collecting videotaped data of pairs of graduate students engaged in a task designed to evoke expressions of opinion. The task was one that always triggered a great deal of discussion. Over the course of 5 years I collected approximately 40 20-minute discussions with NSEs interacting with other NSEs, NSJs in English, and NSJs in Japanese.

The resulting analyses focused on nonagreeing responses produced by these pairs. This was an area in which CA researchers looking at English had been active. Descriptions of the interactional characteristics of native-speaker disagreeing responses in conversation have revealed extensive use of delaying devices such as pro-forma agreement (Pomerantz, 1984; Schegloff, 2007). And in fact Junko Mori (1999) had used Pomerantz’s findings to analyze Japanese conversational disagreements.

During the past 10 years, I have analyzed aspects of NSE-NSJ academic disagreement, comparing them with NSE academic disagreement. In my TESOL presentation, using a conversation analytic framework, I presented data from these academic interactions contrasting the pro-forma agreements (forms of “yes-but”) used to preface disagreement by pairs of NSEs and NSJs speaking English. The formulations by the NSJs revealed unexpected difficulties in the smooth employment of realizations of “yes but” commonly used by NSEs in academic discussion. Such subtle differences revealed by a CA analysis suggest important areas for pedagogical activities designed to address discourse competence.


Mori, J. (1999). Negotiating agreement and disagreement in Japanese. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.

Pomerantz, A. (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action (pp. 57-101). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Schegloff, E. (2007). Sequence organization in interaction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Noël Houck is associate professor in the English and Foreign Languages Department at California State Polytechnic University Pomona. Her research centers on cross-cultural pragmatics and discourse analysis, with a focus on microanalysis of classroom discourse. She has taught and conducted research in Brazil, Mexico, and Japan.



David Olsher, San Francisco State University, USA

When I started studying conversation analysis in graduate school, I took it on its own terms, learning about the kinds of analysis and hoping to bring that analysis to looking at classroom interaction. My MA thesis was on news interview discourse, and it was only for my dissertation research that I began looking at small-group work in language classrooms. At this time I have also looked at teacher-fronted classroom interaction, and I have found that news interview talk, with its question-and-answer format, helped provide a basis for looking at questions and answers in teacher-student talk as well as in student-student talk. More recently I have become interested in the application of conversation analysis to the study of interactional competence, to teacher training, and to the creation of oral skills materials for English language learners as well. This paper for TESOL 2011 represents a step forward in looking at interactional competence, taking up a micro-interactional frame of looking at agreements and assessments in small-group talk as a locus for viewing interactional competence, or at least one component of that broader competence. I looked at data from two groups of learners, one a low-intermediate EFL group with limited spoken fluency, and the other a more advanced upper level ESL group in an English for academic purposes context, with a higher level of spoken fluency. By looking at the differences and seeing in particular the larger repertoire of agreement and alignment resources as well as more use of expanded agreement sequences, I saw some of the characteristics of more expert English speakers in terms of turn design, turn types, and sequences of talk. This small study with modest yet substantive findings provides insights into the interactional features that constitute more fluent agreement and assessment practices in small-group work.

David Olsher is assistant professor of English at San Francisco State University. He has published articles in The Annual Review of Applied Linguistics and Issues in Applied Linguistics, and has contributed articles to edited volumes, including The Language of Turn and Sequence, as well as research on EFL classroom interaction, in the volumes Second Language Conversations and Gesture. He has written two chapters on teaching short responses in conversation for the TESOL volume, Pragmatics. He is also the author of an EFL writing textbook, Words in Motion. His research interests include social interaction in classrooms and other institutional settings, and in the application of research on pragmatics and social interaction to the teaching of oral communication skills.

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