Second Language Teacher Contributions to Student Classroom Participation: A Narrative Study of Indonesian Learners

by Nugrahenny T. Zacharias

Satya Wacana Christian University (Central Java, Indonesia)

Keywords:      classroom participation, Asian student silent behavior, passivity, teacher talk, reticence



One major factor determining student classroom participation is the classroom teachers because they are the ones who control the turn-taking in the classroom. Despite the significant role of classroom teachers, to date there is a lack of studies focusing on the role of classroom teachers in specific EFL contexts such as those in Indonesia. The purpose of the present study is to explore how teacher talk contributes to student classroom participation patterns. Data was collected through 85 student narratives written as part of a Cross Cultural Understanding (CCU) course assessment in an English teacher preparation program in a private university in Indonesia. From the student narratives, the factors related to teacher talk cited as contributing to student classroom participation were teachers’ lecturing styles, teachers’ lack of modified input, unfavorable past teacher feedback and teachers’ pedagogical stories. The study points to the critical role of teacher talk in shaping student classroom participation patterns.



Studies into Asian student classroom participation patterns in the second language classroom have been pervasive in various contexts. According to Swain (1985), active participation provides learners with the opportunities to practice the target language. He further found that learners who are passive, make slower progress. Swain speculated that this may be because passive learners are less aware of the gap between what they want to say and what they are able to say in the target language and, therefore, they are less likely to challenge themselves to improve. For the classroom teacher, student silence gives no indication on how the lesson is understood and/or processed by the students. In other words, students’ active participation is a window through which teachers can evaluate students’ language and cognitive development.


Student silence in the classroom is often viewed negatively (Liu, 2001; 2005; Tsui, 1996). The negative view ascribed to students’ silent behavior might be drawn from a sociocultural theory of learning (Vygotsky, 1978), which sees talk as an indication of cognitive development. Similarly, Swain and Lapkin (1995) see learner verbal contribution as a “move from semantic processing prevalent in comprehension, to the syntactic processing needed for production” (p. 375). From this perspective, an absence of student talk can be interpreted as a lack of cognitive development. Due to the significance of students’ active classroom participation, studies into ways teacher can create conditions to facilitate student talk are necessary.


Studies on student classroom behavior have often aimed at identifying factors contributing to such silence with the aim to mitigate student silence. Earlier studies on classroom participation cited students’ L1 culture as one major factor contributing to student silence (Cortazzi & Jin, 1996), although this has been recently challenged (Cheng, 2000; Kumaravadivelu, 2003; Marlina, 2009). Other factors contributing to learner reticence, according to Tsui (1996), are learners’ inability to understand teacher talk, teachers short wait-time and learners’ fear of embarrassing themselves by making mistakes. Moreover, aspects such as students’ target language competence, previous speaking experience in class, confidence level, personality traits and/or learning cultures are all possible reasons contributing to learners’ classroom participation in the language classroom (Liu & Jackson, 2009; Tani, 2005). Studies conducted on Asian students studying in English-speaking countries also identified native speaker peers (Jones et al., 1993) as a significant factor leading to student silence.


Originally, it was intended for the present study to focus on factors affecting student classroom participation. However, when I analyzed the data, teacher-related variables were found to be recurring themes in a majority of the student narratives. Thus, the present study aims to focus specifically on how teacher talk affects student classroom participation. Swain’s (1985) study shows that language learning is far more effective when learners are “pushed” to use the target language in productive tasks and more often than not, the teacher is the one who has the authority to do so. The teacher is always the one who controls and directs classroom talk (Burns & Myhills, 2004; Garton, 2002; Seidlitz, 2003; Walsh, 2002). In other words, the teacher controls who speaks and who remains silent (Philips, 1994). The teacher is the “director” (Lee & Ng, 2009), controlling “both the content and [classroom] procedure, discussion topic, and who might participate” (Lee & Ng, 2009, p. 303). Through teacher talk, classroom teachers project the kinds of discourse roles students should take to be a successful member of the classroom (Rex, Murnen, Hobbs, & McEachen, 2002).


In Indonesia, where teachers are viewed differently from their Western counterparts and perhaps those in other EFL contexts, studying the extent to which teachers contribute to students’ participation patterns is even more important. Widiyanto (2005) notes that the Indonesian society sees teaching as a high status profession. Guru, the Indonesian word for a teacher, stands for “sing digugu lan ditiru” or “to be modeled after.” A teacher is viewed as an “ideal model of a member of the society” (Widiyanto, 2005, p. 107). Therefore, teachers play a significant role in modeling the kinds of participation patterns that are desirable in a classroom setting.


Unfortunately, to date, there are not many studies exploring the role of classroom teachers in student classroom participation in EFL contexts. Among these limited studies, many were conducted in Chinese contexts (Lee & Ng, 2009; Tsui, 1996; Xie, 2010) with very few in other EFL learning situations such as Indonesia. This scarcity calls for more explorations on the role of classroom teachers in student classroom participation patterns in various EFL situations. Additionally, the absence of such studies might result in “harmful homogenization” (Kumaravadivelu, 2003) by which the role of Indonesian teachers is assumed to be somewhat similar to that of Chinese teachers.


My analysis on how teacher talk contributes to student classroom participation is built on two assumptions. The first is based on Fairclough’s (1995) belief that teacher talk powerfully projects a message about “who students think they are, who they think they can be, and who ultimately they can become” (cited in Rex et al., 2002, p. 2). Second, because teacher talk is a changeable variable compared to unchangeable variables such as teachers’ sex and ethnicity, if teachers can be made aware of how teacher talk contributes to student classroom participation, they can better manage their instructional talk and eventually improve student classroom participation patterns.


To account for the role of teacher talk in student classroom participation, the present article took students’ perspectives as a point of departure. The present study is situated in a teacherpreparation program in the Faculty of Language and Literature in a private university in Indonesia. The data for the present article is drawn from a larger project exploring factors contributing to student classroom participation patterns. The data was gathered from 85

Indonesian pre-service learners’ narratives following a prompt documentation of their feelings and opinions when they were silent and/or silenced in the classroom. The research question guiding this study is: what aspects of teacher talk contributing to student active participation were reflected in the students’ narratives? The findings from the present paper will be of interest to Indonesian teachers in particular, but may also be of use to teachers from other backgrounds espousing similar teaching practices.



Data collection and procedures of data collection

Data for the present article was taken from student narratives relating their experiences when they were silent or being silenced in the classroom. The narratives were part of a course assessment in Cross Cultural Understanding (CCU) courses. There were four CCU courses altogether and I was one of the class instructors. This course was selected for the present study because it requires a high level of student participation. In each class, there were 35 students. Participation in the study was voluntary. Among the 140 students taking the CCU course, 108 students (77%) decided to participate in the study.


At the beginning of a session discussing classroom participation, students were instructed to reflect on their classroom participation by writing a narrative on a classroom situation in which they were silent or being silenced by factors beyond their control. To provide organizational scaffolding, the following prompt was given as guidance:

Write an event or situation in the classroom in which you (NOT other people) were silent or being silenced. Write the journal by answering the following guiding questions: Think of a critical incident/event where you were silent. Describe and reflect on the event by answering the following questions:


•         When did this happen? What course was this? What was the topic of the lesson (e.g. studying simple tenses, writing a narrative, etc).

•         What made you silent? Mention the factors that made you silent at that time.

•         How did you feel when you were silent? Why did you feel this way?


All narratives were written in English. Students were given approximately two weeks to write the narratives and submitted them by email. The narratives are not intended to be taken as a representative sample with the aim of systematically generalizing the results to a larger population.


Initially the present study was intended to explore the phenomena associated with the silent behavior of students. However, one factor affecting student classroom participation recurring in the narratives was the classroom teacher; this result is well-supported in the literature (see, among others, Cayanus, 2010; Fassinger, 1995; Lee & Ng, 2009; Walsh, 2002, 2006). Therefore, I decided to focus exclusively on student narratives that positioned the classroom teachers as the factor affecting their classroom participation. Among the 108 narratives, 85 (78.7%) narratives were used for the purpose of the present study.


When studying student silent behavior, instruments of data collection such as interviews (Marlina, 2009), questionnaires (Green, 2008; Karp & Yoels, 1976), observations (Xie, 2010) and mixed methods (Morgenstern, 1992; Mustapha & Rahman, 2011) have generally been utilized. To understand this issue, I believe it is crucial to start from student experiences (Duranti & Goodwin, 1992). Therefore, in the present study, I chose student narratives as the instrument of data collection.


Data analysis

The narrative data in the study was analyzed using content analysis of factors contributing to student classroom silent behaviors where the narratives were coded according to “emerging themes, trends, patterns, or conceptual categories” (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). For each theme, I assigned different colors and each time I identified accounts referring to the themes, and I highlighted them accordingly. For the purpose of the study, only the qualitative results of the analysis are presented here, as quantitative information about the number of occurrences to particular theme would be meaningless in this type of narrative analysis.



Students’ narratives illustrated various dimensions of teacher talk that contributed to student classroom silent behavior. The elements of teacher talk cited are (a) teacher lecturing styles,

(b) teachers’ lack of modified input, (c) unfavorable teacher feedback, and (d) teachers’ pedagogical stories.


Teacher-lecturing styles

The most cited factor mediating student silent behavior is teacher-lecturing styles. According to Mason (1994), lectures provide “the setting where the subject matter of a course is explained, discussed or otherwise taken up in a meeting between lecturers and students” (p. 203). Recently, with a move towards the development of active and student-centered learning, lecturing is increasingly being considered unfavorable (Cheng, 2000). This concern is also reflected in the narratives of S51 and S68:

Narrative 1

One hour just for teacher to explain the materials, and every students only have one minute to speak. “Who is studying, actually?” I had come to speaking class, just listen to the teacher, and have only one minute to speak, and then I have to wait again. That’s it [S51].


Narrative 2

The way a teacher teaches contributes to my silence. Like one of my teacher tended to ‘lullaby’ students by talking all the time and after that asked a question to the whole class. I think it’s better if they nominate a student to contribute an answer [S68].


The narratives of S51 and S68 are clearly very much in line with the well-established findings concerning the need for meaning or knowledge to be negotiated, rather than transmitted, in the L2 classroom (see, among others, Cheng, 2000; Lee & Ng, 2009; Walsh, 2002). Through their narratives, it is obvious that these students were aware of the limiting learning opportunities provided by excessive teacher talk time (Walsh, 2002). S51’s narrative shows a struggle for a more egalitarian distribution of talking time between students and teacher. S51’s rhetorical question (“Who is studying anyway?”), in particular, seems to project frustration because of limited speaking turn by the teacher. In her narrative, S12 wrote that in addition to the lecturing style, classroom participation can be influenced by teacher personality:

Narrative 3

My lecturer was a kind of “killer” lecturer who explained straight from the handbook. In the class she only discussed and explained the exercises in the handbook without question-answer session. Every time I came to class I just need to sit and listen to the teacher reading the book … In this class, of course, I keep silent all the time because I did not understand the material, I felt afraid of the “killer” lecturer, and I thought the lecturer did not really care of students participation so I did not have any duty to participate actively during the class” [S12].


From S12’s narrative, it can be inferred that when classroom teachers adhere strictly to the textbook, they communicate to the students that their roles in the classroom are to merely “sit and listen to the teacher reading the book.” In S12’s case, this was made worse with the teacher’s “killer” personality, which communicated a message to students that their active participation was unwelcomed (“I did not have any duty to participate actively during the class.”). Dufficy (2005) notes that such a restricted student role conditioned by teacher lecturing styles should be avoided because it “give[s] teachers little insight into language development and virtually no insight into thinking” (p.67).


Teachers’ lack of modified input

One way to facilitate active student involvement is teacher modified input (Tsui, 1995). Indeed, teacher modification strategies are a significant aspect of teacher classroom talk. In the narrative of S80 below, she shared her experience of being silenced when a teacher did not modify the question:

Narrative 4

In my opinion, I was an active student. I always actively speaking and giving idea in group discussion. However, my teacher can make my silent. I remember one time my teacher asked some questions. I remember the topic was about Phonology. I was silent because … I did not know the answers to her questions. I did not even have the slightest ideas the kind of answers she expected. I was totally blank. I felt uncomfortable of being silent. I wanted to participate, being silent made me felt like I was stupid. [S80]


Tsui (1996) notes that the teacher needs to be aware that when a response to his/her question is not forthcoming, the question needs to be modified. The narrative of S80 illustrates that teachers’ lack of techniques in modifying the question might result in S80’s reluctance to venture for an answer, perhaps, for fear of being wrong. According to Rahman (2013), fear of being wrong is one of the significant factors causing student silence in Indonesian classrooms. When a teacher asks a question without adequate modification, to a certain degree it heightens learners’ risk of contributing wrong answers. This might be the reason why S80, a self-proclaimed active student, made a conscious decision to be silent, a position he unwillingly took. S80’s narrative challenged the finding of previous studies by Mustapha and Rahman (2011) and Karp and Yoels (1976). Both of these studies found that students who perceived themselves as active were relatively consistent in their participation patterns in terms of frequency and length of participation; this finding is contrary to S80’s narrative.


In addition to teachers’ lack of modification strategies, many participants wrote in their narratives that the reasons for their present classroom silence was because of the unfavorable attitudes that past classroom teachers expressed when students did not respond to their question accordingly:

Narrative 5

When I was in senior high school, my [English] teacher asked me to read a narrative text aloud [in English]. Afterwards, my teacher asked me questions. I was silent because I really did not understand the question. She repeated the question again in English without translating it to Indonesian or using gestures to make it clearer. I thought I was silent because of my teacher’s lack of approach to make me understand the question. She even was angry at me for not being able to answer her question. [S89]


The narrative of S89 reminds us that for many students, being active in the classroom is not merely a matter of cognitive act but more of an affective one. According to Cortazzi and Jin (1996), Chinese students would not likely venture an uncertain reply for fear of making mistakes and being laughed at because of their learning culture, which views the importance of saving one’s public image among peers (Rahman, 2013; Tsui, 1996). S89’s narrative seems to corroborate Cortazzi and Jin’s (1996) findings. In her narrative, S89 construed active participation as an anxiety-charged activity, which many teachers might not be aware of.


Unfavorable past teacher feedback

Many studies found that student classroom participation is constituted by contextual factors (Cao, 2011; Phillips, 1994) such as teacher’s teaching and interactional styles, and unfamiliarity with topics and materials, among others. However, this is not the case with many students in the present study. In fact, they wrote that the present classroom participation patterns were, in fact, a result of past learning experience:

Narrative 6

When I was high school, I was an extremely silent student. I was actually afraid of being wrong and scolded by the teacher. It was my safety. I hate being scolded by the teacher so I prefer to be silent. Silence prevented me from being the object of teacher’s wrath. [S27]


Narrative 7

Teacher’s response toward the students’ answer affects me to be active in class. Some teachers responded kindly and accept students’ answers but sometimes the teacher responses were confusing, unfriendly and some even mock the students’ if their answers were wrong. [S42]

Narrative 8

During my childhood my parents & teachers scolded me if I did something wrong. I think it brings psychological impact to my personality. So I thought it would be better to be silent so your mistakes won’t be noticeable. [S73]


Together tthese narratives point to the lasting effect and determining role of unfavorable past teacher feedback in student classroom participation patterns. Edwards and Westgate (1994) remind us that when students contribute an answer in the classroom, it involves myriad cognitive and affective risks because they need to undergo several filtering processes, which include “locate[ing] a potential juncture, make[ing] a bid, gain[ing] the floor, quite possibly challenge[ing] the topic, and have[ing] the topic accepted as relevant” (p.145).


Teachers’ pedagogical stories

Other than teachers’ teaching techniques, another teacher-related factor contributing to student classroom participation found in some student narratives is teachers’ pedagogical stories Rex, Murnen, Hobbs, and McEachen (2002) note that teacher pedagogical stories, even when they are not explicitly instructional, represent a view of what counts as “classroom appropriate social and academic knowledge and performance” (p.3), and thus, they project the kinds of discourse roles students need to take in a particular classroom. As S11 puts it:

Narrative 9

I think I become silent because of my elementary school teachers always said to me that a good student always pay attention and silent when the teacher explains in front of the class. [S11]


In understanding S11’s silence fully, Wenger’s (1998) discussion on imagination is a useful one. According to Wenger, ‘imagination’ is “a process of expanding our self by transcending our time and space and creating new images of the world and ourselves” (p.176). Here, S11’s elementary school teacher is central in shaping S11’s imagination of good students as those who “always pay attention and (are) silent.” The central point is that teacher talk creates an imagined identity of a good student and a learner’s classroom silence in the target language might be understood within this context. The notion presupposes that when language learners speak, they are not only expressing ideas, but they are also constantly and concurrently organizing, reorganizing and aligning themselves with the identities of good learners constructed from their previous educational experience (also in Liu, 2005) and being silent is a large part of an attempt to fulfil those mental constructs.


One student, S28, encouragingly wrote how teachers’ encouragement could significantly transform her participation pattern:

Narrative 10

I am now more active. With the help of my teacher from elementary school, I can participate differently. He always told me no use of being silent all the time because you never get any progress and knowledge. Don’t be afraid of asking stupid questions and [making] mistakes because those are a part of learning. Gradually by his encouragement I can be an active student and never afraid of making mistakes anymore. I think the encouragement from the teacher gave a big impact toward my participation. [S28]

From this narrative, we learn the significant role of the teacher’s classroom narratives in shifting S28’s participation patterns. He advised her on the kind of discourse roles she needed to take up to be a successful learner (“no use of being silent all the time” and “Don’t be afraid of asking stupid questions and [making] mistakes”). This encouragement appears to have established S28’s future participatory role in the classroom.


Discussion and conclusion

This study has attempted to identify how teacher talk contributes to student classroom participation patterns. Data was collected from 85 student narratives documenting their feelings, opinions, and perspectives when they were silent in the classroom and factors contributing to their silence. The study found that student classroom silent behaviors were a result of a complex interface between ‘on-site pedagogy’ (E.g. teacher lecturing styles, teachers’ lack of modified input, past teachers’ feedback and teachers’ ‘past pedagogy’ such as in the case of S89 (Narrative 5), S27 (Narrative 6), S73 (Narrative 8 respectively).


From the student narratives, students seemed to be more willing to participate when they sensed the teacher valued active students’ participation patterns and projected it through teacher talk and teaching techniques utilized in the classroom. However, teachers need to be aware that their expectations for active student participation might collide with past student learning experiences such as in the case of S27 (Narrative 6), S73 (Narrative 8) and S11 (Narrative 9). Therefore, at the beginning of a course, teachers should make clear what they expect from the students with regard to classroom participation (Liu, 2005). Johnson (1995) notes that when students have a clear idea of what is expected of them, they can have a better idea of the participative roles they need to take in the classroom. Teachers also need to design teaching techniques or pedagogical strategies that allow for a transition from passive to active learners and ensure that students’ prior exposure to certain pedagogical strategies does not lead to stagnant classroom participation patterns that provide comfortable and safe zones (see the narratives of S42, S27, S73, and S89) but fail to provide learners with the opportunities to achieve their full potential as learners.


Many researchers (Cheng, 2000; Lam, 1994; Xie, 2010) point out that students who were educated in a teacher-centered environment are more likely to develop reticent classroom behaviors. Guitterrez (1994) and Johnson (1995) argue that excessive teacher control over content and direction of classroom interaction can produce fewer participation opportunities. Although S51 and S68, for example, were exposed to teacher-centered learning in earlier education stages, they were fully aware of the limiting effect of teacher-fronted discourse on their willingness to participate in the classroom. S51, particularly, felt that teacher-dominant talk limited students’ learning opportunities, a notion that is widely supported by many researchers (Guttierrez, 1994; Johnson, 1995; Xie, 2010). To this end, Nystrand, Wu, Gamoran, Zeiser, and Long (2003) recommend the use of high-level evaluation when the teacher responds to student contribution. To increase the quality of teacher interactional styles, Xie (2010) encourages teachers to gather data about their own interaction styles and analyze them with regard to the participation opportunities they provide.


The most encouraging finding from the students’ narratives was that many students appear to be willing to participate in the classroom although such desire does not automatically translate into active classroom participation. Therefore, it is important for teachers to find ways to stimulate students’ active participation in the classroom. There needs to be more indepth research in different contexts focusing on the kinds of pedagogical techniques that can facilitate active student engagement. Further, studies might also explore the concept of silence from the students’ perspectives to give more insights into what classroom teachers as well as institutions can do to foster and cultivate more active students.



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About the author

Nugrahenny T. Zacharias is a teacher-educator at the English Teacher Education (ETE) Department of Faculty of Language and Literature at Satya Wacana Christian University. Her research interests are in the area of identity, second language acquisition and EIL pedagogy. She has recently co-edited a book (with Christine Manara) entitled Contextualizing English as an International Language: Issues and Challenges (Cambridge Scholars Publishing).

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