Playful Interactions and the Intake of Incidental Language Knowledge in the Classroom

A Critical Review of an Instructed Second Language Acquisition Study

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

23 Pages, Grade: 1.3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2 Theoretical Basis
2.1 Cases of Humor Studies in ISLA and Psychological Research
2.2 The Role of Interaction and Playful Interaction
2.3 Incidental Focus on Form

3. A Critical Introduction of the Empirical Study
3.1 Information about the Research Site and Participants
3.2 Data Collection and Coding Methods
3.2.1 Description
3.2.2 Reflections
3.3 Post-test Results and Statistical Analysis

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

One of the fundamental questions that second language acquisition (SLA) researchers attempt to address is “how learners come to internalize the linguistic system of another language” (Benati and Angelovska 2016: 3). To put the issue in a second language (L2) classroom setting, the mechanisms of classroom learning and the various factors that facilitate such internalization are the focus of instructed second language acquisition (ISLA) studies (Loewen and Philp 2012: 53). Whether it is in a naturalistic setting or an instructional one, internalizing L2 linguistic features always entails learners' innate information-processing mechanism that transfers input into intake. Uncovering such mental processes underlying our language system is a major focus of psycholinguistics (Field 2003: 2).

Nick Ellis (1999: 22f.) has indicated that as a crucial perspective of SLA research, psycholinguistics approaches usually look into language processing through observation and experimentation. A combination of both methods in ISLA studies could not only reveal what is actually happening in the classroom but also measure the effectiveness of instruction on L2 learning. One such kind of research on ISLA is non-interventionist quasi-experimental studies. They are defined as a research attempt to identify and closely measure specific teaching methods and their effects in a classroom setting without manipulating variables (Loewen and Philp 2012: 58). The term quasi-experimental also means no random-assignment of the participants (e.g., researching an intact class as it is) (Mackey and Gass 2005: 146). Through observing a real classroom, non-interventionist researchers could gain insight into a specific aspect of instructed L2 learning and usually measure its effectiveness through a post-test. In this paper, I will illustrate that by critically introducing an empirical case of such a research method.

During classroom observation and studies, researchers need to look out for aspects of learning activities that are specifically relevant to the research question they want to address. The research under investigation here intends to find out whether playful classroom interactions can facilitate the learning of the L2 linguistic features initiated by the learners themselves (Bell 2012: 236). Therefore, elements of classroom learning, including interaction, humor/playfulness in the classroom and incidental learning will be of major concern here. Notably, as this is a non-interventionist study, researchers will not elicit these learning activities but only identify the three research targets mentioned before from the observed data and test the effectiveness of existing playful interactions with tailor-made post-tests. Afterward, the results of the post-tests will be processed with statistical measures to answer the research question better.

This research is pioneering (not without its problems, though) in that it provides a unique insight into studies of humor in an L2 classroom. Much previous research focuses on the role of intentionally humorous language teaching such as puns learning and wordplay (e.g., Ziyaeemehr and Kumar 2014), whereas this study looks into the issue of incidental learning of L2 linguistic features that derive from learners' playful interactions, which is a field that has been seldom touched upon (Bell 2012: 242).

My paper will illustrate the researcher's attempt to uncover the interplay of classroom humor, learners' interaction, and incidental learning and explore how reliable and valid her study is in answering her research question. The second part of this paper discusses the theoretical basis of the study. The third part introduces the research design along with my reflections upon its upside and downside. Lastly, I will conclude with a discussion on the implication of the study and provide areas of further consideration for future studies on this topic.

2. Theoretical Basis

Before I introduce the research design of the study, it is important to have a literature review of the three ISLA aspects of interest here (i.e., humor, learners' interaction, and Incidental Focus on Form) to understand the theoretical constructs of the study. In light of this, this section of my paper will discuss what theories the researcher has drawn on to address her research question.

Notably, my discussion is not a replica of the original theory part of the study. Instead, I will mainly focus on perspectives that are most relevant to the issue of psycholinguistics here (i.e., theories on what facilitate the internalization of linguistic knowledge). Thus, aspects such as the sociological role of humor in establishing a rapport between interlocutors and a discussion of humorous and non-humorous language play (as discussed respectively in Bell 2012: 238 and 239) are not part of the present paper. Also, I will include my reflection on the relevant theories by selectively reporting on studies cited in the target research paper and bringing in perspectives from other related studies.

2.1 Cases of Humor Studies in ISLA and Psychological Research

Humor is defined as “a specific communicative mode, in which something is uttered with the intent to amuse” (Bell 2012: 238). In a classroom setting, humor could be both a means and an end to L2 learning. Examples of humor use in ISLA could be learners telling jokes or making fun of each other in L2, instructor’s verbal humor in teaching L2 (see Ziyaeemehr and Kumar 2013) and the learning of linguistic items laden with humorous cultural information (e.g., puns and riddles) (see Tocalli-Beller and Swain 2007). It is the humorous or playful means of learning L2 in interaction that is the focus of the present study. Specifically, the researcher assumes that learners’ humorous play with new L2 features while communicating with their peers facilitates their memorization of these L2 items (Bell 2012: 245).

The rationale of her assumption here lies in previous psychological research (see Bell 2012: 239) on the memorability of humorous items. Using eye-tracking technology in an experimental study, Strick et al. (2010: 44) have found that humorous information draws “enhanced attention during information encoding”. Given the limited cognitive resources at our disposal, if most of our attention is drawn towards the processing of humor, fewer resources will be left for processing non-salient information. That could lead to a higher retrieval rate of humorous information at the expense of the recall of non-humorous messages (ibid. : 43f.).

However, what has been proved in a laboratory setting may not truly reveal the actual situation in real-life scenarios. For one thing, the study discussed above involves a stimulus-response experimental method that requires the participants to respond to distinct types of information (humorous versus ordinary) on a computer while measuring their attention span and response time (Strick et al. 2010: 39-41). In real life situations as in an L2 classroom, such an idealized binary presentation of information might not appear. For another, the experimental setting also does not take account of the real-life conversations between people. In a classroom setting, many good L2 learners acquire new knowledge through interaction rather than merely through exposure to stimulus.

Then, what about the learning of new knowledge during humorous interactions in an L2 classroom setting? According to Bell (ibid. :240), such an issue is still mostly unexamined. She argues that while there has already been a plethora of research on the recall of humorous information in laboratory conditions, few studies have examined the issue by observing the performance of L2 learners in a real classroom.

That has motivated her to verify her assumption through an L2 classroom study. Specifically interesting to her is how L2 learners internalize new knowledge through peer to peer humorous or playful interaction.

2.2 The Role of Interaction and Playful Interaction

For decades, SLA studies, whether they occur in intact classrooms or laboratory settings, have extensively explored the role of interaction in promoting L2 learning. Long (1981: 275) proposes that engaging in conversations in L2 is an indispensable condition for SLA. Starting from this hypothesis, many SLA researchers have attempted to describe multiple processes involved in L2 interaction, such as the interplay of input and output and investigate their effects on L2 development (Loewen and Sato 2018: 285). In a nice recent literature review, Loewen and Sato (ibid. :286) summarize those research efforts and conclude that there is a consensus among researchers about the positive connection between interaction and L2 learning. Explicitly, interacting with other individuals could help develop learners' interlanguage by testing their own hypotheses about L2 forms. Also, collaborating with others could push their learning status into a Zone of Proximal Development (see Vygotsky 1978), enabling them to achieve more than what they could do alone (Bell 2012: 241).

However, in the current context of learning specific linguistic knowledge, meaning-focused interaction alone may not be enough for learners to acquire new L2 structures. To promote high levels of accuracy, they also need to notice the gap between the interlanguage and the target language. According to Schmidt (1990:129-132), learners need to become aware of new L2 forms before they can incorporate them in their interlanguage. Without noticing, it could be difficult for them to internalize the input. In a similar vein, Swain (1995:128f.) has argued that attention to form is crucial in promoting high levels of grammatical accuracy. A mere focus-on-meaning in a conversation is unlikely to lead to advanced L2 proficiency.

In light of this, the researcher of the present study (Bell 2012:241) has proposed two contributing factors to the acquiring of new L2 features in classroom interaction. First, as humor could draw learners' attention (see page 5 of this paper), a combination of fun and interaction in the form of playful interaction may better facilitate the internalization process. Second, during the interaction, learners should also be guided to focus on form by means of negotiation for form-meaning relationships with their peers.

2.3 Incidental Focus on Form

Focus on form is an approach to ISLA in which learners are made aware of certain linguistic forms while engaging in communicative interaction (Long 1991: 43f). Although other studies investigate the effectiveness of'focus on humorous form' in a classroom (see page 1 of the paper), most of them focus on pre-selected L2 features (e.g., puns) (Bell 2012: 243). But what makes the present study unique and difficult to implement is the incidental nature of the dataset it intends to collect in the classroom.

Here incidental data means that the focus of the researcher's observation is not planned L2 items elicited by the instructor or researcher but language features that arise during learners' classroom interaction (in the present case, humorous interaction). The kind of learning activity that the present researcher wants to look out for is incidental focus on form. According to Rod Ellis (2001: 20-23), while planned focus on form intends to guide learners' attention to preselected forms in a meaning-focus activity, incidental focus on form entails spontaneous attention to form that emerges during meaning-focused interaction.

The practicality problem of researching incidental focus on form is that it is not feasible to include a more experimental pretests-posttests method to measure individual learning “because of the unpredictability of the linguistic items that arise during a meaning-focused activity” (Loewen 2005: 366). Instead, the researcher of this study intends to identify “language-related episodes (LREs) in learner discourse” (Bell 2012: 242). LREs are defined as “any part of a dialogue where students talk about language they are producing, question their language use, or other- or self-correct their language production” (Swain and Lapkin 2001: 104). The coding of LREs is dependent on the language aspect in focus (Bell 2012: 242). Exactly how the researcher capitalizes on the coding system and the possible problems with this research method will be discussed later in the paper.

3. A Critical Introduction of the Empirical Study

Previous studies and theories usher in new research perspectives. According to the researcher of the present study (Bell 2012: 244-245), four aspects have motivated her to conduct the study. Among them, two are relevant to the current paper: “1. a comparison of learner recall of items that were focused on in serious versus playful LREs; 2. a comparison of LREs and playful LREs (PLREs) involving meaning versus LREs and PLREs involving form”. Both serve as the research questions of the study.1

To answer the research questions, researchers need to find an appropriate investigation site and adapt their study method to the research context and the theoretical basis. After all, no research methods are determined or decided upon devoid of context (Mackey and Gass 2012: 1).

Given the importance of the research context, I would argue that in writing up a study, researchers need to incorporate enough information about their research site and participants as a means to ensure the validity of their study. A lack of contextual information may leave future researchers unable to replicate the findings of an early study. Unfortunately, the present study seems not to have provided enough contextual information for its readers.

To illustrate my point, I will first summarize the contextual research information in the study before giving my reflections.

3.1 Information about the Research Site and Participants

The study took place in an intensive but noncredit EFL program in a public university in the United States. The whole course lasts for eight weeks, and each session is 75 minutes long. The focus of the curriculum is to cultivate learners' oral English skills (Bell 2012: 245-246).

In terms of the teaching methods, the researcher (ibid. :245) very briefly enumerates the “semi-structured conversation activities” the instructor adopted (e.g., role-play) to promote speaking skills. Importantly, the teaching tasks did not intend to elicit any language play, which matches the researcher's research target of incidental learning. Bell (ibid. :246) also mentions the class instructor's high tolerance of the students' “adaptations to or digressions from the activity” and his intention to “maintain an informal, encouraging, and upbeat atmosphere”.

The participants enrolled were 16 international students of a wide range of proficiencies (level 1 to 6)2, with the highest standard at level 6. Eight of them participated in the first half of the course (the first four weeks). The other eight were Japanese exchange students who joined the class halfway through the semester. The Japanese students did not take the placement test but were judged to be “of markedly higher procedures” by both the researcher and the instructor (ibid. :246). Figure 1 shows the given demographics of the participants.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

From Figure 1, we can see only limited information about the participants’ nationality, language levels, and gender. Other relevant information such as the participants’ length of residence in America, the kind of teaching style they are used to (e.g., teacher-centered or learner-centered method), and their possible L3 experience is all kept from us. By contrast, some other SLA studies on humor provide a more comprehensive demographic information of their participants. (cf. Rachel 2018: 36).

Admittedly, it is common practice for non-interventionist quasi-experimental researchers not to make any attempt to manipulate the variables of interest but to observe the classroom as it is (Loewen and Philp 2012: 58). But not controlling the variables does not mean not presenting them at all in the research report. At the very least, the researcher should describe other factors that might influence the results of the study. Specifically, in an attempt to answer the research questions here, how could the researcher be certain that factors such as learners’ previous ISLA experience have nothing to do with their better recall of new L2 words that they have picked up in interaction? If there were really a connection, the association between humorous interaction and the intake of L2 knowledge might not be as strong as the researcher claims to be.


1 Interestingly, the researcher does not formulate an actual research question, which seems to go against the usual research practice.

2 This is based on the program's placement test. The paper does not provide further details about the test.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Playful Interactions and the Intake of Incidental Language Knowledge in the Classroom
A Critical Review of an Instructed Second Language Acquisition Study
LMU Munich
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Comments from the supervisor: "this is a highly convincing paper, interesting topic, good structure, an excellent discussion of the empirical study, some weaker points in the theoretical background. Very good use of literature plus footnotes. High academic level."
playful, interactions, intake, incidental, knowledge, classroom, critical, review, instructed, second, language, acquisition, study
Quote paper
Minjie Song (Author), 2020, Playful Interactions and the Intake of Incidental Language Knowledge in the Classroom, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Playful Interactions and the Intake of Incidental Language Knowledge in the Classroom

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free