Meaningful Interaction: Theory & Language Acquisition

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

Would you like to give your English learners the opportunity to practice the language in a spontaneous way? This lesson explores the theory of meaningful interaction so you can apply it in your classroom.

What is Meaningful Interaction?

Let's take a look at a typical speaking activity for English learners. We are in Ms. Miller's class. The students are grouped and get a bag with pieces of paper. Students take turns to get a piece of paper out of a bag. The target language is the simple past tense. So, when Andrea gets the verb 'to play' she comes up with a sentence like 'I played basketball yesterday.' While this is great practice with verbs, the students focus on getting the sentence structure as well as the verb in simple past correctly.

Let's clarify something here. Students do benefit from activities that focus on the form (grammar, sentence structure, pronunciation). However, language learners also need the opportunity to practice the language in a spontaneous way as people do in regular conversation. This is, precisely, what meaningful interaction is about. In other words, meaningful interaction is the communication among language learners that focuses on the message they want to convey instead of the form. Let's learn more about the theory of meaningful interaction.

Theory of Meaningful Interaction

Back in 1988, an American linguist named Stephen Krashen published his theory of meaningful interaction as it relates to second language acquisition. Krashen considers that language acquisition occurs more naturally if students have the opportunity to practice the language naturally rather than with constant focus on grammar or memorized pattern. Now, let's actually see how Ms. Miller turns a simple activity that focuses on grammar into one that follows the theory of meaningful interaction.

Ms. Miller places students into groups of four members. Their task is simply to talk about what they did last weekend and ask each other questions when needed. Ms. Miller highlights that she just wants students to tell each other about last weekend because it is 'chatting time.' Students immediately feel relaxed and begin saying things like 'I went shopping with my parents and I had a lot of fun', 'I watched a horror movie at home', etc. The interaction is spontaneous and, while Ms. Miller monitors by walking around the class, the students are not so concerned with the grammar they know. Instead, students focus on telling their peers about the exciting things they did, just like they would do in an informal setting. Now, let's look at the role of meaningful interaction in language acquisition.

Meaningful Interaction and Communicative Skills

Activities that involve meaningful interaction, like the one in the previous section, develop your students' communicative competence, which is the ability to convey an appropriate message in the context of spontaneous conversation.

The more opportunities you give to your language learners to practice the language in ways that are natural, the more their communicative skills develop. This happens because your students become more used to speaking in a natural way rather than always having the pressure of being concerned about grammar or sentence structure. Let's now move on to strategies you can apply to put meaningful interaction at work.

Strategies for Meaningful Interaction

There are several strategies that involve meaningful interaction, as they provide opportunities for English language learners to communicate in a variety of social and academic settings. The basic strategies that the theory of meaningful interaction proposes include the following:

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