Using activity theory to elucidate learner experiences in an EFL speech communication course : contradictions in phases of transition
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The purpose of this qualitative-interpretive study was to investigate EFL students’ learning experiences in the innovative process of a speech communication course. Twenty-four EFL student speakers and their instructor in a Taiwanese university participated in the study. The analysis followed Leont’ev’s three-level scheme of activity and Engeström’s expansion of sociohistorical activity theory as the explanatory framework to examine the transformation of the activity structure. Contradictions within the activity system, which were regarded as potential driving forces for development, were inspected in order to understand how systemic tensions, manifested as problems and disturbances, were related to a variety of individual actions and strategy use on concrete levels. Contradictions occurring between different activity systems were also explored to identify the hidden forces impeding development. Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used to gather data. Two questionnaires, Personal Report of Communicative Apprehension (PRCA-10) and Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety Scale (FLCAS), were administered to assess the students’ anxiety about L2 pubic speaking. While class sessions were observed to understand the systemic expansion in general, in-depth interviews with focal participants were conducted to understand individual students’ learning experiences as well as affective responses to the speaking tasks. Additionally, students’ reflective writing was collected for triangulation. The primary procedures for data analysis were adapted from Engeström’s expansive development methodology. Results showed that memorization played a vital role in the students’ initial task performance, but the activity system of the course was gradually transformed from an activity of manuscript memorization to one of public communication. Major findings of the study suggested that (1) solutions to inner contradictions triggered expansion of the activity system, but contradictions on the tertiary and quaternary levels tended to thwart development; (2) individual interpretations of the activity were important in students’ construction of objects as well as their use of speech strategies for carrying out the task; and (3) individual affect and contextual aspects seemed to mutually influencing each other in these phases of transition. Finally, theoretical issues emerging from the results are discussed, and suggestions for L2 research, EFL speech pedagogy, and language testing in Taiwan are presented.