Pragmatic competence (PC) has gained noticeable attention as an integral component of communicative competence (CC) (Backman, 1990). According to Senowarsito (2013), PC is defined as a second language learner’s (L2) ability to communicate effectively. To achieve successful communication, as Wilson (2017) notes, L2 learners should be equipped with knowledge beyond grammar and lexicon levels. Kasper (1997) considers PC as “not being extra or ornamental, like the icing on the cake” (p. 3). Instead, Kasper perceives it as the most fundamental component of CC. However, acquiring PC has been claimed to be very challenging for L2 learners, which makes them many pragmatic errors during communication with others (Taguchi, 2011, 2019). Such errors could be attributed to two major sources: first, pragmatic errors may not be perceived as salient as lexical, grammatical, and pronunciation errors, so they may go unnoticed by L2 teachers and L2 learners; second, pragmatic errors may be associated with the lack of a strong consensus on the best approach to teaching PC (Rose & Kasper, 2001). Although different components of CC are learned in different ways (Ellis, 2008, 2014; Lightbown & Spada, 2012), EFL/ESL practitioners have failed to achieve a conclusive decision on the optimum approach to teaching PC (González-Lloret, 2020; Ohta, 2005, Pourmousavi & Mohamadi Zenouzagh, 2020; Taguchi, 2019; van Compernolle, 2014a).
Despite this lack of an agreed-upon approach, some scholars have assumed that dynamic assessment (DA) could be of some help since it can assist teachers to fuse teaching and assessment (van Compernolle & Kinginger, 2013). Also, the previous studies have evidenced that DA could create some space within which learners could be provided with both explicit and implicit assistance depending on their current level of need and the responses they show (Ohta, 2005; Taguchi, 2011, 2019; van Compernolle, 2013b). As its proponents (e.g., Aljaafreh & Lantolf, 1994; Lantolf & Poehner, 2010, 2014; Lantolf & Thorne, 2006; McNiel, 2016; van Compernolle, & Zhang, 2014) note, opposed to the traditional or non-Dynamic Assessment (N-DA) approaches, in DA, the primary aim is to gather information about the abilities that have not been fully internalized. In actual fact, as Haywood and Lidz (2007) stress, DA pushes forward gradually L2 learners from their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (present knowledge situation) to their Zone of Actual Development (ZAD) (the specified desired learning destination). Despite these robust theoretical underpinnings, EFL/ESL practitioners have complained that DA is not applicable in large classes (Do¨rfler, et al., 2009; Malmir & Mazloom, 2021; Miri et al., 2016; Poehner, 2009). They pinpointed that DA is only productive in tutorial sessions and it is not able to engage a whole class’ ZPD. To mitigate this limitation, Poehner (2009) referred to Vygotsky’s original conceptualization of ZPD and introduced G-DA. Of particular note is that DA and G-DA approaches are built on one principle: L2 learners should be provided with appropriate mediations to co-build a ZPD. However, they are different as G-DA takes a whole group’s ZPD into account and DA considers only one individual’s ZPD.
Given that interlanguage pragmatic (ILP) comprehension is of paramount importance for EFL learners and there is a long-lasting call for an effective approach to teaching and assessing PC at the same time (Ohta, 2005; Shauer, 2019, Taguchi, 2019), the researchers decided to explore the potentiality of G-DA in this regard. The review of the related literature also indicated that no study to date has compared the efficiency of concurrent G-DA and cumulative G-DA in developing EFL learners’ ILP comprehension. Hence, this study attempted to explore the effects of concurrent G-DA and cumulative G-DA on the development of Iranian EFL learners’ ILP comprehension. Additionally, through micro-analysis of the dialogues exchanged among the teachers and the learners, another attempt was made to document the processes through which the learners were supported to develop substantially their ILP comprehension.
Interlanguage Pragmatic Comprehension
ILP is not a new discipline but it is considered an underdeveloped one (Bardovi-Harlig, 2013a). ILP is defined as “the study of non-native speakers’ acquisition, comprehension and production of pragmatics” (Kasper & Rose, 2002, p. 27). As Taghuchi (2008a) notes, ILP is “the ability to perform language functions in a context” (p. 34). For Taguchi (2011), PC falls into two categories: ‘pragmalinguistic’ competence and ‘sociopragmatic’ competence. Pragmalinguistic competence includes the linguistic resources a language offers for assigning communicative acts and interpersonal meaning, such as pragmatic strategies (González-Lloret, 2020; Taguchi, 2011; Taguchi, & Roever, 2017). Sociopragmatic competence, however, is the social perception and consists of the set of rules underlying the language users’ interpretations and performance of communicative acts (Taguchi, 2011, 2019; van Compernolle, 2013b).
ILP competence includes comprehension and production abilities. Gacrcia (2004) defines ILP comprehension as L2 learners’ abilities to comprehend an utterance with the help of contextual clues. In other words, ILP comprehension is using contextual clues to make correct interpretations about an interlocutor’s utterance. To achieve correct interpretations, L2 learners need to use external factors (e.g., the context) and internal factors (e.g., background knowledge). In this way, ILP comprehension is L2 learners’ ability to extract the intended meanings by decoding both pragmaliguistic and sociopragmatic clues (Taguchi, 2008a, 2019). From another perspective, ILP comprehension entails cognitive, psycholinguistic, and sociolinguistic aspects. It occurs when the connections between contextual macro-level factors and sociocultural macro-level factors are made successfully in L2 learners’ brains (Bardovi-Harlig, 2013a). As Taguchi (2015) notes, ILP comprehension is the integral binary part of ILP production which develops concurrently. However, according to Perez (2017), vis-à-vis ILP production, the development of ILP comprehension seems to be easier for L2 learners. As Taguchi (2013a) confirms, the literature has not reached a strong conclusion if explicit or implicit instruction is more fruitful to cultivate L2 learners’ ILP comprehension. The underlying reason for this lack of consensus is that the new instructional approaches such as G-DA have not been used to boost L2 learners’ ILP comprehension. Therefore, as Taguchi (2017) stresses, ILP research and teaching are in an urgent need of novel approaches to improve L2 learners’ ILP comprehension. This is the point where G-DA, as a new approach, may serve to fill in the gap.
One of the unique features of DA is offering mediations during assessment practices. These mediations help L2 learners perform better on tests and go beyond their current abilities (Lantolf & Pohner, 2014; Lantolf & Thorne, 2006; Poehner, 2008; van Compernolle, 2014a). As Lantolf (2009) notes, DA is built on the assumption that to get a more realistic picture of L2 learners’ abilities, they should be provided with gradual, congruent mediations than leaving them alone with tests. In Poehner’s (2009) exact words, “the more familiar assessment model in which teachers observe student performance is replaced by one in which teachers and students jointly carry out activities, with teachers intervening as necessary to help learners stretch beyond their current capabilities” (p. 471). In this respect, DA is considered a subset of interactive assessment where L2 learners receive gradual, congruent mediations to go beyond their current abilities (Haywood & Tzuriel, 2002). Under this premise, it is argued that if an instruction is going to be effective, it must entail assessment, and, simultaneously, fair assessment practices are not attainable without considering instruction (Lantolf, 2009; Poehner & Lantolf, 2005; van Compernolle, 2018).
However, as noted above, one of the often-cited criticisms levelled at DA is its applicability in large classes (Do¨rfler, et al., 2009; Mauludin, 2018; Miri et al., 2016). In particular, it has been pinpointed that DA procedures are just applicable and helpful in tutorial sessions or “what is dubbed ‘rickshaw model” (Poehner, 2009, p. 478) wherein the teacher/mediator is just able to scaffold one learner at a time. Poenher (2009) tried to mitigate this limitation by introducing G-DA. For him, DA and G-DA procedures are not too much different, as they both stick to the same general principle: Offering students appropriate mediations to assist them to co-construct a ZPD. Poehner (2009) stresses that G-DA entails “understating the group to be not merely as a context for individual performance, but a social system in its own right that might be supported to function in ways that are beyond the present capabilities of any individual member” (p. 477-8). Thus, G-DA can engage group member in a task that no individual member can complete independently, but for which all group members need mediation, though at different levels and quantities. Two key concepts in G-DA paradigm are ‘primary’ and ‘secondary interactants’ (Poehner, 2009). In the classroom context, when a teacher offers mediation to a student to negotiate a point, as Poehner (2009) notes, the teacher and the student are regarded as primary interactants. However, the other students who are present in the classroom and may benefit from the exchange between the primary interactants are called secondary interactants. As such, the classroom setting allows all class attendants to benefit from the interactions. Considering this critical distinction between primary and secondary interactants, concurrent G-DA and cumulative G-DA are detailed below.
In concurrent G-DA, when an L2 learner fails to respond to the teacher’s feedback, the teacher directs the following prompt of a leading question to another student. That is, as an L2 learners’ comment, question, and struggle set the stage for another L2 learner’s contribution, interactions shift rapidly between primary and secondary interactants (Poehner, 2009). In contrast, in cumulative G-DA, when an L2 learner faces up a problem, the teacher runs through the full range of pre-determined mediating prompts with them before addressing another individual (Poehner, 2009). The teacher affords the first addressed students with the most implicit to most explicit prompts to let them find the problematic part and rectify it. This approach is called cumulative because it seeks to move the entire group forward in its ZPD through negotiations with individual learners in their respective ZPD. According to Poehner (2009), cumulative G-DA aims to move all members of a group forward through co-constructing ZPDs with individuals, but concurrent G-DA supports the development of each individual by working within the group’s ZPD.
A range of studies have investigated the effects of one-on-one DA, computerized DA, and G-DA on L2 learners’ ILP competence (e.g., Alavi et al., 2020; Farrokh & Rahmani, 2017; Malmir, 2020; Malmir & Mazloom, 2021; Moradian et al., 2019; Ohta, 2005; Qin, 2018; Tajedin & Taybipour, 2012; van Compernolle, 2011; Zangoei et al., 2019). Here, we review some of them critically to lay the groundwork for the present study. In an early attempt, Ohta (2005) examined how the notions of ZPD and mediation can be used to teach and learn ILP competence. He reviewed critically three studies done by Takahashi (2001), Samuda (2001), and Yoshimi (2001). Ohta concludes that the ZPD-sensitive mediations could lead to a significant improvement in L2 learners’ ILP competence. Additionally, more recently, Moradian et al. (2019) explored the effects of concurrent G-DA on EFL learners’ pragmatic knowledge for the cases of request and refusal speech acts. Their results documented that the G-DA group outperformed the control group on the immediate post-test. Similarly, Malmir (2020) investigated the impacts of interactionist DA and interventionist DA on the development of Iranian advanced EFL learners’ pragmatic comprehension in terms of accuracy and speed. His findings disclosed that the experimental groups receiving instructions based on the interactionist DA and interventionist DA procedures performed better than the control group. Moreover, Alavi et al. (2020) designed a computerized DA tool to foster Iranian EFL learners’ knowledge of apology and request speech acts. Their findings documented a significant improvement in the participants’ knowledge of requests and apologies at the end of the instruction. Finally, Malmir and Mazloom (2021) examined the effects of conventional G-DA and computerized DA on the cultivation of upper-intermediate EFL learners’ pragmatic comprehension. Their findings evidenced that the pragmatic comprehension of both groups outweighed the non-DA group on the post-test.
There were some limitations with the above-alluded studies which were staple impetus to conduct the present study. First, they have failed to compare concurrent G-DA and cumulative G-DA approaches to boosting ILP comprehension in a single study. Second, their research designs were mostly quantitative; thus, they could not capture how ZPD-sensitive exchanges of feedback help learners develop their ILP comprehension. To eliminate these limitations, the present study purported to explore the following questions:
Do concurrent G-DA and cumulative G-D procedures improve Iranian EFL learners’ ILP comprehension?
How does concurrent G-DA improve Iranian EFL learners’ ILP comprehension?
How does cumulative G-D improve Iranian EF L learners’ ILP comprehension?