Evaluating tandem interactions

Author: Christine Penman


This article provides an overview of the principles of tandem learning. It then focuses on the types of assessment (self assessment, formal assessment, holistic approach) which can be used to provide a rounded evaluation of tandem interaction.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

Over the past decade, tandem learning has become an integral part of second language acquisition in many institutions as a complement to more traditional learning practices. In putting in direct contact two individual native speakers of different L1 backgrounds, it allows the learner to take a reality check on his/her linguistic and sociocultural knowledge and it promotes a battery of metacognitive, cognitive and social/affective strategies. While its possible benefits (the development of metalinguistic awareness and of intercultural and interpersonal skills) are not under question - provided adequate technical and pedagogical support is provided - tandem learning is often considered as a method for enabling language practice and it is not subject to scrutiny in its own right. With reference to a particular project involving tandem learning, this article will seek to draw up a list of criteria for gauging the success of a given tandem interaction with the ultimate aim of integrating it into more traditional assessment procedures.

2. Principles and types of tandem learning

Tandem learning is based on the principle of reciprocity whereby both learners should not only contribute equally to their language interactions in quantitative terms and in terms of reciprocity of respective L1/L2 input, but also in terms of commitment: "learners should be prepared and able to do as much for their partner as they themselves expect from their partner" (Introduction to Tandem Principles, initially written by Helmut Brammerts, on the International Tandem Learning website of Ruhr-Universität Bochum). Tandem learning is also underpinned by the principle of learner autonomy which dictates that each tandem learner is responsible for directing their own learning. As such it helps develop "an autonomous language user who determines topics, activities and working arrangements and [...] who through analysis of linguistic input and output can formulate short- and long-term learning targets, methods to achieve them, and increase metalinguistic awareness" (Schwienhorst 1998a: 2; see also Little (2003) ). This principle posits in turn a sense of commitment to the procedures involved and to self-discipline (for the most up-to-date bibliography on learner autonomy see Phil Benson's website). To this effect learner diaries are often used by the participants to reflect upon their interactions and to elaborate strategies for achieving their learning aims.

The first tandem projects involved face-to-face interactions between two native speakers/language learners. Although now largely superseded by etandems, these are still used (see for instance the face-to-face tandem module of the University of Sheffield). The tandem principles have also been extended to apply to other synchronous interactions using the telephone, video-conferencing, instant messaging over the Internet - (see Schwienhorst 1998 a) & (Schwienhorst 1998 b) on MOO communications and also to asynchronous modes (in particular e-mail). Most tandems rely on a mix of written and aural/oral performance, each complementing the other. For instance, e-mail, which establishes an asynchronous relationship at distance between the learners does not allow for an immediate negotiation of meaning between partners. What it does allow for, however, is more reflective language use. A recent example of tandem learning - the Stirling-Besanon Telephone Partnership (Scotlang Project), 2000-2002 - combined aural/oral performance in synchronous mode (the telephone) with asynchronous written exchanges (by e-mail) plus reflective written and recorded data (see Penman 2004, Duncan 2004 and Penman & Conacher 2003).

On the synchronous/asynchronous modes in language learning, in particular, Technology-mediated learning

3. Evaluation of tandem learning


It can be argued that the underlying principle of learner autonomy is at odds with the exclusive use of external evaluation criteria since the former posits that learners establish their own aims and therefore evaluate their own performance according to criteria devised by themselves: "the more the system puts the learners at the centre and gives priority to developing learners' autonomy, the more internal types of evaluation will take precedence" (Little 1989). It can therefore be contended that internal evaluation involving the student's perceptions, possibly complemented by peer assessment, should be made a part of the appraisal. This may be achieved, for instance, through an assessment of 'can do' abilities such as "I can very well/well/fairly well/not very well/not at all understand information and instructions from my partner/steer the conversation the way I want/express a different opinion from my partner" etc..

For further discussion of self-assessment, see European Language Portfolio.

Formal assessment

Where formal assessment is required, however, one must first establish which part of the "package" needs to be assessed. To maintain the focus on language acquisition it can be argued that the part of the interaction conducted in L2 needs to take precedence: in the above-mentioned Scotlang project , the core tandem activity was the recorded telephone interactions; e-mail was considered to be a less structured, back-up activity.

In addition to assessing the management of the interactions, a holistic approach - according to the basic principles of tandem learning - will seek to establish a balance between assessment of linguistic content, discourse abilities and sociocultural competence. These paradigms are based on the four-pronged model of communicative competence (grammatical, sociolinguistic, discourse and strategic competence) developed by Canale and Swain in 1980 and subsequently refined by Canale in 1983. A further examination of the data can be undertaken with the aid of conversation analysis as initially developed by H. Sacks and E. Schegloff in the 1970s (see for instance Sacks 1992 and Schegloff 1980; see also ten Have 1999 for a complete review on the subject). Such an analysis can seek to ascertain whether the basic rules of turn-taking are respected and focus on some specific discourse areas such as topic introduction and management, issues of communicative breakdown and repair (strategic competence; see for instance Schwienhorst 2002), and communicative adaptability (as studied by Accommodation Theory: see Chen & Cegala 1994). The above parameters can be made to fit into traditional procedures based on "spot" appraisals.

It will be noted, however, that as the aims of tandem partnerships are embedded in a learning process with a wide pedagogical remit, examination of any single interaction cannot really be construed as more than a way of taking stock of the partnership at a given time. To obtain a broader view, aspects of tandem learning which fall beyond traditional assessment procedures - i.e.: learner autonomy and acquisition of cultural competence - should be taken into consideration. Appraisal of the tandem interactions should thus seek both to determine whether elements of self-reflection, which are the prerequisite of learner autonomy, can be identified, and also to assess achievement "in the pragmatic dimensions of culturally appropriate social judgement and decision making" (Bennett 1997). The level of intercultural competence of the learner has to be established by giving credit to "a modification of monocultural awareness" (Buttjes & Byram 1991:12; see also Roberts 2001, Penman & Conacher 2003). To befit a learning activity described as "a form of open learning" (Introduction to the tandem principles mentioned above, emphasis by author), assessment of tandem learning must be holistic and entail a broad review of the data available.


Bennett, M. (1997). How not to be a Fluent Fool: Understanding the Cultural Dimensions of Language. In A. E. Fantini (ed.), New Ways in Teaching Culture. Alexandria: TESOL.

Buttjes, D. & M. Byram (1991). Mediating Languages and Cultures: Towards an Intercultural Theory of Foreign Language Education. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Canale, M. & M. Swain (1980). Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing. Applied Linguistics 1, 10:1-47.

Canale, M. (1983). From communicative competence to communicative language pedagogy. In J. C. Richards & R. Schmidt (Eds.), Language and Communication. (pp. 2-27). London: Longman.

Chen, L. & D. J. Cegala (1994)Topic Management, Shared Knowledge and Accommodation: A Study of Communication Adaptability. Research on Language and Social Interaction 27, 4:389-417.

Duncan, A. (2004). Interactions au téléphone entre Besançon et Stirling: des conversations naturelles? In Holtzer, G. (ed.), Voies vers le plurilinguisme. Besançon: Presses universitaires de Franche, 77-88.

Little, D. (2003) Tandem Language Learning and Learning Autonomy. In Lewis, T. and Walker, L. (eds.), Autonomous language learning in tandem. Sheffield: Academy Electronic Publications.

Little, D. (ed.) (1989). Self-Access Systems for Language Learning. Dublin: Authentik.

Penman, C. & J. E. Conacher (2003). Meeting Half Way: An Exploration of Intercultural Exchanges.In J. Eckerth and M. Wendt (eds) Interkulturelles und transkulturelles Lernen im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 125 - 139.

Penman, C. (2005). Towards a holistic evaluation of communicative ability in tandem interactions. In Penman, C. (ed.) Holistic approaches to language learning. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 187 - 199.

Penman, C. (2004). Exploration de la notion de 'conversation naturelle' à partir de conversations téléphoniques entre des tudiants anglophones et francophones. In Holtzer, G. (ed.), Voies vers le plurilinguisme. Besançon: Presses universitaires de Franche, 77-88.

Roberts, C. (2001). Language Learners as Ethnographers. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Sacks, H. (1992). Lectures on Conversation. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Schegloff, E. (1980). Preliminaries to Preliminaries: Can I ask you a question? Sociological Inquiry, 50, 104-52.S

Schwienhorst, K. (2002). Evaluating tandem language learning in the MOO: discourse repair strategies in a bilingual internet project. Computer-assisted Language Learning 15, 135-145.

ten Have, P. (1999). Doing Conversational Analysis. London: Sage.

Related links

International Tandem Network - Language Learning in Tandem (www.slf.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/learning/idxeng11.html)

Schwienhorst, K. (1998a). The "third place" - Virtual Reality Applications for Second Language Learning (www.tcd.ie/CLCS/assistants/kschwien/Publications/eurocall97.htm)
ReCALL 10, 1:188-226.

Autonomy and independence in language learning, maintained by Phil Benson (http://ec.hku.hk/autonomy)

Language learning in tandem, University of Sheffield (www.shef.ac.uk/mirrors/tandem)

Schwienhorst, K. (1998b). Matching pedagogy and technology - Tandem learning and learner autonomy in online virtual language environments (www.tcd.ie/CLCS/assistants/kschiwen/Publications/ECReportprint.htm) In R. Soetaert, E. De Man & G. Van Belle (eds). Language Teaching On-Line, 115-27. Ghent: University of Ghent.

Good Practice Guide: Technology-mediated learning (www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/416)

European Language Portfolio (http://culture2.coe.int/portfolio/)

eTandem, includes an introduction by Helmut Brammerts and updated bibliography on tandem learning (www.tcd.ie/CLCS/tandem/learning), also available at the Language Learning in Tandem Bibliography (www.slf.ruhr-uni-bochum.de/learning/tanbib.html)

The Face-to-Face Tandem Learning Module: A Case Study. Modern Languages Teaching Centre, University of Sheffield. (www.uclan.ac.uk/facs/class/languages/translang/tandem.htm)

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