Divergence and Convergence, Educating with Integrity: Proceedings of the 7th Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May. 10 - 11, 2008. Kyoto, Japan: Doshisha University Shinmachi Campus. (pp. 27 - 35)

The role of the passive participator: Investigating “silent” group members

by Christine Wilby (Obirin University Japan)

This data-driven paper presents some of the results of a series of investigations into the discussion dynamics of a group of Japanese EFL learners in a discussion strategies class, in which special attention is focused on the seemingly non-participating member who is neither reticent nor without verbal skills, and yet who rarely actually speaks. The investigation first identifies the target member, and then through further research shows how this member is in fact fully functioning in the discussion using sophisticated NVC (Non Verbal Communication) skills. The findings indicate the interaction of a discussion is as important as the speaking itself, and implications for EFL discussions as activities of language acquisition and testing are considered.

Keywords: Socio-pragmatics, group discussions, non-verbal communication, and classroom interactions
Japanese Abstract

This paper is based on exploratory classroom research conducted on naturally occurring data in a junior college EFL discussion class in Japan. The need for such a study arose as a result of the observation that several students, known to have sufficient English and “outgoing” personalities, either did not participate at all or offered very little language input in discussions, and yet, on informal post-task debriefings, indicated they felt they had performed well: a view surprisingly corroborated by the other group members. To further understand the dynamics occurring that resulted in students rating themselves, or others, highly on participation in discussions when they rarely spoke, transcriptions and codings of video recorded discussions were analyzed. Results indicated the extensive use of non-verbal communicative responses (NVCR) such as back-channeling, head tracking, and body gestures, was occurring.

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The historical roots of the study of the dynamics of language are extensive. However, there have been fewer studies on non-verbal communication in students participating in groups in the classroom from the view of non-verbal communication, quite possibility due to the difficulty of recording such information, and to the cultural aspects it may involve. An introduction can be found in the works of Schegloff (1984, pp. 266-296), and an excellent overview specifically related to the Japanese context can be found in Nagai (2002, pp. 99-122). Of particular interest in this paper is the work that has been done on “silence” in sociolinguistic contexts, and on aizuchi (listening responses) in Japanese conversations and discussions, where both have been found to be vital aspects of Japanese communicative competence. Much of the study of non-verbal communicative responses (NVCR) has been made possible by the development of the research techniques of discourse analysis and conversational analysis, introduced by such researchers as Schegloff (1984) and Coulthard (1992), and by the early works of recording and coding NVCR by Birdwhistell (1970) in particular.
Of greatest relevance to the findings of this paper is work on intersubjectivity –
. . . a temporary shared social world . . . created, not inherited or presumed . . . (Thorne 2000, p. 229)
[where agents are] drawn together towards a common focus, activity, goals . . . [which] makes possible participation frameworks which build socially distributed perceptions that are situated, contextual, dependent and intensely local (Goodwin in Thorne 2000, p. 229)

". . .it is possible for communication to be occurring in non-verbal ways or through the use of ellipsis and prolepsis."
The idea of being in an area of intersubjectivity sheds light on the dynamics of silence in discussions where it is possible for communication to be occurring in non-verbal ways or through the use of ellipsis and prolepsis (van Lier, 1996, p. 161): two language functions found in high context situations in which the members of a group are familiar enough with their situation they are comfortable leaving out linguistic features (ellipsis) and making references to points not yet verbally referenced (prolepsis) with the confidence they will be understood. Although the research outlined in this paper preceded any theoretical study, based as it were on a very pragmatic teaching concern of investigating unexpected non-participation in discussions from usually quite verbal students, the results have implications based in these theoretical underpinnings as the use of NVCR, ellipsis and prolepsis in an area of intersubjectivity are all facets of belonging to a common shared cognition and may explain why and how usually high achieving students, who believe they are participating in discussions, are actually saying little, or nothing verbally.

The Research

This paper presents two short studies:
  1. A video recorded discussion coded for verbal and non-verbal responses, in which three students are identified as communicating almost exclusively in non-verbal responses (NVR), and the term “passive participator” is coined.
  2. A video recorded discussion in which the students relying on NVR and identified as passive participators are grouped together, and their discussion transcribed, and coded. Results indicated these students were capable of verbal responses, but in self-selected groups preferred NVR.

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The class for this investigation consisted of 12 second-year female English majors of intermediate level or higher, familiar with classes taken by native speaker teachers. Many had studied abroad on homestays, and some had taken classes together before. The students were familiar with being observed and recorded
The research took place in a well-equipped classroom in the second semester of a one-year course. It was a class in which the researcher felt a good, friendly working rapport had been established, and one in which the researcher, as teacher, had familiarity with the students’ abilities and achievements, having taken them through the first semester and assigned them their official grades.
The course, called Oral Communication II, focused on socio-pragmatics. The first semester had an individual focus, and the second semester was designed on the basis of group work, with success broadly being defined as actively speaking in English in the selected discussions, a perceived sense of resolution to the topic issues, and a sense of achievement.
With prior student permission, a video camera was used to record discussions over two class days. Students were instructed to ignore the camera and discuss as they “normally” would. They were not pre-warned of the videoing days to prevent them from preparing and reading scripts, and to thus destroying the chance of recording their “naturally” occurring “typical” discussion participation. For the same reason, students were not asked to reflect on their discussion performances during these exploratory studies.

Study One: Identifying the Passive Participator



An initial exploratory study to investigate how each of the students was participating in the discussions was conducted in the 17th class of a 26-week course. The students were discussing a simulated situation involving categorizing and ranking. The eight minutes of discussion recorded were difficult to transcribe, however, and after several viewings it became apparent the difficulty lay in the students’ extensive use of non-verbal responses (NVR). On further viewings, it became clear that these NVR were more than just listening responses (LR) or socializing factors that accompany talk. These NVR were facilitating interaction and thus playing an integral part in the discussion. Furthermore, it seemed that those students known to be competent in English, but uncharacteristically silent in discussions, were making extensive use of NVR.

Investigating the Students’ Use of Non-Verbal Responses (NVR)

Using a modified version of the pilot coding of participation (van Lier, 1988, p. 124) to include some NVPR (non-verbal participation responses), the first two minutes of each group discussion were coded on extensive NVPR criterion.

Modification of the Pilot Coding System

Van Lier (ibid) allocates four major categories for coding, which are then further sub-divided.
                 A = topic; B = self-select; C = allocation; D = sequence control. 

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Categories C and D were dropped, and to A and B, were added three more; E (van Lierâ’s C category inclusive), F, and G, all of which are outlined in Table 1. The various categories were coded with symbols; although this does not make for easy reading, it is the easiest way to code in the rapid timeframes of the often very fleeting NVR responses that occur in discussions.

Table 1. Key of coded non-verbal responses
Category Symbols and Definitions
A: Topic s/ = turn on stream // = turn parallel to on stream /s = turn off stream
B: Self-select « = verbal listener responses (back-channelling)
E: Non-verbal LR affecting interaction /d/ = directed, selecting NVPR (non-verbal participating response) /gd/ = generally directed NVPR
F: NVLR not affecting the outcome of the next verbal response * = NVR directed to another student « = NVR generally directed non-student specific
G: The head down /hd/ = movement indicating avoidance, or possibly, “time-out”

Of particular interest was category E: non-verbal LR (listening responses) affecting the interaction. For example; the student responds with a NVR which produces some verbal action on the part of the other speaker(s) such as when a student allocates, self-selects or declines allocation by non-verbal means such as finger pointing, head nodding, glances and other directed facial or body movements indicating intention. Further examples being: the use of body language, mime or finger drawing of words to other group members (NV inserted sequences). Only those responses that were non-verbal and yet were part of the group interaction to which other members responded were recorded.
Also of interest is category F, which refers to non-verbal listener responses that do not affect the outcome of the next verbal response, but carry a socializing affect and thus an influence on the interaction. For example, smiles of encouragement, indiscriminant head nodding, tracking the talk with head movements, looking at the person speaking. Eye contact and facial movements are not included here due to the difficulty of recording them.
Since the aim was to identify the non-verbal responses of the participants, the percentage of each section was calculated. "High" participators were expected to score highly on all sections except G, "low" participators to score low on all except G, and "passive participators" to score low on A yet high on B, E, and F. Students were numbered according to their seating arrangement, and are represented in the tables by their initials.

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Table 2. NVR of Mixed Student-Type Group Discussions: Group One
Category Student 1 Student 2 Student 3 Student 4 Student 5
Turns 2 3 10 2 4
Total Turns % 9.5 14 48 9.5 19
A (topic) 0 20” 66* 6* 20*
B (self-select) 28” 14” 28” 14” 14”
E (NVR affecting outcome) 0 0 40* 40* 2*
F (NVR not affecting outcome) 64* 2.5 15*
13” 2.5*
G (head down response) 26 15 10 36 10

Table 3. NVR of Mixed Student-Type Group Discussions: Group Two
Category Student 1 Student 2 Student 3 Student 4 Student 5 Student 6 Student 7
Turns 0 2 19 8 3 2 0
Total Turns % 0 5 55 23 8 5 0
A (topic) 0 0 62*
0 0
B (self-select) 0 13” 60” 20” 6” 12” 0
E (NVR affecting outcome) 0 0 33*
30* 0 25” 25”
F (NVR not affecting outcome) 12* 39* 12*
12* 9* 9*
G (head down response) 0 60 10 0 20 10* 0

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Student 1 of Group one, known to the teacher as capable but non-verbal in discussions, took only 9.5% of the speaking turns, but 28% of the back-channeling responses, 64% of the F category (NVR not affecting speaking turns), and 26% of the head-down responses. She had no NVR affecting the next verbal action (category E).
In group two, student 2, known to the teacher as capable but non-verbal in discussions, took only 5% of the speaking turns, 13% of the back-channeling responses, 39% of the NVR category F, and 60% of the head-down responses. She had no responses in category E.
In that same group, student 7, known to the teacher as capable but non-verbal in discussions, did not speak in the set duration of the study. However, she did speak later taking 33% of the off topic speech responses. During the set period, she took 25% of the directed NVR (category E), and 9% of category F (non-verbal responses that did not directly affect the verbal moves).
These three students are thus classified in this study as the passive participators: students with verbal ability but who, in this case at least, favored the use of NVR. Student 1 in Group two was not included as a passive participator. She took 0% of the speaking turns and took only 12 NVR responses, all of which did not affect the verbal discussion. In Group two, Student 1 was classified as a NP (non-participating) student, and in fact she was frequently absent from the class.


"the results showed the seemingly non-speaking students to be participating in non-verbal ways."

Although it should be noted that the camera angle could not catch responses when the students turned their backs on the camera, the results showed the seemingly non-speaking students to be participating in non-verbal ways. It was also found that some listening responses needed a special category, for example, there were many parroting or echoing responses where the students simply repeated a word or phrase that another had uttered, or loudly responded with “ahs”. These responses did not seem to elicit or contribute anything to the verbal discussion, but they often brought great peals of laughter (recorded as a LR) and a "feeling" of "solidarity" in the group. Since this appears to carry more response than usual back channeling, these all point to seeing the creation of interaction as being a vital part of the discussion. Another point of interest was category G – the "time-out" head-down response. It was used to indicate the end of a turn, or to refuse to accept an allocated turn, but occasionally it occurred unrelated to any of the interaction. The researcher failed to make any distinction here, and also failed to note the duration of the head-down response or any other student reaction to it. The coding did however show that the head-down response occurred fairly frequently, even for students with a high overall number of turns and thus may not be related to inability or unwillingness to participate.
The role of the passive participator still remains unexplained, however. From the coded results it can be seen that the students most utilizing the NVR for furthering the discussion (category E) were the students who spoke most often, while the passive participators most often used NVR directed (*) to the then speaker. The most verbal students also used the most non-directed (") NVR, while the passive participators hardly used any. The passive participators then, seem to establish their part in the group discussion principally by NVR (smiling, head nodding) to selected people. Although these students often responded to allocation with smiles, or head gestures that were quickly accepted and taken as OK passes, it still remains to be seen if they do this through choice or because they cannot participate and thus give up any right to the floor. How long students are prepared to wait for verbal responses from other students before making other moves or how they "read" NV-OK passes would make an interesting study, as would ascertaining how much of this behavior is characteristic of Japanese socio-cultural patterns of interaction, and how much of it is a facet of EFL classes.

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Study Two: Investigating the Passive Participators in Same Group Discussions


Step One

The students engaged in a simple for and against discussion evolving around personal preferences in their usual self-selected groups. The discussions were videoed, and cassette recorded and a two-minute stretch from each group was transcribed. The transcriptions show a similar pattern to the first video recording. In group one, the discussion moved along in bursts, the dominant speakers taking most of the turns and the rest of the group adding LR greatly overlapping and often almost drowning out the talk. Student 1, the passive participator of this group, said little but continued to smile and head swing from speaker to speaker and to respond bodily to the interaction between other students.
Group two saw a different, more highly sequenced pattern probably because the dominant speaker in the group was acting as mediator. The turns were long with some LR and repair sequences, but no self-selection occurred. In this group neither of the students identified as the passive participators, namely student 2 and student 7 took only one turn, but they did respond with LR and NVR.

Step Two

The three students identified as passive participators (Student 1 from group one and students 2 and 7 from group two) were put together. Moreover, the high participators from both groups were placed together, and the remaining students were placed into a third group. These three groups then discussed a similar topic to the first one, and again two minutes of discussion were recorded, transcribed and coded.


Since the passive participators had been previously identified as students favoring NVR in discussions, it was unclear if they would, or even if they could, participate in a group of students all favoring a similar communicative strategy. However, as the results in Appendix A show, all three participated equally, each with three on-stream turns over two minutes of recorded discussion. All students engaged in more LR than usual and fewer NVR, although they were still frequent. When they returned to their self-selected groups they reverted to the NVR only mode. Since these students demonstrated they could sustain extended discussion discourse, one can conclude they chose to communicate in non-verbal ways in their selected groups. To further investigate the reason for this would require student reflexivity, and must await another study.
The high participators engaged in a near free conversation exhibiting fast speed, incomplete sentences, much overlap and back channeling and high change over of turns in a very supportive mode. It was the most difficult discussion to transcribe and often the specific student speaking was hard to pinpoint. The video shows much leaning back and forth on chairs, desk slapping, constant smiling, laughter, head swinging, and direct eye contact; certainly a very “lively” discussion. Over two minutes of recording, the transcription produced little information of ideas, but the discussion sounded "the most natural".

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"[Using] frequency and length of individual verbal responses as grade criterion in discussions . . . may be evaluating language . . .[but] not be assessing communication or successful discussion skills."

In these studies it was found that the seemingly non-participating students were indeed active in the group interaction through the extensive use of non-verbal responses, and that students favoring this strategy were quite able to discus verbally when called on to do so. Clearly, the small size and local nature of these studies preclude any generalizations to a wider population, but they are taken here as a general preliminary indication of patterns that may be typical and that could lead to some understanding of the essential role and group value of the passive participator on the overall success of a group discussion in roles as creators of group cohesion and interaction. It may be they are able to do this on the basis of a high context connection to other group members, and this may also explain why the high participators also rarely used full sentences or extended turns.
Teachers, however, often use frequency and length of individual verbal responses as grade criterion in discussions, regardless of the dynamics of the group. Thus while they may be evaluating language, they may not be assessing communication or successful discussion skills. Perhaps teachers would not be willing to spend the considerable time and effort it takes to code recordings for NVR, but an understanding of the importance of NVR in discussions is necessary, particularly in groups of students who know each other well and have established a familiarity of communication that allows for reduced forms and meaningful non-verbal communication. Teachers and test coordinators might be advised to reconsider, or take into account, the unnaturalness of grading students on isolated discussions they are obliged to have on set topics with a group of near strangers as criterion for evaluating discussion skills.


The overall conclusion drawn from the two studies reported in this paper is that interaction is an integral part of a discussion, and that it may not necessarily be verbal in form, and without the contingency of interaction, a discussion often “does not happen”. The above results, inadequate as they may be, are a good indication that group participation is not a simple matter of speaking out verbally and “talking a lot”. Thus for pedagogical reasons, teachers perhaps should be more concerned with the creation of interaction and the development of a greater sensitivity to non-verbal communication than with quantity, quality or frequency of talk when having students engage in discussions, and particularly when considering evaluation and grading. From the above research, it also seems that to develop both language and communicative skills, students need to work in both groups of similar and mixed participation types within the one class and possibly within one lesson allowing them to develop all aspects of a "participant competency".


Birdwhistell R. L. (1970). Kinesics and context: Essays on body motion and communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Coulthard, M. (1992). Advances in spoken discourse analysis. London and New York: Routledge.

Nakai, F. (2002) The role of cultural influences in Japanese communication: A literature review on social and situational factors and Japanese indirectness. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 14 99 - 122. Retreived on Ottober 6, 2008 from http://ci.nii.ac.jp/110000470003

Van Lier, L. (1988). The classroom and the language teacher. London: Longman.

Van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy, & authenticity. In C.N. Candlin (Ed.) Applied Linguistics & Language Study. p. 161 London: Longman.

Schegloff, E.A. (1984). On some gestures relation to talk. In J.M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.). Structures of social action: Studies in conversational analysis. pp. 266-296 Cambridge, England: Cambridge Univeristy Press.

Main Article Appendix A

2008 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

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