Co-constructing Understanding of Self Access through Conversational Narrative

John Adamson, Howard Brown, and Naoki Fujimoto-Adamson, University of Niigata Prefecture

Adamson, J., Brown, H., & Fujimoto-Adamson, N. (2010). Co-constructing understanding of self access through conversational narrative. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 1 (3). pp. 173-188.

Paginated PDF version


This study has shown how stakeholders of a new Self Access Learning Center (SALC) co-construct views about the center’s development though conversational narratives. Conversational narratives are a means in this study to provide important insights into SALC’s growth and also represent sites of valuable social practice to strengthen collegiality among its participants. This dialogic process illustrates a diversity of perspectives which have emerged over the first year in its growth, and which inform the center’s management on metaphors of self access, language policy, its integration with university curricula, and how it and its staff are positioned in the organization. As part of a larger ethnographic study into the center, these unscripted, free-form dialogues are valued because they mirror the flat hierarchical structure which the center aims to support in its community of practice to legitimize its participants’ voices.

Keywords: self access, growth, voices, community, conversational narrative


This paper represents part of an on-going ethnographic study into the growth of a self access learning center (SALC) in a new Japanese university. Specifically, it illustrates the emergent nature of that growth by means of extracts of naturally-occurring unscripted dialogues referred to as “conversational narratives” (Ochs & Capps, 2001, p. 2). The participants of these dialogues are committee members (English teachers and SALC mentors) who steer the day-to-day operation of the center. Meeting regularly in the first year of operation to discuss SALC-related issues, four main themes have emerged from the findings: metaphors of self access, language policy, integration with university curricula, and institutional positioning. Instead of presenting these findings in a conventional summary, they are represented in their original dialogic form in order to illustrate the way in which meaning-making was co-constructed. Before findings are presented, we provide a brief contextualization of SALC, the university in which it has been established, and the participants involved in this study.


The university was established in April 2009 and was previously a two-year college. Upon gaining university status, English was designated as the medium of instruction for many content courses and, as a consequence, a full first year of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) instruction was compulsory for all students. SALC was established at the same time and a committee of English language teachers and mentors was immediately set up to direct its operation. The mentors maintain the center and provide advice to students on language learning strategies, resources, and events in the center.

SALC itself is a large room with computers, reception, tables, chairs, sofas, and a carpet area. It is stocked with mostly English graded reader collections, DVDs, grammar reference materials, games, paperbacks, reference materials linked to the university curricula, and Chinese, Korean, and Russian self-study materials. Funding for its day-to-day operations is provided by the university (a regional government institution) and supplementary budgets are given for resources from the university, the Ministry of Education, and the regional government.

SALC English materials are integrated with the EAP curriculum taught by expatriate teachers but are not integrated with the curricula as taught by Japanese teachers of English or of other faculties. Sixteen hours of EAP is obligatory for first year students but second year students are only required to take five credits of English classes a year.

Developing a Dialogue

Over the first year of operation, the members of the newly formed SALC committee met regularly to informally discuss its progress. From time to time, these discussions were recorded as conversational narratives (Ochs & Capps, 2001, p. 2), or informal dialogues without pre-determined themes which aimed to “co-construct” (Jacoby & Ochs, 1995, p. 171) views and experiences about the center in its, at times, problematic emergent stages of development. The free form nature of such narratives is argued as being representative of the nature of the committee’s membership of teachers and mentors, all of whom had diverse views about self access. In that sense, these narratives constitute the perfect tool for data collection in this context. Extracts selected here illustrate the diversity of views, how views shifted over time showing a process of emergence, and how participant voices were regarded as “legitimate” and “competent” within the committee’s community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), whereas in the larger university community they may have been regarded as marginal. This research approach ultimately serves two purposes: firstly, of gathering information for research data by “unpacking” beliefs (Diaz-Maggioli, 2002, p. 2); secondly, by encouraging the telling of narratives or “narrativization” (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000, p. 35) the research process evokes collaborative reflection which represents a healthy, developmental form of “situated professional practice” (Baker & Johnson, 1998, p. 241). As McCabe (2002) argues, narratives constitute a means of professional development and are possibly “transformative” (Roulston, 2010, p. 220) in that participant views and beliefs may change during the dialogues themselves through this reflection.

The committee members who participated in the conversational dialogues from 2009 to 2010 have been given pseudonyms for the purpose of this study. A teacher from the U.K., Peter, is the Committee head. Paul and Lee are fellow teachers and committee members from Canada and Singapore respectively. Sayaka and Keiko are the Japanese mentors and committee members.

Conversational Narratives: Extracts and Discussion

We now turn to the extract findings from the conversational narratives presented in their original dialogic form as they mirror the co-constructed talk that naturally occurred between the committee members and SALC mentors in the first year of its operation. Of the many themes which were addressed in these interactions, certain ones emerged from the data. They have been selected for this study as they represent issues which arose in conversation repeatedly, showed significant shifts over time, had considerable diversity of opinion, and impacted on the center’s day-to-day function. Each of the four themes is presented in an extract from a conversational narrative and followed by a short discussion.

Metaphors of self-access.

(recorded after six months of operation)

One predominant theme that emerged was that of metaphors. The conversational narratives below illustrate the all-pervading role they play in determining our behaviours and “conceptual system” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 3) and thus in our decision-making. Paul led the discussion and referred to the self access metaphors by Gardner and Miller (1999).

Paul: Gardner and Miller[1] wrote about metaphors, such as supermarket, catalogue shop, or games arcade to characterize models of self access. There appear to be a wide diversity of opinions. I personally envisioned SALC as a kind of community centre, where students interact with each other, the wider university community, and the outside community. It would be the venue for events, guest speakers, and student driven activities. But Lee, you had a different image initially.

Lee: Autonomy. I conceptualized SALC as a place where students access a room for self study, self-directed learning, a resource center with reading materials, and also a place to seek help from mentors.

Keiko: My image of SALC was a place with mentors like a person at a university in the UK where I studied. She was Spanish and spoke three languages – Spanish, French and English – so I saw SALC as a multi-lingual space.

Peter: I had the idea of a place where Extensive Reading takes place.

Sayaka: I imagined SALC to be interactive with conversations between students, mentors, and teachers. Also, I imagined various sections – a computer room, writing lab, and group project space.

Paul: There are other stakeholder voices in this university as well. We have never really got a clear image but some imply that the SALC should be a clinical, white-walled, technology-driven space or a paper-and-pencil focused silent study space with study cubicles for discreet skills practice – a cubicle farm image. It seems that over time that our conflicting and sometimes complementary images of SALC are now blending together.

Peter: That’s right, and on an individual level, our own images of SALC are changing as well. I now think about SALC much more in terms of a community space than I used to.

Paul: Yes. And I am moving away from a community interaction metaphor and towards more of the kind of self-directed study space that Lee was initially lobbying for.

The concept of metaphors of self access and this particular SALC have revealed a diversity of images and, interestingly, some shifts over the first year. These are shown in the extract, for example, with both Peter and Paul whose metaphors were initially different but were later supplemented – Peter retaining his view of SALC as an Extensive Reading and Listening space and adding the metaphor of a community space.

Language policy.

(recorded after seven months of operation)

Lee, a committee member researching language policy, started this discussion of how language policy, which had been at first strictly “English only,” had shifted as some mentors and teachers did not believe that the students’ first language (Japanese) should be banned when learning English.

Lee: One important theme is our overall language policy in the center. I remember one committee member in the first few weeks suggesting strict guidelines on language policy, even asking students to leave SALC if they speak Japanese.

Keiko: I was one of the objectors to this proposal as my experience of language center use in the UK was one of flexibility in code switching.

Peter: Even as the head of the committee, I find it hard to enforce a hard-line policy because I simply don’t believe banning Japanese is sound practice. I think code-switching between languages is healthy – it contrasts languages. But I admit some students don’t make enough effort.

Lee: Yes, I’ve noticed that but it’s a matter of encouragement to use as much as possible and for students to regulate themselves, rather than have classroom-style rules to enforce rules.

There is some overlap here between the metaphor theme and language policy, as Keiko’s metaphor of multilingual mentors reminds us. As can be seen from the above extract, the initially strict one-language policy was relaxed to accommodate views on the benefits of first language (L1) use. As Peter said, allowing code switching may be sound practice. The center’s current policy reflects the view that L1 (Japanese) can be of benefit in language learning (Creese & Blackledge, 2010) and is a linguistic resource which develops “local, pragmatic coping tactics” (Lin, 2005, p. 46) providing “safe” language practice opportunities (Martin, 2005, p. 80) for less confident students who require, as Lee pointed out, encouragement rather than enforcement.

Integration with curricula.

(recorded after 10 months of operation)

Lee and Paul initiated this discussion since after almost one full academic year of operation, SALC had been integrated closely with the English EAP curriculum as taught by foreign teachers, but not by any Japanese teachers of language(s) or content.

Lee: We need to keep our sights on the primary objectives of the SALC, meaning the idea of student self-directed learning. When we opened, we concentrated on the center’s integration with the English curriculum and how important it was to incorporate some SALC activities, reading and listening, into the curriculum so that students needed to visit the center regularly.

Paul: One thing we agreed on early on was that a balanced push–pull system would work well for us. The idea came from a JASAC Forum at JALT 2007 where Robert Crocker talked about how they balanced push and pull at his school. Push for us means activities that push people into the SALC for activities that teachers assign to be done in SALC. Some are simple worksheets kept in SALC instead of being distributed in class, projects like recording free conversations and submitting the tapes for grading, or Extensive Reading and Extensive Listening. These assignments and projects seem to be well integrated into the curricula of various classes and are being monitored by students in their SALC files.

Sayaka: I agree that things seem to be OK so far with the ”push” side of our integration with English but we have collected a lot of feedback from students which shows that the points system for ER and EL is too complicated. As each page of reading or each activity is worth certain points depending on the level of difficulty and the time required, it’s confusing and we actually get more questions related to the system than to improving English.

Keiko: Yes, I remember that. We mentors agree that the system needs to be simplified for the second year.

Paul: The problems with the points system does lead to another concern. There’s some fear that we are leaning too heavily towards a “push” focus. The students are starting to see SALC as a homework zone so we need to move back to more balance thinking of our goals of autonomy and self direction. Are we scaffolding self access or just setting a series of hoops the students have to jump through to pass their courses? The jury is still out. We also need to look at how our students interact with the materials and activities. I think that we are currently operating at a general practice level but need a more focused model as in the Focused practice with an eye towards Transfer to a real skill balanced with General practice from Toogood.

Later in the same conversational narrative Sayaka moved on to the integration of SALC with other subjects, an issue which was of concern to the committee.

Sayaka: As our center is called a Self Access Learning Center, we should promote other languages besides English. In this region, English, Chinese, Korean, and Russian are all economically and politically important so we need to welcome non-English language teachers into SALC to make it a four-language zone.

Peter: Yes, I think we need to take the next step there of reaching out to other language teachers but I’m personally unsure how much autonomy they want to promote.

Sayaka: I think we can only try. But it kind of shows diversity in learning languages. We also want to promote a variety of approaches to language learning and learner autonomy. I remember reading Kubota who said western ideas of learner autonomy are not necessarily best suited to Asian students and advises against imposing them through overly “western” teaching and learning environments.

Lee: That’s really true. I think we need to be sensitive to other Asian teachers’ ways of teaching. Also, we need to get away from this model of English as being represented by a blue-eyed westerner.

Sayaka: I think to some extent that is being achieved by us mentors. We’re not native speakers but offer students a more accessible model, like Murphey’s near peer role models. Another way of doing this has been to invite Japanese teachers of content subjects to SALC to talk in English about their experiences as language learners. This guest speaker programme has been well-received by students.

The discussions on SALC’s integration with the university curricula show how there is an emerging concern that the overwhelming “push,” or obligation for credit purposes, to visit the center need to be rebalanced with more voluntary “pull” activities. It is these latter reasons for using self-access which may become embedded in the students’ long-term, self-directed learning repertoires. Additionally, as recognized by the committee members, push activities which are complex, for example the ER/EL points system, can be demotivating for students and need to be replaced by simple, user-friendly systems. Mentors particularly noted the importance of integrating center use with other languages and bringing Japanese content teachers into the center to talk about their subject in English. This is seen as a repositioning of SALC’s image from one in which the English native-speaker model predominates to embracing non-native speakers of English as more attainable models of language use (Murphey, 1996). Additionally, as Sayaka noted, western assumptions of Asian learners’ abilities to study autonomously need to be rethought (Kubota, 2002) and supplemented with a realistic understanding of students’ own views on how to direct their own learning.

Institutional positioning.

One underlying point of reference for the theme of institutional positioning, both inside the SALC committee and in the university, has been the concept of “community of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991). A community of practice is seen as a group of people engaged in an activity or profession and who develop themselves by sharing expertise. Wenger (1998, p. 72-73) highlights “mutual engagement,” “shared repertoire,” and “joint enterprise” as three key interconnected concepts which constitute the social fabric to nurture collaboration among its members. In consideration of these concepts, the committee has been working towards becoming a relatively tight community of practice by focusing on rapport and collaborative effort among its members. However, a recurring sub-theme of discussion has been how that community contrasts with the larger and looser university community of diverse faculties and management with possibly less of a shared vision. The mentor, Keiko, initiated this discussion a few months after SALC opened and it became a recurring theme throughout the year. Discussions addressed budgets which she was involved in and shifted to the committee, mentors, and positioning in the university.

Keiko: Budget negotiation is very difficult because we have three sources of money. When I started in April, I asked the university how much we could spend but it was unclear. Strangely, nobody knew. Eventually, I found out we could spend about two million Yen for materials which later decreased to one million. Another source of finance is from the regional government for furniture. Later, we heard of yet another source, the Good Practice budget from the national government for more materials and computers. This required us to make yet another budget. It’s difficult to keep track sometimes.

Peter: I know but basically having three budgetary sources is good news for us. The problem is that every budget proposal has been reduced creating some tension between us and those asking for revisions. We involve everyone on the committee to source materials for budgets so when we need to revise, everyone gets frustrated because the cutting process can sometimes be difficult and time-consuming.

Lee: Yes, I was really shocked to see so many revisions of budgets necessary. The university power structure situation seems really shadowy.

Peter: Inevitably, it involves an understanding that other departments and universities are all competing for a slice of the pie and if we are turned down on one proposal, there is probably a good reason for it. It’s what Bourdieu called understanding the symbolic capital of the university and beyond. As we are new, we’re probably lucky to have so much money in this first year.

Paul: I wonder how much of our confusion is connected to the “newness” we talked about before. Perhaps it’s not only that we don’t understand the symbolic capital here, but also that the power structure itself is still evolving around us, just like we are.

After six months of operation, Peter started a discussion about the committee itself and how it appeared to operate in isolation of non-English faculties.

Peter: From the first committee meetings we have made decisions as democratically as possible and have avoided top-down decision-making. I’m inspired by Lave and Wenger on communities of practice and the legitimacy of everyone’s participation, no matter how peripheral they think they are in the university.

Keiko: Yes, I’m happy about having a voice in our meetings but I wouldn’t dare speak out in the same way in the university office.

Peter: I see. I myself think your role as mentors is integral but is sometimes overlooked by the other teachers in the university. You are unique really in how you sit at the center of what Little calls the pedagogical dialogue between students, teachers, and other office management. I mean you have actually been coming into some English classes so you know what and how the students are learning. Perhaps more than I do as a teacher.

Sayaka: Taking part in English classes was really informative for me and Keiko. I wonder if we can get access to other lessons.

Keiko: We could ask but SALC is new, so we are struggling to find our position and identity among other content teachers. One issue possibly impacting upon this is that our committee is mostly made up of foreign English teachers. This is limiting for us all in the sense that we can’t understand the needs of other faculties. If we wish to include a wider spectrum of voices in SALC, then we need to reposition ourselves to meet wider curricular needs, not just those of foreign English teachers. That would naturally mean rethinking who becomes a committee member.

Paul: That’s an important consideration. It was unfortunate that in April the decision was made to appoint mostly foreign English teachers to the committee, and no teachers of other languages or content.

This final theme of institutional positioning returned to the concept of a community of practice. Keiko’s concerns about the difficulties of allocation of various budgets concur with Lee’s feeling of the “shadowy” nature of negotiations with university and non-university hierarchies. This was perhaps a difficult learning experience for committee members unused to the power relations or “symbolic capital” (Bourdieu, 1988) within the university and also what Paul noted as the “newness” of an institution still unsure of the roles and responsibilities in its own hierarchical structure. Finally, the sense of empowerment of mentors in its committee decision-making contrasted starkly with comments made by Keiko of how she would not dare to speak out to the wider university community. This shows the legitimization of her voice in SALC’s community of practice. However, it may be that the mentors’ pivotal role in the pedagogical dialogue (Little, 1995) between language and content teachers, students and university management is yet to be fully exploited.

Implications for Practice

Whilst our findings are localized to this particular center, this study has possible implications for other centers from the process employed. This process of data collection has used conversational narratives. The social interaction involved in collecting data this way has been healthy, reflective, and collaborative which leads to the implication that it may be more productive to allow themes to emerge and evolve than to establish a center with pre-determined assumptions which may not necessarily be suited to local realities. Additionally, this dialogic process promotes a flat hierarchy and democratic decision-making. This may represent a healthy model of collaboration between faculty and staff who would otherwise be restrained by differences in their hierarchical positioning.


This paper has represented the growth of a self access learning center in the form of free-form conversational narratives (Ochs & Capps, 2001) between its committee members over the first year of its operation. As is clear from the extracts, the co-construction of talk reveals telling insights into the practicalities and frustrations of a new center within a new university. This has specifically entailed struggles and reconciliation with the diverse metaphors on self access and SALC’s positioning within the larger university’s more hierarchical system, as illustrated in various forms of budget negotiations and perceptions of mentors. Outstanding issues to be resolved focus on the limited integration of the center with university curricula, especially with subjects taught by Japanese faculty. This has implications for the make-up of the committee formed to steer its activities which is lacking in its representativeness of the wider faculty. With the close integration with the EAP curriculum as taught by foreign teachers of English, there remain problems of an over-emphasis on teacher-directed push activities in SALC use by students. Positive findings point to a growing awareness of the English-speaking Japanese mentors representing more attainable near peer role models (Murphey, 1996). Additionally, the research being conducted through conversational narratives illustrates how the committee operates with a flat hierarchy to legitimize all its members’ views despite their peripheralization in the institution at large.

Finally, the dialogues over the first year are also argued as forming a regular site of social practice and professional development for their participants. Implied within this last observation is the inclusion of additional participants (other faculty and students) to engage in the legitimizing and empowering nature of conversational narratives.

Notes on the contributors

John Adamson is an Associate Professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture where he teaches English for Academic Purposes. He received his Ed.D. from Leicester University, U.K.. He is Senior Editor of Asian EFL Journal and the Linguistics Journal. His research interests focus on self-access and academic publishing.

Howard Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture in Japan. His teaching interests are in English for Academic Purposes and Content Based Instruction. His current research interests include issues in self access and Content and Language Integrated Learning. He is also involved in faculty development.

Naoki Fujimoto-Adamson is currently completing her Ed.D. thesis from Leicester University, U.K., on team-teaching in Japanese Junior High Schools. She works at the Self-Access Learning Center (SALC) at the University of Niigata Prefecture. Her research interests are in the fields of team-teaching and the history of ELT in Japan.


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[1] In keeping with the nature of conversational narratives, publication dates were not included when referring to literature in extracts.


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