* Classroom Discourse

Suppose that you want to describe a language classroom, such that no important aspect is left out, so that you can compare it with another classroom in order to make sensible statements about how they differ. What would have to be taken into account in order to adequately describe a language classroom? Well, one important aspect would surely be classroom discourse.

One fundemental aspect of classsroom discourse is that the teacher talks most of the time. Mercer (1995) notes that about 65% of the time the teacher talks and about 70% of teacher talk consists of lecturing or asking questions. In other words, there is an asymmetry in classroom talk, with teacher talk dominant. Do you think this is as it should be? I suppose you don’t, but it’s a fact. No matter how much everybody drones on about the communicate language approach, the need for students to engage in “real”, “communicative” exchanges and all that and all that, it’s the teacher who talks most of the time in just about all ELT classrooms all over the world. Below are some observations about classroom discourse.

Despite the awful refusal of the teacher to shut up, Mercer (1995:83) refers to classrooms as ‘discourse villages’ – “language outposts from which roads lead to larger communities of educated discourse.” Breen (2001) says, in similar vein, that learners have to know how to ‘navigate’ the opportunities and constraints provided by classroom discourse, finding things that address their immediate learning needs, and dealing with the other stuff that goes on in the life of the ‘village’. So, part of their learning is how to ‘do being a learner’ in a particular classroom with a particular teacher in order to take advantage of the learning opportunities it offers. For example, learners have to realize whether something being said is ‘real’ communication or pedagogical, intended as an example of a linguistic form or not, and make an appropriate response. The famous example is when the teacher asked Juan “Where did you go yesterday?” Juan responds “Yesterday, I went to Madrid”. “Oh really!” says the enlivened teacher; “”And why did you go to Madrid?” Juan looks confused because yesterday he hadn’t gone to Madrid, he was just trying to do what he thought he had been asked to do: use the irregular past tense of the verb “go”.

Some people take the view that no learning is going on unless teaching is going on, and that teaching necessarily involves the teacher talking. Even if the teacher herself doesn’t believe this, parents, administrators, school principals and also learners might do, and might expect the teacher to keep talking. You might find this amusing, but, again, it’s a fact. Let’s move on.

Doyle (1986) characterises classrooms as

1. Multidimensional – crowded and heterogeneous, containing actors with a range of abilities, goals and preferences, all with their own agendas
2. Simultaneous – many different things are happening at the same time
3. Immediate – things happen quickly, and move towards very short-term as well as long-term goals
4. Unpredictable – things are rarely smooth; unanticipated events are the norm, however well a lesson has been planned
5. Public – everybody present has access to what everybody else there is doing
6. Historical –shared experiences, routines and norms develop over a long period.

The talk that goes on in classrooms responds to all of these features. But they are also partly ‘private’, to the extent that what goes on in them is the result of interaction between a small group of participants who by virtue of their shared history build a micro-culture. Breen’s 1985 paper “The social context for language learning – a neglected situation?” was one of the first to draw attention to the nature of classrooms as cultures or as he called them ‘coral gardens’, drawing his metaphor from the 1935 book by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, Coral gardens and their magic.

Breen lists the following features of classrooms as cultures, some of which appear equivalent to items on Doyle’s list:

1. Interactive – participants interact with each other in various ways, some predictable and some not
2. Differentiated – the classroom is made up of participants who have different social realities
3. Collective – there are both personal and communal learning experiences and activities
4. Normative – individuals need to show they belong by following group norms and conventions
5. Asymmetrical – teachers have different rights and privileges because they know things that the learners don’t know. Also all learners are not equal.
6. Conservative – classroom cultures seek social and emotional equilibrium, which can make it difficult to introduce changes.
7. Jointly constructed – knowledge is jointly constructed and reconstructed, rarely in a straightforward step-wise way
8. Immediately significant – participants invest in the unfolding culture of the classroom because of its immediate relevance to what is to be done

More recently Holliday (1999) developed the notion of ‘small cultures’, in which shared practices are developed amongst groups that are at times more or less self-contained, but are dynamic and have multiple connections with other small cultures. Classrooms are good examples of such ‘small cultures’.

Another metaphor that has been applied to classrooms is that of ‘ecologies’ (van Lier, 1996, 2000; Kramsch, 2002; Tudor, 2003). This perspective emphasises the non-linearity of actions in classrooms as self-regulating and self-organising complex systems (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron, 2000).

Faced with this complexity it is not surprising that teachers resort to rituals, routines and repeated activity types in order to narrow down the range of possibilities of ‘what might happen next’, and establish a sense of shared expectations and make classroom life more predictable. But it may be that the breaking of routines allows learning opportunities to arise that would have been stifled in an orderly, routinised environment. Others have talked of ‘flow’, ‘rhythm’ or ‘smoothness’ where there is a balance between orderliness and a sense of adventure. Prabhu (1992) refers to the learners’ need for the security of shared expectations that established classroom routines can bring, and it’s a fair point; but Prabhu, for all his fame, was very much more in favour of orderliness than adventure.

For those teachers who try to get a bit more “genuine” in their communication with their learners, one of the characteristics of a classroom culture is shared knowledge of localised discourse norms and conventions. These include shared jargon and ‘family expressions’ that may be semi-technical, or have a restricted shared meaning derived from particular incidents that have occurred in the life of the classroom community. Cutting (2000) described in great detail linguistic features in the common-room conversations of students in a discourse community that developed over the year of a campus-based MSc Applied Linguistics course.

Another aspect of discourse norms is a shared orientation to different types of classroom talk, sometimes called “pedagogical genres”. See Cutting (2000) for more.

It’s generally accepted that classroom talk has to enable the pursuit of at least three goals:

1. Enabling learning by providing learning opportunities t5hrough practice. This is the primary raison d’être of classroom life, allowing subject content knowledge and skills to be learned. Different learning activities have to be initiated, carried out as intended, and brought to a close. Checks have to be made that understanding and learning are taking place.
2. Establishing and maintaining order. For such a complex context to function authority has to be established and routines and rules maintained. Some see the wider socialisation function of classrooms for certain age-groups as at least as important as the learning function.
3. Enabling the social life of the classroom to proceed. Classrooms are social worlds, and the participants have to relate to each other on a personal level as well as for ‘work’. They experience pleasure, conviviality, friendship, as well as fear, shame, alienation, humiliation, enmity, and relative power; they have to stay in a small room with each other for an hour or more at time, week after week and somehow get along. The teacher’s role is in part to establish a climate of care in which interpersonal aspects of classroom life can flourish.

Each of these goals will have associated discourses which can be traced in classroom talk. Each can be realized in talk in a number of different ways; order, for example, may be maintained through disciplinary authority or through consensual negotiation. Different teachers and learners may also have different conceptions of what constitutes ‘order’ in the classroom, and how to maintain it in the face of either highly structured or more open patterns of classroom talk. For more discussion on this see Wright (2005: Chapter 5).

A study by Chick (1996) also concerns the potential conflict between pedagogical and social goals. He refers to ‘safe talk’ as talk which takes into account the linguistic competencies of participants, both teachers and learners – especially when the participants’ first language is not the language of instruction. Techniques such as synchronised chorusing serves social rather than academic functions, and help learners to preserve their face when there is a chance that they will shown up as ‘wrong’ in a public context. He suggests that in this way teachers and learners collude in hiding the fact that little or no learning is taking place, resulting in underachievement in South African classrooms.

With regard to the problem of balancing the drive towards effective learning with the effect this might have on the individual learner’s willingness to maintain engagement in the lesson, Prabhu (1987) introduces the notion of ‘reasonable challenge’. He points out that while success in a task should not be the main or only criterion in the selection of classroom tasks, some degree of success is important for avoiding frustration, maintaining learners’ self-esteem and encouraging them to make continued efforts. The teacher has to maintain a sense of what constitutes a ‘reasonable challenge’ in her questioning and choice of tasks, to balance the cognitive demand that leads to learning with the affective domain. Too much support and too little challenge leads to ‘spoon-feeding’; too little support or challenge leads to loss of interest by the learner; too much challenge without sufficient support leads to demoralisation.

Bernstein (1996) suggests that what he calls ‘instructional discourse’, which creates or constrains learning opportunities, is always embedded within ‘regulatory discourse’, which is concerned with the relations between teacher and learner and creating and maintaining order. This means, he claims, that when problems arise in the classroom it is the social aspect that is oriented to first, establishing order so that instruction can then proceed.

Neil Mercer (1995, 1996) identified three ways of talking and thinking in classrooms:

1. Disputational talk (in which knowledge is not developed; learners dispute without seeking any consensus or understanding)
2. Cumulative talk (interlocutors make attempts to establish shared frames in which knowledge is built, but unquestioningly)
3. Exploratory talk (partners engage critically but constructively with each other’s ideas; knowledge is built through critical interrogation and reflection, in a relationship of shared power).

These categories were also developed with regard to general education and they may at first sight not appear relevant to language classes in which skills are being developed rather than understanding. However, they will be relevant to talk around texts or tasks, or devoted to what is called meta-cognitive knowledge or knowledge about language. When linguistic form is taught inductively (when learners have multiple examples of linguistic forms and attempt together to make sense of them in terms of patterns and possible rules) rather than deductively (when teachers give learners rules, which they then apply in practice), or when pairs or groups of learners work together on linguistic ‘problems’ (such as how to complete exercises), then the categories would seem to be applicable. Classrooms characterised by a positive, constructive social community of learners are more likely to be able to sustain constructive, exploratory talk than those which are not.

If teachers and learners can become aware of the discursive resources and constraints that operate in classrooms, and can learn how to use them to best advantage to meet their goals, then practical progress can be made. Walsh (2003, 2006) refers to developing ‘interactional awareness’ in second language classrooms, and Gieve and Miller use the term ‘interactional intelligence’ to much the same end. Walsh (2006) constitutes a significant attempt to address the need to raise both teachers’ and learners’ classroom interactional competence, defined as ‘Teachers’ and learners’ ability to use interaction as a tool for mediating and assisting learning’ (Walsh, 2006: 130). He suggests that participants’ awareness of interactional resources available in the classroom environment can promote the creation and nurturing of learning opportunities. The key here is to be responsive to the lesson context as constantly unfolding and changing, and to create ‘space for learning’ through such things as:

• extended wait-time:
• reduced teacher echo;
• planning time for ‘rehearsal’;
• facilitating student initiations and clarifications; and
• shaping learner output through paraphrasing, scaffolding, re-iterating, and appropriating learner talk.

This naturally involves a good deal of teaching skill, which can be developed through raising interactional awareness through ‘Self Evaluation of Teacher Talk’ (SETT), as outlined in Walsh’s book.

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