Classroom Discourse part 2: Teacher questions and questioning routines

Ever since Socrates guided his students through philosophical problems in ancient Greece, questions have been an integral part of the language of education. A question asked by a teacher entails a response from a student, which provides opportunity for the student to think out the problem, plan their response and discuss different possible answers. Teacher questions have been the subject of much of the research which has been done into classroom discourse, and it has been shown that their effects on the interaction which happens in the language classroom are not always positive.

As we saw in part 1 of this series, classroom discourse explores to structure of interaction in the classroom, and the sequences of communicative exchanges which occur between the participants of the learning setting. One such sequence, which was defined early in the emergence of classroom discourse analysis by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975), is the IRF exchange. IRF refers to the structure of a questioning event which will be familiar to you as an educator, as it is by far the most common type of exchange in a typical classroom situation. The classic IRF exchange is structured as follows:

I (Initiation) - The teacher initiates a ‘questioning event’ by asking a question, providing a prompt or eliciting a word or phrase from a student or students.

R (Response) - A student gives the answer, says a word or responds to the prompt from the Initiation’ stage.

F (Feedback) - The teacher provides an evaluation of the student’s response, usually commenting on accuracy, acceptability or ‘correctness’ in terms of the teacher’s original Initiation.

A typical IRF sequence that occurs thousands of times every hour in classrooms around the world, here from a listening task set in a cafe, might be:

I: Teacher: Can anyone give me the answer to number 2?

R: Student/s: He wanted coffee without sugar

F: Teacher: Yes, good!

On first sight, this may seem like a natural, productive part of a lesson; the teacher is going through the answers to a task, the students are demonstrating that they have understood what they were supposed to, and they are getting positive feedback to encourage them to keep going. This is fine, and works well to keep the lesson on track through the task at hand. However, language learning, unlike other, knowledge-based subjects such as history, mathematics or geography, requires much more than responses to information questions.

An effective real-world communicator (as we would like our students to become) has to operate in many different communicative settings, environments in which interaction varies wildly and is structured in many different ways, depending on the situation. Here, we are looking at classroom discourse, but every communicative setting has a different expected discourse, requiring flexibility, planning, communicative strategies and knowledge of social cues such as register, politeness and other situation-specific conventions.

Thinking again about the IRF sequence above, in terms of the different communicative requirements found even in the single setting of the language classroom, it seems somewhat limiting to the students’ communicative skills. The IRF sequence is almost always initiated by the teacher, leaving little room for students to develop their proactive, inquisitive language use. The sequence usually assumes a very restricted set of ‘correct’, or at least ‘acceptable’ responses, which is not how the world works outside the classroom. The range of ‘acceptable’ responses in natural communication, even in a setting as specific as a train station, is incredibly wide by comparison, and lack of exposure to a free discourse environment can hinder students when they come to meet other, non-classroom based situations where they are required to use English to interact.

Perhaps the most inhibiting aspect of the traditional IRF framework for students is its effect on the power structure of the communicative event. Being the initiator (in the ‘I’ stage), and ultimately the judging authority (in the ‘f’ stage), the teacher frames the students’ responses, trapping student language into the strict control of his or her questions. This is dangerous for anyone learning a language, as it means that it is impossible for students to be empowered in their language use. Their language choices, personalities, wishes and freedom of expression are all curtailed by the dominance of the I and F stages of the exchange. This is a huge issue for any learner who wants to communicate beyond the confines of a standardised assessment or strictly defined testing situation.

In summary, the fact that teachers ask questions is a good thing - it prompts thought and response from the students. However, we must be careful to frame our questions in a way that opens up the discourse environment for freer student participation and interaction. This will be the focus of the next article in the series.

Next month, we will look at some alternatives to the restrictive IRF routine, and think about some ways of extending student turns, prompting for more flexible types of response from learners, and look at some more empowering strategies for managing the interaction of the classroom.

In the next month, look out for interactions that occur between yourself and a student / students, or between two or more students in your class. How much do you use the IRF routine in your teaching? Does it generate student ideas, or restrict them to what you want to hear?

Are you taking enough opportunities to pass over evaluative, analytical and exploratory activity to the students? Try some different ways of opening up your discourse with your students to allow them more speaking time, space and power in the classroom.

Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the new RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on specific contexts within ESOL, including exam preparation and assessment literacy.

If you are interested to know more about these new qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our course pages for details.

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