Classroom Discourse Part 5: Teacher language and cognitive activity
In our last article about classroom discourse, we looked at the relationship between teacher activity and how students think. So where does this leave us? If we agree that teacher language, especially teacher questioning strategies, have an effect on the discourse of the classroom, i.e. the ways in which students interact and process language, and if we agree that teacher instruction prompts learners to process language at different levels of cognition, then it follows that teacher language can be planned to encourage students to perform higher-cognitive processing, and produce language and ideas which show that this processing is taking place.
There is a host of evidence (Long and Sato, 1983; Brock, 1986; Walsh, 2011 and many more) which shows a link between teacher activity and learner language, often demonstrating that learner output mirrors teacher language in both form and complexity. In previous articles in this series we have seen that the quality of teacher questions (open, closed, display and referential) can affect the quality of interaction and engagement in learners. The same is true of the cognitive levels of the interaction which takes place in the classroom.
Building a ‘dialogic’ classroom
Going back to the IRF sequence from previous articles, we saw that the traditional, teacher-framed discourse structure was prohibitive to student ideas and discussion, as responses were ‘rubber-stamped’ as acceptable (or not) by the authority of the classroom: the teacher. However, a secondary effect of this controlling IRF sequence is that it limits student cognition to low-end processing. Even if a response is given to a tricky question, requiring a lot of puzzling out, students are only acting on the cognitive scale at the level of ‘knowledge utilisation / problem-solving’. This is a critical thinking skill, but once the response the students give is deemed ‘correct’ (or not) by the teacher, all chance for higher-level interaction disappears, as the student-driven process of finding the answer is left incomplete, and the focus on students’ decision-making and logical reasoning is lost.
Taking the opportunity to open up the IRF sequence after a task leads to more discussion and more opportunity to go into how and why learners settled on the response they did, critique their thought processes and reflect on how effective they were, before perhaps trying again. Opening up post-task feedback to other learners in the room allows further monitoring of accuracy and processes, leading to a more ‘dialogic’ (Wells, 2007), or discursive atmosphere (ideal for authentic, free practice in a second language) and raises the cognitive level of what students are doing with their language.
Building a reflective classroom
Without the chance to reflect and revisit what is being done in the language classroom, it is very difficult for anyone to know how much progress is being made. Learners may be able to produce perfect sentences and communicate beautifully during a task, but unless they consider how their language and skills have been developed, and whether that was an effective process for their wider study, they will be doing a lot more work than they need to every time they meet a new piece of language, or work with with a new idea.
Reflection goes hand in hand with process monitoring and goal-setting - developing strategies for success in learners’ study is essential, but not possible in a classroom which emphasises correct responses from students and activities dictated by the teacher. Student-centred interaction and following reflective activities therefore develop not only language, but thinking skills and study strategies too.
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.