In the last article, we identified a traditional feature of classroom discourse, the Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) exchange, which is controlled by the teacher and leaves little room for student cognition, as student language is ‘rubber-stamped’ as ‘correct’ or ‘inadequate’ by the teacher. In this article, we will look at some alternatives to this restrictive type of interaction, and think about the effects which a more open, student-inclusive discourse can be enabled in language classes.
The main issue with the IRF routine is that it supports the teacher’s dominant role in the interaction that happens in a lesson. An IRF exchange is initiated by the teacher, gives the teacher sole responsibility for evaluation of student language and ideas, restricts student language to what the teacher wants to hear, and ends with the teacher having the final word in the matter, by praising, correcting or criticising the student’s output.
Imagine another communicative situation outside the language classroom where one speaker gave him or herself these roles in interaction. Anyone speaking to that person would quickly take offence or be put off by the selfish, critical and controlling nature of the conversation. If the aim of the language classroom is to aid learners in their development as effective language users, the interaction of the classroom should to some extent mirror the type of interaction which occurs in authentic communicative settings. Admittedly, it is the teacher’s job to organise what happens in the classroom, and any teacher would like their students to come out of their classroom using language accurately and appropriately, but is the proscriptive IRF routine, repeated tens of times per hour (as it is in the majority of language classrooms I have sat in), the best way to achieve this?
Developing a ‘prize-winning laboratory’ classroom
In language education more than many other academic disciplines, the classroom is a ‘laboratory’ setting, where students should be able to experiment with the language they are learning, make mistakes and evaluate the effectiveness of what they are saying or writing as they go. After all, only by learning from our mistakes can we succeed in anything. That is how new scientific discoveries are made and Nobel prizes are won. However, neither scientists nor language learners can work towards large-scale developments without the space to think, evaluate and reflect on what they are doing. The restrictions of the IRF discourse routine, while aiming at accuracy through teacher evaluation, may actually be preventing that development from taking place beyond the level of students getting things right on the spot. So how can we open up the discourse of the classroom to bring in more of this reflective, evaluative process to our students’ learning?
Plan the I turn: Ask the right kind of question
Focusing on the Initiation turn of the traditional IRF exchange, teacher-student interaction is most commonly initiated by the teacher in order to control the movement between topics, the focus on specific content or the elicitation of ideas to use int he class. This in itself is not a bad thing, unless (as we have seen) that becomes too dominant over student ideas.
There are many ways of asking a question, and the way you frame the Initiation prompt can greatly affect the resulting response and ongoing interaction which occur as a result. A simple contrast can be drawn between open and closed questions. Clearly, open questions, with more than two possible answers, will result in more varied responses as learners consider which of the possible responses they have will fit the bill as a response. In this way, open, information questions can prompt for more than closed, binary questions.
Another distinction, which is more relevant to the effects on discourse which can come about as a result, is the difference between display and referential questions. Display questions are questions to which the asker already knows the answer; a common teaching tool used to gauge students’ understanding of a point from the lesson, as in the ever-present ‘what is the answer to number 3?’ or ‘what is this man doing?’. The teacher knows the answer, therefore student responses can be gauged for accuracy against the teacher’s. Here, though, there is a danger in terms of the quality of discourse which can ensue: firstly, as we have seen, if there is a ‘correct’ answer, then any student response is closed down in terms of discussion, as they will get the inevitable ‘yes, good’, or ‘hmm… not quite’ in response.
Alternatively, the use of referential questions - questions to which the speaker does not know the answer - can be very effective at certain points in the lesson, to bring out ideas and comments that are new to the interaction and serve to answer in a way that can create discovery, and therefore exploration of new ideas. The interaction which goes along with this type of response will be more likely to become discursive, or dialogic, in that it can prompt new and different ideas from those involved in the interaction.
Taking even the most restrictive Initiation turn, such as the ‘what’s the answer to number 3?’ example given below, a more open, alternative could be enabled by simply rephrasing the question in terms of the content of the question, as in exchanges 2, below:
Question 3: The man ran away because he saw a _______
Initiation 1: What’s the answer to number 3?
Response 1a: Wolf
Response 1b: b)
Feedback 1: Good.
Initiation 2a: In question 3, how did the man feel?
Response 2a: scared / afraid / frightened / shocked / terrified…
Initiation 2b: OK, so why was he so scared?
Response 2b: Because he saw a wolf!
Pre-feedback 2: How did you find the answer to that question?
Feedback (student explains process / location of keyword in text, etc.)
This build-up of information, rather than a focus on ‘getting the question right’ engages students in the language they are using, and brings them closer to the purpose for using language: to communicate ideas effectively.
Bringing in a further question about the process of finding the answer (a pre-feedback turn) requires the student to handle a referential question, to which there is no ‘right’ answer, and which the teacher does not already know. This is so open and unpredictable that I did not even feel I could script it out in the example! That is a true example of authentic, dialogic interaction rather than the restricted, teacher-dominated rubber-stamping which we saw in last month’s article.
This example 2 shows how a simple multiple choice question can be opened up to form a dialogue with unrestricted responses from students, yet still serve the purpose of the task - to check comprehension and accuracy, while also focusing on the learning process that the learners undertake to ensure that they are performing well during tasks.
Extend the R turn: Ask around the room
The above example shows how the Response turn in an IRF sequence can be extended by taking a referential approach and focusing on the process of completing the task. As the R turn is where the student controls the interaction, and is providing input into the exchange, this is the point which should be expanded as much as possible, giving the students opportunities to communicate their ideas and use the language they are learning.
Some ways of doing this are:
Never accepting the first answer given to you, whether correct or not, but referring to another student or students (if the first response is off the mark) to say whether they agree. Passing student ideas around for evaluation is simple, and may seem risky at first, as students ‘judge’ each others’ ideas, but the resulting thought processes and the potential for dialogue between students makes this a risk worth taking. In addition, if this is part of your teaching routine and you do this systematically, students soon come to expect it as part of the interaction of your classroom.
(as we saw above) asking a student to justify their answer by either telling you the process they took to find that response, or to show where they found the answer in a text or sentence example. Focusing on the process can turn a poor response into a positive ‘teaching moment’ as different students explain their processes and evaluate each others’ responses independently of you. This is empowering and involves critical thinking on the part of the students as they gauge the accuracy of each others’ processes before you point them towards an accurate answer.
Asking students to explain why another answer is not correct, before highlighting the correct answer. ‘Why is a) NOT the answer?’ will provoke a much more detailed thought process than the simple ‘what is the answer?’ which students have been working on throughout the activity. This keeps them on their toes and encourages more spontaneous, creative thinking.
Delay the F turn: Leave room for peer evaluation
Above all, it is important to delay the final ‘rubber-stamp’ which is the expected role of a teacher. Leaving more interactional space for discussion of responses, perhaps after a few of the answers have been given, to give an opportunity to rethink answers together, goes a long way to building a healthier, critical and student-centred atmosphere in class. Encouraging learners to question everything, even the most ‘obvious’ answer, is essential to building a spirit of enquiry and the processes which go along with being a careful, evaluative learner.
In your next few lessons, look out for opportunities to extend the traditional IRF routine, and think about ways that you can bring higher-cognitive, dialogic interaction into the discourse of your classroom: Think about ways that you can plan your Initiation turns to elicit less concrete, black-and-white responses. Ask for more Response turns from different members of the class, bringing in more alternative views on the questions you ask, and delay the Feedback turn until multiple learners have evaluated the idea which is on the table for discussion.
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.