Classroom Discourse Part 1: Learning to listen to classroom talk
As language educators, we have a lot to think about when we are planning and teaching our classes. We are often so focused on the language we are teaching, the activities the students are performing, and whether everyone doing what they are supposed to, that one feature gets lost in the journey to the end of the lesson.
That is, the actual interaction that goes on between the members of the class, you included!
The main job that language educators do is strongly connected to the communication which happens in the classroom. The primary purpose of language itself is to communicate, so it follows that we should keep an eye (and an ear) on the different ways that learners communicate with each other, and the ways in which we communicate with students individually, in groups and as a whole class. Teacher and student language, and the role the different interactions play in teaching and learning, have been the subject of many studies, and there are many fascinating summaries of what goes on in the classroom by Steve Walsh (2002, 2006, 2011), Barbara Johnstone (2002) and Cullen (1998), which I would recommend to anyone looking more closely at the interaction that happens in the classroom situation.
In general language terms, discourse refers to the way that speakers and writers structure their message for specific purposes, audiences and situations. This can include the language functions which we use (and expect to be used) in different settings, the structural and word choices that we make when we speak or write in different situations, and the connections we make between different aspects of the messages which are co-constructed by the speakers (or in writing between the reader and the writer) in different situations.
Discourse analysis thinks about language in these terms, looking at the ways that different ideas are structured in different types of interaction, the messages and sequences of messages which are expected and carried out in different types of interaction, and how speakers and writers achieve the communicative tasks that they want to express in order to manage interaction effectively. This ranges across grammar, vocabulary usage, ordering and organisation of messages, and even aspects of pronunciation, which all play a part in how interaction is managed.
Thinking about the language classroom as a setting where interaction takes place, and communicative tasks are carried out, what aspects of teacher and student language, as outlined above, come into play when the members of a group interact? In order to answer this question, we need to separate the language of the classroom into different categories, according to the purpose they are aiming to fulfil.
Taking students as the focus, every lesson contains some kind of target language: the language items, vocabulary or grammar being studied in the lesson. Then, there is interactional language: the exchanges which go on around the tasks and learning activity which go on in a lesson. Added to this is transactional language: the language the members of the class use to get jobs done and work through the learning activity that they are given. These types of student talk will be the focus of future articles in this series.
Much of a teacher’s language use is to some extent planned with the purpose of instructing the students, so this can be referred to as instructional language: the graded questions, explanations and prompts given to students to aid in their learning of the target language for the lesson. There are many specific features of instructional language which will also be the focus of future articles in this series.
Most interesting from a teaching point of view is the effects which can be brought about by a teacher making different language choices in their instruction. The quality and quantity of teacher talk in a lesson can directly affect the language used by students, the confidence they show in their work, and even their ways of thinking during the lesson. This is the real reason we should be interested in classroom discourse: to use it for the benefit of the thinking, understanding and language use that our students perform in our lessons. Classroom discourse is an essential tool for language educators and should not be overlooked at the expense of a narrow focus on the target language being taught.
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. Focus on three interactions which stand out to you, and answer the following questions:
Why did this interaction stand out in particular? Was it interesting in a positive or a negative way, in terms of the learning that was happening in the class at the time?
What was the situation when the interaction occurred? During a discussion, a worksheet task, an open-class setting, or another situation?
Think about the interaction in terms of its structure. How did this interaction begin? What happened just before it? Who started the interaction and why, who continued the exchange and how? Break the interaction down into functional pieces and map it out.
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.