Supportive teacher talk: the importance of the F-move Richard Cullen
This paper investigates a particular aspect of teacher talk—the teacher’s provision of feedback or follow-up—and examines the role it plays in EFL /ESL classroom discourse. It draws on transcript data from a secondary school classroom in Tanzania to illustrate a teacher’s follow-up moves, where these moves form the third part of a chain of I-R-F (Initiate–Respond–Follow-up) exchanges between the teacher and her students. Two main roles of the Fmove are identiﬁed—evaluative and discoursal—each of which, I argue, supports learning in di¤erent ways. The paper focuses, in particular, on discoursal follow-up, and the strategies which the teacher in the data uses to build on students’ contributions and develop a meaning-focused dialogue with the class.
The ‘F-move’ refers to the ‘Follow-up’ or ‘Feedback’ move identiﬁed by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) in their now well-known analysis of classroom discourse, as the third move in the I-R-F exchange structure, where ‘I’ represents an initiating move, such as a question posed by the teacher, ‘R’ is the response from the class—usually from an individual student—and ‘F’ is the follow-up comment by the teacher. The three moves are illustrated in Example 1 below: (1) T: What’s the boy doing? (I) S1: He’s climbing a tree. (R) T: That’s right. He’s climbing a tree. (F) In this example, the teacher is asking her students a question about a picture in their textbooks. The teacher’s F-move has a primarily evaluative function: it gives the students feedback about whether the response was acceptable or not, a function that was recognized in the term ‘feedback’, which Sinclair and Coulthard originally used to describe the move. Subsequently, the term ‘follow-up’ has become the preferred term, in recognition of the fact that ‘feedback’ describes a function of the move rather than the move itself (Sinclair and Brazil 1982). The implication is that the move may also serve other functions. The purpose of this paper is to consider the role that teachers’ follow-up moves perform in the English language classroom. The kind of classrooms I shall be referring to are large secondary school classes where English is taught as a foreign language on the school curriculum, ELT Journal Volume 56/2 April 2002 © Oxford University Press
and where traditional ‘whole class teacher-fronted interactions’ (Jarvis and Robinson 1997: 212) predominate. The arguments I shall make regarding the importance of follow-up are not, however, exclusive to such contexts, but I believe they have application in almost any classroom. I-R-Fs and the
The I-R-F exchange structure as traditionally practised, with the teacher providing the great majority of the Initiation moves, has been the target of some criticism in the communicative language teaching movement, on the grounds that it fails to give the students opportunities to ask questions themselves, nominate topics of interest to them, and negotiate meaning (Nunan 1987, Thornbury 1996). In short, it is associated with a heavily teacher-centred classroom methodology. Nevertheless, it seems to have survived the communicative revolution remarkably unscathed, an observation made by Nunan (1987). One reason for this may be that teachers instinctively adopt an I-R-F mode of instruction because it is perceived, perhaps unconsciously, to be a powerful pedagogic device for transmitting and constructing knowledge. Seedhouse (1996) notes the high frequency of I-R-Fs in transcripts of parent-child talk, presumably for the same reason, and makes the point that ‘given the prominence of the I-R-F cycle in parent-child interaction, one might therefore have expected communicative theorists to be actively promoting the use of the I-R-F cycle rather than attempting to banish it.’ (ibid.: 20) It is arguably the third part of this cycle, the F-move, which distinguishes classroom talk most obviously from many speech events outside the classroom (although as we shall see, follow-up moves do occur in other contexts too, albeit less frequently), by dint of the important pedagogical function it serves, that of providing feedback to the learner. Outside the classroom (e.g. in social conversations), follow-up moves are ‘always optional and unpredicted’ (Francis and Hunston 1992: 136). In the classroom context, on the other hand, a teacher’s follow-up is normal and expected, as Sinclair and Coulthard (1975: 51) argue: So important is feedback that if it does not occur we feel conﬁdent in saying that the teacher has deliberately withheld it for some strategic purpose. It is deviant to withhold feedback continually. They go on to describe a class reduced to silence by the teacher’s deliberate failure to provide feedback: the students could not see the point of the teacher’s questions. Feedback or follow-up is thus seen as an obligatory, inevitable, feature of teacher-initiated classroom exchanges. It is thus worth investigating further the role it plays in supporting learning, with a view to determining how teachers can use it to best e¤ect.
F-moves outside the classroom
Although follow-up moves are arguably most prevalent in exchanges involving asymmetrical role relationships, such as teacher-to-student and parent-to-child (and, as Coulthard (1982) has shown, in doctor-patient exchanges), they can also occur in conversation between equals, as the two exchanges below from Francis and Hunston’s (1992) data illustrate. The exchanges are taken from a telephone conversation:
(2) A: You got home all right? You weren’t too tired? B: Well, er, I got up pretty late myself. I mean I—I was supposed to get up at about seven o’clock. A: What d’you mean, you were supposed to? B: Well I had the alarm clock on for seven. A: Hah (low key)
I R I R F
(Francis and Hunston 1992: 138) (3) A: Well, your alarm clock doesn’t seem to work. B: No, it did. I think I turned it o¤. A: Mm. It’s you that doesn’t work.
I R F
(ibid.: 142) In the above examples the functions of the F-moves, that is the discourse ‘acts’ which they perform, are very di¤erent from the evaluative function of the classroom example in (1) above, a function which—not surprisingly—is very rare in everyday conversation. A’s ‘Hah’ in (2), said with a low key intonation, and his ‘Mm’ in (3) are classiﬁed by Francis and Hunston as ‘terminate’ acts, in that they acknowledge the preceding utterance and terminate the exchange. In (3), A’s ‘It’s you that doesn’t work’ acts as a follow-up ‘comment’, an act whose function, as described by the authors (p. 133), is ‘to exemplify, expand, explain, justify, provide additional information, or evaluate one’s utterance’, and not, it will be noted, the preceding speaker’s. Another act commonly associated with F-moves in Francis and Hunston’s data is the ‘endorse’ act, where a speaker o¤ers a positive endorsement (e.g. an expression of sympathy) of a preceding utterance (e.g. ‘You poor thing.’). Analyses of everyday conversation are interesting in that they reveal functions of follow-up moves which, as we shall see, are also available to language teachers in their everyday classroom interaction, alongside more traditional evaluative follow-up, and which are clearly present in the classroom data presented in this paper.
Evaluative and discoursal roles of follow-up
From an analysis of lesson transcripts made by the author from video recordings of secondary school English classes in Tanzania, two broad pedagogical roles of the ‘follow-up’ move emerge: an evaluative and a discoursal role. The evaluative role is exempliﬁed in Example 1, and its function is to provide feedback to individual students about their performance, and in particular, in the language teaching classroom, to allow learners ‘to conﬁrm, disconﬁrm and modify their interlanguage rules’ (Chaudron 1988: 133). The focus is on the form of the learner’s response: whether, for example, the lexical item or grammatical structure provided by the learner was acceptable or not. The feedback may be an explicit acceptance or rejection of the response (e.g. ‘Good’, ‘Excellent’, ‘No’, ‘Nearly’) or some other indication that the response was not acceptable (e.g. repetition of the response with a low rising, questioning intonation). Evaluative follow-ups typically, but not exclusively, co-occur with ‘display’ questions in the I-move, that is, questions which the teacher asks in order to elicit a pre-determined response.
Supportive teacher talk
The discoursal role of the F-move is qualitatively di¤erent from its evaluative role: the purpose is to pick up students’ contributions and to ‘incorporate them into the flow of (classroom) discourse’ (Mercer 1995: 26), in order to sustain and develop a dialogue between the teacher and the class: the emphasis is thus on content rather than form. There is no explicit correction of the form of the student’s R-move, although the teacher may give implicit feedback by reformulating the utterance in a linguistically more acceptable form. Discoursal follow-up typically cooccurs with questions which have a ‘referential’ rather than a display function (i.e. where there is no right or wrong answer predetermined by the teacher).
Discoursal follow-up: The transcript below is taken from a video recording of an English lesson an example from an in a government secondary school in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. The EFL classroom teacher is asking her class of some 40 girls questions about the picture on the cover of a graded reader they are about to read. The extract forms a chain of I-R-F exchanges, with the F-moves printed in bold face and numbered F1, F2, etc. TRANSCRIPT
T: Where was the picture taken? Yes, please? S1: In the aeroplane. T (F1): In the aeroplane. Good, yes. In the aeroplane.
I R F
Now, second question. What do we call this man in the white shirt? Yes please? I S2: The … R T: Just one word is enough. R/I S2: Pilot. R T (F2): Pilot. Yes. The pilot. F T: Now what is this other man holding? Yes, please? S3: A pistol. T (F3): A pistol. Right.
I R F
Now what kind of man is he? What do we call such men who have pistols and point them at pilots? Yes, Please? Indicates S4. I S4: We call a robber. R T (F4): A robber? Yes. A thief you mean? Yes, if this was happening on the ground, it could be a thief, but this man’s in a plane. Pause F T:
Anyhow let us move on. Maybe we will know the name of this man who is holding the pistol later. Can you tell me— what is he telling the pilot? I Suppose you are there, listening. What is he telling the pilot? Yes? S5: He is telling him ‘Hands Up!’ R T (F5): Hands up! F 120
T: Anything else? Yes? I S6: He is telling him now to be under his control. R T (F6): ‘Now you are under my command. You have to do whatever I want you to do.’ F T:
Anything else …? Now, if he shot the pilot, what do you think would happen to the plane, and all the passengers that are inside the plane? Now some people here—it’s very quiet here. What do you think would happen to the plane? Yes please? I S7: The plane would fall down. R T (F7): The plane would fall down. It would crash, and all the passengers unfortunately would die. Maybe some would survive, but most likely they would die. F T:
Now suppose you were inside the plane and this was happening. What would you do? You have to imagine yourself now, you are in the plane. I Pause. Now I’ll give you two minutes to discuss it with your friend. Two minutes. Ss discuss in pairs at their desks. OK, yes, please? S8: I shall pray my God because I know it is my ﬁnal time. Laughter. R T (F8): She says she’s going to kneel down and say ‘Please God, F forgive my sins.’ Laughter. T: Yes, please? I S9: I won’t do anything, I’m going to die. R T (F9): She won’t do anything. She’ll just close her eyes … F Laughter … and say: ‘Take me if you want—if you don’t want, leave me.’
T Yes? I S10: I will shout. R T (F10): You will shout. Aagh! Laughter. I don’t know if Heaven will hear you. Laughter F T: Yes, please? S11: I will be very frightened and collapse … T (F11): You’ll collapse? So you will die before the plane crashes. Laughter.
I R F
Now will you open the story now. ‘Hijack over Africa’.
I = Initiate R = Response F = Follow-up R/I = Re-initiate, where the teacher modiﬁes her question or instruction at the ‘I’ move in response to the student’s R-move.
The teacher begins by asking the class fairly straightforward display-type questions, and the ﬁrst four F-moves perform essentially the same evaluative role illustrated in Example 1. Thereafter, however, the teacher Supportive teacher talk
asks a sequence of more open-ended, referential questions, to elicit personal responses from the students, and the F-moves (F5–F11) consequently assume a predominantly discoursal role: the teacher is using the follow-up move to focus the attention of the whole class on individual student responses, rephrase them in a more acceptable form, and then elaborate on them in order to extend the dialogue and encourage further contributions. The aim is thus not so much to provide corrective feedback to individual students, although indirectly she may be trying to do this through reformulating the students’ contributions (as in F-moves 6 and 7), but to feed students’ contributions into the emerging class discussion. In a paper based on data from Primary school EFL lessons in Malaysia, Malta, and Tanzania, Jarvis and Robinson (1997: 214) see this kind of follow-up as ‘a discoursal means of formulating and aligning meaning’, where the teacher reformulates the children’s contributions and presents them back to the class so that their meanings are more closely aligned with what has already been said, and can therefore act as a platform on which to build and extend the discussion. Similarly, Edwards and Mercer (1987: 132), describing research carried out in mother-tongue classrooms in the UK, see teachers’ follow-ups as a crucial element in the I-R-F exchange structure, where the teacher ‘acts as a kind of ﬁlter or gateway through which all knowledge must pass in order to be included in the lesson as a valid or useful contribution’. It can be seen from the above discussion that there is a signiﬁcant di¤erence in purpose between follow-ups which have a primarily evaluative function and those which have a mainly discoursive one. In the former, support for learning is in the formal correction which the F-move o¤ers. In the latter, support for learning consists primarily in the teacher providing a rich source of message-oriented target language input as s/he reformulates and elaborates on the students’ contributions, and derives further Initiating moves from them. The focus is on the content, not the form of the students’ Response moves. In any teacher-initiated classroom interaction, the teacher has to make a principled choice between each type of follow-up. If the teacher only gives evaluative follow-up, it will impede the development of a communicative classroom dialogue between the teacher and the class. On the other hand, if the teacher only gives discoursal follow-up, s/he will not necessarily help the students to notice and repair their errors (despite reformulating their responses), and ﬁll gaps in their interlanguage. Making on-the-spot judgements about what kind of follow-up is most appropriate when responding to individual students’ contributions, and providing a balance between the competing needs for formal feedback and content-based follow-up, are skills language teachers need to deploy constantly in almost every lesson they teach. The extract from the Tanzanian class shows a teacher clearly, and I would argue, successfully, attempting to provide this balance. Table 1 lists the 11 F-moves present in the transcript in the left-hand column, recording the teacher’s exact words for each move. In the middle column I have attempted to classify each F-move as having either 122
(1) In the aeroplane. Good, yes. In the aeroplane.
Repetition of student’s (S’s) contribution. Praise.
(2) Pilot. Yes. The pilot.
Repetition of S’s contribution. Praise + slight elaboration of S’s utterance.
(3) A pistol. Right.
Repetition of student’s contribution. Praise.
(4) A robber? Yes. A thief you Evaluative mean? Yes, if this was happening on the ground, it could be a thief, but this man’s in a plane.
1 Repetition of S’s contribution with low-rising intonation. 2 Clariﬁcation check (‘A thief you mean?’) 3 Additional comment to provide clue to preferred response.
(5) Hands up!
Discoursal Repetition of S’s contribution.
(6) ‘Now you are under my command. You have to do whatever I want you to do.’
Discoursal 1 Reformulation of S’s contribution.
(7) The plane would fall down. It would crash, and all the passengers unfortunately would die. Maybe some would survive, but most likely they would die.
Discoursal 1 Repetition (‘fall down’).
2 Reformulation of S’s contribution (‘crash’). 3 Elaboration.
(8) She says she’s going to Discoursal Reformulation and elaboration. kneel down and say ‘Please God, forgive my sins.’ (9) She won’t do anything. She’ll just close her eyes … Laughter … and say: ‘Take me if you want— if you don’t want, leave me.’
Discoursal 1 Repetition of part of S’s response.
(10)You will shout. Aagh! … I don’t know if Heaven will hear you.
Discoursal 1 Repetition.
2 Elaboration (Aagh!). 3 Comment.
(11) You’ll collapse? table 1 Analysis of follow-up moves based on the lesson transcript
So you will die before the plane crashes.
Discoursal 1 High rising repetition of part of S’s utterance (to show surprise). 2 Comment.
Supportive teacher talk
an evaluative or a discoursal function, according to my interpretation of its purpose in the emerging Teacher–Class interaction. The right-hand column describes the various strategies the teacher has employed for each move, such as repetition, reformulation, etc. These are discussed further in the next section. Most of the moves were not diªcult to categorize, apart from No. 5 (‘Hands up!’) which could be either. I have classiﬁed it as ‘discoursal’ because the teacher’s attention seems to be on the content, not the form of the student’s response. She repeats the response by way of acknowledging it and ‘incorporating it into the flow of discourse’, and immediately goes on to invite further suggestions from the class.
Features of e¤ective follow-up
When assessing the e¤ectiveness of the teacher’s follow-up in this extract, it seems that there are four speciﬁc strategies which the teacher appears to use particularly well, and one general quality which characterizes all of her follow-up moves. Of the four strategies, the ﬁrst three relate speciﬁcally to the discoursal role of the F-move, while the fourth occurs across both types of follow-up. 1 Reformulation: The teacher makes frequent use of this strategy to repair a student’s contribution, and thus provide the class with a model of correct usage, without interrupting the flow of discourse she is developing with the class. This can be seen, for example, in moves 6 and 7. In F6, the student’s response ‘He is telling him now to be under his control’ is re-cast (with corrections) in direct speech: ‘Now you are under my command’, with the embellishment ‘You have to do whatever I want you to do.’ In F7, the teacher replaces the student’s ‘fall down’ with the more acceptable ‘crash’. The teacher’s reformulations act as a way of ensuring that the content of an individual student’s contribution is available—and also audible—to the rest of the class. In a sense, the teacher is converting the students’ attempts at output into comprehensible input for the whole class. As Edwards and Mercer (1987: 147) put it: These reconstructive paraphrases [their term for ‘reformulations’] demonstrate another function of the ‘feedback’ stage of I-R-F sequences; they provide an opportunity for the teacher not only to conﬁrm what the pupils say, but to recast it in a more acceptable form, more explicit perhaps, or simply couched in a preferred terminology. 2 Elaboration: In follow-ups 6, 7, 8, and 9, and in part of 10, the teacher embellishes her reformulations of the students’ responses by elaborating on them in some way, as was noted in F6 above. In F8, she elaborates on the student’s response that she ‘will pray my God because it is my ﬁnal time’ by suggesting what she will actually say in her prayer (she’s going to kneel down and say ‘Please God, forgive my sins’). In F10, her elaboration is simply the sound of the student shouting: ‘Aagh!’ This device of representing the students’ ideas in direct speech is one she uses in four of her ﬁve ‘elaborate’ acts, and is clearly designed to help ensure understanding, as well as to add humour to the proceedings. In addition, by adding to and extending
the students’ original responses, the teacher’s elaborations provide a linguistically richer source of input for the class, while, at an a¤ective level, they serve to show that she listens to what the students have to say with interest. 3 Comment: In the last two follow-ups in the transcript (F10 and 11), the teacher picks up on a student’s response (by repeating it) and then adds a comment of her own, e.g. ‘I don’t know if Heaven will hear you’ in F11. This is di¤erent from elaborating in that the teacher is not directly trying to embellish the meaning of what the student has said but is simply adding a spontaneous comment of her own. This type of follow-up seems in fact to be identical to the comment acts noted in the examples of conversational follow-up taken from Francis and Hunston’s (1992) data. The ﬁrst speaker uses the F-move to make a personal, often humorous response to what the interlocutor has just said in response to the question in the Initiate move. In the context of promoting natural and communicative language use in the classroom, ‘comment’ acts in teacher’s F-moves clearly have a signiﬁcant part to play. 4 Repetition: Repetition of individual student’s contributions, sometimes derogatorily described as ‘echoing’, is used in a number of ways in this extract. To begin with, it is used as a time-honoured way of acknowledging a student response, and conﬁrming it as acceptable (as in F-moves 1, 3, and 4), and in the process, ensuring that all the students have heard it. In F7, the teacher repeats the student’s contribution (‘the plane would fall down’) to conﬁrm the idea but not the form in which it was expressed. The repetition acts as a way of contrasting the dispreferred with the preferred item (‘it would crash’), thus drawing the students’ attention more directly to it. Finally, in two of her follow-ups, the teacher uses repetition with rising intonation patterns for di¤erent communicative purposes: in F-move 4 she repeats the student’s response with a low rising tone to query the student’s choice of lexis, and in Move 11, she repeats the student’s remark (that she’ll collapse) with a high rising tone to express surprise or interest. What is clear from this classroom sequence is that whether repeating students’ contributions to conﬁrm, question, or express surprise, the teacher is making use of a strategy which has sound pedagogical foundations (see Cullen 1998), and which critics of the practice might do well to reappraise. 5 Responsiveness: I have taken this term from Jarvis and Robinson’s 1997 paper to refer to the general quality the teacher exhibits of listening and responding meaningfully, and with genuine interest, to the content of what the student is saying. The follow-up move thus becomes an authentic, rather than a ‘ritualized response’ (Thornbury 1996: 282). Jarvis and Robinson (1997: 219) refer to two kinds of responsiveness: the ﬁrst is the ‘minute-by-minute choice of contingent response to what the pupils have to say’, and the ability to use it and ‘build on it’. The second refers to the ability to identify potential problems and raise them as topics for discussion: Jarvis and Robinson (ibid.) deﬁne this as ‘the responsiveness that is based on a teacher’s Supportive teacher talk
tacit knowledge of her pupils, and her planning and structuring the learning by decision-making in the classroom’. In the Tanzanian transcript we see both types of responsiveness in evidence in the teacher’s follow-up moves. Her various reformulations, elaborations, and comments are clear examples of the ﬁrst kind, while her reaction in F-move 4 to the student’s inappropriate choice of the word ‘robber’, and her decision not to introduce the new vocabulary item ‘hijacker’ at this particular point in the lesson, seems to be a good example of the second.
In this paper, I have attempted to show the pedagogical importance of the teacher’s follow-up move in the context of classroom interaction, by examining a snapshot of a fairly traditional secondary school classroom which is perhaps typical of many where English is taught as a foreign or second language. The snapshot reveals a sequence of classroom interaction which consists of a chain of I-R-F exchanges led by the teacher from the front of the class. In this interaction, the teacher’s follow-up moves play a crucial part in clarifying and building on the ideas that the students express in their responses, and in developing a meaningful dialogue between teacher and class. In doing so, the teacher supports learning by creating an environment which is rich in language and humour. Further classroom studies of this nature would be useful to corroborate the ﬁndings of this particular study with a view to determining what makes for e¤ective follow-up, and identifying the salient features of ‘responsiveness’. Greater understanding and knowledge in this area will have important implications for teacher training and development. Revised version received November 2000
References Chaudron, C. 1988. Second Language Classrooms: research on teaching and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Coulthard, M. 1982. ‘Developing the description’ in M. Coulthard and M. Montgomery. Studies in Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge and Kegan. Cullen, R. 1998. ‘Teacher talk and the classroom context’. ELT Journal 52/3: 179–87. Edwards, N. and N. Mercer. 1987. Common Knowledge: the development of understanding in the classroom. London: Methuen. Francis, G. and S. Hunston. 1992. ‘Analysing everyday conversation’ in M. Coulthard (ed.). Advances in Spoken Discourse Analysis. London: Routledge. Jarvis, J. and M. Robinson. 1997. ‘Analysing educational discourse: an exploratory study of teacher response and support to pupils’ learning’. Applied Linguistics 18/2: 212–28. Mercer, N. 1995. The Guided Construction of 126
Knowledge: talk among teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. Nunan, D. 1987. ‘Communicative language teaching: making it work’. ELT Journal 42/1: 136–45. Seedhouse, P. 1996. ‘Classroom interaction: possibilities and impossibilities’. ELT Journal 50/1: 16–24. Sinclair, J. and D. Brazil. 1982. Teacher Talk. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Sinclair, J. and M. Coulthard. 1975. Towards an Analysis of Discourse: the English used by teachers and pupils. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thornbury, S. 1996. ‘ Teachers research teacher talk’. ELT Journal 50/4: 279–89. The author Richard Cullen is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Language Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University College, where he directs the Diploma TESOL programme. He has worked for the British Council on teacher
education projects in Egypt, Bangladesh, and Tanzania, and has also taught and trained teachers in Nepal and Greece. His professional interests include teacher and trainer training, classroom
discourse, phonology, and the teaching and learning of grammar. Email: [email protected]
Supportive teacher talk