Teacher talk and the classroom context By Richard Cullen.pdf

July 13, 2017 | Author: MohsenMohsenAliMosaeid | Category: Classroom, Teachers, Language Education, English As A Second Or Foreign Language, Learning
Share Embed Donate

Short Description

Download Teacher talk and the classroom context By Richard Cullen.pdf...


Teacher talk and the classroom context

Richard Cullen In the era of communicative language teaching, analyses of teacher talk typically focus on the characteristics that make, or fail to make such talk ‘communicative’. In most cases, the criteria for communicativeness are taken from what is felt to constitute communicative behaviour in the world outside the classroom. Thus, communicative classrooms are held to be those in which features of genuine communication are evident, and, by exclusion, classes where they are not present are considered to be uncommunicative. In the case of teacher talk, similar criteria might be used to assess such aspects of classroom language use as the kind of questions teachers ask their students, or the way they respond to student contributions. In this article, I argue that this analysis of teacher talk is oversimplistic, and ultimately unhelpful to teachers since its attempt to characterize communicativeness only in terms of features of authentic communication which pertain outside the classroom ignores the reality of the classroom context and the features which make for effective communication within that context,

Teacher talk: quantity and quality

Until comparatively recently, teacher talk in the EFL classroom was considered to be something of a danger area for language teachers, and trainee teachers were warned to use it sparingly. ‘Good’ teacher talk meant ‘little’ teacher talk, since it was thought that too much teacher talking time (TTT) deprived students of opportunities to speak. Interest in teacher talk within the profession has since shifted away from a concern with quantity towards a concern with quality: while the question of how much teachers talk is still important, more emphasis is given to how effectively they are able to facilitate learning and promote communicative interaction in their classroom through, for example, the kind of questions they ask, the speech modifications they make when talking to learners, or the way they react to student errors (see, for example, Nunan 1989). There are a number of good reasons for this shift in emphasis. Firstly, teacher talk is now generally recognized as a potentially valuable source of comprehensible input for the learner. Since this is essential for language acquisition (Krashen 1981) getting teachers to reduce the amount of their talk would not necessarily be in the interests of the learner. Secondly, so far all attempts by trainers to root out the TIT phenomenon have failed. This is particularly true in parts of the world where the teacher’s role is traditionally one of transmitter of knowledge and values, and where a preoccupation with reducing TIT would be unrealistic, as well as culturally inappropriate. Thirdly, there is evidence ELT Journal Volume 52/3 July 1998 © Oxford University Press 1998




from classroom research that aspects of teacher talk, such as the kind of questions teachers ask, can significantly affect the quantity and quality of student interaction in the lesson (Brock 1986), and are also amenable to the effects of training (Long and Sato 1983). The notion of communicative teacher talk

Recent studies (e.g. Thombury 1996) have tended to focus on the extent to which teacher talk supports a communicative environment in the classroom, and specifically on how authentic it is - judged by how far it shares features of so-called authentic communication outside the classroom. Thus Nunan (1987) attempted to evaluate whether classes which purported to be communicative really were so by determining the extent to which genuine communication was evident in them. He suggested that genuine communication is characterized by uneven distribution of information, the negotiation of meaning (through, for example, clarification requests and confirmation checks), topic nomination and negotiation of more than one speaker, and the right of interlocutors to decide whether to contribute to an interaction or not . . . In genuine communication, decisions about who says what to whom are up for grabs. (Nunan 1987: 137) Using characteristics such as these as criteria of communicativeness, Nunan’s conclusion from his own investigations into classroom practice was that ‘there is growing evidence that, in communicative classes, interactions may, in fact, not be very communicative at all’ (ibid.: 144). A similar conclusion is reached by Kumaravadivelu (1993: 12-13): In theory, a communicative classroom seeks to promote interpretation, expression and negotiation of meaning . . . [Learners] should be encouraged to ask for information, seek clarification, express an opinion, agree and/or disagree with peers and teachers . . . In reality, however, such a communicative classroom seems to be a rarity. Research studies show that even teachers who are committed to communicative language teaching can fail to create opportunities for genuine interaction in their classrooms. In these arguments, the criteria for assessing the communicativeness of classroom discourse and, by extension, of teacher talk, are taken from what is perceived to constitute communicative behaviour in the world outside the classroom. The fact that genuine communication appears to comprise characteristics such as ‘negotiation of meaning’ and ‘topic nomination by more than one speaker’ becomes de facto a reason for incorporating them into classroom discourse, and for judging the communicativeness or otherwise of classrooms according to whether or not these features are present. The argument I wish to develop in this article is that attempts to define communicative talk in the classroom must be based primarily on what is or is not communicative in the context of the classroom itself, rather than on what may or may not be communicative in other contexts; and that the application of criteria of communicativeness solely on the basis of social behaviour which exists in


Richard Cullen



certain contexts outside the classroom could result in an inappropriate and ultimately unattainable model for the majority of language teachers to follow, similar to the earlier preoccupation with teacher talking time. Communication



One might, to start with, take issue with the description of authentic communication on which the argument is based. Would it be true to say, for example, that in genuine communication, decisions about who says what to whom are ‘up for grabs’? It might be generally true of informal gatherings of groups of friends, but certainly not of more formal gatherings, such as staff or board-room meetings. Communication at such events tends to follow a very different pattern, determined by their own rules and conventions, but that does not make it any less ‘genuine’ or authentic. Similarly, the classroom, typically a large, formal gathering which comes together for pedagogical rather than social reasons, will also have its own rules and conventions of communication, understood by all those present; these established patterns are likely to be very different from the norms of turn-taking and communicative interaction which operate in small, informal, social gatherings outside. Any analysis of the characteristics of the communicative classroom needs to take these differences into account. This is not to deny the importance of analyses of the properties of spoken discourse found in contexts outside the classroom (e.g. Hoey 1992) in shedding light on what our wider teaching goals should be, and to that extent suggesting ways in which the discourse of the classroom could be moderated, in order that these goals might be more successfully achieved. But that is a rather different matter from suggesting that classrooms only need to replicate communicative behaviour outside the classroom in order to become communicative.

Features teacher



If we pursue the case for replicating communicative behaviour outside the classroom, there are a number of characteristics of teacher talk which we might identify as being communicative (see Thornbury 1996). Some of these are: 1 The use of ‘referential’ questions, where the teacher asks the class something (e.g. ‘What did you do at the weekend?‘) to which he or she does not know the answer, and which therefore has a genuine communicative purpose. This is in contrast to typical ‘display’ questions (e.g. comprehension questions on a reading text) to which the teacher already has the answer, and only asks so that the class can display their understanding or knowledge. Insights from analyses of discourse inside and outside the classroom (e.g. Long and Sato 1983) have revealed very marked differences between typical classroom talk and non-classroom talk in this respect. 2 Content feedback by the teacher, where the teacher’s response to student contributions focuses on the content of what the student says-the message-rather than on the form (e.g. the correctness of the grammar or pronunciation). Teacher talk in the classroom

181 articles


3 The use of speech modifications, hesitations, and rephrasing in the teacher’s own talk, e.g. when explaining, asking questions, giving instructions, etc. 4 Attempts to negotiate meaning with the students, e.g. through requests for clarification and repetition, and giving opportunities for the students to interrupt the teacher and do the same. I shall refer to the features listed above as List A. Conversely, there are a number of features of teacher talk which would be regarded as noncommunicative, in that they do not represent the way language is used in many situations outside the classroom, and which I shall refer to as List B. Examples of these features are: 1 Exclusive or excessive use of display questions. 2 Form-focused feedback, i.e. feedback by the teacher which only shows interest in the correct formation of the students’ contributions (rather than the content). 3 ‘Echoing’ of students’ responses, when the teacher repeats what a student has just said for the benefit of the whole class (something which rarely happens in social intercourse). 4 Sequences of predictable IRF (initiation-response-feedback) discourse chains (Sinclair and Coulthard 1975) in which the teacher initiates the chain (typically by asking a question), a student responds, and the teacher then gives feedback to the student (e.g. ‘good’) before initiating another chain with another question. The structure of spoken discourse outside the classroom is usually more complex and flexible than this (Hoey 1992). The classroom


The problem with this analysis is that defining communicative teacher talk purely in terms of the norms of communication outside the classroom ignores the context of the classroom itself, and what is communicative within that context. It thus presents us with a onedimensional view of classroom talk, ignoring the fact that ‘the classroom is a unique social environment with its own human activities and its own conventions governing these activities’ (Breen and Candlin 1980: 98). In what way does this uniqueness affect the discourse of the classroom, and teacher talk in particular? If we look at some of the characteristics of teacher talk in List B above, it is not difficult to see how they may, in fact, perform important communicative functions in the classroom context. Take the phenomenon of echoing students responses. The teacher may have perfectly valid communicative reasons for doing this, such as making sure that everyone in the class has heard what Student A has just said, so that a discussion can continue with everybody following it. In a large class, echoing by the teacher may be the quickest and most effective way of doing this. Equally important is the convention in many classes throughout the world that the teacher’s repetition of a student’s response acts as a signal confirming that the response is correct. The students understand this convention, and the teacher’s failure to observe


Richard Cullen



it may well result in puzzlement, insecurity, and hence a malfunction in classroom communication. In the same way, few (with some notable exceptions) would deny that providing feedback on form has a place in language teaching. If this is the case, there must be ways of providing it which are more or less effective, and more or less communicative, in the sense of communicating clearly and successfully to the students concerned. Rather than regard such discourse as essentially uncommunicative, it would seem more productive - and more realistic in terms of our expectations of teachers - to consider how to provide feedback in a way which is as communicative as possible in the context of the classroom and which assists in the attainment of the pedagogical purposes for which the students are there. Teacher

talk in action

The following fragment of a secondary school English lesson in Egypt, transcribed from a video recording of the lesson, illustrates the point that what appears to be non-communicative teacher talk is not necessarily so in the classroom context. The context is a third-year class in a mixed preparatory (lower secondary) school in Cairo. There are about 35 students in the classroom, seated at individual desks, facing the teacher at the front of the class. The teacher is preparing the students for a reading passage in their textbooks about the Egyptian writer Tahaa Hussein. The classroom interaction recorded here is heavily teacher-led, and thus very typical of the classroom discourse of large classes throughout the world: T:

S1 T: S2: S3: T:

S4: T: S4: T:

ss: T: ss: T:

All right. Who can give me . . . er . . . a name of a great writer in the English-speaking world? In the English-speaking world? The name of a great writer. Right. Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens. OK. What novel are we studying from Charles Dickens this year? [indistinct reply] A Tale of Two Cities. A Tale of Two Cities.

All right. We say that Dickens is a writer. Who can give me another name for the word ‘writer’ - a more specialized term for the word ‘writer’? Shakespeare. [indistinct reply] Er . . Um. . . That’s not what I want. Shakespeare also is a great writer, but I want . . . Yes? Novelist? A novelist. That’s what I want, Mazin. So I want the word ‘novelist’. So we have the word ‘novel’. [writes on blackboard] We say that A Tale of Two Cities is a ...? Novel. A novel. And the writer of A Tale of Two Cities is a . . . ? Novelist. A novelist. [writes on blackboard] Is a novelist. OK. He said - was it you, Mazin, who said ‘Shakespeare’? Is Shakespeare also a novelist? Is Shakespeare a novelist?

Teacher talk in the classroom




ss: Ss: T:

Yes. Er no. I don’t agree with you. Shakespeare used to write plays. He used to write . . . ? Plays. Can you remember some of his plays?

S5: T: S6: T: S7: T:

Hamlet. Hamlet. As You Like It. As You Like It. Fine. The Tempest. The Tempest, fine. We say Shakespeare


was a ‘play . . . wright’. [writes on BB] A playwright. Remember this is not ‘write’, W-R-IT-E, This is playwright, W-R-I-G-H-T. A playwright. He was a writer of plays. Now about our great writer Tahaa Hussein, Tahaa Hussein. Who can give me one word to describe Tahaa Hussein? As many words as you can. Everybody knew him or nobody knew him or few people knew him? Who can give me a word to describe him? SS: Blindness. T: Er... blindness. Er . , . do we say Tahaa Hussein was blindness or Tahaa Hussein was . . . ? S9: Blind. Blind. OK. Tahaa Hussein was blind. I’m looking for a word to T: describe his fame. A word to describe his fame. So we say that he was a . . . ? Ss: Popular. Popular. He was . . . ? T: Ss: Popular. Tahaa Hussein was popular. Popular. All right, can you give me T: the name of a popular actor in Egypt? Popular actor in Egypt. Popular actor. If we use the descriptors of communicative and uncommunicative teacher talk outlined in the foregoing discussion, this would probably be classified as an essentially uncommunicative fragment of classroom discourse. There would appear to be few, if any, List A characteristics and plenty of List B ones. The teacher’s questions are all display questions, since their purpose is to find out what the students know about the writers he introduces, thus enabling them to display their knowledge. Feedback from the teacher to the students’ responses is either an acknowledgement that the answer is acceptable (e.g. by echoing, or by a comment such as ‘fine’) or an indication that it needs correcting (‘Er . . . blindness. Er . . . do we say Tahaa Hussein was blindness . . . ?‘). The extract also contains a good deal of echoing, and the structure of the discourse follows a very distinctive IRF pattern. In the context of the classroom, however, one could argue that many communicative aspects of the discourse are illustrated here. The teacher is following a carefully structured sequence of questions leading to clear pedagogical goals - the teaching of the vocabulary items ‘novelist’ and


Richard Cullen



‘popular’. He tries to find out what the students know before telling them himself, and in the process responds on the spot to an unexpected student response (‘Shakespeare’), and makes a small teaching episode out of it. The feedback he gives the students is clear and unambiguous, and it is equally clear from the video recording of the lesson that he has their undivided attention. One could argue, too, that his use of echoing helps to ensure that this attention is not lost as he moves the class towards the vocabulary items he wishes to focus on. The teaching, in short, is effective, and the teacher’s talk - his use of questions and his feedback moves - is supportive of learning. Within the context of the classroom therefore, and the norms of communication that operate there, it is surely meaningless and unhelpful to classify this, and other similar examples of pedagogically effective classroom discourse, as uncommunicative, simply because they fail to exhibit features of communication which are found in contexts outside the classroom. Communicative language teaching means communicative teaching as well as communicative use of language, and defining the notion of ‘communicative’ in relation to teacher talk must therefore take account of the teacher’s dual role as instructor as well as interlocutor. I do not wish to imply from this that there is no place in the classroom for the kind of features of genuine communication described in List A, or that teachers will not benefit from an awareness of different ways of operating in the classroom involving, for example, the increased use of referential questions, and responding to the content as well as the form of what students say in class. The inclusion of such features might well enhance this particular teacher’s effectiveness by stimulating more productive and varied use of English by his students. To that extent, the study of discourses outside the classroom can serve to enrich the interaction and the pedagogical effectiveness of what goes on inside the classroom. But we should not conclude from this that the absence of features of communication characteristic of discourses in the world outside the classroom automatically renders classroom discourse uncommunicative, since to do so is to ignore the peculiar nature and purpose of the classroom encounter. Categorising teacher talk: a way forward

With regard to defining the notion of ‘communicative teacher talk’, I would suggest that rather than comparing the way teachers talk in the classroom with the way people talk outside it, a more productive approach would be to identify categories of teachers’ verbal behaviour in the classroom, and attempt to determine what it means to be communicative in each one, and what might constitute a communicative balance of behaviours for different teaching and learning purposes. The following six categories are adapted from a list of categories of classroom verbal behaviour in Bowers (1980), cited in Malamah-Thomas (1987), identified through a process of classroom observation and analysis of lesson transcripts:

Teacher talk in the classroom




- questioning/eliciting - responding to students’ contributions - presenting/explaining - organizing/giving instructions - evaluatingicorrecting -‘ sociating’/establishing and maintaining classroom rapport. In order to determine how communicative a teacher’s use of a particular category, such as questioning, is in a particular lesson, one would take into account not only the extent to which particular questions engaged the students in meaningful, communicative use of language, but also the pedagogical purpose of the questions asked, and the teacher’s success in communicating this purpose clearly to the learners. In the same way, a teacher’s classroom instructions might be assessed as being more or less communicative according to how clearly they were understood and followed, whether they were sufficient or even superfluous, and whether the teacher allowed opportunities for the students to seek clarification and to ‘negotiate meaning’. There are three important advantages, as I see it, in this approach to describing and evaluating teacher talk. Firstly, the categories of verbal behaviour are rooted firmly in the reality of the classroom and on what typically goes on there. Secondly, the criteria for assessing communicative use of classroom language in each of these categories are likewise based on what it takes to be communicative in the context of the classroom itself, rather than in some outside context. The model of communicative teacher talk emerging from such an approach should thus reflect the primary function of teacher talk, which is to support and enhance learning. Providing a model of the way language is used for communication in the real world may be an important part of that function, but it is not the only way in which teacher talk supports language learning: it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Thirdly, a model of communicative language teaching which recognizes the importance of the pedagogical function of teacher talk within the classroom context, and what it means to be communicative within that context, is likely to be a more realistic and attainable model for teachers to aspire to than one which insists on the replication of features of genuine communication as the only measure of genuine communicative teaching. Received July 1997


Richard Cullen




Breen, M. and C. Candlin. 1980. ‘The essentials of a communicative curriculum in language teaching’. Applied Linguistics 1/2: 89-112. Brock, C. 1986. ‘The effects of referential questions in ESL classroom discourse’. TESOL Quarterly 20/1: 47-59.

Bowers, R. 1980. ‘Verbal behaviour in the language teaching classroom’. Unpublished PhD thesis, Reading University. Hoey, M. 1992. ‘Some properties of spoken discourse’ in R. Bowers and C. Brumfit (eds.).

Malamah-Thomas, A. 1987. Classroom Interaction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nunan, D. 1987. ‘Communicative language teaching: making it work’. ELT Journal 41/2: 136-45. Nunan, D. 1989. Understanding Language Classrooms. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall. Sinclair, J. and R. Coulthard. 1975. Towards an Analysis of Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thornbury, S. 1996. ‘Teachers research teacher talk’. ELT Journal 50/4: 279-89.

Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching: Review of ELT 2/1. London: Macmil-

lan. Krashen, S. 1981. Second and Second Language

Language Acquisition Learning. Oxford: Perga-

mon. Kumaravadivelu, B. 1993. ‘Maximizing learning potential in the communicative classroom’. ELT Journal 47/1: 12-21. Long, M. and C. Sato. 1983. ‘Classroom foreigner talk discourse: forms and functions of teachers’ questions’ in H. Seliger and M. Long (eds.). Classroom-oriented guage Acquisition.



in Second





The author

Richard Cullen is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Language Studies at Canterbury Christ Church College. He has worked for the British Council as an English Language Teaching Officer in teacher education on development projects in Egypt, Bangladesh, and Tanzania. He 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. E-mail:

Teacher talk in the classroom

187 articles


View more...


Copyright ©2017 KUPDF Inc.