Talk at school - An analysis of classroom discourse

Term Paper, 2009

40 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Talk at school – An analysis of classroom discourse
2.1. Lesson structure
2.2. Opening sequences
2.3. Repair

3. Conclusion

4. References

5. Appendix
5.1. Transcription Bili 7b2 01.07.05
5.2. Transcription Bili 7a 17.06.05

1. Introduction

“Studying language in classroom is not really

‘applied’ linguistics; it is really basic research.”

(Hymes, 1972:xviii). This is what I did before I was even able to start this paper on classroom discourse.

In the following chapters I will examine several conversational strategies which can be found in classroom discourse. Therefore, I will first of all name and explain these strategies shortly.

I will start with a rather theoretical and short introduction of the basic structure of lessons, to serve as the background for the following chapters. Afterwards, the aspects of opening sequences and repair will be examined closely.

For every strategy there will always be transcription examples of school lessons which show and analyse these strategies. The transcriptions are based on a tenth grade English lesson taken from the Kassel classroom discourse of the SCoSE (Saarbrücken Corpus of Spoken English) and on various bilingual lessons tape-recorded at several grammar schools in Saarbrücken.

2. Talk at school – An analysis of classroom discourse

This paper, like any other conversation analysis, is “an approach to the analysis of spoken discourse that looks at the way in which people manage their everyday conversational interactions” (Paltridge 2006:107). The kind of spoken discourse to be analysed here is classroom discourse.

There are many different “aspects of spoken discourse” (2006:107) that help to analyse a conversation such as sequences, turn taking, code-switching, feedback, repair, openings and closings, to name just a few. This paper will take a closer look at some of these aspects and in particular at opening sequences and repair. But I will first of all give a short introduction on the structure of lessons as a basis for the following chapters.

2.1. Lesson structure

“Any social institution can be considered a communication system.” (Cazden 1988:2). However the difference compared to institutions such as hospitals is that “the basic purpose of school is achieved through communication [instead of non-linguistic ways]” (1988:2). Therefore teacher-student communication as well as student-student communication in class is the most important basis for classroom interaction. But exactly how is this communication structured? Is it always just the same scheme in which the teacher asks a question the students are supposed to answer? Actually this is the main structure of a lesson, although, of course, it is not this simple.

Sinclair & Coulthard (1975:19) developed a system of discourse analysis that shows a three-part structure in classroom conversation, the so-called IRFi-structure of exchange:

1. Initiation: “The teacher initiates [a] sequence” (Cazden 1988:29) by asking a question for example.
2. Response: “The nominated child responds” (1988:29).
3. Feedback/ Follow-up: “The teacher comments on the response” (1988:29).

Feedbacks or follow-ups are very important, especially in teaching: “They allow the teacher to shape the material being taught, to select, edit, and evaluate.” (Sinclair & Brazil 1982:45). Although not every exchange includes all three elements, the IRF-structure is regular and characteristic in teacher talk (Sinclair & Brazil 1982).

This structure will appear as the recurrent theme in the following chapters. As „the most common pattern of classroom discourse at all grade levels“ (Cazden 1988:29), it will be used to analyse every exchange in the following transcriptions, starting with opening sequences of lessons.

2.2. Opening sequences

“A classroom day divides easily in to events with familiar labels: math lesson, reading group, and so on.” (Cazden 1988:7). A classroom lesson does the same. I will start with one such event, namely the very first event that usually takes place at the beginning of a lesson: the greeting. This event cannot only be seen as the general opening of a lesson but also as the linguistic opening of an exchange. The opening sequences of the data discussed in this chapter occur in teacher-student interaction.

The first data (A) is a tenth grade English lesson taken from the Kassel classroom discourse of the SCoSE (Saarbrücken Corpus of Spoken English): illustration not visible in this excerpt

The next data (B) is a seventh grade bilingual geography lesson tape-recorded in July 2005 at a grammar school in Saarbrücken (see appendix 5.1): illustration not visible in this excerpt

The last data (C) also is a seventh grade bilingual geography lesson tape-recorded in June 2005 at another grammar school in Saarbrücken (see appendix 5.2): illustration not visible in this excerpt

A first look at these three transcriptions reveals a common structure of the exchanges. In all three cases the exchange is initiated by the teacher through a greeting. The teachers wish a “good morning” (A l.2, C l.4) or a “guten morgen” (B l.2). Although German English teachers should greet their class in English, it is not unusual for them to greet in German. But nevertheless, the word choice in both languages is the same.

At this point I would like to raise one interesting question: why is it always the teacher who initiates the exchanges? First of all, “in classrooms one person, the teacher, is responsible for controlling all the talk that occurs while class is officially in session” (Cazden 1988:2f). In general, the teacher is in charge of organising the lesson, including, amongst others, taking the register, giving out homework and also directing all conversations (Sinclair & Brazil 1982). So it is no wonder that it is the teacher who begins the classroom discourse. That way he/she already is in control of the conversation and so has “exclusive access to the use of creative ‘current speaker selects next speaker’ techniques” (McHoul 1978:211) throughout the entire lesson. Furthermore, two functions of teaching are “the establishment and maintenance of social relationships [as well as] [t]he expression of the speaker’s identity and attitudes” (Cazden 1988:3). Both functions are included in the greeting at the beginning of the lesson.

After the teacher initiation, the students’ responses follow. They tend to use the same words and language as their teacher, whether in English or in German. Yet there are a few variations in the different greetings: while two teachers address their greeting directly to the class - “to you all” (A l.2) or “every one” (C l.4) – the greeting of the third teacher (B l.1) is quite general. However, the transcriptions also show that it does not matter if the teachers address the students directly or not: their answers can be general (A and B) or personal, as in C.

The students’ responses are followed by the teacher’s feedback. All three feedback moves hint at a change of subject, namely the introduction of the actual topic lesson. The teachers in A and B change the subject by asking what happened in the last lesson. The teacher in C does not name the new topic specifically. Still, she makes clear that the greeting phase is over and that she wants to talk about something else, starting with the meta-statement (Sinclair & Coulthard 1975) “first of all” (C. l.6). This phrase “refers to some future time when what is described will occur. [It helps] the pupils to see the structure of the lesson” (Sinclair & Coulthard 1975:43). However, there is a distinguishable change of subject.

To sum up, these three different lesson transcriptions point out a common structure of opening sequences of lessons:

1. Teacher-initiation: greeting
2. Student-response: re-greeting
3. Teacher-follow-up: transition to the topic of the lesson.

However, the question arises as to whether or not the follow-ups given by the teachers are actual feedbacks to the previous responses. None of the teachers’ utterances are responsive to the students’ re-greetings, except for the one in A when the teacher says: “nice to see you again” (A, l.4). But the other two utterances immediately change the subject. Hence, we can assume that these two follow-ups are actually two new openings of another exchange. Even Sinclair and Coulthard mentioned this problem in their studies when they raised the question: “how are new topics introduced and old ones ended” (1975:4)?

2.3. Repair

Another interesting feature in conversation is the strategy of repair or correction. My decision to analyse this topic derived from the many incidences of repair I found during the data research. In fact, I found instances of repair in every single transcription I was looking at. Still, all examples following are based on data of the tenth grade English lesson from the Kassel classroom discourse of the SCoSE.

First of all, what is repair? By repair, Schegloff (2000:207) “refer[s] to practices for dealing with problems or troubles in speaking, hearing, and understanding the talk in conversation”. Therefore, repair is a strategy speakers use to “correct things they or someone else has said” (Paltridge 2006:119). There are two different types of repair: “self repair and other repair” (2006:119).

Self repair, as the name implies, is a correction of an utterance made by the same person.

In the following example, the student is reading a text on elections in Great Britain out loud:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

The “trouble-source (TS)” (Schegloff 2000:205) as well as the self-repair is at line 191: the abbreviation MP is first mispronounced as [‘empai] instead of [‘empi:], but the student immediately realises her mistake and corrects

[paT] by saying [pi:]. There are two other mistakes in pronunciation – “miNIster” (l.187) and “pacually” (l.193, probably “particularly”) which are not corrected at all, neither by the teacher nor by the student. Didactically, self repair is the better method for improvement because the student becomes aware of the mistake him/herself and will probably not make the same mistake again. It is exactly this point which may be observed in line 194 where the student uses the correct pronunciation of MP straightaway. Moreover, Cazden (1988:88) claims “that teacher correction may interfere with children’s progress” of independent learning. Furthermore, he writes that “[i]mmediate correction depresse[s] both children’s self-correction and their accuracy scores” (1988:88).

Nevertheless, the strategy of other repair – correction by another person as the one who made the utterance - in classroom discourse is much more frequent than self repair. The reason for this is simple: it is the teacher’s job to correct errors made by students so they can learn how to pronounce it correctly in future. The ways of doing so can be different. The following transcription shows one way of other repair; the repair always follows the mistake immediately:

illustration not visible in this excerpt


Excerpt out of 40 pages


Talk at school - An analysis of classroom discourse
Saarland University  (Anglistik, Amerikanistik und Anglophone Kulturen)
Hauptseminar: Language and Power
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Eva K. Sammel (Author), 2009, Talk at school - An analysis of classroom discourse, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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