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[xmca] Re: IRF and complex classroom discourse

One of the problems analyzing the non-IRF data was looking at all the little
bits and pieces of the non-contextual discourse and trying to find a way to
describe it. Even though there some evidence the exchanges could be labeled
as IRF, the context of the exchanges being undecipherable cause one problem,
and the other problem is that one the initiation 'I' takes place, there is a
continuous RF stream of discourse until both interlocutors decipher what was
being said and a final 'F' is reached. I use the term 'problem' loosely
since the dialog turns out to be rather authentic.

>From the discourse analysis model I've built (based on the original Sinclair
and Coulthard) I needed to include acts that allowed for embedding, teacher
intervention, teacher redirects as well as re-evaluation acts. This allowed
me to look at the discourse data in a TBL classroom (which the original
model was not designed for) and it also allowed me to analyze the data
looking for evidence of scaffolding, meaning making and student-student
exchanges where there was no obvious initiation apart from the initial
initiation down to the final F with the entire string of discourse being
contextual. It will help to decipher the inbetween discourse with the help
of Halliday.

It wasn't my intention to do this until I encountered the discourse that
resulted from the methodology I created. Being a EFL classroom the timescale
you mention and the fact that it may take time for the students to make
themselves understood and for them to understand, I'm sure did have an
influence on the way the discourse evolved. The discourse changes for upper
level students as well, as the lower levels students are still working on a
lot of the grammar and small vocabulary rather than on concepts as those
with a better grasp of the language are more equipped to handle.

The question though is how the discourse analysis can be used to show that
language development is occurring because there was a zpd formed between
students, and language that was wanted at that point of needing it, made it
easier to acquire. The chances that the students could then turn around and
use the language again without any assistance was higher. By looking at the
discourse over a number of lessons then, could show that development did
occur and the students are now able to use the language without any
assistance. By learning how to mean, and by acquiring language as a result
of trying to make yourself understood - can that be considered development?

My question would be - is this a valid way of analyzing the data and if so,
are these valid conclusions?


I changed the subject line, as I think Mark's was an accident, given the
content and continuity.

While I do describe student-initiated dialogue, and some patterns of more
complex non-IRE dialogue in Talking Science, there really was not a lot of
extended non-IRE discourse there in my data. IRE was an emic norm for
teachers, who strongly believed it was the basis of good, or as they saw it
"student-centered" teaching. I saw it a bit differently, as one possible
solution to many different functional demands.

I think that you make a very interesting observation about the
context-dependence vs relative independence of IRE-based vs. more complex
and less "formulaic" modes of classroom discourse. I think we know that
creating the illusion of context-independence is a major goal of scientific
and mathematical, and a lot of technical and academic, discourse, so that
would be another function that IRE fulfills. Perhaps in the EFL classrooms,
as in literature or some history/social studies classes, this is less of a
disciplinary norm. Would be interesting to look at data from this point of

The other aspect here is the timescale of contextualization. All discourse
is context-dependent, it's just a matter of where the contextual pointers
and information lie (in the text, in its intertexts, in presuppositions, in
community background knowledge, etc.). But clearly there can also be a
difference, as you suggest, in how much text / time it takes to create a
reasonably confident contextualization. So-called context-independent text
tries to do this on a very short time/text scale, for every clause or
sentence. This depends a lot on the assumed reader/listener. Other sorts of
text can keep us guessing for quite a while until we think we know how to
contextualize and interpret what is being written or said.

I did have in my data some cases where the students were explaining a point
of view in their own language, with some borrowings from the vocabulary of
the textbook, often used in non-standard ways. And it could take quite a
while before it became possible to "translate" what they were saying into
more standard terminology, i.e. to "understand" what they meant or were
"trying to say". There are other cases where there was so much that was
already taken for granted, as known-context, by the participants that, as an
outsider or outside analyst, it took a lot of text to be able to figure out
what the presuppositions were and so to make sense of what was being said. I
don't know if either of these circumstances may have played a role in your
examples of more complex discourse. No doubt there are other factors that
can also elongate the timescale at which some sort of thematic-semantic
closure is possible for the interpretation of a text/talk.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct, 2009-2010)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Visiting Scholar
Laboratory for Comparative Human Communication
University of California -- San Diego
La Jolla, CA
USA 92093

On Nov 30, 2009, at 7:39 PM, Mark de Boer wrote:


When I had analyzed the discourse in my classrooms, there were some IRF
exchanges, but most of them were student initiated. When I delved further
into the discourse and went into areas where the discourse was based on an
idea or a discussion of one student's question, the discourse was not the
typical IRF but a much more complex round of dialog. In my analysis I
compared the IRF patterns to my discourse patterns and show that within the
IRF exchange it is more than likely obvious to a listener even within one
exchange as to what the students are talking about.

But with more complex dialog, a listener wouldn't be able to decipher what
the dialog was about after listening to a small part of the dialog. I
labeled the IRF pattern as contextual dialog, meaning that even isolating
one IRF pattern out of a regular classroom series of many IRF patterns
following one another, the listener could identify easily what the discourse
topic was about. Even looking at Prabhu's book, the transcripts clearly show
(even though it is labeled as TBL) that the IRF pattern prevails and the
three part exchanges clearly show what the dialog is about even if you were
to isolate just one IRF exchange.

But looking at the dialog from a classroom where the students have control
of the dialog - there is a much larger exchange that needs to be looked at.
In some of my classroom data, a single contextual exchange could take as
much as 20 exchanges.The entire discourse is needed to understand what the
students are discussing. And within that discourse there is evidence of
scaffolding, meaning making and the teacher not standing in the way of the
student! Of course this is in an EFL context so it is slightly different
than the discourse that Gordon Wells was looking at, but I'm anxious to see
what's in your book. I think there could be something very useful to extract
from your work to see if it is effective in the kinds of classrooms I'm
managing at the moment.



Mark and all,

Yes, it certainly sounds like you are on a productive track with this

The ubiquity of IRE dialogue in classrooms has many contributing
factors. Some are ideological, and even once progressive, as for
instance the effort to replace lecture by more interaction, despite
students' lack of knowledge about the topic to be discussed. Some are
based in authority and power relationships as often mentioned. Some
are based simply in the fact that in classrooms there is not much else
going on except talk; they are activity-poor environments.

Taking learning outside the emptiness of classrooms, into activity-
rich and artifact-rich environments, allows students and teachers to
DO things together, in the course of which IRE just dwindles because
it is not functional for the discursive support of complex activity.
Observe teachers and students in a science lab, or on a field trip to
a nature preserve, and you find (except for novice or poor teachers)
much less IRE and a lot more "authentic dialogue". You can also get
this in classrooms if teachers ask students not about textbook
knowledge but about students' actual experience.

The case of student-initiated dialogue, which I also discuss in
Talking Science, can be a very powerful learning mode for students,
but it is much harder to control in terms of curriculum sequencing.
One question just leads to another, and the dialogue quickly diverges.
I once observed a teacher over an extended period in which he
regularly gave time for students to ask him questions. This grew to
the point where he could no longer "cover the curriculum", but the
students were more excited about learning than I have seen in most
classrooms. The mass-education model, in which we expect 30 or more
students to all learn the same thing at the same time, also
contributes to reliance on IRE. If students are given the initiative
in learning, they will not follow parallel paths in groups of that size.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct, 2009-2010)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
www.umich.edu/~jaylemke <http://www.umich.edu/%7Ejaylemke>

Visiting Scholar
Laboratory for Comparative Human Communication
University of California -- San Diego
La Jolla, CA
USA 92093

On Nov 28, 2009, at 10:08 PM, Mark de Boer wrote:

I haven't had a chance to look at this article either, and I'm not
sure of
the context but from my own classroom research I have found something

Recently at the JALT conference in Shizuoka Japan, I did a talk on the
discourse analysis of a classroom where IRF was not the predominant
form of
discourse. I have been looking at the classroom from a different
- where the scaffolding takes on a different form and the students
are the
ones asking the questions and the teacher is not necessarily the one
answering. The familiar F is virtually non existent as it usually
as - such as Jay points out as the T is the judge of the students
answers to
questions. Instead the discourse is no longer an easy to recognize
1-2-3 pattern and it no longer fits the Sinclair Coulthard model for
analysis. My talk focussed on this aspect of 'scaffolding' as in the
form of
negotiation for meaning and how it relates to the zpd. The
scaffolding that
occurs in the classroom is not from the teacher providing hints to the
student on how to continue, but instead the scaffolding comes from
lack of
knowledge and negotiation of meaning using limited available
language in
order to gain more language. The IRF pattern where the teacher plays
the 'I'
can't be very effective in language internalization.

>From my perspective, the classroom needs to move from the IRF
pattern of
focus on knowledge to one of learning how to mean and the focus on
English as a tool for communication. I recently published a paper on
the use
of this Socratic elenchus in the EFL classroom and its virtual trap
for the
teacher and how this form of question and answer strategy doesn't
belong in
the EFL classroom.

The Japanese in their English language classrooms have predominantly
the IRF pattern as the basis of their teaching methodology.

I think the real answer to removing this ubiquitous IRF discourse
from the EFL classroom is to begin to remove teaching from the
classroom and
turn it into self discovery or meaning making. I have done a bit of
discourse analysis on this sort of classroom and found that the IRF
disappeared and in its place a very jumbled form of discourse,
difficult to
follow and difficult to analyse. I've had a number of talks with
Wells over Skype and although there are a few questions that still
ironing out, creating a new model for discourse analysis as well as
analysing the discourse using functional grammar - combining
Halliday with
Vygotsky may give some answers as to what actually happens in the
and how language is acquired when language is no longer explicitly
taught. I
do believe that there is a link between language acquisition and
teaching methodology using the concept of the zpd as the basis for
how the
classroom is managed.

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