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Re: [xmca] IRF pattern


Nice to see the examples, and ponder the micro-meso issues.

In fact in my own work I did not use IRF, but the term "triadic dialogue" for something more like a speech genre. The term never caught on, and perhaps because it is a lot easier to work with a formally defined analytical unit (ala Sinclair & Coulthard) than with something like a discourse formation, which is more defined functionally (or through a form-function relation with more emphasis on the function side).

There is also the even simpler distinction between what can be done with a SINGLE IRE or IRF exchange, and what can be done with several minutes of cumulative reasoning through a sequence of such exchanges, and the meta-discursive comments and elaborations and preambles to questions that make up a typical instance of the "genre". (Terminologically, this small scale discourse formation pattern might be a speech genre in Bakhtin's terms, but may not be one by many other definitions of genre. The term "rhetorical formation" is also around, though that tends to be for the more "pure" varieties of IRF-IRF-IRF etc. if not just a single one.)

Good IRE discourse, i.e. effective for stimulating thinking and understanding, tends in my experience to be a very "impure" a hybrid in which a lot more is going on alongside the IRE exchanges and in between them, including affective expressions, non-correctness evaluations, personal relationship management, etc. For me it's still an instance of the broader triadic dialogue speech genre, or the IRE- based discourse pattern of classrooms.


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 29, 2009, at 12:42 AM, David Kellogg wrote:

I don't know if Wolff-Michael does it deliberately, but every once in a while an issue of MCA comes out which is not exactly themed, but in which almost all the articles share an underlying methodological issue of some kind.

The current issue, it seems to me, is one such; the underlying issue is how we link two very different kinds of analysis. First, there is the micro-logogenetic analysis of the sort we find in Conversation Analysis and also spectrographic analysis done with Praat software of the sort we find in the Gratier et al. article we are to discuss as well as Wolff-Michael's work with Praat. Second, there is something more lesson-sized, which for want of a better world I will call "macro-logogenetic" as opposed to "micro-logogenetic".

Item: Mike's editorial is about the teaching-learning link and how it differs and how it resembles the learning-development link. It's much easier to give "learning-development" goals at the level of the lesson and it's much easier to find "teaching-learning" links at the level of the exchange. Mike doesn't really talk about how to link the two, but the problem is definitely there.

Item: Paula's "More than a footnote" is once again about linking experimental results, which we see on a moment-by-moment basis in the video she posted on the website with much more macro-logogenetic results, which we see in Chapter Six of Thinking and Speech. Paula agrees with David Bakhurst, that Vygotsky saw the experiment as being a kind of stripped down "simulation" of actual classroom processes that make the actual developmental changes somehow visible to the naked eye, microgenetically.

Item: Martin, Goldman and Jimenez use parenthetic quotes (in the original Spanish) to illustrate their article on a kind of informal credit union called the Tanda (we have an identical revolving fund, called "gye", here in Korea, but it is usually associated with informal business ventures and not with consumption). Obviously, this gives a lot of power to the interviewer/analyst: there isn't really any way to know how representative quotes are.

Renee DePalma's article returns to the theoretical plane that Mike's editorial first pitched the problem at. Although DePalma quotes Eckert and McConnell-Ginet's comment that the community of practice is where the rubber meets the road very approvingly, he doesn't actually pick up on their practice of analyzing pronunciation for clues to who belongs to which community.

And that brings me to Jay's comment, which I take as an attempt to redefine IRF not as an exchange unit in a hierarchy of other discourse analysis units (act, move, turn, exchange, sequence, episode, lesson, to give the usual tree) but as a speech genre.

I agree with what he is trying to do, but I note that if we are going to do this then we really CANNOT go on calling it IRF, simply because IRF refers to a definite, formally defined, pattern of turns which is explicitly a formal unit and not a speech genre at all.

We need some non-formal (that is, non-structural) criterion for defining it as a speech genre. We don't define literary genres (novels, poems, etc.) according to their sentence types, and we can't define a speech genre according to the purely formal grammar of exchanges either.

The problem is that such criteria lead to a kind of analytical impressionism, a kind of moralistic literary criticism applied to data, which leads to individious cross cultural comparisons (and the Gratier et al. article doesn't actually escape this, disarming references to the need to avoid cultural essentialism to the contrary not withstanding).

Stylistic analysis combined with paraphrase seems to me to offer one possible solution. Here's an example I worked on today (Andy, who doesn't like this sort of thing, can stop reading at this point--I will not be offended!).

It's two lessons, one in math and one in social studies, to exactly the same kids by exactly the same teacher. It turns out that there are more words in math (2133 words in all, of which 1692 for the teacher and 441 for the children) than social studies (1,588 words in all, of which 1,234 for the teacher and 354 for the children), and there are also more utterances (508 and 350 respectively).

That works out to an average of 4.1988 words per utterance in math and about 4.5371 in social studies, so the social studies utterances are a little longer for the teacher (5.25 vs. 5.05) and a lot longer for the children (3.05 vs. 2.53).

Why should this be? One obvious place to look is in the teacher questions. Sure enough, the math class has fewer wh-questions and more yes/no (y/n) questions, while the opposite is the case in social studies. In addition, there are more “which” questions in math class, and more “why” questions in social studies.

In the y/n category, we can see that the math class appears to concentrate on pure comprehension questions check questions, like “Can you understand me?” and “Is he right?”, while the social studies lesson is richer in y-n questions which ask for examples, e.g. “do you have any good things?” or “Do you know another reason?”

All of the math wh-questions may be paraphrased as one of three types: eleven may be reworded as “What is the answer?”, four as “Who wants to do it?” and only three as higher-level conceptual questions such as “How do you know that?”. In contrast, the social studies wh-questions fall into six or seven types, of which the most common type may be paraphrased as “Tell me about your family”, of which there are seven examples (e.g. “Who has a younger sister or a brother like a baby?”).

The y-n questions at first glance show the opposite tendency: if we just look at the auxiliary verb (the “finite”, e.g. “Can”, or “Do” or “Is”) there are three types of y-n questions in math and only two in social studies. But when we look beneath the surface we find that the y-n questions in math look like this:

Can I erase this one?
Can you do it?
Can you explain that?
Can you hear him?
Can you know today's object?
Can you read the sentence?
Can you remember?
Can you see some orange on the screen?
Can you understand me?
Can you understand me?
Can you understand me?
Can you understand me?
Can you understand, 세준?
Can you understand?
Do you know, can you know which one can eat the apple?
Do you want my help?
Is he right?
Is he right?
Is he right?
Is she right?

Compare these with the ones in social studies:

Can you imagine that case?
Can you see your journal?
Can you understand the meaning of generation?
Can you understand?
Can you understand?
Do you have any good things when you are a nuclear family?
Do you have younger brother?
Do you know another reason?
Do you know nuclear?
Do you live with your grandparents?
Do you want to live with your grandparents?
Don't you have any brothers or sisters?

The teacher in the social studies class appears to behave more like an organizer of the children’s experience, while the same teacher in the math class is largely providing and checking on the assimilation of content. We can see this quite graphically in the exchange below, which is the longest single learner turn. It appears, of course, in the social studies class:

T            Imagine that you live with your grandparents.
T            Which points are good?
S           I have a nuclear family but I like a large family.
S I want to live with my grandmother because I love my grandmother and she knows many things about health.

We can see that although this is a “which” question, there is no short answer. There are instead two quite long answers, including both the child’s empirical understanding (“live with my grandmother”) as well as the teacher’s scientific concept (“nuclear family”). That's what good examples can do: they have a pole attached to the child's experience and understanding and another pole attached to that of the teacher, the curriculum, and the wider world.

Can IRF do this? It seems to me that to say "no" is a little like saying that a subject-verb-object sentence cannot!

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

PS: Mike, Bud Mehan took his IRE unit from Sinclair and Coulthard-- and Sinclair and Coulthard were being ruthlessly formalistic; they were not even interested in classrooms per se, and only wanted to figure out the grammar of discourse above the sentence in an artificially simplified environment. Coulthard later went on to do forensic linguistics!


 On Sat, 11/28/09, Mark de Boer <mark.yomogi@gmail.com> wrote:

From: Mark de Boer <mark.yomogi@gmail.com>
Subject: [xmca] IRF pattern
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
Date: Saturday, November 28, 2009, 10:08 PM

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 perspective - 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 perceived 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 simple
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 using 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 used
the IRF pattern as the basis of their teaching methodology.

I think the real answer to removing this ubiquitous IRF discourse structure 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 pattern 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 Gordon Wells over Skype and although there are a few questions that still need
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 classroom and how language is acquired when language is no longer explicitly taught. I do believe that there is a link between language acquisition and classroom teaching methodology using the concept of the zpd as the basis for how the
classroom is managed.


On Nov 28, 2009, at 12:45 PM, Jay Lemke wrote:

I may wait to see the article and the specific context of the discussion, but on the whole, I think I can assure David that SOMETHING, for which IRE or IRF is a common placeholder term, is quite a pervasive and specific mode
of dialogic discourse in many sorts of classrooms.

If you look only at the "bare bones" definition of it, then, yes, there are analogues in other kinds of discourse, and you can even, in its broader IRF
form fit it, as David suggests, to many kinds of dialogue.

But the real discourse phenomenon is not the bare bones form, it is the more extended speech genre, which has a lot of other regularities to it, and a rather horrifying ubiquity in classrooms where informational knowledge is taken as the main objective, and where there is a basic power relationship
in which T is authorized to question and judge S answers to questions.

As Gordon Wells has pointed out, IRE can be used to do some good in
teaching, though in my experience it tends to pull things back towards the
focus on informational knowledge. I have seen it used brilliantly to
stimulate students' thinking, but not often.

And there are many other discourse patterns in classrooms, and some kinds of
classes which downplay IRE in favor of alternatives.

Nothing else, however, is quite like it. The closest comparison of which I
am aware is to known-answer questioning of witnesses in some legal
proceedings, but even that really has a very different guiding goal. I think
that one of the most interesting things about IRE analysis is the
relationship of form and function, and while the form has a certain austere
elegance, the functions are not usually so pretty.


PS. The Socratic elenchus makes for another interesting comparison.

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
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