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[xmca] Re: IRF and complex classroom discourse

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 view.

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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