Spoken Discourse Analysis in the Classroom

by Sophia McMillan
(Tokyo, Japan)

Shane Training Centre, Japan

Shane Training Centre, Japan

It can be said that a lot of what happens during the lesson in the act of teaching is unknown by the teacher, this is because teachers are often unaware of the many of the moment-to-moment decisions they make during the class.


It can be argued, therefore, that teachers need to be more aware in the classroom and how to self-monitor. One way of doing this is through action research focused on classroom discourse analysis. In analyzing classroom language it is possible to examine and assess objective data on both teacher and learner output. In considering and transcribing language teachers can easily identify when they might be limiting or facilitating communication. This can be invaluable in raising awareness about what actually happens in the classroom, leading to any required adjustments to maximise communicative potential.

This self-monitoring of spoken discourse analysis is vital in young learner classes as these individuals are far less likely to challenge the teachers’ style. Thus, the responsibility for understanding and examining the relationship between the teacher and learner output rests entirely with the teacher. Spoken discourse analysis is a type of independent action research that can be conducted by teachers in their own classrooms.

Sinclair and Coulthard developed one of the most widely recognized models for discourse analysis in 1975. This model outlines a rank-scale where structural units at one level combine to form the level above – act -> move -> exchange -> transaction -> lesson – with the first three being most clearly defined and the focus for suggested research. An exchange is made up of a typical initiation-response-follow-up (IRF) sequence where the teacher initiates, the learner responds and the teacher gives feedback; moves
comprise different options within the IRF structure.

This model can be a catalyst for change as it can provide a greater/clearer understanding of classroom behaviour as it identifies the communication between teachers and learners. For example, it allows teachers to record how, when and where they are enabling or disabling learners; to monitor and understand their use of language; identify an imbalance between the number of learner and teacher “turns” as well as highlighting ritualized behaviour and/or bad habits.

The model also provides useful information about the teacher’s use of follow-up moves. These are important as they reveal whether a display question (teacher already knows the answer and are designed to display learner knowledge) or a referential question (genuine questions to which the teacher does not know the answer) is used. Obviously the latter results in more authentic communication and thus reducing the former and increasing the latter offers learners more natural interactive opportunities.

Analysing the learners’ output can also indicate who is initiating the interactions. Should an imbalance be discovered then steps can be taken to include more learner initiations and follow-ups. It is important for learners to practice such moves as they form an integral part of natural conversation.

Although it can be a time consuming process, especially with recording (with all learners’ permission) and transcribing and analyzing data, periodic use of spoken discourse analysis can aid teachers monitor output and improve lesson quality. It can remind teachers of the ramifications of moment-to-moment potentially spontaneous decisions they make at different points in the lesson which affect the lessons as a whole and can indicate which activities successfully produce communicative interaction and identify what is missing from the learners’ output.

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