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Functions of Talk

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Content, Procedures and Behavior Control
Classrooms are different from many other group situations in that communication serves a unique combination of three purposes at once (Wells, 2006) :
• Content
• Procedures
• Behavior control
Content Talk
Content talk focuses on what is being learned; it happens when a teacher or student states or asks about an idea or concept for example, or when someone explains or elaborates on some bit of new knowledge (Burns & Myhill, 2004).
Usually content talk relates in some obvious way to the curriculum or to current learning objectives, as when a teacher tells a high school history class, “As the text explains, there were several major causes of the American Civil War.”
But content talk can also digress from the current learning objectives; a first-grade student might unexpectedly bring a caterpillar to school and ask about how it transforms into a butterfly
Procedural Talk
Procedural talk, as its name implies, is about administrative rules or routines needed to accomplish tasks in a classroom. It happens, for example, when the teacher says, “When you are done with your spelling books, put them in the bins at the side of the room”, or when a student asks, “Do you want us to print our names at the top of page?”
Procedural talk provides information that students need to coordinate their activities in what can be a relatively crowded space – the classroom – and under conditions in which time may be relatively short or tightly scheduled. It generally keeps activities organized and flowing smoothly.
Procedural talk is not primarily about removing or correcting unwanted behavior, although certain administrative procedures might sometimes annoy a particular student, or students might sometimes forget to follow a procedure.
Instead it is intended to provide the guidance that students need to coordinate with each other and with the teacher.
Control Talk
Control talk is about preventing or correcting misbehaviors when they occur, particularly when the misbehaviors are not because of ignorance of procedures. It happens, for example, when a teacher says, “Jill, you were talking when you should have been listening”, or “Jason, you need to work on your math instead of doodling.”
Most control talk originates with the teacher, but students sometimes engage in it with each other, if not with the teacher. One student may look at a nearby classmate who is whispering out of turn and quietly say, “Shhh!” in an attempt to silence the behavior. Or a student may respond to being teased by a classmate by saying simply, “Stop it!” Whether originating from the teacher or a student, control talk may not always be fully effective. But its purpose is, by definition, to influence or control inappropriate behavior.
Combining functions
What can make classroom discourse confusing is that two of its functions – content and procedures – often become combined with the third, control talk, in the same remark or interaction. For example, a teacher may ask a content-related question as a form of control talk.
She may, for example, ask, “Jeremy, what did you think of the film we just saw?” The question is apparently about content, but the teacher may also be trying to end Jeremy’s daydreaming and to get him back on task – an example of control talk.
Or a teacher may state a rule: “When one person is talking, others need to be listening.” The rule is procedural in that it helps to coordinate classroom dialogue, but it may also control inattentive behavior.
Double functions like those mentioned can sometimes confuse students because of their ambiguity, and lead to misunderstandings between certain students and teachers.
A student may hear only the content or procedural function of a teacher’s comment, and miss an implied request or command to change inappropriate behavior (Collins & Michaels, 2006).
But double functions can also help lessons to flow smoothly by minimizing the disruption of attending to a minor behavior problem and by allowing more continuous attention to content or procedures.