Although teacher talk varies somewhat with the tasks or purposes at hand, it also has uniformities that occur across a range of situations.
Using detailed observations of discourse in science activities, for example, Jay Lemke identified all of the following strategies from observations of teachers’ classroom talk (1990).
Each strategy simultaneously influences the course of discussion and focuses students’ attention, and in these ways also helps indirectly to insure appropriate classroom behavior.
Nominating, terminating, and interrupting speakers
Teachers often choose who gets to speak. (“Jose, what do you think about X?”).
On the other hand, they often bring an end to a student’s turn at speaking or even interrupt the student before he or she finishes. (“Thanks; we need to move on now.”)
Marking Importance or Irrelevance
Teachers sometimes indicate that an idea is important (“That’s a good idea, Lyla.”). On the other hand, they sometimes also indicate that an idea is not crucial or important (“You’re right, but that’s not quite the answer I was looking for.”), or fully relevant (“We’re talking about the book Wuthering Heights, not the movie that you may have seen.”).
Marking importance and relevance obviously helps a teacher to reinforce key content. But the strategy can also serve to improve relationships among students if the teacher deliberately marks or highlights an idea offered by a quiet or shy student (O’Connor & Michaels, 1996; Cohen, et al., 2004).
In that case marking importance can build both a student’s confidence and the student’s status in the eyes of classmates.
Signaling Boundaries Between Activities
Teachers declare when an activity is over and a new one is starting. (“We need to move on. Put away your spelling and find your math books.”)
In addition to clarifying procedures, though, signaling boundaries can also insure appropriate classroom behavior. Ending an activity can sometimes help restore order among students who have become overly energetic, and shifting to a new activity can sometimes restore motivation to students who have become bored or tired.
Asking “Test” Questions and Evaluating Students’ Responses
Teachers often ask test questions – questions to which they already know the answer. Then they evaluate the quality or correctness of the students’ answers
(Teacher: “How much is 6 x 7?” Student: “42.” Teacher: “That’s right.”).
Test questions obviously help teachers to assess students’ learning, but they also mark the teacher as the expert in the classroom, and therefore as a person entitled to control the flow of discourse.
There are additional features of teacher-talk that are not unique to teachers. These primarily function to make teachers’ comments more comprehensible, especially when spoken to a group, but they also help to mark a person who uses them as a teacher (Cazden, 2001; Black, 2004)
Exaggerated Changes in Pitch
When busy teaching, teachers tend to exaggerate changes in the pitch of their voice – reminiscent of the “sing-song” style of adults when directing speech to infants.
Exaggerated pitch changes are especially characteristic of teachers of young students, but they happen at all grade levels.
In class teachers tend to speak more slowly, clearly, and carefully than when conversing with a friend. The style makes a speaker sound somewhat formal, especially when combined with formal vocabulary and grammar.
Formal Vocabulary and Grammar
Teachers tend to use vocabulary and grammar that is more formally polite and correct, and that uses relatively few slang or casual expressions. (Instead of saying “Get out your stuff”, they more likely say, “Please get out your materials.”)
The formality creates a businesslike distance between teachers and students – hopefully one conducive to getting work done, rather than one that seems simply cold or uncaring.
The touch of formality also makes teachers sound a bit more intelligent or intellectual than in casual conversation, and in this way reinforces their authority in the classroom.
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