The Study of Classroom Discourse: Early History and Current Developments
Hugh (Bud) Mehan and Courtney B. Cazden
(Paper prepared for presentation at the 2013 AERA Conference)
Learning Lessons (Mehan 1979) reported one of the earliest qualitative studies of
classroom discourse. The study described the basic structures of classroom lessons
(Instruction-Reply-Evaluation and Extended Sequences), the turn-taking procedures that
teachers deploy to maintain the flow of classroom discourse, and the skills that students’
acquire—often implicitly—in order to contribute as competent members of the classroom
community. That study was the product of a unique collaboration between two university
researchers: Courtney Cazden, who returned to a primary classroom for one year (1974-5)
as the teacher, and Hugh (Bud) Mehan, who observed and analyzed her teaching and
wrote the book.
In this paper, we describe the origins and purposes of the Cazden-Mehan
collaboration, the basic structure of classroom lessons, and recent developments in the
study of classroom discourse that have blossomed since that time. It was originally
presented as an oral conversation at the 2011 conference now converted into a book, and
we will retain some of the first-person informality, mostly in the plural we but
occasionally as a separate I for either Cazden or Mehan as indicated.
How The Project Started
We met first in a summer-long SSRC Conference on “Language, Society, and the
Child” at UC Berkeley in the Summer of 1968, coming there with different intellectual
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Cazden: I started out as a public school teacher in a working class neighborhood in
Connecticut (1954-1961). My first and second grade students came from stable families—
white, African American, Puerto Rican—whose fathers had good blue-collar factory jobs.
Our elementary school functioned well, but other teachers and I wondered why so many of
our elementary school graduates ended up in the lowest high school tracks.
Especially in the post-Sputnik urgency about school achievement, public voices
suggested that students’ language, especially Black dialect, might be part of the problem.
Intrigued by such claims, I entered a doctoral program at the Harvard Graduate School of
Education (HGSE) in 1961 and became excited by new developments in cognitive
psychology and linguistics in Cambridge at that time. I participated for several years in
Roger Brown’s pioneering longitudinal study of the language development of three young
children: two from graduate student families and one whose parents had only high school
education (Brown 1973).
By the early 1970’s, now on the HGSE faculty, I wanted to see if my primary
school teaching would be different, now informed by my new understanding of language
development. So I asked Bud Mehan if he could arrange a teaching assignment in a
working-class elementary school, and if he would be interested in documenting my
Mehan: At the time of Courtney’s request, I was directing the teacher education
program at UC San Diego and was able to arrange for her to teach in a primary-grade
classroom in the urban core of San Diego for the 1974-95 academic year. Her combined
first, second, and third grade classroom was composed of Latino and African American
students referred to her by other teachers at the school.
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I approached the prospect of documenting Cazden’s classroom instruction from an
amalgamation of academic orientations. Trained as a sociologist with a specialization in
ethnomethodology (Mehan & Wood 1975), I focused on the social practices that
constituted such educational facts as special education students, ability groupings, and
tracking systems. This constructivist orientation in sociology was reinforced by concurrent
developments in linguistics, anthropology, and psychology. While it dominated the field
of linguistics, Chomsky’s theory of competence was challenged by Shuy et al. (1967),
Gumperz (1971), Labov 1972, Cazden et al. (1972), Erwin-Tripp (1972), Hymes (1974),
and other psycholinguists and sociolinguists for neglecting the social origins and functions
of language. Their studies of “communicative competence” were echoed by
anthropologists such as Frake (1964) and Goodenough (1964) who framed culture in
terms of participation or membership in a society—what one has to know, believe, and
especially do, in order to operate in a manner that is acceptable to the members of a
community or a society. I wanted to extend that logic to the classroom, asking: “what do
students have to do in order to be seen as competent members of the classroom
community?” I hoped to answer that question by examining Courtney’s interactions with
the students in her classroom.
Thus, our interests coalesced in this collaborative project, and we were both
energized by a shared concern for educational equity. Deficit theories were prevalent ways
of explaining the gap in academic achievement among blacks and whites. In the
biologically-based version of deficit thinking (e. g. Jensen 1969), black youth were
portrayed as cognitively inferior to their white counterparts because of racial differences.
In the culturally-based version (e. g., Deutsch et al 1968), the “inferior” speech and
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thought of low-income black and Latino youth were blamed on their families’ cultural
practices. We hoped that a study of classroom discourse might provide an opportunity to
examine, and perhaps challenge, such deficit thinking.
Videotape played a central role in this study. It has become common for
researchers to extract quotes or strings of utterances from audio- or videotape. But this
study was among the first to use videotape as a tool to study the social organization of
complete events in educational settings, such as classroom lessons, testing sessions,
counseling sessions.1
We videotaped the first hour of school activities everyday for the first week of
school and one hour a day approximately every third week until April. This schedule was
influenced by a combination of practical circumstances and theoretical interests. The onehour unit of analysis was selected because videotape for the portable studio equipment we
had available was one hour long. The first hour of the day was chosen because of our
theoretical interests in the skills that students must deploy in order to be competent
members of the classroom community. The day usually began with students being served
snacks and informally interacting at their desks. Then the students were assembled on the
rug to hear the schedule of the day, join in “show and tell.” The first hour was concluded
with the class either instructed as a whole or divided into small groups for instruction in
math and language arts. This procedure produced a corpus of materials with nine instances
of a similar event.
For other early studies, see for example, Cicourel et al. 1974; Mishler 1975; Sinclair & Coulthard
1975, McDermott 1976; McDermott et al. 1978, Erickson & Shultz 1978, Shuy & Griffin 1978, Gumperz &
Herasimchuk 1972, Cole et al. 1978.
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The Structure of Classroom Lessons
Teacher-led lessons are the most prevalent form of events that occur regularly in
classrooms. (Others include individual instructional time, sharing time, small collaborative
groups, presentations of learning, laboratory experiments.) Classroom lessons have unique
organizational features that distinguish them from other classroom events and from
ordinary conversations that occur outside of classrooms.
Example #1
T: And whose is this?
Many: Veronica
T: Oh, a lot of people
knew that one
T: Whose name is this?
L: Mercedes
T: “Mercedes,” all right
This exchange from a lesson Courtney taught early in the school year when
children were still learning their classmates’ names illustrates one of the most salient
features of classroom lessons: they are organized in three-part sequences. A teacher’s
initiation act induces a student’s reply, which in turn invokes a teacher’s evaluation.
Classroom lessons tend to be teacher centered and require students to respond, often
individually, with student behavior evaluated quite publicly.
Evaluations are more likely to occur in classroom interactions than in other
situations in everyday life. Consider these two hypothetical exchanges:
Example #2
Example #3
Speaker #1: What time is it, Denise?
Speaker #1: What time is it, Denise?
Speaker #2: 10:30
Speaker #2: 10:30
Speaker #1: Very good, Denise!
Speaker #1: Thank you, Denise
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It would be unusual for example #2 to occur in everyday conversation, because in
everyday conversation, speakers routinely ask questions in order to obtain information
they do not possess (“information seeking questions”), identify the next speaker who is
someone who presumably possesses that information, and acknowledge or thank them for
their trouble (“acknowledgement”). The presence of an evaluation, which comments on a
student’s reply to a question, is one of the features that distinguishes conversations that
take place in classrooms and other educational settings (such as tests), from those that
occur in everyday situations.
The three-part Initiation-Reply-Evaluation (I-R-E) structure exists in large part
because of the “language game” (Wittgenstein 1953) organized by the teacher. In the
“recitation language game,” the teacher begins a sequence looking for a simple, preferred
answer, the student responds (with a short answer), and the teacher evaluates the answer
as correct or not. The third part in the IRE sequence is crucial one for controlling the flow
of interaction in the recitation script. This is the place where the correctness or
incorrectness of a student’s reply is established. If confusion or unintelligibility is not
cleared up, then it’s assumed that the student’s reply was acceptable.
In the recitation game, teachers often ask “known information questions” (Sinclair
& Coulthard 1975; Shuy & Griffin 1978; Mehan 1979) in which the teacher typically
knows the answer before hand. Not all teacher-led initiation acts test students’ previously
acquired knowledge, however. In another class of initiation acts, teachers seek new
information, ask students for their opinions, or interpretations. When “information seeking
questions” are introduced into classroom lessons, much longer, or extended sequences of
interaction often transpire. Because the teacher seeks information from students that s/he
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doesn’t know in advance, lessons can proceed in unexpected directions, as this exchange
between Cazden and her students illustrate. In a lesson designed to elicit information
about students’ birthplaces and locate them on a large map of the US and northern
Mexico, the following exchanges were about the birthplaces of Prenda and then her
Example #4
T: Where were you born,
Prenda: San Diego
T: You were born in
San Diego, all right.
T: Can you come up and
find San Diego on the
(P goes to map and points)
T: Right there, okay
That is the end of one short IRE sequence. When the topic then shifts to Prenda’s mother,
a more extended sequence develops:
T: Now, where did your
mother come from?
P: Oh, Arkansas
T: Okay
T: I did point out Arkansas
on the map yesterday //
T: Can you – do you know
where it is, Prenda?
T: How did you come -–
how did you know that?
P: //I know where
Arkansas is
(P goes to the map and
P: Cause I //
C: this morning//
P: Carolyn told me where
Arkansas was
T: Carolyn, how did you
T: Yeah, good for you
T: Wait a minute,
wait a minute. I couldn’t
hear what Prenda said
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remember where
Arkansas was?
C: ‘Cuz all three of the
grandmothers—Miss Coles
said it started with an A,
and I said “There” (pointing).
P: Little Rock
T: Yes, I thought maybe
you remem-because
you mentioned Little Rock
yesterday. Okay, we’ll put
a green card for your mother
or father there
P: My father wasn’t born
At this point in the lesson, a new extended sequence about Prenda’s father is
begun, this time about who traveled farther to San Diego: Prenda’s mother from Arkansas,
or her father from “Baltimore, Maryland.” Both basic and extended sequences are
interactional in being jointly produced by teacher with students. They are sequential in
that Replies routinely follow Initiations and Evaluations routinely follow the InitiationReply pair.
Other studies of classroom discourse in industrialized nations have reported the
prevalence of the IRE sequence. These include North America, Britain, Europe, New
Zealand and Australia (Sinclair & Coulthard 1975; Malcolm 1979). In addition, studies of
societies with colonial legacies also demonstrate evidence of the IRE sequence within
classrooms. Some of these societies include Tibuai (Levin 1978), those portions of
Western Australia that consist of a high percentage of Aboriginal Australians (Malcolm
1979), Puerto Rico (McCollum (1989), and Papua New Guinea (Miller 1981). Native
students attending schools in former colonies for the first time often encounter linguistic
and structural differences between the language used in the classroom and the home—a
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discontinuity that seems to interfere with their learning.
Cross-Cultural Variations and Educational Recommendations
Students of language use in homes and schools have suggested that classroom
lessons may be compatible with the discourse patterns in Anglo families but may be
incompatible with the discourse patterns of certain minority group families. This
discontinuity, in turn, may contribute to the lower achievement in US schools among
students from African American, Hawaiian American, Native American, and Latino
Variations on the “default condition” of short IRE sequences (Cazden & Mehan
1989) have been recorded in a variety of settings, often with students and teachers from
cultural groupings that differ from the mainstream.2 We illustrate these variations, calling
upon studies that analyze videotape and transcript materials from complete classroom
Au & Jordan (1981) show that a Polynesian teacher used discourse techniques that
differ from the basic I-R-E sequence when teaching Native Hawaiian students in the
Kamehameha Early Education Program (KEEP). In the introductory part of a lesson,
designed to elicit students’ knowledge about frogs before students were invited to read
passages from a book about frogs, the following exchanges occurred when the teacher
asked “what would you do with a frog if you captured it:”
For example, Erickson & Mohatt (1982), Philips (1983), Vogt et al. (1987), McCarty et al. (1991) report
variations on the IRE sequence in classrooms composed of Native American students. Laosa (1982), Losey
(1995), Trueba (1983), Delgado-Gaitan (1987), and Gutierrez et al. (1999) document variations in classes
composed of Mexican American students. Au (1980), Au & Jordan (1981), and Tharp & Gallimore (1988)
reveal variations in classrooms composed of Native Hawaiian students. Michaels (1981), Heath (1983),
Foster (1989), and Lee (1995) report variations in classrooms composed of African American students.
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Example #53
T: What would you do with it?
V: Feed it
S: Put it in a pond
T: Lets think if we would do
anything else with it. What would
you do, Cyndy? What would you
do if you had a frog?
T: You can eat frog, can’t you?
T: Oh, you would put it
in a pond. Okay
A: I would poke
the legs
C: You could put
It in a bucket
T: What would you do with it?
A: You could eat
the legs
A: Yuck
T: Shh. You would put
it in a bucket. Okay,
that’s something
T: Okay. Cyndy might
even eat it. Good
A: Yeah, the legs
This teacher, like Courtney in the “birthplaces lesson,” is asking information
seeking questions. She does not know before hand what her students propose to do with a
captured frog. Note also that she explicitly asks for a range of answers (“Lets think if we
would do anything else with it”) and more than one student answers the teacher’s
questions before she evaluates their responses. Even when she identified Cyndy to be the
only student to respond, she received a range of different answers—from benign and
helpful (“feed it” “put it in a pond,” “put it in a bucket” to more mischievous (“poke the
legs”). Researchers associated with KEEP point out these discourse features, especially
those that enable students to assemble answers jointly, are consistent with discourse
The conventions used by the authors to display transcripts in the original publications have been simplified
for ease of reading in examples 5 and 6.
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patterns in Native Hawaiian communities (Au 1980; Au & Jordan 1981; Tharp &
Gallimore (1988).
Erickson & Mohatt (1982) revealed similar patterns in a classroom of Algonkian
Indian children taught by an Algonkian Indian teacher on the Odawa reserve in Canada.
Example #6 is from the beginning of a lesson that occurs in a first grade classroom:
Example #6
T: On our calendar, what’s the
next number?
T: And this is . . .
Many: Ten//
G: Ten
C: Ma::rch
G: March
T: March tenth
T: Somebody’s got these all mixed
//E: Nineteen//
C: Nineteen
F: Wednesday//
Class: Wednesday
T: How many in the grade
ones are putting the date in
their books? I notice some
books you forget to put it
and I put down March//
Class: Ten//ten//ten
T: And this is . . .
Class: 1976
T: Now we don’t have this on
the calendar but we put it
in our books. This is the year
This teacher is asking “known information questions,” but her manner of allocating
turns for students to talk in the Initiation frame is different than conventional classrooms:
She did not identify students by name. This turn-allocation technique does not obligate
students to stand out as individuals; instead, they can choose to participate in unison as
members of groups when answering questions. Erickson & Mohatt (1982) point out that
Parallel lines (//) indicate overlapping speech
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her evaluation moves were different also. Here we see that she did not evaluate students’
replies after each turn. In other exchanges during this and other lessons, she dispensed
praise in public, criticism in private. These techniques were applauded for being more
compatible with the cultural style of the Native students than the more individualized IRE
sequences of traditional classrooms (Erickson & Mohatt 1982; cf. Philips 1983).
Erickson & Mohatt (1982) also observed a non-Indian Canadian teacher in the
same school. When he first started teaching, his style was similar to the default condition
in all respects. The longer he taught on the Odawa reserve, the more his teaching practices
shifted in the direction of his students’ culture. In effect, his Indian students informally
socialized him to use more group-based instruction, facilitate more voluntary
contributions, and keep evaluations private as they worked together through time.
The non-Indian Canadian teacher was taught culturally compatible discourse
strategies implicitly by his students. McCullum (1989) makes a similar point about the
cultural congruity of a Puerto Rican teacher’s discourse practices with her Puerto Rican
students. While the Initiation acts of an English-speaking teacher of Puerto Rican students
McCullum studied in Chicago called upon students to respond individually and compete
for the floor, the Initiation acts of a Spanish-speaking teacher of Puerto Rican students in
Puerto Rico permitted students to volunteer answers and respond in groups. McCullum
suggests that the language patterns used in the Puerto Rican classroom signaled a social
relationship between teacher and students that was closer to an “instructional
conversation” (Tharp & Gallimore 1988) than a recitation lesson. And this instructional
conversation was more consistent with the conversational patterns in everyday Puerto
Rican life.
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Some researchers have engaged teachers explicitly in culturally compatible
discourse strategies. Heath (1983) reports that the teachers used instructional strategies
when instructing low-income students in “Trackton” that were not prevalent in the
students’ homes. Whereas Trackton teachers would use known information questions in
IRE formats, Trackton parents would use statements or imperatives. And when parents did
ask questions of Trackton children, they called for nonspecific comparisons or analogies
as answers. Heath (1983) concluded that the language used in Trackton homes did not
prepare children to cope with the major characteristics of the language used in classrooms:
utterances that were interrogative in form but directive in pragmatic function, known
information questions, and questions that asked for information from books.
In order to increase Trackton students’ verbal skills in naming objects, identifying
their characteristics, providing descriptions out of context, and responding to known
information questions, Heath (1983) worked with the Trackton teachers on ways to
appropriate the community’s ways of interacting with children. After reviewing tapes of
parent-child interactions with researchers, teachers began social studies lessons with
questions that asked for personal experiences and analogic responses, such as “What’s
happening there?” “Have you ever been there?” “What’s this like?” These questions were
similar to the questions that parents asked their children at home. Their use during the
beginning of lessons was productive in generating active responses from previously
passive and “nonverbal” Trackton students. Once the teachers increased the students’
participation in lessons using home-based questioning styles, they were able to use more
school-based questioning styles.
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This line of research has led to several educational recommendations. The basic
idea is to use students’ home knowledge and cultural practices as a resource in classroom
instruction. Teachers are encouraged to build upon the strengths of home language and
culture. This may involve modifying the participation structures of the classroom to be
more compatible with the participation structures of the home.
The work reviewed above evidences a concern to enable under represented
minority group students to participate more actively in classroom lessons. The work we
review in the next section is concerned with encouraging students to gain control over the
complexities of academic discourse. The work of Teresa McCarty, Carol Lee, and their
colleagues represents a transition from a concern for participation to a concern with
cognitive development within studies of classroom discourse.
For decades Native American students have been portrayed in the literature as quiet,
passive, nonresponsive. They have been said to learn by observing and doing, not through
listening and saying (More, 1989; Tharp, 1989). Often in the name of cultural
compatibility, educators have emphasized nonverbal means of instruction and cueresponse scripted drills as a way to reach passive Indian students. McCarty et al. (1991)
say that these erstwhile attempts have had an unfortunate side effect. Indian students are
neither taught to engage in reasoning with evidence nor to employ inquiry methods.
Working with the Navajo-staffed Native American Materials Development Center,
staff members of the Rough Rock Indian reservation school implemented an inquiry-based
bilingual social studies program. Students were asked to scour their community and return
with lists of things needed in their community. Students were then asked to group like
items and justify their choices. Eventually they reached a consensus, identifying things
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needed and things they’d like to have. That consensus led to the lesson generalization:
“Rough Rock is a community because people work together to meet their needs and solve
mutual problems” (McCarty et al., 1991: 57). The lessons in “Navajo Humanities” suggest
that Navajo students will indeed respond enthusiastically to inquiry-based questioning that
asks them to provide evidence for their observations.
In a similar manner, Lee (1995) described how six teachers in two urban schools
helped their high school classes composed primarily of African American students
increase their skills of interpreting rich literary texts by introducing and building upon
material drawn from cultural routines and rituals. The teachers first helped their students
analyze the rules for achieving irony in signifying rituals.5 Next they invited students to
read and analyze contemporary literature, such as Tony Morrison’s (1970) The Bluest Eye
and Alice Walker’s (1982) The Color Purple. Teachers regularly asked questions during
instructional units that required the students to make inferences, interpret figurative
language, and draw upon evidence from disparate parts of the text as well as personal
experiences of the social world embodied in the texts. A comparison of students’ scores on
pre- and post-tests of text-interpretation document students’ shift to more sophisticated
interpretations of complex inferential questions.
Recent Developments
Classroom lessons composed primarily of IRE sequences have been criticized for
being overly teacher-centered, for converging on one correct response, and for demanding
Many signifying episodes are intended to insult and criticize. Examples of signifying, such as the
following, whose purpose is to instruct and inform were used in Lee’s study:
Rochelle: Girl, you sure do need to join the Metrecal for lunch bunch
Grace: (noncommitedly) Yeah, I guess I am putting on a little weight
Rochelle: Now look here girl, we both standing here soaking wet and you still trying to tell me it
ain’t raining (Lee 1995: 615).
In this conversation between two sisters, one has tried to conceal the fact that she is pregnant from the other.
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factual information or yes-no responses from students (MacBeth 2003; Wells & Arauz
2006; Edelsky 2006). Partially in response to such criticisms, we have witnessed a shift in
focus within the study and practice of classroom discourse. The studies revealing cultural
variations on the recitation script we reviewed in the previous section sought to increase
the participation of minority students in classroom lessons in the name of educational
equity. If minority students could be encouraged to take more turns at talk in classroom
lessons, then they could be better prepared to contribute more actively in the full
dimensions of school life. More recent studies that we review in this section are concerned
with prompting students to engage in more sophisticated forms of reasoning.
This cognitive shift does not abandon the equity agenda. It transforms it.
Teachers who work to support academically productive talk in classrooms see this as a
tool to promote knowledge building and powerful learning for students, especially in
science, mathematics, and language arts. Building knowledge and reasoning skills in these
fields, in turn, is seen as a way to better prepare underserved students for college,
participation in the political economy, and democratic institutions.
In other words, we are seeing a shift in the classroom language game from
recitation to reasoning. A prominent goal of the reasoning game is to socialize students
into “academic discourse,” i. e., that genre in which ideas are presented (in written or oral
form) in academic or scholarly contexts that privileges the analytical and the presentation
of evidence to advance an argument (Toulman 1958). Academic discourse is a special
genre. No one is a native speaker. To be sure some students have gained familiarity with
certain of its aspects through family interaction or religious training (for the bar/bas
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mitzvah, for example) but it is not a completely natural way of speaking for any students.
Therefore, all students need to learn to use the complete repertoire of academic discourse.
Students who become fluent users of academic discourse learn to explain their
ideas in detail, invoking evidence to support their reasoning. Evidence in support of claims
may have been gathered from observations, demonstrations, experiments in science or
math classes, or ideas from texts they have been reading in language arts social studies or
history classes, for example. They are also able to provide evidence-based claims that
compete with those of other students. In order to generate claims supported by evidence
and counter-factual claims, students must learn to listen carefully to each other with
respect, take seriously and evaluate their own and other competing ideas.
Fostering students to reason with evidence is not an easy task (Kovalainena and
Kumpulainen 2007). Teachers require considerable coaching in order to engage students
in productive discussions (Tharp & Gallimore 1988; Michaels , O’Conner, and Resnick
2008). In addition, teachers have to reconcile the tension between a desire for moving
students toward more sophisticated forms of reasoning and maintaining classroom control
(Emanuelson & Sahlström 2008). This tension exists because the initiation acts that foster
reasoning with evidence often invite students to provide interpretations or offer their own
life experiences. While these discourse moves can open up conversations, they can
introduce lines of interaction that pulls lessons in unexpected and unproductive directions.
In this section we illustrate classroom discourse featuring teachers who, cognizant of this
challenge, incorporate initiations that elicit students’ observations and interpretations and
encourage them to provide evidence of their reasoning.
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The shift from recitation to reasoning also requires a shift in the way we display
transcripts. Teacher-led interaction with students still conforms to a tripartite pattern.
Classroom interaction continues to be organized by teachers, a social fact captured by
placing the teacher in the first position of an instructional sequence. So, too, for the most
part, students continue to occupy the second, reply position in the sequence. The third
position in the 3-part sequence changes considerably, however. The work that is done here
is more involved than evaluating the correctness of a student’s reply. Teachers (and
sometimes students) acknowledge replies, reformulate, revoice, or comment upon them.
Therefore, to be consistent with the materials we present—and recommendations of other
researchers (e. g., Wells 1993)--we change the name of the third slot from Evaluation to
Encouraging Students to Display the Grounds of their Reasoning
In a lesson designed to encourage middle school students to practice making
estimates of ratios and proportions, Marilyn Burns (1989) first used cuisenaire rods of
certain lengths and color to measure the length of a student’s desk. Then, she divided the
class into small groups and asked them to measure their desks using rods of different
lengths. After she placed samples of the (magnetized) rods on the chalkboard, the
following exchanges between teacher and students transpired:
Example #7
T: So, what I’m interested in
hearing now is how you figured out
how many blue, red, and white rods
it took to stretch across the table.
And I’m also interested in hearing
how many different ways there are
to think about that. So, Craig, how
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many blue rods does it take to
stretch across the table and how did
you figure that?
C: Six and two thirds
T: And how did you figure that out? C: Because, um there
is 3 light greens that fit
into the blue and then
you go “3, 3 greens
times 6” that would 18
and that won’t be a full
rod so take off 2. So
you put down 2 and take
out one green. That
would be 2/3, that would
be 6/23
T: And Nathan, how many blue
rods do you think stretch across
the table?
T: And explain to me how you
got that answer
T: Kim, how many blue rods do
you think it takes to stretch
across the table, and how did
you figure that out?
N: About 6
N: We took the blues and
then took the light greens
and compared how many
would stretch across and
worked our way down and
got up to 20 green. And
we just stuck these on top
to see how many of these
would fit on 20 green
K: 6 3/4. We just laid ‘em
out and then laid about
half on the table lengthwise
and if we didn’t have enough
we just like used some bigger
ones and like added them
T: So, when I asked
this question, I wind
up getting 3 different
answers. I get 6 2/3
from Craig and I get 6
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/34 from Kim and I get
6 from Nathan. It
shows me there are
still differences of
opinion but everyone
is quite close with that.
This teacher asks two types of questions, often within the same initiation act. One
asks for students to provide an estimate of measurement. The other asks for a reason for
the answer given previously. The teacher doesn’t know exactly what the students’ answers
will be; so, these are information seeking questions that specifically seek interpretations
and rationales. The teacher actively seeks divergent answers to her questions (“And I’m
also interested in hearing how many different ways there are to think about that”). The
students present the teacher with a range of answers; none are exactly the same. Notably
absent is a verbal evaluation after each student’s reply. The teacher neither praises a
correct answer, rejects an incorrect answer, nor verbally encourages further work. Instead,
the teacher provides an overall assessment of this phase of the lesson after a number of
students have replied. This wide range of teacher moves motivates the change of the name
of the third slot in the instructional sequence from Evaluation to Feedback. The lesson
continues with the teacher eliciting more estimates and reasons for estimations from the
students. She concludes the lesson with a lengthy summary of the exchanges and why she
encourages students to explain their reasoning.
Encouraging Students to Wrestle with the “Big Ideas” of Science
The teacher of a combined 1st--2nd grade classroom composed of a diverse group of
students employs “science workshop,” developed by the teacher in collaboration with
Chèche Konnen staff (Warren & Rosebery 2011). In Science Workshop students explore
the meaning potential of a student’s idea or a scientific account such as Newton’s Laws of
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Motion or one of naturalist David Attenborough’s figurative descriptions of plant life. The
idea is written on chart paper, contextualized, and then presented to the class for
The lesson discussed below is a component of a unit designed to investigate the
“big job of plants,” which was defined as making new plants. In a previous class, the
students suggested various titles for a mural they had composed of the life cycle of a
pumpkin plant, and discussed what the suggested titles highlighted about the life of a
pumpkin. During the course of that discussion Hakim made an observation that the teacher
used to start the following conversation:
Example #8
T: And so today we’re gonna’ start
with something that happened on
Monday. Okay? And uh we’re gonna’
think a little bit first about what
those words meant, what did they
mean by those words, and um how
those words helped us to think.
Hakim said, “It’s like a spider,
because when the mom dies it
lays eggs before it dies.”
[reads it again] And I want to start
with Hakim telling us what you
meant by that and then we’ll all
talk together about it. What did
you mean by that when you said,
“it’s like a spider because when
the mom dies it lays eggs before
it dies”
H: Because sometimes some pumpkins
T: Speak loud, your loudest voice,
okay, honey?
H: Because sometimes some
pumpkins open up and they haveand they drop seeds. And sometimes
farmers collect them and then they
put ‘em in the ground
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T: So:: “it’s like a spider”
because when the mom dies it lays
eggs before it dies”
T: How’s that like a spider what
you just said?
H: um ‘cuz they plant moreum because they get planted
all over again
T: uh hunh, okay
T: Let’s see what other people think
Hakim means. 6
A: Well I think
T: Speak nice and loud.
And then I want to hear from
Keshia, Nick and Nick,
so you be thinking
A: I think um that- well so
[looking intently at mural of
pumpkin patch life cycle on
opposite side of the room]
the mother um is the big
orange pumpkin and then
when it gets ready to die
before it lays like um eggs,
but the eggs are actually
not really eggs they’re seeds
for the pumpkin, and then
the mother dies and the seum the baby spiders,
the seeds start to grow and
they get a little bigger,
bigger spider, then bigger
spider, then bigger spider,
and then they get eggs and
they die and it just keeps going
T: So you’re saying the
parents are the orange ones and then
when they die they become rotten
and ro- and the eggs that they lay
are the seeds into the soil
[Annie nods]
T: Interesting. Okay,
T: Who was next? Go ahead
Ayanna. Then it was Bruno.
A: um like um like if the umA: Wait what were we talking about?
Two students follow with their comments – skipped because of time – the rest is continuous
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T: How is this- what does
Hakim mean when he says
“It’s like a spider because
when the mom dies it lays
eggs before it dies”
A: Um:: He means like um the
mother of the pumpkin,
it lays eggs and like the um
baby spider is like- the little
egg was the baby spider,
the baby spider it needs to
do all the like- it needs to
know like how to firstlike it might not know how
to like (walk)- like it mightif like it was a baby spider,
and it was so small, and no
one could see it, it would step
on it but it would die, and if it
died, it wouldn’t grow up
T: But the mom dies and in the
spider when the mom dies it lays
T: Right
Ay: Yeah
T: The eggs get laid before it dies.
How is that like the pumpkin?
‘Cuz that’s what Hakim said, it’s
like a pumpkin. The pumpkin is like
the spider
Ay: Because the- that- the way
as the pumpkin dies is like it gets
rotten and the way as the spider
dies it’s gonna get old
T: Yeah//
Ay: =and it’s kinda like the same
because um the um rotten pumpkins‘cuz of the rotten pumpkins and the
um spiders, they’re getting old and
that’s how they die.
T: uh huhn
T: And what happens when they die?
Ay: They lay eggs
T: Both of em?
Ay: Well not the pumpkin [Smiling]
T: Well that’s what Hakim says,
it’s like the spider
Ay: The pumpkin- the pumpkin doesn’t
Ay: The lay eggs because- um if the pumpkin lays
eggs it would- wait- if the pumpkin laid
eggs um that would be weird because
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if the pumpkin laid eggs, and um the spider
laid eggs, and the pumpkin didn’t, didn’t have
nothing in it, that would be//
H: //The pumpkin
does have something in it
T: Tell her what you think
H: The pumpkin has seeds inside
Ay: I know but I’m talking about the egg.
The egg doesn’t have- a spider only has an
egg ‘cuz if the pumpkin had an egg
(3 sec pause)
T: But you’re thinking inside the egg of
a spider when it opens it’s a spider//
Ay: Yeah//
T: //Inside the egg of a pumpkin when it
opens it’s not-you don’t think it’s a
Ay: No [shaking her head]
T: You have anything to say about that?
H: Yeah
T: Go ahead
H: The seed is almost like an egg
T: Speak up and talk to Ayanna
H: The seed is almost like an egg
T: Can you explain how you think that?
H: Because there’s seeds inside a pumpkin
because there’s seeds inside a pumpkin and
sometimes some of the pumpkins splat open
and they get planted by theirselves
T: That’s interesting
T: And so how is a seed like an egg?
I heard you [to Bruno] say it, that the egg
is the seed. Go ahead, say what you think. B: The seed is kinda like an egg because an
egg ‘cuz like something’s inside a egg
T: Talk to Ayanna, too
B: So the um spider when it lays eggs and
then it dies, it’s like fir- when it dies and lays
eggs something’s in there, a spider, a born
spider, and the same thing with the pumpkin,
it has- but except it has more eggs, like the
seeds, but the seeds are eggs but it looks likebut in- the spider and the pumpkin have
something inside the seed and the egg
T: So the seed is
the egg
T: So when you- inside the egg of a spider,
say, would be a spider, or something that
might start a spider, right? We don’t know// B: (// )
T: //Inside the seed, is there a pumpkin?
(Nick on T’s left, vigorously shaking
his head “no” Suzi nodding her head
“yes” vigorously.)
B: Something like uh//
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T: //What do you think? Suzi, you’re
saying “yes,” go ahead
S: ‘Cuz it’s like a sprout of a
T: ‘Cuz we saw, right,
what happens, it’s like the
beginning of a pumpkin//
B:// like the ( )//S: Uh huhn
B: ‘Cuz like the spider has something
in the egg and the pumpkin has
something in the seed, they both have
something in the seed and the egg//
H: //and then it grows and grows
and grows
T: The seed and the egg have something
in it that and it grows and grows and grows B: It’s like it’s born
T: It’s like it’s born, it’s like
the beginning of it getting born.
The teacher commenced this lesson by tying the topic back to issues raised by
students in a previous lesson—the similarities between pumpkins and spider life cycles.
Similarities—and differences--are key concepts in science (as well as other domains of
academic life and everyday life). Therefore, this teacher is working to ensure her students
understand these important terms and can use them in academic discourse. In doing so, the
teacher encouraged many types of responses from the students: claims, interpretations,
explanations, and justifications.
The teacher encouraged students to offer divergent or competing interpretations.
When the teacher asked: “Let’s see what other people think Hakim means,” she obtained
an interpretation from Annie that diverged from his: “I think . . . the mother um is the big
orange pumpkin and then when it gets ready to die before it lays like um eggs, but the
eggs are actually not really eggs they’re seeds for the pumpkin, and then the mother dies
and the se- um the baby spiders, the seeds start to grow and they get a little bigger, bigger
spider, then bigger spider, then bigger spider, and then they get eggs and they die and it
just keeps going.” During the course of this lengthy response, this student formulated an
identity relation between the big orange pumpkin and the mother and equated the spider
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world with the pumpkin world (“spider eggs” become “seeds for the pumpkin”). Annie
also alluded to the development of new life (“the seeds start to grow”) as a process of
incremental growth (“they get a little bigger…”). Thus, Annie expanded Hakim’s analogy
by voicing the idea that life and death are intimately connected—a sophisticated biological
At another point in the lesson, the teacher asked “and so how is a seed like an
egg?” she obtained a claim from Bruno that differed from Hakim’s: “The seed is kinda’
like an egg because an egg- cuz like something’s inside a egg.”
Ayanna offered yet another interpretation of Hakim’s original analogy: the
possibility of difference in the spider egg (which contains a live baby spider) and
the pumpkin seed (which does not contain a live pumpkin). Here Ayanna accepted
the teacher’s invitation to explore alternatives by focusing her attention on the
inside of the spider egg and pumpkin seed.
In addition to encouraging different interpretations, the teacher often expected
students to justify their reasoning. For example, Hakim began his statement with a
“because clause” which served to justify his position: “Because sometimes some
pumpkins open up and they have- and they drop seeds.” On another occasion in the lesson,
the teacher asked Hakim to explain his reasoning: “Can you explain how you think that?”
Hakim obliges: “Because there’s seeds inside a pumpkin, because there’s seeds inside a
pumpkin and sometimes some of the pumpkins splat open and they get planted by
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When she explicitly invited other students to assess Hakim’s assertion that
pumpkins are like spiders, the teacher received a range of explanations, all of which began
with a “because clause:”
Hakim: “Because sometimes some pumpkins open up and they have- and they
drop seeds. And sometimes farmers collect them and then they put ‘em in the ground. “
Hakim: “um ‘cuz they plant more- um because they get planted all over again.”
Ayanna: “and it’s kinda’ like the same because um the um rotten pumpkins- ‘cuz
of the rotten pumpkins and the um spiders, they’re getting old and that’s how they die.”
On another occasion, when the teacher asked “is there a pumpkin inside a seed,”
one student (Nick) answered “no,” while another (Suzi) answered “yes.” The teacher then
encouraged them to provide evidence of their reasoning. From Susi, she received this
response “‘Cuz it’s like a sprout of a pumpkin.”
Throughout this discussion, the teacher seldom evaluated the quality of students’
answers or sanctioned violations of turn-allocation procedures. She did reformulate
students’ answers often, however. For example, Hakim modified his original position and
now asserted “The seed is almost like an egg.” Bruno recapitulated this position: “The
seed is kinda’ like an egg because an egg ‘cuz like something’s inside a egg.” The teacher
reformulated these observations as “a seed is like an egg.”
When Bruno offered the claim that seeds and eggs are similar in that they are both
born, the teacher expanded Bruno’s insight further, “It’s like it’s born, it’s like the
beginning of it getting born.” Here, the teacher and students are jointly constructing an
understanding of sophisticated biological concepts together (Warren & Rosebery 2011).
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When Annie offered her elaborate analogy about mothers/pumpkins and
eggs/seeds (discussed above), the teacher reformulated that response as: “So you’re
saying the parents are the orange ones and then when they die they become rotten and roand the eggs that they lay are the seeds into the soil.” After Annie nodded in the
affirmative, she said “ Interesting. Okay . . .” before asking her next question.
The teacher reformulated Hakim’s observation: “Sometimes some pumpkins open
up and they have- and they drop seeds. And sometimes farmers collect them and then
they put ‘em in the ground” as “ So:: ‘it’s like a spider’ because when the mom dies it lays
eggs before it dies.”
Encouraging Teachers to Deploy Discourse Moves to Improve Students’ Reasoning
Some teachers learn to socialize students to use academic discourse on their own;
however, many teachers require explicit tuition in order to do so. Responding to this need,
some teacher-researcher learning communities assist teachers deploy discourse moves that
stimulate students to move toward more sophisticated forms of reasoning and modes of
expression.7 These teacher-researcher collaborations employ weekend or week-long
workshops, semester-long seminars, and in some cases web-based courses, to assist
teachers increase the quantity and quality of academically productive discussions in
classroom lessons.
For example: The Inquiry Project and Talk Science Professional Learning Pathways (with on-going
research with teachers in urban, suburban, and rural schools in Massachusetts and Vermont using the webbased PD tools). Resources are available to all:
2) Professional development in math, taking place in school-based study groups, with Chapin, O'Connor, &
Anderson, N., (2009) in conjunction with the facilitators guide: Anderson, Chapin, & O'Connor, (2012).
3) Institute for Learning (on-line facilitated workshops) on Accountable Talk: Goldman, P.,
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In this section, we use materials from the “Talk Science” project (Doubler,
McWilliams, and Michaels 2012) to illustrate this new development in the analysis and
use of classroom discourse. Michaels and O’Conner (2012) have identified 9 “talk
moves,” adapted from Chapin, O’Conner & Anderson (2009), that are intended to help
teachers support 4 goals: 1) helping students share, expand, and clarify their own ideas,
going public with their thinking, so that others can think with them; 2) helping students
listen carefully to one another; 3) helping students dig deeper into their reasoning, with
data and evidence; and 4) think with others. After presenting the Talk Science example,
we chart discourse moves described by O’Conner et al (2009) and Michaels & O’Conner
(2012) on display in this lesson.
In Example #9 from a science classroom in a 4th grade classroom in the Boston
area serving predominately African American youth from low-income backgrounds, the
teacher arranged students into small groups. Cubes made of copper and aluminum were
dropped into beakers of water. Students were instructed to record their observations in
their science notebooks. The teacher composed charts on the wall that summarized the
characteristics of the cubes in water. When the students were assembled on the
classroom’s common meeting area, a rug, with their science notebooks in front of them,
the teacher initiated a conversation about what they observed. She framed the discussion
by asking which of the metal cubes would make the water level rise— the weight or the
volume of the objects. She started the discussion by calling on a student:
Example #9
T: Mathias, you want to talk to the
group about the conclusion that you
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came up with? And lets make sure
everyone’s looking at Mathias, to
show we are listening to him
T: Does anyone want to respond
to that? Lets make sure
everyone’s looking at Mathias, to
show we are listening to him and
kind of respond with their own
ideas, or can add another idea to
it? Flevor, go ahead. Talk to
Mathias about how you feel about
what he said
T: And can someone explain or
repeat for us what Flevor
M: Well, my group—we
came up-w-we found out that
um that I-well, we found out
that the-we thought becau-it
was because of the volume in
the water level, because um
um we found out that the
s-the-s-the volume in the
water level were the same,
but the weight was different.
And I thought that, if—if the
weight, was the um, there
was more weight, um, in the
aluminum cube then the um
aluminum cube, then it
should depend on the volu—
on the volume because, the
weight, if it was more, the
copper was more, then it
would have more volume
if it w--, it really depended
on the weight
F: I agree with what you said
because this for example like
if you put—if you had a big um
can of water and you put
something like that in a big cup
of water, the water level would
rise a lot, and if you put in a
copper cube, and its not even
gonna’—its not going to rise that
much, even though that copper
cube would weigh more than
a eraser
T: Ahh
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thought would happen if I put
an object this big (holds up
eraser) in water? Javon, what
do you think would happen if
I put an object this big in a
cup of water?
T: //Why? What would make that
Water rise a lot? What is it about
this object that would make the
water level rise a lot more than
the cooper cube or the aluminum
T: Alicia, you want to share with
the group some of your thoughts?
J: He said that if you, if you
had like a big br-like a big
bottle of like water and put
the eraser in it, then it would
probably like rise a lot then//
J: because that has a different
volume than the copper cube
Al: Well, I kind of disagree
Because like the uh
A: With Flevor, because…
T: With who?
T: Talk to him and tell him why
you disagree with him
T: Aisha, you want to add
A: I disagree with you
because like the um, eraser
could soak up the water
Ai: I have a question for you
Flevor. Um, what if the
object had like buoyancy,
like it was able to float?
T: Oh! I think that’s a
good group question,
question for the group
T: But go ahead, Flevor
(lesson continues)
T: Then it would be a
different story, because
if-if it w-if it had
buoyancy, then it wouldn’t
really be taking up much
space, so, but I wouldn’t
know if it would—it
wouldn’t be sinking like
I was talking about
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Even though this lesson continues past the point at which the transcription stops,
this excerpt provides sufficient detail to illustrate the ways in which a teacher can invite
students to reason with evidence. The teacher introduced the norms for classroom
discussion throughout the school year such as insisting that students listen carefully to one
another, give each other time to think, and direct a comment at the author of a previous
comment. She reinforced them within this lesson: (“lets make sure everyone’s looking at
Mathias, to show we are listening to him;” “talk to Mathias about how you feel about what
he said;” “talk to him and tell him why you disagree with him”).
Here are the discourse moves appearing in this transcript followed by quotes from
the teacher:
Discourse goal—Helping students use evidence of reasoning
Specific moves:
“Do you want to talk to the group about the conclusion that you came up with?”
“Javon, what do you think would happen if I put an object this big in a cup of
“Alicia, you want to share with the group some of your thoughts?”
“Aisha, you want to add something?”
Discourse Goal--Helping students deepen their reasoning by challenging or providing
a counter example
Specific move:
“Does anyone want to respond to that?”
Discourse Goal—Helping students listen carefully to one another
Specific moves:
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“Lets make sure everyone’s looking at Mathias, to show we are listening to him”
“And can someone explain or repeat for us what Flavor thought would happen if I
put an object this big (holds up eraser) in water?
Discourse move--Inviting students to listen carefully to one another by rephrasing or
“Can someone explain or repeat for us what Flevor thought would happen if I put
an object this big (holds up eraser) in water?”
Now we turn our attention to the students’ responses to these teacher’s initiation
moves. If we look past their false starts and frequent injections (such as “like,” “um,” and
“ah”), then we see evidence of students reasoning with evidence. Mathias, the first
student invited by the teacher to explain his reasoning offered a long soliloquy: “Well, my
group—we came up-w-we found out that um that I-well, we found out that the-we thought
becau-it was because of the volume in the water level, because um um we found out that
the s-the-s-the volume in the water level were the same, but the weight was different.” The
gist of this response is: First we thought weight, but we found out that it was volume that
made the difference, because if the primary factor had been weight, then the cube that was
heavier would have made the water level rise more. But it didn’t. Therefore the causal
factor has to be volume. In short, his reasoning is cogent and sophisticated, including the
use of evidence-based counterfactuals.
When the teacher asked why a blackboard eraser would make the water level rise a
lot more than the copper cube or the aluminum cube, Javon responded succinctly:
“because that [the eraser] has a different volume than the copper cube.”
Consider this exchange between the teacher and Alicia:
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T: Alicia, you want to share with
the group some of your thoughts?
T: With who?
T:Talk to him and tell him why
you disagree with him
Al: Well, I kind of disagree
Because like the uh
A: With Flevor, because…
A: I disagree with you
because like the um, eraser
could soak up the water
In her second turn-at-talk, Alisha’s also stated her reasons for her conclusion concerning
the response of a blackboard eraser compared to a metal object when placed into a beaker
of water succinctly.
The following exchange demonstrates the unpredictability of lessons when
teachers invite a range of divergent thinking. Aisha took the lesson in a direction probably
not anticipated by the teacher. In the process she introduced a new term, “buoyancy,” to
the discussion and challenged Trevor to justify his position.
T: Aisha, you want to add
Ai: I have a question for you
Flevor. Um, what if the
object had like buoyancy,
like it was able to float?
T: Oh! I think that’s a
good group question,
question for the group
T: But go ahead, Flevor
T: Then it would be a
different story, because
if-if it w-if it had
buoyancy, then it wouldn’t
really be taking up much
space, so, but I wouldn’t
know if it would—it
wouldn’t be sinking like
I was talking about
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In sum, the examples of teacher-student discourse in this section vary from the IRE
sequences described in recitation lessons. Notably, teachers’ initiations moved from a
convergence to divergence, that is away from the pursuit of a single correct answer to
encouraging multiple responses to an initiating move. These initiations also resulted in
longer and more complex replies from individual students, including evidence-based
reasoning and challenges and questions from students directed at their peers. They
extended discussion across many students and turns at talk. These teacher initiations
covered a wide range, calling for students to offer interpretations and to provide evidence
of their claims. They also encouraged students to provide varied interpretations. When
conversations became animated, students didn’t wait for the teacher to initiate the next
round. The students continued responding among themselves, which sometimes produced
a cascade of replies and student initiations.
The discourse moves in the third position in the instructional triad also vary widely
from the IRE sequences described above. In addition to judging the correctness of
students’ answers or monitoring students’ conformance to turn-allocation rules, teachers
revoice students’ replies (e. g., from Example #8: “Teacher: The seed and the egg have
something in it that and it grows and grows and grows. Bruno: It’s like it’s born. Teacher:
It’s like it’s born, it’s like the beginning of it getting born. Cool”); comment on the course
of the lesson (e.g., from Example #7 “Teacher: So, when I asked this question, I wind up
getting 3 different answers. I get 6 2/3 from Craig and I get 6 /34 from Kim and I get 6
from Nathan. It shows me there are still differences of opinion but everyone is quite close
with that); compliment students for fresh ideas (e. g., from Example #9: “Teacher: Oh! I
think that’s a good group question, question for the group”).
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The teacher-student discourse discussed in this section displays many of the
features of Toulmin’s (1958) formulation of productive arguments in the law, the natural
and social sciences. Toulmin proposed that a productive argument must ground a claim by
providing evidence or data that supports the claim. In the snippets discussed in this
section, teachers encouraged students to provide interpretations that are supported by
evidence that grounds their argument. When students offered alternative lines of
reasoning, teachers encouraged them to invoke counterfactual evidence to support their
opposing claims.
Toward Further Research
In concluding, we call attention to three questions that merit further attention. First,
all the research discussed so far is limited to teacher-led lessons. Learning Lessons
(1979), where we started, was deliberately limited to those segments from the San Diego
classroom. Because such lessons remain significant, in purpose and frequency, across K12 classrooms, this review has not attempted to report beyond that boundary. But other
participant structures are possible and valuable for other educational objectives.
In her new book, Classroom Discourse and Democracy: Making Meanings
Together (2012), Susan Mayer’s objective is for all students to acquire “interpretive
authority,” a specific kind of ”intellectual authority” as O’Connor suggests in her
Foreword. With tape recordings from discussions of literature in six secondary
classrooms, Mayer analyses the discourse in segments she identified as teacher-led (found
in all six), student-led (in two classrooms), and co-led (in 3 classrooms).
To do justice to these differences, Mayer has retained the tri-partite structure—
now renamed Framing, Developing, and Evaluating— and created subcodes for all three
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(see Mayer 2009, Appendix 1). Finally, all these moves can be coded for either teacher or
students. Mayer’s work on “more distributed forms of knowledge construction” (Mayer
2012: 99) should stimulate interest in further analyses of such an expanded set of
participant structures, in which “the traditional IRF sequence becomes one possibility
among many” (Mayer 2012: 51).
Second, the conversations between teachers and students discussed in this paper
also display the limitations of category schemes (including the IRE scheme) that try to
place utterances into discrete, mutually exclusive categories--Initiation or Evaluation, for
instance. Often an utterance performs more than one function at the same time. For
example, in the discussion about spiders and pumpkins (in Example #8), the teacher said:
you’re saying the parents are the orange ones and then when they die they become
rotten and ro- and the eggs that they lay are the seeds into the soil. [Annie nods]
Interesting. Okay. Who was next? Go ahead Ayanna. Then it was Bruno.”
This revoicing of the student’s utterance can be seen as an assessment or as an
acknowledgement of what the student has said and as an invitation to say more. We chose
to divide the utterance after “okay” because the revoicing seemed to serve more as an
assessment than an invitation and “who was next . . .” seemed to serve explicitly as an
invitation to reply.
Co-occurrence relationships are said to operate in everyday discourse such that the
appearance of one form of speech (such as a greeting) will be followed by a related term
(another greeting) (Ervin Tripp 1972; Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson 1974). The
conversational forms that are reflexively related to each other by these co-occurrence rules
often appear one after the other. So, for example, a greeting offered by one person will be
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followed by a greeting from another, an inquiry about one’s health (“how are you?”) is
followed by “state of being information” (“I’m fine; how about you?”).
Co-occurrence relationships seem to govern interactional sequences in classrooms
as well, at least in teacher-led lessons. Particular kinds of replies follow particular kinds of
initiation acts with great regularity. A call for factual information, such as names and
dates, induces that type of information. A teacher’s request for interpretations about an
analogy between spiders and pumpkins generates a wide range of them. So, too,
students’ displays of their reasoning about how they estimated ratios and propositions cooccurred with the teacher’s request for students to explain their reasoning. It is also
interesting to note that certain kinds of teacher follow-up responses to student responses
(which would be located in the 2nd position in Mayer’s scheme) seem to co-occur with
more complex utterances and reasoning on the part of students. The co-occurrence
relationship between what Michaels and O’Connor (this volume) call “Productive Talk
Moves” – is another kind of relationship worth exploring. All of these moves defer
evaluation, and open up a slot for more student explication and reasoning.
The relation between types of initiations and types of replies is not isomorphic, of
course. But our tabulation of the distribution of replies related to initiations showed cooccurrence relations occurred 88% of the time in 480 sequences across nine lessons
(Mehan 1979). It would be interesting to see, for example, whether the same
predominance of such relations holds true in other of the newly-expanded set of
participant structures, and whether exceptions are considered by the participants as
violations to be repaired, or ruptures to conventional co-occurrence expectations that lead
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in productive directions as in Aisha’s question addressed to another student placed in the
2nd/Reply column in Example (#9) above.
Finally, when these lessons (and the larger curriculum unit they enact) are over, we
do not know from the information in the teacher-student exchanges alone what the
students have learned toward particular curricular objectives. We also do not know if there
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The Study of Classroom Discourse: Early History and