How to analyze classroom talk: Part 1 of 4

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This post is the first of a series of posts on how to analyze classroom talk with regard to four aspects of that talk: Turn-taking, Contextualization, Narration, and Framing. They are summaries of the four chapters on how to analyze classroom talk in Ivy League professor Betsy Rymes’ textbook, Classroom Discourse Analysis (2015; 2nd ed.). But wait, there’s more! After this post summarizes the chapter on Turn-taking, it extends what Rymes is talking about, in terms of how to analyze classroom turn-taking that involves translanguaging and code-switching. I then repeat this in the coming weeks’ blog posts for Contextualization, Narration, and Framing. I hope this will help people interested in studying bi/multilingual classroom interactions from a discourse analytic perspective.

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Introductory note: I organize my summary of the chapter on Turn-taking into sections that are meaningful for me—and there is more in the chapter than can be put in a summary. Please note that Rymes wrote the book in everyday English for teachers to study their own interaction patterns when teaching. I’ll summarize the chapter from the point of view of an academic writing to graduate students, or anyone else who wants some information on how to analyze classroom interactions. Rymes’ examples focus on primary/elementary schooling, but the methodological principles are generalizable to other classrooms.

Rymes, B. (2015). Analyzing turn-taking resources. In Classroom discourse analysis: A tool for critical reflection (2nd ed.) (pp. 104-127). New York, NY: Routledge.

What is turn-taking?

The term “turn-taking” is self-explanatory: who talks most, who takes the most turns, who displays the most knowledge in their answers, and how all this may vary across different classroom activities. Of course, we have a sense that the more equal the turn-taking patterns between teacher and students—and between students themselves—the better.

There are also deeper things to look at: as these patterns of talk emerge, how do they affect learning? Not just “did students learn the course content,” which is actually a bad way to put the question because it is a black/white question focusing only on one aspect of the course. The question is more like: what did they take away from the course, in terms of information, skills, identities, and beliefs about teaching and learning? It is impossible for the teacher to control that 100%. All the teacher can do is try to shape it in positive ways: the difficult content is made clear, students feel a sense of achievement, everyone takes on responsibility for helping each other learn and having good outcomes for everyone, so everyone walks away with positive academic and social identities, and the belief that teaching and learning is supposed to be collaborative, not competitive. In light of that, there are two key terms in Rymes’ chapter on turn-taking that are not self-explanatory, and these are “functionality” and “interaction order.”

Functionality means that a student’s response is not the single right response, but one of MANY acceptable responses that would accomplish the purpose. Consider the exchange:

  • Teacher: “What time is it?”
  • Jackson: “One thirty.”
  • Teacher: “Very good, Jackson!”

The teacher’s evaluation, “Very good, Jackson!” suggests that the question had no practical purpose, no real functionality. Now, if the teacher had really wanted to know the time, and Jackson had said, “One thirty two” or “One twenty nine,” and the teacher said, “Oh shoot! Twenty minutes left. [Class ends at 1:50.] Maybe we should postpone part two for tomorrow. Let’s just wrap up part one by summarizing together what we’ve learned.” (She might then ask students to summarize the key points in groups and then write them on the board… or pass out “exit cards” for students to write what they’ve learned, to inform her next lesson planning.) In this case, Jackson’s answer would have had functionality.

Most of the time, what we want as a learning outcome from students is to demonstrate FUNCTIONALITY rather than CORRECTNESS in their responses: whether they are in-class spoken answers or examination answers (at least the “higher level thinking” parts of exams). These are not sole right answers but functional answers that show students learned what they needed to learn from the course. For example, in one of my courses teachers have to design a Content Language Integrated Learning unit plan for any grade, any subject. It has to have a lesson structure, a final assessment, and materials and formative assessments as described in Lin (2016) and Lo and Lin (2014). But there are many acceptable products rather than one product that I have particularly in mind.

Let’s go to the other term, the “interaction order.” Interaction orders are the ways that we expect interactions to proceed in any social situation. For example, when you go to the general practitioner doctor, the “traditional” interaction order involves a friendly greeting, small talk, tell them about your complaint, they will give you some tentative diagnosis or diagnoses, and give you a referral to a specialist or laboratory to investigate your condition, all within about 15 minutes.

Interaction orders in classrooms swing like a pendulum from “traditional” to “nontraditional,” across different parts of the same lesson—or different periods of a unit or course.

Now let’s look at how to analyze both types of interaction orders as a classroom researcher.

What are “traditional” interaction orders and how to analyze them

Traditional interaction orders are how things normally go. They are not necessarily wrong and are even socially appropriate for the classroom social context, but they do not enrich learning to the fullest extent. We can think of them as foundational. They are characterized by a certain kind of teacher-led talk called IRE or IRF:

  • Initiation (teacher asks a question)
  • Response (student responds or gives an answer)
  • Evaluation or Feedback: Teacher evaluates the answer or gives feedback

This kind of talk typically doesn’t happen in any other social setting but a classroom. The reason is that the classroom is a social context that is engineered for structured learning. In the most basic IRF pattern, the teacher tells the student their answer is right or wrong. However, there are different kinds of IRE/F patterns, and if we focus on the E/F part in particular, we can see that skilled teachers vary this third move in ways that open up rather than close down possibilities for interaction and learning.

For example, the teacher can try to ask functional questions with many acceptable responses that all further the learning aims. For example, in Math class: “What are the possible real-world applications of geometry?” This helps students achieve the learning aim, each in their own way: to realize that geometry is practical.

Even when there is one right answer, the point of asking the question is not to embarrass or discipline students, but to establish this “common knowledge” for a moment so that the teacher can build on it in the next turn. We can see this process in the following dialogue from Haneda’s (2009, p. 343) study, of a middle-school history/social studies class:

  • Teacher: Er – Lara, what does surplus mean?
  • Lara: Something extra.
  • Teacher: Exactly. Extra OK. And surplus goods doesn’t necessarily mean food. That can mean food, that can mean trading items, that can mean clothing and all sorts of things, so, extra, more than you need… and there are other positive things you want to write about… but I only need a few…

We can see here that the teacher doesn’t just say “Very good Lara!” and move on to something completely different. She asked Lara the definition so she could expand on it and clarify it (and even write it on the board or direct students’ attention to the definition/examples on a handout). Moreover, all this discussion of the meaning of “surplus” serves a greater purpose: NOT JUST to learn vocabulary definitions, but to brainstorm the positive reasons why it was good for city states in ancient Greece to form alliances, for example, they could potentially get surpluses—that is, the bigger conceptual knowledge in social studies.

Known-answer questions are called “convergent questions,” meaning they get the whole class to “converge” or come together to realize the same thing, which is an important piece of information. Open-ended questions that are functional “divergent questions” serve another purpose: everyone gets to make their own meaning out of the material, the lecture, or the class’ social interaction, and take away what they need from the experience. Skilled teachers balance both types of questions and move very smoothly from one to the other, all within a “traditional” interaction order.

As Rymes explains on p. 109, teachers must also be willing to be flexible when students show that a known-answer question can actually be more divergent (many possible right answers). Teachers should also be prepared when students who are used to known-answer questioning misinterpret an open-ended question for a known-answer one, e.g.,

  • Teacher: How are you going to continue this paper?
  • Student: [anticipating one correct answer] With the conclusion?

Ultimately, the teacher has to keep in mind both the next move and the whole big picture of what they’re trying to get students to realize. What learning outcome are we leading to, how am I making sure everyone is engaged (i.e., don’t do the same activity for too long, but give enough time for the class as a whole to process the activity… which means paying attention to how students are responding), etc.

There is also the question of how not to intimidate students, so they will be more comfortable talking freely during IRF/E dialogues, for example, teachers can tell jokes/anecdotes related to the topic, and use verbal modifiers like “I think that maybe” (even though they well know the subject).

Finally, Rymes explained one kind of Feedback/Evaluation move that results in “incorporation of the response into the discourse of the class” (Nystrand, as cited in Rymes, p. 111). This is actually a perfect blend of the convergent and divergent type of questioning. Nystrand called this “high-level evaluation” and observed that it usually comes in two parts:

  • Initiation: Teacher asks question (could be right-answer question, or open-ended)
  • Response: Student answers/responds
  • Evaluation/Feedback: (1) the teacher points out what a good answer it is (shaping it into a more accurate format if it is partly wrong); (2) the teacher incorporates it into the discourse of the class (e.g., the “surplus” example above)

What is obviously at stake here is that everyone needs to feel relaxed and a competent student during the IRF/E exchanges, and this leads to a positive classroom atmosphere. But being happy and cooperative is still not everything. Rymes warns that the class should not just be doing “procedural display” (a term invented by the literacy scholar Shirley Brice Heath; see Heath, 1983), which means “superficial participation rather than substantive engagement in classroom events” (p. 114). Sometimes, the classroom interaction order is going smoothly, but teachers are just pretending to teach and students are just pretending to learn. There is a good example of “procedural display” at the start of this other blog post.

Have you ever rehearsed a procedural display with your teacher when you knew the principal, superintendent, or accreditation board was visiting that day? (Usually, students are quite sympathetic to their teacher and will help their teacher, but zero learning will take place that day or those days.) If you want to show your accreditation board how much their visits damage opportunities for learning, audio-/video-record interaction during class visits versus non-class visits and show it to them during a meeting! Seriously.

So, in sum, researchers can analyze the following questions about “traditional” interaction order mode:

  • Is the convergent IRF/E clear, easy to follow, helping students understand the material? Is there enough room for divergent responses that are functional? How does the teacher respond to deviations from the expected conversation? Does the teacher shut them down and get the talk “marching in line” again? Does the teacher positively welcome the deviations but with no real learning outcome? Or do they capitalize on the learning opportunities that might emerge from these off-topic discussions, with the students and teacher deciding as equals what might be learned from them?
  • Is the turn-taking intellectually stimulating (leading to learning), or is it just “procedural display”?
  • Is IRE/F inclusive, letting all class members participate, or just the most talkative and/or most knowledgeable students? (Talkative does not equal knowledgeable, but the bottom line is that EVERYONE has to participate in learning activities.)
  • If the turn-taking patterns are educational and inclusive, what makes them work? For example, did teachers of a large class get students to talk in groups and get “group leaders” to report back to the class? (In a very large class, a sampling might be taken so that for one question it’s this third of the room, for another question it’s another third of the room, etc.)
  • If the turn-taking patterns do not work, what changes in organization can be made? (For example, if 2/3 of the class slacks off because they know it’s not their third of the room that will be called on, the teacher can write group leaders’ names on pieces of paper and do a lottery… so any group leader can be called on.)

What are “nontraditional” interaction orders and how to analyze them

In nontraditional interaction orders, there is a different kind of activity other than IRE/F. Therefore:

  • The teacher is not the only one asking the questions or deciding the learning outcomes
  • Students get to ask questions themselves and decide what they want to learn in the course

Rymes gives an example of a teacher who led her primary students to discover why leaves change color instead of telling them the answer, and the students then went on to investigate other questions they wanted to know (from a list the class brainstormed): How did the moon begin? Why is the center of the Earth hot? Why do seasons change? How do people age? How do our bones stay together? Why do people die? What color were the dinosaurs? Are dragons real? What makes the wind? (p. 117)

Many of these questions are questions appropriate for elementary students just getting to know their world, but the approach applies to all kinds of learning:

These are questions that students want to talk about because they want to know the answers—not because they need to provide the answer for the teacher, for a worksheet, or for a test. Nevertheless, in these talks, students nearly always contribute in ways the teacher wants to hear… because their answers are functional in [their] world. (p. 118)

For example, this semester I taught a Masters of Education course titled Narrative Analysis. Students wrote 3,000- to 4,000-word term papers following the structure of social science research articles: introducing the topic and research questions, literature review, methods of data collection and analysis, findings, and interpretations. Two of of the strongest were about the topics: “How do adults in Hong Kong perceive the learning of Mandarin? What are their identities as Mandarin learners?” and “What was the experience of a high-school student who attended an EFL class in a learning center with four primary students because of lower-than-average English proficiency?” Also, quite a few final papers were on parents’ responses to the recent “double reduction” policy banning private tutoring across China.

I did not have right answers in mind for these papers. The papers on double reduction showed that parents responded in different, if not entirely opposite ways, and if we accept all the papers as accurate, it simply shows that that is the fact of the matter. I was quite pleased with my Mainland Chinese student’s nonjudgmental analysis of her local friends’ answers in her interview about Mandarin learning, and with my other student’s admission at the end of her paper that she thought her interview case participant who was the only teenager in an ESL class of children in Shanghai would tell a story of anxiety, but instead gave her a story about her confidence in the assets of an older student.

When the class is building a community in which any response is acceptable as long as it is functional for achieving the course aims, no one expects things to go in any one particular way. Peterson and Eeds (as cited in Rymes, 2015, p. 119) calls this “grand conversations,” which have two principles, (1) respect the interpretations of others, and (2) never enter a discussion with a plot in mind.

Nontraditional interaction orders can apply to any subject and age level. For example, in high school mathematics, instead of teaching how to solve a problem with a particular theorem, the teacher can first put students in groups with the problem, expressed as a word problem… perhaps with class members’ names used in a fun and friendly way. (I remember an example from my Bachelor of Education, which was about exponential growth: if our professor of teaching principles, infected with a zombie virus, ran into the classroom and locked the door, how long would it take for us all to get infected?) The teacher can then elicit possible solutions and the class can co-construct the solution together, and finally the teacher can teach the “textbook” theorem for the exam, which everyone would finally understand much more quickly given all their prior experience with the problem.

Another important part of the nontraditional interaction order is that all language registers—formal and casual language—and any languages should be allowed in (1) group work and (2) individual work with peer review. People cannot be participating in dialogues that lead to learning if they cannot express themselves fully. This doesn’t mean the teacher can mark a final product in a language they don’t know (of course not), or that product shouldn’t be written in a genre-appropriate register, but that all registers and languages can help students create that product, which is what would normally happen in “real world” work anyway—if classrooms are to prepare students for “real world” work.

In sum, researchers can analyze the following questions about “nontraditional” interaction order mode:

  • In what ways are interactions and products “in part unpredictable—and abundantly creative” (p. 122)?
  • In what ways are the resources used to make these products largely within the members of the class, rather than within the teacher or textbook? How does that legitimize or uphold students’ ways of thinking, being, and knowing?
  • How is the new information students are learning incorporated into their knowledge in ways that they, as individuals and as a group, find meaningful and functional?
  • How are activities designed to be rich and varied so that different skills are valued and people can show a variety of competencies? How are students with different strengths/weaknesses encouraged to learn or grow in new directions, without forcing them to grow in these directions if they are not (fully) ready?

[Blogger’s note: Of course, the key to all this is T&F: Time and Freedom. Teachers need enough time to give meaningful third moves in IRE/F responses, for example: “Your pictures are great” could be reformulated as “Your pictures helped me to enjoy your study. How did you think to include the little anchor?” or “That’s correct” could be reformulated as “That’s correct. How did you get that answer?” (Rymes, 2015, p. 15). The reason teachers don’t give good E/F moves is not because they are unaware their E/F moves could be better, but because they don’t have time. And this is something that teachers in primary and secondary schools struggle with around the world: PACKED CURRICULUM that oppresses students and teachers. It is usually the most privileged schools whose curriculum is NOT packed and which also have flexible assessments rather than standardized tests that can enjoy Freedom to learn properly, i.e., with social constructivism rather than banking education.]

Rymes concludes that recording, transcribing (typing out) and analyzing classroom interactions means “your reality will be measured alongside the [students’]” (Paley, as cited in Rymes, 2015, p. 127). When we teach or observe a class, we can only see what is happening from one perspective, our own, but after recording, transcribing, and analyzing, we can see how events were experienced from students’ (indeed, multiple people’s) perspectives.

How does this apply to bi/multilingual classroom interactions?

Rymes (2015) argues that opportunities for classroom participation and learning are shaped by how we position each other socially:

even slight differences in ways of speaking or vocabulary choice that originate outside the classroom context can affect who is able to participate fully. When colloquial [everyday] wording is not permitted in the classroom, only those students who come to class already knowing classroom-based vocabulary like gravity will be able to participate fully. When students’ languages vary more dramatically, exclusion looms. This is precisely when we can use discourse analysis as teachers to investigate: Who asks the questions? Who holds the answers? Which experiences are included? Whose voices are systematically silenced? (p. 122)

Another applied linguist studying education, B. Kumaravadivelu (2002), also said:

language teachers cannot hope to fully satisfy their pedagogic obligations without at the same time satisfying their social obligations. (p. 544)

These quotes connect to what Garcia, Johnson, and Seltzer (2017) mentioned about translanguaging stance, design, and shifts. Translanguaging stance is positive attitudes towards students’ bi/multilingualism that are shown in interactions: for example, people do not tell one another to speak the target language only when they’re trying to learn. Translanguaging design is the way the teacher designs the lessons to incorporate diverse funds of linguistic and cultural knowledge. This doesn’t mean that the teacher needs to know this knowledge, but that they should design activities in which students bring this knowledge to bear on learning the curriculum, as shown in this example. Translanguaging shifts involve the spontaneous decisions teachers make about their talk during instruction time, for example the third move in IRE/F.

But teachers don’t hold all the keys to a successful classroom interaction order. Classroom turn-taking must also be inclusive, and the students play a big role in that. Although different forms of classroom talk can potentially lead to learning, some forms that help some students exclude other students, and students need to take as much responsibility for this as the teacher does. For example, if the teacher or the majority of the class in an ESL class draws on another language that most of the students speak as a first language, as discussed here, other students may not understand it and be excluded. Or, if the teacher explains difficult academic texts in everyday spoken English using fun pop culture references, this can help native speakers of English at all ability levels to understand the material, but exclude second language learners because of their oral (speaking and listening) challenges in English and unfamiliarity with the cultural references (Duff, 2002).

Teachers must implement different activity types and teaching strategies that help all students expand their abilities by drawing on their strengths. Different activity types will also challenge all students: sometimes, you will be challenged to practice something you are not so good at, but the interaction order here should be collaborative, not competitive—with divergent, functional responses that help everyone achieve their personal best. Moreover, this variety is something that students should embrace as their social responsibility. The variety of tasks and assessments should not be something impossible for the teacher to balance to please everyone. Each student must understand: the class was not designed for you; it was designed to be inclusive of everybody. You will encounter some activities that are too easy or too hard, learn things you know little about and have limited interest in, and experience social arrangements and interaction patterns that are perfectly valid but don’t suit you—just as, at other times, the activity will be just right in difficulty for you (if not for others), there will be aspects of activities that you are good at and your skills can be made useful to the team, you will be invited to share some things you know well and investigate some questions that interest you, and you can enjoy some social arrangements and interaction patterns that suit you. You are welcome to learn using your entire language repertoire, but so is everyone else.

Elsewhere, I have argued that if a teacher has an interaction order in which she/he/they (i) interact with the whole class with clear, easy-to-follow IRE/F to help learners understand the material and make learners feel academically capable, (ii) position themselves humbly even if they know a lot, (iii) ask intellectually stimulating, open-ended questions to invite divergent but functional responses, and (iv) use socially inclusive designs for shaping the classroom interaction order… then students will reproduce the same interaction order in small group work. They will use language resources and examples (cultural references) that help others learn, but that the teacher does not know… as long as students understand that “in this class, we support each other and don’t leave anyone out.” Therefore, the same questions for analyzing classroom discourse in traditional and non-traditional interaction orders (see above) can be applied to group work in and out of class, not just whole class work.


Duff, P. A. (2002). Pop culture and ESL students: Intertextuality, identity, and participation in classroom discussions. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy45(6), 482-487.

García, O., Johnson, S. I., & Seltzer, K. (2017). The translanguaging classroom: Leveraging student bilingualism for learning. Philadelphia, PA: Caslon.

Haneda, M. (2009). Learning about the past and preparing for the future: A longitudinal investigation of a grade 7 ‘sheltered’ social studies class. Language and Education23(4), 335-352.

Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lin, A. (2016). Curriculum mapping and bridging pedagogies. Language across the curriculum & CLIL in English as an Additional Language (EAL) contexts: Theory and practice (pp. 77-110). Singapore: Springer.

Lo, Y. Y., & Lin, A. (2014). Designing assessment tasks with language awareness: Balancing cognitive and linguistic demands. Assessment and Learning3(3), 97-119.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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