How to analyze classroom talk: Part 2 of 4

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome to the second post on methodology for analyzing classroom talk, which began with a post on Turn-taking. In this post, we analyze Contextualization. While turn-taking is about who talks, when, and how much, contextualization is about how we understand people’s words, or how we attempt to manage how others understand our words, by giving subtle non-word signals like intonation, glancing, gesture, or even how we chose to dress that day. This is a selective summary of the second data analysis chapter of Prof. Betsy Rymes’ book Classroom Discourse Analysis: A Tool for Critical Reflection (2nd. ed., 2015). The chapter’s main point is this: “Contextualization has four C’s. CUES exist in COMBINATIONS within a social CONTEXT, and that has CONSEQUENCES for people.” As this blog is also about translanguaging, code-switching, and bi/multilingualism in primary and secondary education, I conclude the post with my own thoughts about how to analyze translanguaging and code-switching in terms of contextualization.

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Rymes, B. (2015). Analyzing contextualization resources. In Classroom discourse analysisA tool for critical reflection (2nd ed.) (pp. 128-152). New York, NY: Routledge.

When Rymes was a grade 7, 8, and 9 teacher in Los Angeles in the 1990s (young, white, female, middle-class), she believed in her working-class students and wanted them to succeed academically. When she saw them writing graffiti on their class papers, she was “heartbroken” (p. 144). This seemed to represent to her that they were disrespecting what she was trying to teach them, and that she was a failure as a teacher. She would scold them and say, “That won’t work on your college applications.” It took her years to realize that the students meant no offense to her, and this had nothing to do with their academic discipline or seeming lack of it. She reflected:

Only by talking to students, without snap-judging them on the basis of a graffiti-strewn paper, could I begin to learn about what was important to them—not just tell them what was important to me. Many of my students perceived gang affiliation as their primary link to friendship, security, and safety. My proclamation about college prospects was not going to convince them otherwise. (p. 145)

Whatever we may think of gangs, the belonging in gangs had both positive and negative social meanings, which we will call “indexicalities” in this blog post. An indexicality is when something points to something else, just as the appearance of an underlined word in a book points to the word’s definition in the Index at the back of the book. For Rymes, graffiti indexed lack of engagement and personal disrespect, and her failure as a teacher, but for the students (in truth) it indexed none of these things. What she ended up saying to them, because of what the graffiti indexed to her, damaged the teacher-student relationship.

This chapter is about indexicalities (how they are shared by people, sometimes, but not always), causing miscommunication between different groups of people from different backgrounds, but also between individuals who know each other well and have the same background, like friends or family members, if there is a breakdown in communication. What something indexes for one person, or group, does not index the same thing for another person or group. The process of making sense of indexicalities is contextualization. We try to contextualize what we say and do, and we also try to contextualize what others are saying and doing. To do this, we rely on CUES, COMBINATIONS of cues, and the social CONTEXT. Let’s look at each of these things one by one.

Elements of Contextualization (Rymes, 2015)

Analyzing Cues

A cue is the smallest unit of contextualization, which cannot be divided into any smaller components, for example, a particular tone of voice, a gesture, a choice of word, a level of volume, a facial expression (taken as a whole) or a body position (taken as a whole). When people absorb that, it is taken to mean something. We can take this example of a way of saying a phrase (pp. 131-132);

  • Teacher: What is ↑wrong with that↓. Is there anything wrong with that?
  • Sara: No.
  • David: No.
  • Rene: No.

The students understand that the teacher does not see anything “wrong with that”; it’s a rhetorical question with only one right answer. How do we know? First, there is no pause for reflection after the first sentence: “What is wrong with that,” which doesn’t even end on an upward intonation, a question mark, but on a period. (English generally ends questions with upward intonations, though not all languages or dialects of English do.) The next sentence is a simple Yes/No question, suggesting soon-to-be closure of the discussion. Also, the upward intonation on “wrong” combined with the downward intonation on “that” actually makes the question sound like a challenge: I challenge you to find anything wrong with that. (Try reading it aloud!)

The problem is that intonation patterns are not universal but culture-specific. English speakers only started to discover this with the scholarship led by John Gumperz in the U.K. in the 1970s. Gumperz studied the mismatch between Indian and British dialects of English, illustrating that what was taken to be neutral intonation in one dialect was rude in another. And what is true of intonation can be true of any contextual cue. For example, American teachers have historically interpreted students not looking them in the eyes when they are teaching as disrespectful (i.e., a student is lying or hiding something) or disobedient. In Latino and Native American cultures, avoiding direct eye contact with authority figures is a sign of respect. You can imagine the many misunderstandings and unintentional racism that ensued.

Rymes herself tried an interesting experiment in her classroom: she had an U.S.-born student recite repeatedly:

What is wrong with THAT. Is there ANNNNNNNYthing wrong with that.

She writes:

Then I asked the students to raise their hands to indicate what they thought the implied answer was. ALL the international students thought the answer was supposed to be “no.” All the students who grew up in the United States understood the question to be implying “yes,” that there was something wrong with that. As a class, we all gasped… While every student in the classroom was a fluent speaker of English, participating in an Ivy League graduate program, the students who grew up in countries outside the United States (in this case, France, Taiwan, and China) had a diametrically opposed interpretation of this intonation pattern. (p. 132).

[Blogger’s Note: In North America, this is how elementary teachers point to things needing to be corrected, and encourage children to find out whaaaaaa↑t’s wrong. If you talk this way with an adult educated in North America, and there are no other cues such as a joking cue, this positions the person as an idiot.]

It’s important to remember that most of our cue-giving and cue-receiving happens below our conscious thinking. What cues mean to us varies based on geographic location, culture, social class, and environments we’ve become familiar or unfamiliar with throughout our lives. The point is that there is NO RIGHT interpretation. There are only context- and person-specific interpretations. Thus, people need to become aware of, and to learn about, multiple interpretations. This learning is ideally a two-way, egalitarian process. It isn’t just about students needing to learn the meanings of cues the teacher is giving (even though this is an important part of their schooling), but the teacher also learning what other indexicalities the cues that they are giving students might have. This is an important aspect of professional development: the teacher learning from and about students.

When you analyze cues in audio- or video-recordings of classroom interaction, or the transcripts of those recordings, you “will not be able to, nor will you need to, transcribe every single contextualization cue” (p. 134), but here are some possible things you can look at:

  • Common Cues: (1) Nonverbal: Gesture, facial expression, eye movement, gaze, eye contact, posture, body movement, facial direction, style of body movement, body position (e.g., how close you get to someone); (2) Paralinguistic: Volume shifts, tone shifts, rhythmic shifts, stress, intonation, velocity, pausing
  • Systematic Clusters: (3) (i) Register shifts from informal to formal; (ii) dialect shifts, and of course, (iii) language shifts—we call this analysis of interactional code-switching

You might ask questions such as: “Who is making the cue? Who do they intend as the audience? (it could be just a select person or people) Why are they making the cue? How is it understood?” Here is a basic index of contextualization cues that shows how researchers represent them on paper.

Analyzing Combinations

Rymes discusses the case of a teacher who matches her outfit to the way she wants students to behave that day. The teacher, LouAnne Johnson, wrote:

In the search for my most effective persona, I discovered an interesting student response to my clothing: they perceive some outfits as more serious than others, and they behave accordingly. If the lesson for the day requires creativity, spontaneity, and lots of student input, I wear more informal clothing: corduroy jeans and a sweater, perhaps. On days when I want to limit the amount of spontaneity, during an important exam or a lesson that will serve as an important building block for future lessons, I wear a suit. (Johnson, as cited in Rymes, 2015, p. 135)

What this suggests is that instructions given by the teacher are not cues in themselves but analyzed in combination with other factors. If the teacher wants to lighten the mood during an exam, they might well wear jeans and a sweater, but wearing a suit gets students to pay attention during an exam or important lesson. On the other hand, any invitations to be creative given by the teacher would probably be tempered if the teacher were wearing a suit. [Blogger’s note: This, of course, also needs to be understood in the wider context of teacher dress code; if the normal, everyday dress code is a suit in that school or that geographic location, it may eventually come to index nothing in particular.]

The phenomenon works the other way: teachers also evaluate students’ seriousness based on what they are wearing. Rymes mentions a study by Fukunaga (2006), about university students in the U.S. who loved Japanese culture and were intrinsically motivated to learn Japanese. However, when their Japanese teachers saw these students dressed like anime characters, they perceived them as knowing too much colloquial Japanese and less likely to do well in the classroom.

A particularly awful example Rymes shared:

Sadly, I have heard elementary school teachers saying about certain students, “He doesn’t even speak English!” They are not talking about a recently arrived immigrant; no, this is something I have heard teachers say about black children who speak a distinctly African American English. These same teachers, however, will listen to and understand a well-dressed black professor as he uses an African American variety of English in his Black Masculinities class at the university, accepting fully that, in this combination, this variety counts as English. (p. 137)

Therefore, when it comes to analyzing combinations of cues, she explains:

As these examples suggest, our very identities in the classroom are matters of details… General cultural categories like male, female, Latino, African American, and so forth are less functional than how those categories are made real in combinations in interaction. General characterizations of language like black, Chicano, or Southern English do not function in isolation either. Their functionality is a factor of their combination with other nuanced aspects of appearance and ways of speaking [Blogger’s note: not to mention past histories between participants]. So, a professor speaking African American English is recognized as an authority; a black child speaking African American English is deemed barely understandable. (p. 137)

This points to the need for a nuanced approach to analyzing race, class, gender, and so on. It’s not that discrimination doesn’t exist; it is that it is not as simple as many think. When we analyze combinations of cues, for example, we need to look at how the presence of one cue changes the indexicality of another cue that it appears with. It isn’t just what people are saying but how they are saying it, the expressions on their faces, how they are dressed, how close they are standing to each other, their positions in the room or physical social arrangement, who is choosing to sit with whom (at the first meeting, as a matter of habit…), etc. This reveals judgments about people, their capacities, and their identities.

All these analyses, by the way, require the researcher to spend enough time in the research site to identify these patterns, at least a semester if not a school year. Without an understanding of the particular class’ social dynamics, one will not be able to interpret indexicalities and contextualization from participants’ point of view.

Analyzing Context

In life, we continually move in and out of different contexts like home, school and work. Cues and combinations of cues have different indexicalities in different contexts:

a diamond-shaped hand sign held out by a 15-year-old Latino boy may index something different to his teacher in school than to a peer in his neighborhood in L.A. For the boy, that cue in combination with gang attire and in the context of his neighborhood can index loyalty to other members of the Diamond Street gang. It may index a willingness to give up everything to protect a friend. In the context of school, that same combination will also index gang affiliation, but for school staff, gang affiliation indexes “criminal activity,” not “loyalty to friends.” (p. 140)

Again, this is not to promote gangs—what Rymes is getting at here is that youth lie to teachers, principals, and even to police to protect their friends from being disciplined for crimes not because they think “Hey, I love illicit activity!” but because they perceive themselves to be loyal friends. What I think she means is that for teachers to be able to connect with students, teachers first need to understand indexicalities of practices from students’ point of view… whether these have to do with petty crime, or learning “standard” grammar, or having to be persuaded that group assignments are necessary and one cannot just do individual assignments. Teachers need to see what the attitudes and practices teachers see as “bad” index for students—probably something positive, even though teachers cannot easily see it, and it may even point to values that teachers are missing, because they fail to recognize the literacies students learn outside of school.

On the other hand, teachers may also need to see what teachers’ desired attitudes and practices index for students (maybe something negative, even though teachers, again, cannot easily see it). Does learning “standard” grammar position someone as a “sissy”? Does group work index laziness and riding on the coattails of others? To change students’ attitudes, we somehow need to change the indexicality of those practices, by teaching grammar or designing group activities in ways that highlight the positive indexicalities we had in mind. For example, grammar is about choice and agency in using a set of tools (see above link); group work requires everyone’s active negotiation to produce high quality products that can only emerge out of the dialogue of many ideas. In other words, teachers need to create a new context so that familiar cues and familiar combinations of cues have new indexicalities.

This relates to what Rymes repeatedly argues throughout the chapter: the study of discourse is the study of inequality—social class inequality, linguistic inequality, ethnic and racial inequality. How Black and Latinx students experience schooling in the U.S., or how ethnic minority and working-class Chinese students experience schooling in Hong Kong. This is not a crude, superficial analysis of group categories, but a detailed analysis of combinations of cues in interaction. She explains:

When students’ ways of speaking are repeatedly misunderstood—or worse, denigrated in the classroom—school does not seem very relevant anymore. It is impossible to care about doing well in school when school seems not to care about who you are or denigrates your knowledge or experiences because of how you are talking. It is often high-pressure testing or evaluation situations that seem to bring out these arbitrary distinctions and lead to unfortunate consequences. The tools of discourse analysis can be used to raise our awareness of these conditions. By being aware of unfair discourse practices that evaluate and perhaps ultimately silence our students, we can use that knowledge to hear students’ ways of displaying knowledge and give them voice in classrooms. (p. 141)

In other words, combinations of cues in context lead to social consequences, as it did for Rymes’ graffiti-drawing students, or the African American boy whose teachers said he didn’t speak his native language, or the Japanese students who couldn’t help expressing their love of anime, or a young mother in the U.S. (a native English speaker of a stigmatized rural dialect) whose son’s teacher said: “I knew she was ignorant just as soon as she opened her mouth” (Purcell-Gates, 2002). By becoming analysts of classroom discourse, we (1) become more explicitly aware of the consequences of how we make meaning out of cues and combinations of cues, and (2) are able to act to change our meaning-making practices individually or through group dialogue (with our students, with our colleagues) and group action.

Analyzing Consequences

On pp. 141-143, Rymes discusses a case documented by the famous Brazilian critical education theorist Paolo Freire. A mathematician walking through a park met a boy named Gelson flying a kite and initiated the following conversation:

  • Mathematician: How many meters of line do you usually let loose to fly the kite?
  • Gelson: Fifty meters, more or less.
  • Mathematician: How do you figure out that you have let loose more or less than fifty meters of line?
  • Gelson: Every so often, at about two meters more or less, I make a knot in the line. As the line is running through my hand, I count the knots and so I know how many meters of line I’ve released.
  • Mathematician: And how high do you think the kite is right now?
  • Gelson: Forty meters.
  • Mathematician: How do you figure?
  • Gelson: According to how much line I let out and the bow that the line is making. If the kite were high, well over my head, it would be the same number of meters high as of line that I let loose, but since the kite is far from my head, leaning down, it is lower than the loose meters of line.

Freire (as cited in Rymes, 2015, p. 142) wrote:

Ironically … Gelson had failed mathematics in school. Nothing of what he knew had any value in school because what he knew he had learned through his experience, in the concreteness of his context. He did not talk about his knowledge in a formal and well-composed language, mechanically memorized, which is the only language the school recognized as legitimate. (1998, p. 131)

This is not to say that teachers should not teach “school math” for exams, as that is their job, but that teachers must first understand how students “represent math ideas on their own terms” (Rymes, 2015, p. 143). Some students may actually struggle with mathematical thinking, unlike Gelson, while others like Gelson may understand and sophisticatedly apply the concepts but not in ways that “count.” Rymes highlights the way the mathematician questions Gelson (translated from the original Portuguese) as open-ended “wondering” questions that do not position the mathematician as the expert (i.e., the mathematician does not reveal how much he knows about math). Teachers can even have students discuss math questions in groups so as not to put individuals under pressure to answer the teacher’s “wondering” questions in front of the class, but later invite volunteers to explain what their group came up with. Eventually, by investigating how the students are thinking, the teacher can lead them to solid understandings of the concepts and finally to the formal and efficient ways of making the calculation, but students will understand it more thoroughly if they have first represented it on their own terms. (I also discussed this situation in my previous post.)

Teachers have to carefully consider what kind of interactions they are fostering, because students are not only learning math—they are learning about (1) how math is done, (2) whether math is fun, (3) whether it is practical, (4) whether they should see themselves as good at math, (5) whether math problems are normally solved individually/competitively or collaboratively, (6) whether math is an open- or closed-ended inquiry, etc. They will come away with different lessons (answers to these questions), i.e., different indexicalities for math, depending on the interactions through which they learnt math. And of course the same goes for any other subject: teachers are not just teaching the subject, but teaching students indexicalities that they will bring to new contexts: how students construe the subject, how they see themselves as learners, what they think are effective/ineffective ways of going about academic tasks (we English teachers have seen many ineffective ways of going about academic tasks that students have learned from English teachers who oversimplified the tasks), what they will come to expect from teachers/school, and so on.

How does this apply to bi/multilingual classroom interactions?

When it comes to translanguaging and code-switching, it is obvious that identities emerge in language use because different forms of language index, or point to, certain identities. The interpretation of “what this language form or utterance means and what identities it points to” is not fixed. People contextualize, or negotiate in the moment, what specific language forms mean and the identities that they index or point to—for example by jointly recognizing the language forms as unremarkable or unusual for the context, desirable or undesirable, shared or not shared, employed by legitimate or illegitimate users, and so on (Bucholtz & Hall, 2005). There are often many cues and combinations of cues that can tell classroom researchers what teacher and students jointly recognize as unremarkable, unusual, (un)desirable, etc.

Because of mismatch in what the same form indexes for different people, as discussed earlier, what the form or utterance indexes, or signals, may be so variable that people cannot agree on a common interpretation and multiple conflicting perspectives emerge. In fact, we cannot even take for granted that the teacher, the researcher, student A, and student B all evaluate the same utterance as being an example of a given language (remember the black kids earlier in this post whose teachers said they didn’t speak their native language, English?). At other times, people will have differing perceptions on what is a hybrid or uniform utterance: for example, a teacher may perceive a child to be “switching” between Spanish and English, whereas the child may just be speaking the single language of his community. This is not significant in itself, but significant in terms of its possible social and educational consequences (e.g., the teacher perceiving the student as deficient in both languages rather than a fully developed speaker of his first language, which is a mixed code).

When we examine different interpretations, we must be careful with our use of the label “misinterpretation” or the phrase “needing to learn the ways of speaking/writing of the community”—as this implies one person/group has a better interpretation that others have to adopt without that “correct” person or group needing to see alternative ways of interpretation. This usually just means they are the more powerful person/group in the community or imagined community (the teacher, the middle-class people, the linguistic or cultural mainstream), not that their interpretation is inherently better. Rymes suggests asking a series of questions from describing to analyzing to changing the situation to make it fairer:

  1. What contextualization cues are functioning here and now?
  2. Are cues noticeably different for different people? (For example, is one person/group reacting differently from another person/group? If there really is misinterpretation, who is misunderstanding whom?)
  3. Are certain features of the interaction (e.g., dress, appearance, objects) influencing the cues and perpetuating the misunderstanding?
  4. How might cues or combinations of cues point to existing relationships or social factors outside the classroom?
  5. Does this have anything to do with inequality?
  6. Whose assumptions are guiding different understandings?
  7. How can we change this situation? (adapted from Rymes, 2015, pp. 148-149)

The analysis of classroom discourse allows researchers to share with teachers what is happening, and teachers can choose to share that with students. Students also interpret each other’s cues and cue combinations, with positive and negative consequences for peers… so it may not just be the teacher that needs to adapt their behavior. However, the teacher plays a key role in managing discourse in the classroom, because they have the most institutional authority to determine what is relevant or important in discussions, question other class participants, and evaluate answers as (in)correct, (in)appropriate, or (im)moral. They also have the authority to determine the indexicalities of different forms of communication—whether certain dialects, languages, modalities, or ways of using language (e.g., translanguaging) index expertise in something or lack of something (both indexicalities can be created!), or which dialects, languages, modalities or ways of using language are legitimate for sharing knowledge and engaging in intellectual inquiry.


Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. (2005). Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies7(4-5), 585-614.

Fukunaga, N. (2006). “Those anime students”: Foreign language literacy development through Japanese popular culture. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy50(3), 206-222.

Purcell-Gates, V. (2002). “…As soon as she opened her mouth!”: Issues of language, literacy, and power. In L. Delpit and J. Kilgour Dowdy (Eds.), The skin that we speak: Thoughts on language and culture in the classroom (pp. 121-141). New York, NY: The New Press.

Published by annamend

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

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