How to analyze classroom talk: Part 4 of 4

This is the fourth and final post on methodology for analyzing classroom talk, preceded by posts on Turn-taking, Contextualization, and Narrative. In this post, we look at how to analyze Interactional Frames. First, we examine what “frame” means and look at ways to analyze how frames are used in small units of talk (e.g., 1-2 sentences) that can be particularly meaningful. Second, we look at how frames reflect wider societal discourses. Third, we look at how teachers can shape the framing in their classrooms to increase their students’ (perceived) competence and cooperativeness. This post selectively summarizes the fourth (and last/longest) data analysis chapter of Prof. Betsy Rymes’ book Classroom Discourse Analysis: A Tool for Critical Reflection (2nd. ed., 2015). As this blog is also about translanguagingcode-switching, and bi/multilingualism in primary and secondary education, I conclude the post with my own thoughts linking frame analysis to the study of bi/multilingual classroom interactions.

Rymes, B. (2015). Analyzing framing resources. In Classroom discourse analysisA tool for critical reflection (2nd ed.) (pp. 179-211). New York, NY: Routledge.

You’ve probably had the experience of choosing a frame for a picture or document. How did you make the choice between the frames that were within your budget? Wood or metal, traditional or modern, the color, the texture, the pattern (or plain), etc. In choosing how to frame the object, you probably considered how different choices of frame would cause people to see the object in different ways.

When Rymes says that “framing” is a resource in spoken interaction, she means that we often frame our words with other words that cause changes in the way our words are perceived. This framing effect, like the effects of picture frames, can be very obvious or subtle. She defines frames as “the interactional and social contexts that surround individual utterances” (p. 180) and urges us to be more aware of how utterances (i.e., the words/phrases/sentences we say) are framed so that we can accomplish two important things:

  • Take responsibility for what we say in class, so that we can build welcoming and inclusive classroom communities.
  • Critique wider societal ideologies, by examining how we are reproducing them in our talk.

Analyzing and re-analyzing frames using Goffman’s Participation Framework

Sociologist Erving Goffman (1981) named three distinct roles for speakers in “institutional talk” or talk that happens in any institutional setting, whether a school, hospital, courthouse, government office, company, store, etc.

  • Animator: The person actually saying the words
  • Author: The creator of the spoken words
  • Principal: The institution or individual whose beliefs are being represented, the party ultimately responsible

For example, a president may be addressing the country in a speech (he/she being the animator). However, the author(s) may actually be the president’s speechwriter(s). And the principal may not be the president but the lobbyists or the people funding the president’s campaign… it is their beliefs and interests that are being represented.

Analyzing who the animator(s), author(s), and principal(s) are—including re-analysis from multiple perspectives or a deeper perspective—allows us to engage in important critical thinking. Rymes gives two excellent examples of this. The first is this one from an elementary school classroom in Georgia, in the southern United States (p. 179):

  • Sally: ((pointing to a picture in the book)) They’re white and everybody else is black.
  • Teacher: Oh, so her friend is white and everybody else is black in the picture?
  • Danny: Hey don’t you be talking about that.
  • Teacher: What is wrong with that?
  • Danny: Nothing. ((Danny shakes his head))
  • Sally: Nothing.
  • Teacher: Is there anything wrong with that?
  • Students: No. ((Sally shakes her head))
  • Teacher: No, I didn’t think so either.

In this discussion, it seems the teacher does not want to talk about race or why one white person is standing in a crowd of black people. What does this suggest about this presumably white community where the school is located? Even if they are not racist in their individual actions towards people of colour, they avoid discussing race in their schools to avoid talking about difficult subjects, which in turn lets racial inequality continue. How can we apply Goffman’s framework here? Rymes first does it this way:

Don’t you be talking about that.DannyDannyMom, school, society at large / Don’t talk about race in the classroom.
What is wrong with that? … Is there anything wrong with that?TeacherTeacherDanny’s mom, school, society at large / Don’t talk about race in the classroom.
Rymes (2015), p. 183

While at first we may think Danny and the teacher are offering their own perspectives, these perspectives don’t come from nowhere but reflect a wider societal norm, a shared belief that classrooms and schools are not appropriate places for discussing race.

Rymes next presents a re-analysis based on what she knows about the teacher. As an ethnographer, she generates valid findings by spending a lot of time at her research site and collecting different types of data. Rymes writes:

Is this something she really believes? I asked her. She does NOT want to silence talk about race and ethnicity in her classroom. She believes in multicultural education and in discussing issues of racial and linguistic difference—and in using multicultural literature in her classroom. In fact, that is why why she chose to discuss a book (My Little Island) that, unlike many picture books in classrooms, contains mostly black characters.

So why did she shut down the talk? Who is controlling her discourse? I have asked her and many of the teachers in my university classes about this hesitancy to talk about race. Overwhelmingly, teachers fear they will be flooded by phone calls from irate parents if they talk about race in the classroom. The school principal, whatever his or her feelings about our multicultural society, will not look kindly on negative parent phone calls, and as a result, teachers feel their jobs are threatened when they speak about race. In Georgia, teachers have no recourse. There are no unions; there is no teacher tenure. Many worry that controversial content in their classrooms could threaten their own livelihood. (p. 190)

[Blogger’s note: See how the teacher sounded curious and willing to build on Sally’s observation… until Danny piped up, “Don’t you be talking about that.” In other words, when Danny expressed this opinion, the teacher probably surmised his parents might object to talk about race in the classroom, and she let the discussion drop, though she might have continued the discussion about race if Danny had said nothing, or if he (and other students) had raised more curious questions about the racial appearances of people in the picture.]

Rymes thus re-analyzes the dialogue:

Is there anything wrong with that?TeacherTeacherStudents’ parents
School principal
Georgia state government banning teacher unions and teacher tenure
Rymes (2015), p. 190; my bold

I put the state government in bold as a major principal because IF teachers had unions and tenure, they would have more ability to push back against such parents, who may in fact be a small, loud minority.

Here’s another example, from a secondary school and from a different part of the U.S. that is a “blue” (Democrat) rather than “red” (Republican) state. This is from Rymes’ own former teaching context in Los Angeles, California (Rymes, 2001). The utterance is from LaTasha, an African American girl in her early teens, as she expresses how she doesn’t want to go to jail, even though many of her friends say it is “cool” (p. 180):

  • LaTasha: Everybody was like “I’m going to jail, all my homies [friends] in jail.” Whatchu wanna go to jail fo: [for]?

Rymes shows how we can analyze the statement in both superficial and in-depth ways. Let’s start with a superficial analysis (p. 183):

“I’m going to jail, all my homies in jail.”LaTashaLaTashaPeer group / Going to jail is cool.
Watch wanna go to jail fo:?LaTashaLaTashaLaTasha / Going to jail is no fun.
Rymes (2015), p. 183

I’ll provide my “deeper” analysis before providing Rymes’ “deeper” analysis. It is curious that LaTasha constructs a dichotomy between her and everybody else; the so-called “people who think jail is cool” can be seen as characters of LaTasha’s construction to present herself in a good light. I therefore propose this deconstruction:

[Everyone says] “I wanna be in jail.”LaTashaLaTashaSociety: Society sees black and brown kids as bad, delinquent jailbirds; therefore, working class black kids like LaTasha have to distinguish themselves from “bad” working class black kids.
Blogger’s own analysis

Rymes explains that “Were a student like LaTasha to be given the presidential podium… and allowed to talk ‘for herself’ in front of a large audience, her words could have an even more powerful institutional principal behind them” (p. 184). This is why we have to be very, very careful in analyzing whether an utterance or speech is socially just; we first have to consider how it is framed, how it positions different people! If some people’s identity is threatened or made to look bad because of the group they are constructed as belonging to, this is not socially just, no matter how good the intention (e.g., encourage kids to stay out of jail) or whether the chosen animator is from that group, or even whether they have sincerely authored their own words.

Now I come to Rymes’ “deeper” analysis as the ethnographer who knew a lot about the setting. Rymes explains that we should believe LaTasha’s testimony that going to jail was widely promoted among her peers:

At City School, evidence abounded that at least some students did want to go to jail—and were proud of it when they went. Others would talk proudly about going to jail for each other. Certain students told me that substituting yourself for a friend at a crime scene was easy and commonplace—L.A. Police, sadly, would gladly take in any brown or black potential perpetrator without following up on the details of who actually performed a crime. … Going to jail—because it may have been done on behalf of a friend—could be an act of friendship and a demonstration of loyalty. … In wanting to go to jail, in wearing their jail uniforms as a badge of honor, are they, in a way, complicit with the racist police force that puts them there? (p. 188-189)

Therefore, Rymes’ deeper analysis looks like this:

I wanna be in jail.LaTashaEverybodyPeer group
Police force
School racism
Rymes (2015), p. 189

Note what these examples (Danny and his teacher… LaTasha and her friends) have in common: what seems at first to be teachers or students animating their own personal thoughts, when analyzed more deeply, shows that these people were acting upon wider societal ideologies. Thinking more deeply about the principal (who could be hidden behind many layers of authors and animators) allows us to understand these forces at work.

Why is it important to understand them? Rymes shows that framing also applies to many teaching and learning activities, which are framed as being worthwhile or not worthwhile. People think the worth (or lack of worth) lies in the activity, but it in fact lies in the framing. For example, Rymes reports getting this letter from her son’s school:

…as a parent, I receive notes home in all capitals TO ALL FIRST GRADE PARENTS from FIRST GRADE TEACHERS reminding us about spelling tests on Fridays. A worksheet with sentences to practice comes home with the reminder, “THEY WILL BE TESTED ON THIS.” (p. 186)

In the U.S. education system, we can surmise that there are periodic standardized tests (even in early grades for little kids) that are linked to school funding. What the letter implies is that if the first graders do poorly on these spelling and punctuation tests, the school falls in ratings and, indirectly, loses funding. Therefore, the teachers give all the sentences on the tests to parents beforehand. This incredibly stupid and time-wasting activity takes time away from more meaningful literacy activities that could take place in class and at home. Yet the activity is framed as “important” because school funding is tied to it; “10 spelling words and five correctly punctuated sentences get framed as the important reading” (p. 187). If this frame disappeared, people could easily see the lack of value in the activity. We can therefore do an analysis like:

THEY WILL BE TESTED ON THIS.TeachersTeachers– Test-makers (private, for-profit companies)
– United States government
Blogger’s own analysis

Rymes argues that the point of classroom discourse analysis is this: “you will notice how the way we do things and what we talk about—or think we can’t talk about—are framed by social norms and interactional habits that are usually left unexamined” (p. 180). Who is really responsible for this poor educational situation; is it teachers?

Here’s the good side of the discussion, the side that shows how powerful teachers can still be within their own classrooms. Regardless of what activities occur in his/her/their own classroom, even if the teacher doesn’t agree with all of them, the teacher still has a great deal of control over how they are framed. For example, even when preparing for standardized tests, or teaching “standard” English grammar, the teacher can frame the activity as: “This is an unfair societal imposition, but we can get over this hurdle together! Let’s all make a plan for how to tackle the task, using all our linguistic resources and knowledge and ingenuity…” Therefore, the teacher has a lot of power to shape how their students construct their own and others’ academic and social competence in that class, regardless of what they are doing. A teacher who is skilled in discourse management can have a strong positive effect on these 4 C’s: how learners perceive their COMPETENCE, how CURIOUS they are towards tasks, whether they COOPERATE with one another, and whether they see the class as a COMMUNITY. In other words, the teacher rules the classroom’s SMALL CULTURE (Holliday, 1999). Rymes writes:

… “framing” is an ideal metaphor: The frames around talk function a lot like frames around pictures. … This means the frames we, as teachers, bring into the classroom and put around our students’ talk and writing can play an important role in bringing students’ concerns into the foreground—transforming their humble voices into powerful ones… (p. 185)

Rymes then spends the rest of the chapter explaining how this is done.

The art of frame management: Making students feel competent, motivating them to learn, building class community

Rymes goes through several things that skilled teachers are aware of and manage in their classes:

  • Managing patterns of interaction
  • Managing language used in interactions
  • Breaking frames if necessary

Let’s now explore each of these.

MANAGING PATTERNS OF INTERACTION. Related to turn-taking, “participant structures are ways of arranging verbal interaction with students” (Philips, as cited in Rymes, 2015, p. 191). There are teacher-led whole class discussions, small group discussions, individual work, and student presentations. Each of these has different patterns of talk (interactional patterns) and leads to different kinds of language.

Students from different cultures may be used to different patterns of classroom interaction. This is not to say that some patterns are better than others; each has its own affordances and limitations. The scholar Rymes cites in this section of the chapter is Susan Philips (1992), who studied four classrooms on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon in the 1970s. Philips identified four types of classroom talk:

  1. Teacher interacts with the whole class.
  2. Teacher interacts with only some students (e.g., reading groups).
  3. Students work independently.
  4. Students work on group projects without the teacher there.

The Native American children she studied were quite silent and reluctant to participate in #1 and #2, but were engaged in #3 and #4. Rymes summarizes the culture: “When children learn new skills, they learn them through silent but attentive observation of adults [i.e., no direct interaction]. During adult conversations, children are expected to listen attentively, but, again, silently. Indians try out their skills among peers when adults are not around” (p. 192).

What participation structures would we find in the East Asian tradition? My guess would be mainly #1, but also #2 and #3, and limited #4. In the Western tradition? In my experience, #1, #2, and #4, but limited #3, because it is considered bad to have silence in a classroom (learning is measured through interaction, defined primarily as talk).

Speaking of talk, a teacher trained in a tradition that associates learning closely with talk (like myself) would be concerned with whether there is equitable turn allocation. These two patterns of teacher/student talk emerged in two whole class discussions (p. 193):

  • City School jail discussion: T-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-S-T-S-S-S
  • Georgia elementary book discussion: T-S-T-S-T-S-T-S-T-S-S-T-S-S-T-S

There can be many reasons for this, for example, the City School jail discussion where the statement by LaTasha is from took place when a student entered the classroom after having just been released from jail. Even though this was a difficult situation, the teacher thought it best to have an upfront discussion about it (seeing that students would unavoidably talk about it with each other, under their breaths, during the lesson). The discussion was obviously very engaging, with lots of student participation. The Georgia elementary book discussion is more teacher-led, with the teacher responding to and shaping each student turn.

Another point Rymes makes is that in some interaction orders, students direct their attention to the teacher, but in other interaction orders, they direct their attention to peers (e.g., group work). Sometimes, in group work, talk is still shaped by the teacher’s influence if students know the teacher is standing nearby. This brings us to ratified and unratified participants (another theory of Goffman’s). Ratified participants are those included in the discussion; unratified participants are overhearers and bystanders. However, when discussion participants are aware of bystanders they still modify their talk, and a bystander can step into the discussion at any time and be acknowledged as a ratified participant. A teacher can ask themselves, “What effect am I having as a bystander? If I step in to make a point, what effect will I have as a participant? What effect would I have if I stepped away and went to another group?” No definite right answer—the skilled teacher considers and assesses the situation.

There’s also a class underlife, or group discussion that goes on side-by-side with official class discussions. Underlife is related to social topics, or involves students helping each other with the material. Much of this communication is spoken too soft for the teacher to hear; some of it is written, texted, or conveyed through gestures and glances. Underlife is unavoidable in any institution’s interaction order and it is not necessarily bad; it is the TYPE of underlife that reveals whether a group of students (or office/factory workers) respect their teacher (or manager). Rymes points out that underlife in classrooms has a useful pedagogical function:

When the official T-S-T-S discourse proceeds, students may maintain another (or multiple) productive conversation(s) simultaneously. While this looks chaotic, underlife is often muffled [so a recorder may only pick up the official talk]. … Underlife conversations are often started when a student’s response within the teacher-led discussion is interesting to other students—but just tangential enough from the teacher’s agenda that he never takes it up. (p. 195)

[Side note: The reason teachers should not silence underlife (which is impossible anyway) is that it is the main source of differentiated instruction. The teacher cannot possibly teach individually to 25–30 students. But in a cooperative classroom community, peers help each other along, adjusting their tutoring to the needs of their friends and peers, whose language(s) they may speak (unlike the teacher). Also, students know what generation-specific cultural references will best illustrate the point of the lesson to each other (unlike the teacher). Therefore, the teacher’s goal is not to differentiate for all 25–30 students, but to build a classroom community where everyone feels motivated to learn and help one another learn. In my own teaching, during the first few minutes of a breakout discussion, I actually don’t visit any group, because students need to grow at ease talking with their group. When students are engaged in talk, I circulate from group to group, collecting things I can bring back into the whole class discussion that follows. These are the moves that build the classroom community, bringing us to…]

FRAMING AND REFRAMING STUDENTS’ TALK. Students have an implicit awareness of how they’re supposed to talk in and out of class, or how they need to talk during more informal group work versus more formal whole class discussions. Take this example from an elementary school class; students are remarking on men’s hats in a picture (p. 198):

  • Teacher: Hats. Do men wear a lot of hats now?
  • Danny: Some don’t. The train dudes—the train people wear they wear these like, big ol things that—

Danny’s self-correction points to his perception that he needs to correct his colloquial language in a whole class discussion, especially when responding to the teacher. But recall the class discussion in which LaTasha mentioned “everyone” wanting to go to jail. She said: “Everybody was like, I’m going to jail, all my homies in jail.'” Rymes points out:

“Homies” is at least as distant from school English as “dude,” but LaTasha needs that word here; it is functional, and it is never censored [stopped]—by herself or anyone else. LaTasha’s use of peer language helps to construct the classroom frame as one that foregrounds student voices. Her language invites student language into the setting, and, quite possibly, makes it more difficult for the teacher to jump back in [and easier for peers to jump in]. While Danny’s “train people” correction is constructed by the existent participant structure, LaTasha’s “homies” helps construct a new participant structure. (p. 199)

Remember how the teacher only took two turns compared to 14 student turns in the jail discussion (see above)? In Rymes’ transcript, one of those teacher turns was “I hear ya” (p. 204), colloquial language on the part of the teacher to show he was listening. Then, he stepped back to let students keep talking, without correcting their language [which is not just African-American English… that is too broad a term and refers to the whole language; it is peer group language]. So, one frame that teachers can put around students’ peer language is: It is totally appropriate to use in the classroom; it is encouraged to talk about deep subjects; it is valuable for this purpose; it is not uneducated or immature.

Rymes gives two more tips for teachers, apart from framing students’ language positively. One of them is to manage epistemic language (how certain one is) and affective language (how one feels). Examples of epistemic language:

  • “I think/know/remember…”
  • “It’s possible that/It’s well known that…”
  • “That’s definitely/absolutely/always/in fact/perhaps/supposedly…”

Examples of affective language:

  • “Everyone/No one/People [as in ALL people] would say…”
  • “I’m/We’re alarmed/amused/hopeful/lucky…”
  • “It’s amazing/incredible/understandable/disappointing/fortunate…”

These are just examples; Rymes provides a detailed chart of this language on p. 200. Here’s how I understand the chart. There is no word that is better/worse than any other word. What matters is HOW they’re used to construct classroom participants’ identities. If students are on the right track but hesitant about their answer, the teacher can say: “That’s definitely an important point!” (high certainty, exaggerated positive feeling). If students are mistaken, don’t express it with certainty; instead, say, “Perhaps you can consider” or “It’s possible that…” (i.e., help them to save face). When students disagree with each other, and there is no clear right/wrong answer, it may be good to call their opinions “understandable” and offer your own personal view, legitimizing everyone’s personal view: “I think/remember…” And if a student has not succeeded and feels disappointed in themselves, instead of scolding them or dismissing the disappointment as insignificant, the teacher can offer an empathetic: “I agree, that’s disappointing” and let the student process the experience. Finally, Rymes urges teachers to be careful of how they construct group boundaries using terms like “I,” “We,” and “They”—i.e., who we include and exclude in our discourse (p. 203).

The other tip Rymes gives is to carefully balance knowledge and emotion, which are thought of as opposites in Western philosophy:

Exploring how stance changes across participant structures can begin to help us understand why some students prefer certain classroom events and subject areas far more than others. Why do some students love literature circles but dislike science? These two subjects may be dominated by very different participation patterns and very different kinds of language. Sometimes, students may feel shut out of science simply because the participant structure of a science lesson seems to demand objectifying, scientific language. On the other hand, some students may be resistant to the emotive language that may emerge in a student book club. But do these boundaries need to be so rigid? (p. 201)

Her argument goes against the principles of English for Academic Purposes and Content Language Integrated Learning, as well as Systemic Functional Linguistics and language socialization research—to learn “the discourse of the discipline.” While Rymes would not disagree this is important, she points out that in every discipline, knowledge-seeking is married to emotion:

…this is the bottom line: What is it that drives our work in classrooms and our learning beyond the classroom? So often the work of a prominent doctor or scientist or other professional is driven by some emotional turning point. Developmental psychologist Lisa Capps was driven to study agoraphobia, a panic disorder experienced predominantly by women, in part because her own brother suffered under this condition. In the same way, students are driven to read stories that connect with their own lives, or to study questions that do not yet have answers. This kind of emotional passion drives intellectual work. Classrooms are as much about knowledge as they are about emotions. (p. 202)

She gives an example of a group of female students “getting the facts right” about the Ku Klux Klan during a novel discussion, and another example of an excellent science teacher (“Mr. Wonderful”) inserting affective/emotional language such as “I feel…” or “I wonder…” into a science lesson (pp. 201-202). In the novel discussion, it isn’t just what one “feels” about the KKK; one must get the facts, because they are important and urgent. In science, when the teacher began to preface comments and hypotheses with “I think” or “maybe,” students did the same and an event that was dominated by three confident students became one in which all students participated (Gallas, as cited in Rymes, 2015, p. 202).

In short, an Ivy League professor (Rymes) shows that productive, motivating, and educational classroom talk in academic subjects should NOT always be discipline-specific, NOT always be academic, and NOT confuse disciplinary conventions with strict rules. It should also ideally involve languages/dialects other than “standard” English and students’ peer group language, all for reasons of framing.

The last part of the chapter refers to “breaking frame” (acting in non-normal ways)—which is what LaTasha’s teacher and the science teacher “Mr. Wonderful” did when they allowed or encouraged non-expected interaction orders to change the expected ones, with certain interpersonal or educational purposes in mind.

BREAKING FRAME. To go back to the beginning of the chapter, about a kid who said, “Don’t you be talking about that!” during class, Rymes explains:

Frames create an environment in which we can only talk in certain ways, and in which, as a result, certain ideologies are much easier to have than others. However, awareness of how we are being framed can give us the first tool for breaking frame, contesting assumed ideologies, and augmenting our agency in the face of institutional norms. (p. 207)

She mentions that the famous sociologist Harold Garfinkel often sent his students to “break frame” in public places and document what happened: enter a crowded elevator and face the back; get on a nearly empty bus and sit next to a person with an abundance of empty seats all around. These are, of course, low-stakes frame breaks, unlike Rosa Parks’ choice of seat on the bus. In classrooms, there are more important and significant frame breaks:

Unspoken rules can lead to Friday mornings at school crammed with spelling and punctuation tests, shutting down meaningful talk, not listening to students. Taking agency is the act of resisting these frames: Don’t give test every Friday morning. (I know a group of first-grade teachers who just started this act of resistance. They are delighted with the expanses of time they now have for learning activities.) Help students to take issue not with the peers who think it is cool to go to jail but with those institutions that construct their self-destructive attitudes. Talk about race. Read books about race. Do not flinch. … The principal may be irate [super angry]… and peers and irate parents might call you… These are signs that you are running into a frame. (p. 208)

Sometimes, breaking frame is the price of exemplary teaching. It is also important to break frame together, because social justice is a collaborative endeavor. Teachers can start with their own individual research and share it with peers, e.g.,

e.g., Discussion about jaile.g., LaTasha’s storyWho is the Animator? Author? Principal?– What is the participant structure?
– Who has voice in this structure?
– Who are ratified and unratified participants in this structure?
– What kinds of talk and stance markers (affective, epistemic) are present? See p. 200 of the chapter for a list.
– How can we break frame?
– What do we accomplish by doing so?
Adapted from Rymes (2015), p. 208

Then, teachers can bring colleagues and students into the discussion:

  • In class, students can discuss how institutions and people outside the classroom manipulate our senses and attitudes inside the classroom. (Not just authorities like teachers and parents, but peers and celebrities… frame critique is self-critique, not just other-critique.)
  • In the staff room, teachers can share with colleagues times when they broke frame. What happened? What do they think on this event, looking back?
  • Teachers/students can discuss who gets to break frames more often, e.g., “the professor who goes barefoot or uses profanity” (p. 209), or the Black professor who was thought of as educated even though he spoke African American English while a Black child was thought of as “not knowing English.” Breaking frame is not always good; it can be problematic if some get to do it more than others because community/society lets them. An example is how English L1 (first language) speakers break frame (i.e., speak English) more often in instructional time dedicated to Spanish, whereas Spanish L1 speakers do not often break frame (i.e., speak Spanish) in instructional time dedicated to English in a dual language elementary program in the U.S. (Hamman, 2018).
  • As a teacher, do not fear breaking frame in ways that make you vulnerable. Mark Lamont Hill (2009) was discussing teen pregnancy with his students when someone asked, “What you know about this, Mr. Hill?”, leading him to tell his own story: “I have a baby on the way right now that I didn’t expect. Her mom is six months pregnant and I’m really stressin’ about it. … That just wasn’t how I thought about it back when I was a kid. I thought I’d end up married to the person that I have kids with and even when she told me she was pregnant the thought crossed my mind to just get married but I knew that wasn’t right because we would’ve been miserable” (as cited in Rymes, 2015, p. 210). What do moments like these have to offer us in terms of life lessons?
  • Teachers and students can discuss interaction patterns and possible modifications. Are people pleased with the interactions in whole-class talk? What do students think about those in their small-group discussion: are they what they expected to find? What was unexpected about these patterns? How can they be changed for the better?

None of these interventions require massive overhauls in daily teaching and learning, but they do require curiosity, courage, and critical consciousness.

How does this apply to bi/multilingual classroom interactions?

This has been a long post already, and so I will only spare a few paragraphs here. Translanguaging scholars have debated whether dismantling boundaries between “named” languages is necessary for critical educators. The connection between poststructuralist orientations to language and learner empowerment is supported by some research findings, yet other academics challenge whether blurring the boundaries between named languages leads to learner empowerment or whether that is besides the point (e.g., Cummins, 2021), while scholars who make the connection are equally adamant in maintaining it (García et al., 2021). They debated this in a conference plenary by Jim Cummins uploaded to Youtube, which unfortunately got personal during the panel discussion.

Clearly, poststructuralist orientations appear to be linked to social justice in certain contexts, even though named languages are not problematic constructs in themselves; in fact there is empirical evidence for them, both psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic. In my view, it comes down to how students’ use of language resources, translanguaging, or named languages are framed. This framing can be done by the teacher or by students to enhance or demean what other class participants say. There is no utterance—whether translanguaging, or in English, or in another language—that can be understood for social effect without looking at how it is being framed, and so we cannot say that translanguaging is most socially just, or English most inclusive, or use of another language egalitarian. Are some people feeling freer to translanguage than others? Then translanguaging is not socially just. Is English framed as “standard” English or English as a lingua franca? Is the non-English language (used to counteract the hegemony of English) taught or promoted in a “standard” way (this is often the case with national languages) or setting up hegemonies of its own? How do classroom participants (teachers and students) frame and re-frame official discourses? We cannot always assume they will be on their best behavior (Jaspers, 2011; Talmy, 2008), and even when they have good intentions, these sometimes play out badly (Duff, 2002).

Being a good teacher is not about language policy or managing classroom language. Being a good teacher is about managing classroom discourse and classroom identities:

  • Managing patterns of interaction (i.e., equitable)
  • Managing language used in interaction (i.e., normalizing diversity and inclusivity)
  • Breaking frames if necessary
  • Engaging students and colleagues in critical analysis of frames
  • Attaching POSITIVE FRAMINGS to students’ use of language resources, whether translingual, in their languages of inheritance, languages of affiliation (i.e., languages they like but weren’t born into), and English use… EVERYONE’S, so that everyone feels competent, takes responsibility for helping each other learn, and as a result the underlife of classroom talk/discourse adds layers and layers of deep learning onto the teacher’s surface teaching.


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Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of talk. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Hill, M. L. (2009). Beats, rhymes, and classroom life: Hip-hop pedagogy and the politics of identity. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Holliday, A. (1999). Small cultures. Applied Linguistics20(2), 237–264.

Jaspers, J. (2011). Talking like a ‘zerolingual’: Ambiguous linguistic caricatures at an urban secondary school. Journal of Pragmatics43(5), 1264–1278.

Philips, S. U. (1992). The invisible culture: Communication in classroom and community on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Rymes, B. (2001). Conversational borderlands: Language and identity in an alternative urban high school. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Talmy, S. (2008). The cultural productions of the ESL student at Tradewinds High: Contingency, multidirectionality, and identity in L2 socialization. Applied Linguistics29(4), 619–644.

Published by annamend

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

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