2.0 true when asking questions. 2.1.1 Questions

2.0 Literature Review

To understand the IRF model, we must first look at, and
discuss the literature surrounding it.  I
will begin by looking at classroom discourse and its analysis, focussing on Sinclair
and Coulthard’s IRF model.

2.1 Classroom Discourse

and Brazil (1982), claimed that a teacher’s discourse is how they use language
to accomplish their goals in the classroom, such as instruction or
discipline.  Consequently, the analysis
of classroom discourse varies depending on the situation in which it is
conducted.  A major obstacle in analysing
classroom discourse, is the unequal distribution of power between the teacher
and the students, this is something that generally does not happen in
real-world discourse.  It is the
teacher’s responsibility to initiate exchanges, create discourse boundaries and
control proceedings (Nunan, 1999).  These
exchanges are typified by the IRF model, with the teacher asking a question, a
learner replying, and the teacher giving feedback (ibid).  How turn-taking is decided, based on the
teacher’s theory of learning and is usually predetermined, and teacher-led,
with the them speaking the most, and nominating respondents (Brazil,
1995).  Teachers usually adopt unnatural
patterns, with intonation used to highlight what they are speaking about, this
is especially true when asking questions.


Hymes (1971),
suggested that people can take 2 roles in conversation, that of addressor or
addressee, the teacher takes the role of addressor, while the class are the
addressees.  This leads to a very teacher
centric orientation.  Consequently, teachers
mainly ask display questions, to which they already know the answers
(Thornbury, 1996).  This makes them
unnatural, as they are used to check the learner’s understanding, or for
elicitation, which typically, do not appear in real-world communication
(Seedhouse, 1996).  Scholars claim that
this is an issue with classroom discourse in general (e.g. Nunan, 1987).  The second role of the teacher, is that of

2.1.2 Feedback

As an evaluator, the teacher is expected to give the learners
feedback.  This can include modelling,
repeating answers or correcting the learner’s response.  McCarthy (1991) claimed that in real world
situations, feedback occurs after the exchange has finished, however teachers
can give feedback at any point in time, as a teaching tool, especially for correcting
form.  This also means that the student
does not have the chance to learn how to respond, or to give feedback (ibid).  Scholars have argued therefore, that the
Initiation-Response-Feedback structure, is unnatural and may hinder the
development of the learner (Willis, 1992; Francis and Hunston, 1992).  This is because feedback, while expected in
the classroom, is not in the real-world, especially in the classroom form.  Seedhouse (1996) argued that this type of
classroom discourse is necessary for language learning.

2.2 Analysis

Discourse analysis is the “attempt to study the organisation
of language above the sentence… or the clause” (Stubbs, 1983:1), therefore
looking at larger units, such as conversations or texts.  For teaching, Halliday (1961) first suggested
using a rank scale, to create a linguistic theory of interaction (Coulthard, 1985:120).  The rank scale is hierarchical, with each
level being comprised of the units below it (Sinclair and Coulthard,
1992).  These ranks have been debated.  However, Halliday (1961) claims the morpheme
is the lowest rank, which forms a word; words then comprise a group; groups make
a clause; and multiple clauses create a sentence.  This was adapted by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975).

2.2.1 Sinclair and Coulthard

Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) used Halliday’s rank scale to
create their own description of classroom discourse, by analysing teacher-led
primary school classes.  They adapted the
rank scale to be:


Diagram 1 – Sinclair
and Coulthard’s IRF Model.

The highest rank is lesson, which consists of “an unordered
series of transactions” (ibid:25).  The
fact that this is unordered makes analysis very difficult as every teacher is
free to use their own approach (ibid:60). 
Sinclair and Coulthard (1992) also claimed their research was not
sufficient in isolating different types of transactions, making exchange the
highest form on the rank scale. 
Exchanges are comprised of moves, which in turn are made up of acts. Exchange

For the purposes of this essay, exchange will be the highest
form used.  An exchange is usually
represented as the teacher asking a question, followed by the student
answering, and the teacher’s subsequent feedback, or IRF (McCarthy, 1991).  Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) found there to
be four types of exchanges, three of which are for teaching, and the fourth are
boundary exchanges, which help to
organise the discourse for the learners, signalling the beginning or completion
of an activity.  A boundary exchange is
usually limited to just five words: OK,
well, right, now and good
(Coulthard, 1985:123).  The three
teaching exchanges are eliciting, informing, and directing exchanges (Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975).  These are free
exchanges.  The classification has
subsequently been extended to include bound
exchanges: re-initiation, listing, reinforcement, and repeat
(Malouf, 1995).  Bound exchanges have more complex structures.  An eliciting exchange is usually made by the
teacher to find out information that they already know.  A directing exchange is used to give instructions
to the learner, while an informing exchange is used to tell the learner new
information.  An exchange consists of
moves. Move

A move consists of a head act, and any other optional acts,
either subsequent or preceding, that it relies on to be understandable (Malouf,
1995).  These optional acts may be a
starter, a pre-head or a post-head act (ibid). 
In the classroom, the typical discourse consists of three moves, the
teacher’s initiation, then a learner response and finally the teacher’s
feedback (IRF) (Sinclair and Coulthard, 1992). 
There are various possibilities for the ordering of moves, and there is
no limit as to how many moves encompass an exchange, however the first move
must always be an initiation.  For
example, a boundary exchange, is comprised of only one move, with the learner
having no part in it (I).  This move is
usually made up of two acts, stating that one stage has finished, or that a new
one is about to start, followed by what the learner can expect to happen in the
subsequent stage (ibid). Act

An act is the lowest form on the rank scale, and as such is
expressed by clauses or single words (Malouf, 1995).  An act differs from a clause though, as
“grammar is concerned with the formal properties
of an item, discourse with the functional
properties”, or rather what the item is being used for, not why it exists
(Coulthard, 1992:8). There are 21 acts, however in the classroom, there are only
three which regularly occur as head initiation moves.  These are elicitation,
directive and informative.  It is from these three head moves, that the
learner can predict what is required to proceed.  An elicitation, requires the learner to
respond to a question, while a directive requires the learner to act
non-linguistically, such as looking at the white board, whereas an informative
act requires the learner to show that they are listening (ibid:9). 


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