IRF and beyond

Reading: O’Connor & Michaels 1993. “Alighing academic task and participation status through revoicing: Analysis of a classroom discourse strategy.” Anthropology & education quarterly 24(4):318—335.


One of the earliest findings in the classroom discourse literature is the interaction-response-feedback (IRF) pattern, where a teacher asks a question, a student responds, and their response is evaluated. For example (Mehan 1979):

Teacher: What time is it, Denise?
Student: 2:30
Teacher: Very good, Denise

O’Connor and Michaels write about a move that they call “revoicing,” which is kind of like the feedback move from an IRF sequence, and kind of not. Instead of saying that the student is right or wrong, the teacher:

  1. begins by saying “So” to mark their turn as what Schiffrin 1987 calls a “warranted inference,”
  2. restates the student’s utterance in more appropriately academic terms, but using a quotative to give the student credit for the content of the utterance,
  3. and may optionally set that idea in contrast to what another student has previously said in the same discussion.

It looks like this (O’Connor & Michaels 1993:327):

Teacher: Did you just guess? Did you use any information to help you guess? Um if you did what information did you use to help you guess
[…]
Student: I picked Alewife too because like a lot of people like like to ride on the train for a long time, some people might just ride to Alewife just for the heck of it
Teacher: So you made your guess based on what you know about human behavior?

This leaves an opening for the student to contradict the teacher (“No, that isn’t what I meant”), but O’Connor and Michaels don’t present any examples of that happening. Instead they take it for granted that the lack of response from a student signals their assent.

The important difference between revoicing and other kinds of feedback/evaluation turns is its function in bringing students into the academic discourse community. In effect, the teacher is saying, “You all are having a discussion about academic topics; I’m just making all the interactional pieces fit together.”

O’Connor and Michaels take their data from a sixth grade class. In the transcript I’m working with for my own project (Sfard & McClain 2002), the revoicing moves look a bit different:

Teacher: What I want to do today is I want to take a look at some of the things that you did and let’s talk about them, I want to see if as a group I want us to look at them and decide if we think that they are an adequate way to represent this data and if we actually understand what these folks are doing. So, start with one? Jamie, one more time, big voice.
Student: I think it’s a pretty adequate way of showing information because you can see where the range is starting and ending and you can see where the majority of the numbers are.
Teacher: okay, comments about what Jamie said, or other comments about this.

Here, the teacher doesn’t revoice the student’s proposition at all. The only function of the revoicing move is interpersonal/interactional, to position the student as the establisher of a topic, and to solicit comments on that topic. Even her use of discourse markers is different: where O’Connor and Michaels show a teacher who uses so to signal that she’s making an inference, Sfard and McClain’s teacher uses okay to show that she’s moving on to a new proposition.

This difference could be explained in a number of different ways. Sfard and McClain are working with seventh graders, while O’Connor and Michaels are observing a sixth-grade class; perhaps the older students are more sophisticated and require less overt structure. Both transcripts come from math classes, but Sfard and McClain, as befits older students, are engaging with technical math content more specifically; maybe it’s a difference in disciplinary discourse style. O’Connor and Michaels are working with “excellent and experienced teachers,” while in Sfard and McClain, the teacher is McClain herself, a university professor and math teacher educator; perhaps the difference is related to the different teaching context that each teacher is most accustomed to. Or maybe it’s just idiosyncratic.

The important observation here is the similarity: teachers can use their third pair part following a student’s response to do more than just say what’s correct and incorrect. They can use students’ utterances as the bricks, and their own talk as the mortar, to create a structure of academic discourse.

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Posted in Institutional discourse

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