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Cambridge Classroom Dynamics Language Language Library Teaching

Real-time verbal interactions between foreign language teachers and their students are of vital importance for language development, but classroom interactions are also multi-faceted and complex. The way a teacher understands and responds to learner utterances can be a powerful pedagogical strategy to scaffold learner language development. In this paper we present the Questions and Answers in English Language Teaching coding scheme which can be used to observe and describe the dynamics of teacher questions and student responses in language classrooms. We piloted the instrument in English as a foreign language lessons of four experienced teachers teaching 16 lessons in total. State Space Grids were used to visualize classroom dynamics and quantify intra-individual variability of each lesson. The results show that interactions between teachers and students have the tendency to self-organize and stabilize in one specific area of the grid. Lessons taught by three of the teachers revealed a dominant pattern formed by closed questions and short student responses. One teacher taught lessons in which more complex question and answer sequences were prevalent. These patterns of variability and stability show that teacher-student interactions have the properties of a shallow attractor state. The analysis of moment-to-moment turns in classroom interaction indicate that students in this study generally adapt their response to the level of teacher questions, but that teachers do not seem to adapt their questions to the level of the previous student answer. This suggests that, even for experienced teachers, scaffolding and adaptive teaching might be easier said than done.

cambridge classroom dynamics language language library teaching


In a globalized world in which English is used as a lingua franca and digital out-of-school exposure to this language is virtually everywhere, language teachers are facing several challenges (The Douglas Fir Group 2016). The first is to create classroom conditions for meaningful language use at the appropriate level of challenge (Snow 2014). A second challenge is to encourage students to participate actively in the language lesson (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008). The third challenge is that language is both the content of the foreign language lesson and the tool to master this content (Gibbons 2015). Eventually, the main goal of language teaching is that students can comprehend, use and produce the foreign language to learn, study or work in diverse sociocultural contexts (Council of Europe 2018).

A language lesson can be a sheltered and structured space in which students can practice the skills which are needed to achieve this goal (Thornbury 2011; Walqui and van Lier 2010). Opportunities for rich and meaningful classroom interaction are essential elements in a language lesson. This includes frequent student participation and shared meaning-making (Gao 2019; Lyster and Saito 2010). Many researchers agree that successful teachers foster student learning when they activate engagement (Hattie and Yates 2014; Mercer and Dörnyei 2020). Insights from cognitive psychology show that a cognitive contribution from the learners is needed for them to benefit from teacher support (Kirschner et al. 2006; Long and Doughty 2009). The way teacher and learners respond to each other and the way this varies or stabilizes during the learning process is called co-adaptation (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008; van Geert and Steenbeek 2005a). Understanding the characteristics of co-adaptation is important in the process of shared meaning-making at an appropriate level of challenge (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008; van de Pol et al. 2010; Wood et al. 1976).

Classroom observations can help us better understand the dynamics of co-adaptation in real-time teacher-student interactions. The present study looks at a common type of micro-level interaction in the language lesson: the use of teacher questions and student answers.

Questions play an important role in verbal classroom interaction because they can serve as a pedagogical and a cognitive tool (Walsh and Sattes 2015). When asking and answering questions, teachers and learners are engaged in a process that is intended to help learners develop a foreign language (Mercer and Dörnyei 2020). Question and answer sequences can be used to test knowledge, but more importantly, can operate as ways to guide understanding. Asking questions is a common way of eliciting language and thoughts from the students (Mercer and Dawes 2014). However, a teacher who uses questions as a tool for learning does not only teach a specific subject, but engages students in the process of co-construction (Menninga et al. 2017). In this process language, content, context, communication and cognition are intertwined (Coyle et al. 2010).

Many researchers have found that the closed, directive question is the most prevalent question type in lessons (Dalton-Puffer 2007; Sinclair and Coulthard 1975). Although closed questions are efficient to check understanding, a frequent use of this question type carries the risk for classroom interaction to stall (Cullen 2002; Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008). Moreover, closed questions encourage learners to give short and simple answers and offer very few opportunities for students to practice language use (van Vondel et al. 2017). This pattern of closed questions and short answers might limit the possibilities for teacher and students to engage in dialog (Mercer and Dörnyei 2020). According to Walqui and van Lier (2010), changes in the amount and quality of student participation over time are an indicator of learning. During meaningful classroom interaction students show high levels of participation in terms of richness of ideas expressed in the target language and in terms of utterance length. Limited or hardly any verbal student participation could signal a lack of student understanding, although affective factors might also play a role (MacIntyre et al. 1998).

The first aim of this paper is to present a coding scheme that can be used to quantify question and answer interactions between teacher and students. The second aim of this paper is to test the instrument and analyze micro-interactions in the classrooms of four different English as a foreign language (EFL) teachers. The research questions which guide this study are:What are the most frequent question and answer patterns in EFL lessons?

The QAELT scheme was piloted in a non-probability convenience sample. Four EFL teachers, Amy, Beth, Claudia and Doris (pseudonyms) were recruited from the network of the first author. The teachers taught communicative language lessons in different Dutch secondary schools. Their teaching experience ranged from 2 to 25 years (see Table 2).

We have presented a complex dynamic system method for analyzing teacher-student interactions on the micro timescale of the language lesson. Lessons were analyzed from moment-to-moment with a QAELT coding scheme and the State Space Grid technique. The data in this paper revealed classroom interactional patterns in which the teacher asked many questions to which students gave very short answers. We also observed that students tend to adjust the level of their response to the level of the teacher question in several lessons, but saw only one lesson in which the teacher adjusted the level of follow-up question to the previous student answer. The results of this study suggest that teacher questions drive the interaction and that the level of the student answers tends to follow the level of the teacher question.

Since questions and answers also play an important role in other school subjects, the QAELT coding scheme could also be applied to CLIL subject lessons (e.g., geography, biology, history and mathematics) to gain a better understanding of how language learning and content learning might complement each other. Additionally, it would be interesting to analyze the dynamics of question and answer patterns initiated by students or question and answer dynamics in small-group work. Other potential uses include its applications for teacher education and as a diagnostic tool to gauge intervention effectiveness. These are all promising areas of research to which this methodology might be applied.

In order to be proficient and productive students, English-language learners (ELLs) need manyopportunities to interact in social and academic situations. Effective teachers encourage their students'participation in classroom discussions, welcome their contributions, and motivate them bysuch practices (Cazden, 2001; Stipek, 2002). However, many educators often allow their less proficientstudents to remain silent or to participate less than their English-fluent peers (Laosa, 1977;Penfield, 1987; Schinke-Llano, 1983; Wilhelm, Contreras, & Mohr, 2004). I (Mohr, first author) recentlyparticipated in a study focusing on how mainstream classroom teachers helped Spanish-speakingimmigrant students become successful at school. During the observations, I noticed that theteachers missed many opportunities to help ELLs communicate in class, allowing them to be less involvedin oral interactions.

A byproduct of that study was the analysis presented in this article. We considered what classroomteachers could do to more fully engage ELLs in teacher-student interactions, especially duringteacher-led question-and-answer sequences. Essentially, teachers can elicit more from the lessproficient or reticent students if they consider various response options and then enlarge their responserepertoires in order to encourage students' participation and help develop their language proficiencies.

While classroom discourse events vary, research has indicated that teacher talk dominatesclassroom communication. Edwards and Mercer (1987) documented that teachers perform 76% ofclassroom talk. Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, and Merino (1986) categorized teacher t

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