The sociocultural analysis of classroom dialogue
Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge
Aims of this resource
A range of methods for analysing classroom talk are now available (as discussed, for example, in Edwards & Westgate, 1992; Mercer, Littleton & Wegerif , 2004; Bloome et al ., 2005). Different methods cannot be judged as intrinsically better or worse for analysing talk, at least in abstract terms: any method can only be judged by how well it serves the investigative interests of a researcher, how adequately it embodies the researcher's underlying theory of communication and is compatible with their beliefs about what constitutes valid empirical evidence. One approach, which has been used in several ESRC projects, is described here.
Sociocultural discourse analysis
The analytic method called sociocultural discourse analysis was primarily designed by myself and colleagues to study how talk is used for teaching and learning in classrooms. It is based sociocultural theory (as described in Wells, 1999; Daniels, 2001), within which language is considered a cultural and psychological tool – a means for thinking collectively. Sociocultural discourse analysis differs from most other ways of analysing talk by being concerned not only with the processes of classroom interaction, but also with their educational outcomes. It has been used to examine such specific topics as :
- what constitutes productive discussion amongst students
- how teacher-student dialogue guides children's learning
- how the quality of children's talk during group-based activities affects their joint problem-solving;
- whether involvement in certain kinds of dialogue improves individual learning outcomes;
- whether teachers' use of certain strategies for talking with students improves the quality of classroom education.
Typically, we gather data in classrooms over a period of not less than 10 weeks. The data consists of video-recordings and associated field notes. Recordings are transcribed, initially by a professional transcriber, whose electronic file is then corrected by a member of the research team in the light of a careful re-viewing of each recording. Commentary on non-verbal aspects and other potentially relevant information (e.g. from teacher interviews) is then added. The next step is a detailed analysis of the talk. Thus usually begins with members of the team watching recordings together, each with a transcript (which may be revised again in this process). After such communal viewing sessions, individual members of the team may carry out their own analyses of particular lessons or series of lessons.
In some recent projects (reported in Mercer & Littleton, 2007) we have compared classrooms in which teachers used a specially-designed programme of talk strategies and group-based activities with classrooms in which no intervention was made. The main aim was to see if our intervention had positive effects on the quality of children's argumentation and learning outcomes. One or two ‘target' groups of children in each classroom were recorded, with each group being recorded several times over the observational period. Recordings were also made of the whole-class, teacher-led sessions which preceded and followed each group activity. The nature and timing of these recordings not only to enabled us to look at the way children talked and interacted in groups (and how this changed over time), but also we gained information about the development of shared understanding in the class as a whole.
Relating processes to outcomes
A distinctive additional step of the analysis, also pursued by some other researchers, has been to relate observable features of the talk to pre- and post-intervention assessments of children's learning. Inferences then can be made about whether involvement in dialogue, or even in some specific types of dialogue, has helped promote learning or the development of understanding.
Talk in temporal context: an important methodological issue
Classroom interactions, like those in any other social setting, are founded on the establishment of a base of common knowledge amongst speakers and necessarily involve the creation of more shared understanding (Edwards & Mercer, 1987). Interactions are located within a particular institutional and cultural context, and speakers' relationships also have histories. This poses a considerable methodological challenge, because meanings are dependent on the shared experience and understanding of the speakers – and researchers may not have access to the same frames of reference. Moreover, this shared understanding develops as the talk progresses. Speakers may invoke knowledge from their joint past experience (e.g. their recall of activities carried out in a previous day's lesson), or rely on common knowledge from similar, though separate, past experiences (for example, a teacher with a new class can usually assume some existing understanding of how teachers and students interact). A key problem for researchers is thus how to take account of these contextual foundations of observed talk. This can only be done in a partial, limited fashion, by sampling talk over time and by drawing in the analysis on any common resources of knowledge the researcher shares with the speakers (e.g. information gained through interviews with teachers or students). But however difficult it may be to find a solution, the problem cannot be avoided if the aim is to understand classroom talk as an interactive knowledge-building process.
Concordance software, developed within the field of research known as corpus linguistics , is useful for making a systematic analysis of the content of classroom talk. It enables any text, such as an electronic file of transcribed talk, to be scanned easily for all instances of particular target words. Commonly used examples are Monoconc, Wordsmith and Conc 1.71 . Recent versions of qualitative data analysis packages such as NVivo also offer some similar facilities. The software allows a researcher to move almost instantly between occurrences of particular words and the whole transcription. This enables particular words of special interest to be 'hunted' in the data, and their relative incidence and form of use in particular contexts to be compared. Not only can the repetition and frequency of occurrence of items be measured, but the analysis can also indicate which words tend to occur together (which linguists call collocations ), and so help reveal the way words gather meanings by the company that they keep. The results of such searches can easily be presented in tabular form. Collocations and repetitions can reveal some of the more subtle, local meanings that words have gathered in use, meanings which are not captured by literal definitions. An important and valuable aspect of this type of analysis is that the basic data (of transcribed talk) remains throughout the whole process. By integrating this method with other methods, the analysis can be both qualitative (focusing on the relationship between particular interactions which occur at different times in the data) and quantitative (assessing the relative incidence of 'key words' or collocations of words in the data as a whole, or comparing their incidence in data subsets). Initial exploratory work on particular interactions can be used to generate hypotheses which can then be tested systematically on a large text or series of related texts. For example, a researcher may want to see if a technical term introduced by a teacher is taken up by students later in their group-based activity. And by locating all instances and collocations of a term in the transcription file, the way it is used by teachers and students in relation to their joint activity can then be considered (see for example Monaghan, 1999; Wegerif , Mercer & Dawes, 1999).
For all kinds of discourse analysis, it is important that the transcription of speech is a faithful representation of what is actually said, to the extent that speakers' utterances are not misrepresented and as much information relevant to the analysis is included as is practically possible. But as with methods of analysis, no one particular convention for transcribing speech is intrinsically better than another. Transcription choices should be determined by the research questions being addressed and the claims which will be made on the basis of the analysis. For example, in my classroom research I have not usually recorded details of the length of pauses made by speakers, because I decided that information about the lengths of pauses was not relevant to the questions I was addressing.
Of course, some other researchers might argue that no careful analysis of how talk is used in classrooms can afford to ignore pause length, and many do include it and other details (such as those using the methodology called conversation analysis : see for example Seedhouse, 2004). To make this argument, they must invoke a theory of language use which explains the importance of pausing. In this sense, any choice of transcription format is a theoretical choice because it must invoke, however implicitly, a conceptual model of language in use.
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