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2010 4 Apr.

33 2 Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics (Bimonthly) Vol. 33 No. 2

A Study of Teacher Talk in Interactions in

English Classes

Liu Yanfen & Zhao Yuqin

Harbin Institute of Technology

The success of teaching depends to a large extent on the way teachers talk and interactions
that occur between teachers and students. And the happening of interaction is affected directly
by ways of teacher talk. This study investigated ways of teacher talk preferred respectively
by teachers and students. It was found that in initiating an interaction, invitation is the first
preferred choice by both teachers and students, but the least employed one. Question was
more preferred by teachers and the least preferred by students, but it is the mostly used one.
Direction is not preferred by teachers but more used, and students prefer them to questions. In
ways of follow up, when students produce no answer or an incorrect answer, teachers usually
prefer ways of prompting, and this is what teachers really did in class. However, students prefer
to be informed by the teacher. When students provide the expected answer, they still prefer
to be commented, rather than being just simply acknowledged. Encouragement is always
welcomed. It is suggested that teachers should pay attention to their language in the process of
interactions with students, so as to provoke more interactions in class.

Key words: teacher talk; interaction; English teaching

1. Introduction
Teacher talk is an indispensable part of foreign language teaching in organizing activities,
and the way teachers talk not only determines how well they make their lectures, but
also guarantees how well students will learn. Learning of English in China takes place
mainly in classrooms and is usually done under the guidance and supervision of teachers.
The interaction between teachers and students constitutes a most important part in all

LIU Yanfen & ZHAO Yuqin

classroom activities. Appropriate teacher talk can create harmonious atmosphere and at
the same time promotes a more friendly relationship between teachers and students, and
consequently creates more opportunities for interactions between teachers and students.
During the past 20 years, teacher talk has become a focus in the research area of
second language acquisition. Pioneered by Gaies (1977, 1979) and Henzle (1979), the
research on teacher talk began in the 1970s, followed by Long (19811983), Long & Sato
(1983), Welche & Ready (1985), Ellis (1985) and Chaudron (1988), who made studies of
teacher talk types in college classrooms.
In recent years, teacher talk has drawn more attention of scholars and researchers
world wide, such as Lindholm-Leary (2001), Seedhouse (2004), Berlin (2005), Ellis &
Barkhuizen (2005), Wright (2005), Robinson (2006). These studies focus their attention
mainly on classroom conversation features, talk turns between teachers and learners, and
by using what languages teachers could manage the class well. In China, and many of the
researchers, such as Hu (2004), Sun (2005), Wu (2006), Sun, Zhao & Zhao (2007), have
been focusing on how teacher should provide feedbacks to students language errors. In
Developing professional skills of Teaching Foreign Languages by Zou (2008), a whole
chapter is devoted to language errors and feedback types, discussing in what proper ways
language teachers should response to learners error in language learning class.

1.1 Teacher talk

Many definitions of teacher talk have been given from different perspectives. One
definition goes that teacher talk is the language in the classroom that takes up a major
portion of class time employed to give directions, explain activities and check students
understanding (Sinclair Brazil, 1982). As an indispensable part of foreign language
teaching, teacher talk has its own features in that both the content and the medium are
the target language. The language employed by teachers in language classes is served as the
source of input of language knowledge, and also used to instruct language communication
and organize classroom activities. Moreover, teacher talk plays a very important role in the
teaching process as an interactive device. For teachers would employ a lot of interactive
devices such as repetition, prompting, prodding, and expansions, which would be evoking
more interactions between teachers and students.

1.2 Interactions in EFL classes

The development and success of a class depends on to a greater extent the interactions
between the teacher and students (Tsui, 1995). Interaction is the collaborative exchange
of thoughts, feelings or ideas, between two or more people. Through the interaction
with teachers, students can increase their language store and use all languages they
possess. Interaction is an important concept for English language teachers. Long (1996)
argues that interaction facilitates acquisition because of the conversational and linguistic
modifications that occur in such discourse and that provide learners with the input they
need. Through the interaction, learners have opportunities to understand and use the
language that was incomprehensible. Additionally, they could get more input and more
opportunities for output.

A Study of Teacher Talk in Interactions in English Classes

In language classroom settings, the teacher-learner interactive pattern in language

classes is the most traditional pattern. In this pattern of interaction, the teacher plays the
role of an expert, providing learners with direction and doing most of the talking and
commenting (Lemke, 1990).

1.3 The structure of classroom discourse

Different lessons have different structures. Mehan (1979) found that the general subject
lessons consist of three components, (1) an opening phase, where the participants
inform each other that they are, in fact, going to conduct a lesson as opposed to some
other activity, (2) a business phase, where information is exchanged between teacher and
students, and (3) a closing phase, where participants are reminded of what went on in the
core of the lesson. In the phase of business, teachers usually do three things (Sinclair
Brazil, 1982): telling things to students, getting students to do and say things, evaluating
the things that students do and say. This is also the phase where most interactions will
occur and IRF (Sinclair & Brazil, 1982) would be taken as the model, in which three
moves would be involved: an initiating move (I), a responding move I, and a follow-up
move (F). It is referred to as the basic structure because the three moves can be found
almost in every exchange in the phase of imparting knowledge, especially in language
classes. The focus of the present study is on the teacher talk in the process of interactions
between teachers and students, thus, the study is going to describe what types of languages
teachers would use to initiate an interaction and to follow up a students response. A
framework was drawn after reviewing some relevant studies and doing some observations
in class.

1.4 Framework of teacher talk used in this study

Based on the discussion of structure of classroom discourse (Mehan, 1979; Sinclair
& Brazil, 1982), the following framework of teacher talk was drawn as guidance for
observation and questionnaire design for the present study.

Table 1. Framework of teacher talk

Initiation Invitation
Interaction to no and incorrect
Follow-up Criticizing
to correct answer

LIU Yanfen & ZHAO Yuqin

2. Research methodology
The study was conducted in two steps: First, observations and audio-recordings were
conducted to build up a data base for describing the teacher talks. 29 English teachers who
were all the teachers teaching year one students of HIT were chosen as the subjects for
observation. They are all teachers who teach the sophomore of HIT by using New College
English. Then a questionnaire in English (see Appendix) was designed to collect responses
from teachers and students about their preferences to ways of teacher talk. The same 29
teachers and 350 students in their classes were asked to respond to the questionnaires. The
350 students were chosen by the 29 teachers in their classes randomly mainly based on
students willingness to spend time to answer the questionnaires.

3. Results
3.1 Results from class observations
Table 2 summarized the results of class observation that tells what each of the 29 teachers
did in their observed classes. The percentages were worked out based on the class notes
and records of what they did and the frequencies of each act, then average numbers of
each teacher and all the teachers were calculated.

Table 2. Class observation record

Question 48%
Invitation 13.5 %
Direction 38.5 %
100 %
Inform 35.1 %
Prompt 24.8 %
Interaction Encouragement 26.6 %
to no and incorrect answer
Criticizing 2.8 %
Follow-up Ignoring 10.7 %
100 %
Acknowledgement 67.2 %
to correct answer Comment 32.8 %
100 %

Initiation is the move in a teaching exchange which initiates an interaction; teachers will
usually adopt the way of asking questions, invitation, and giving directions.
a. Question: It is a request for information and it is the commonest and most
straightforward way to make students to talk in the class according to classroom

A Study of Teacher Talk in Interactions in English Classes

observation. By asking students some questions, the interaction will be motivated

quickly and heatedly. Questions can be subdivided into referential questions and
display questions. Referential questions are questions with no fixed answer, and
display questions are the ones with a fixed answer. The following ones are examples of
referential questions from the observation data: If you have a chance, where would you
like to go, Liujuan? What is your idea of living in a big city? What do you think if we
could finish this on time? Examples of display questions are: Which is the key word of
this passage, LiaoXin, could you give me the answer? LiRunjia, do you still remember the
first three important tips the author gives us? What is the first one, remember? On which
page can you find the theme of this passage?
b. Invitation: Invitation means that the teacher either uses the presiding languages,
act as chairperson or a host, or uses imperative and interrogative sentences to ask students
to do some activities. For examples: Lets welcome the first speaker to present his or her
speech. Now it is Liu Mings turn to make his presentation. Id like you to work in groups
now! Would you please talk to each other about the results that you could imagine?
c. Direction: Direction means an authoritative direction to be obeyed, an order of
the teacher in this paper. In the language of the classroom, the teacher is absolutely the
authority of class, there is little need for the teacher to be indirect for social reasons. Here
are examples: Everyone, go through the whole article quickly, I will let someone read the
passage, hope you can read it fluently. Discuss this problem with your partner if you like and
you can choose one to be a representative to make the speech. Now work in groups and talk
to each other about the results, number of the group will take down notes! Wang hui, come
to the front and give your daily report!

Responding moves are what is performed by students following the initiations produced
by teachers. This study excluded this part, since the focus of the study is on the teacher

Follow-up is the last move of an interactive exchange which aims to give feedback to
students responses. Following different responses from students, teacher would choose to
different ways to respond.

Follow ups to no and incorrect responses

When students provide no response, that is, they may not know the expected answer or
they are reluctant to give any answers, or when they provide incorrect responses, either
linguistically and discoursally incorrect, the teacher would choose to give a follow up in
one of the following ways: inform, prompt, encouragement, criticizing, ignoring.
a. Inform: Informing is a direct way to help students realize their mistakes. It
involves the provision of explicit information about the linguistic form that is perceived
as the problem. It can be realized by means of giving definition, an example, an

LIU Yanfen & ZHAO Yuqin

explanation or by signalling the problem. Besides negotiation of forms, inform here

also includes negotiation of meaning. Examples are: The correct word you should use
here is cross-culture, not international. You can give an example here. Use us here, not
I. Passive voice is better! OK, this is good, manage to present more naturally and have
more eye contact next time.
b. Prompt: It is an attempt to get the participant produce the correct answer by the
use of a clue to indicate the location and/or nature of the error, or requesting the student
to make a clarification of what he has just said, or by the teachers repetition of what the
student has said with an emphasis on the incorrect part, so as to arouse the attention of
the student to the error, such as: A verb isnt suitable here, what do you think you can use
here? Are you sure this is the way they do? Can you think of anther way to say it? What
if you were in the authors position? You have done it yesterday?
c. Encouragement: Encouragement is an act of inspiring with hope, courage, or
confidence; the behavior of heartening. Here are samples: Its OK; I am sure you can
manage to make up a more complex sentence next time. Don worry, just say whatever you
know, it does not matter whether your answer is correct or not, I just want to know what you
know. Dont think too much about grammar, just tell us your idea. OK, try your best! I
am sure you know something about it, just say it.
d. Criticizing: Criticizing is to comment on students incorrect response severely.
Examples are You have done it very badly. Did you do any reviewing? Let me see your
homework, you did not do it, why? I dont want to see this happen again. Youd better pay
more attention to what I am talking in class, dont do any other things in class, OK?
e. Ignoring: Ignoring refers to the situation where he/she pays no attention to
students mistake or turns to another student when the first one can not give an answer,
such as: OK, sit down, next one! Anyone knows the answer? Liu, could you help him?
Zhao, what do you say? Who knows?

Follow ups to correct responses

When students have provided the correct or expected response, teachers usually give some
kinds of comment, or just a brief acknowledgement.
a. Comment: Comments of some kinds are given by the teacher sometimes to
encourage the student providing the answer, and sometimes to let others notice what is
give by the students, and sometimes to encourage others as well. Examples of comments
are: You have just given a detailed explanation of the reasons what you like and why. I
appreciate you giving us a good presentation. Very good, everyone, have you noticed that she
has told us a very moving story? Good, thank you for such a wonderful talk?
b. Acknowledgement: It refers to the very brief feedback from the teacher in response
to correct answers, such as: OK, good! Thats right! Alright! Sit down, please.

3.2 Results from questionnaires

Table 2 summarized the results of the questionnaire responses by teachers and students.
The following table presents the number of people who chose each item as the first

A Study of Teacher Talk in Interactions in English Classes

Table 3. Results of questionnaires for teachers and students

Teachers Students
No. % No. %
Question 4 15 62 8
Invitation 24 82 280 80
Direction 1 3 8 2
Total 29 100 350 100
Inform 3 10 294 84
Prompt 24 83 6 2
to no and
Interaction Encouragement 2 7 50 14
Criticizing 0 0 0 0
Follow-up Ignoring 0 0 0 0
Total 29 100 350 100
Acknowledgement 6 22 49 14
to correct
Comment 23 78 301 86
Total 29 100 350 100

The frequency of observation data and teacher and student perceptions are put into the
following table in order to compare between what are really employed in class and what
are preferred by teachers and students.

Table 4. Results of the questionnaires and observed

Teachers Students Observed
% Order % Order % Order

Question 15 2 8 2 48 1
Initiation Invitation 82 1 80 1 13 3
Direction 3 3 2 3 39 2
Inform 10 2 84 1 15 3

to no and Prompt 83 1 2 3 54 1
incorrect Encouragement 7 3 14 2 18 2
Follow-up answer Criticizing 0 0 3 5
Ignoring 0 0 10 4

to correct Acknowledgement 22 2 14 2 80 1
answer Comment 78 1 86 1 20 2

4. Discussion
4.1 Initiation
The initiative move is the most important part in teacher-student interaction. From the
questionnaire results, it is seen that invitation is the first preferred choice by both teachers

LIU Yanfen & ZHAO Yuqin

(82%, order 1) and students (80%, order 1), but the least employed one in our observation
(13%, order 3). Although in the language of classrooms, there is little need for the teacher
to be indirect for social reasons, the teacher is in a position of authority and can exercise
it overtly (Sinclair & Brazil, 1982), it is suggested that teachers use more languages of
invitation in interaction. It is believed that invitation language is more humanistic,
inspiring, gentle and respecting than others, since it makes students be more focused, feel
more respected, thus become more confident and active to participate in interactions.
As for question as a way of initiating interactions, both teachers (15%, order 2) and
students (8%, order 2) chose it as a second one, but it is the mostly used one in class (48%,
order 1). Actually asking questions is traditionally the most frequently used way to motivate
interactions. But teachers just use them in a more direct way rather than an indirect way.
Teachers could make their questions gentler just by adding a few auxiliary words, so that the
questions would be more welcomed by students. In terms of questions types, it was found in
observation that referential questions can motivate students interest to talk more effectively.
What is your opinion about this text? is absolutely an easier question than Could you tell
me what we have learned last week? Since the first question give students more space to
express their own opinions instead of requiring them to memorize some facts from the text.
Therefore referential questions should be more encouraged to use in class.
In terms of direction, it is not preferred by both teachers (3%, order 3) and
students (2%, order 3), but it is more used by teachers in class. Direction is another
more frequently used way of organizing activities in class, particularly in China. This
is out of the traditional relationship between the teacher and students in the classroom
context, which is a hierarchical relationship. According to Scollon and Scollon (2001),
this hierarchy relationship requires the respect and politeness from the junior to the
senior, the subordinate to the superior. The teacher is regarded to be the superior and
senior one and students are the subordinate and junior ones, so it is natural for students
to listen to their teachers and follow the teachers directions, orders or commands.
However, in university classrooms, students are grownups, they are mature and require
more equality in the relationships with the teachers, thus, it is suggested that teachers
should avoid displays of power to command in their classes so as to reduce the gap
between them and students, which will surely help students to be more active in
participating activities in class.

4.2 Follow-up
Teacher talk in the follow-up move is relatively important, since it is not only a summary
about the interaction, but also affects students interest to interact in the next interaction.
When students produce no answer or an incorrect answer, teachers usually prefer not
to tell the students directly, but use ways of prompting (83%, order 1) to get students to
work out the answer by themselves, and this is what teachers really did in class (54%, order
1). Forms of promoting, such as repetition of the error, requesting students to clarify what
he had said or giving some clues to the answers can provide students with an opportunity
to reformulate and improve their utterances and thus, serve as a means of promoting push
out, which is believed to facilitate acquisition (Swain, 1995).

A Study of Teacher Talk in Interactions in English Classes

However, students would prefer to be informed by the teacher (84 %, order 1). In
the Chinese classroom, it is believed that students come for the purpose of learning some
knowledge and truth, and getting trained to behave correctly and properly. The classroom
is seen as the place to fulfill this purpose and what students should do in the classroom is
to listen to the teacher and accept what the teacher says as the truth and knowledge. For
in Chinese culture, the teacher is regarded to be the knower, having the knowledge that
all students have come for. As Chen (cited in Scollon, 1999) argued that the teacher is to
serve as a role model, to perfect virtue and assist in the development of talent, to answer
questions and to cultivate his own virtue and learning while encouraging students to do
the same. Thus, whatever teachers provide would be the models of what is grammatical
and acceptable in the target language (Long, 1996).
Encouragement is always preferred by students (14%, order 2), also by teachers (7%,
order 3). Sometimes the students would not like to speak even they do know the answers,
just out of the fear of making errors, the fear of losing face and losing self-esteem, etc.
Students silence in an EFL class is a common phenomenon, which often breaks down
the interaction in classroom. A humanistic approach suggested to handle this problem
is to give encouragement. Nunan (1989) argued that encouragement of some kind can
be helpful particularly to those lower self-esteem students in reducing the anxiety and
developing the confidence of those students who are more likely to open their mouths
with the more humanistic encouragement or positive comments.
In terms of criticizing and ignoring, from the questionnaire results it is seen that
no students (0%) and teachers (0%) had it as the first choice. So this indicates that
they are not welcomed by either students or teachers. However, they really occurred in
class observed (criticizing 3%, order 5; ignoring 10%, order 4) and at a relatively higher
frequency. It is strongly suggested that criticizing and ignoring are to be avoided at best.
When students have provided the expected answer, they still prefer to be commented
(78%, order 1), rather than being just simply acknowledged (22%, order 2). The percentages
for preferences to acknowledgement from the two questionnaires were both not very high,
although it was observed that acknowledgement was very frequently used by teachers in
class. With a very brief feedback of acknowledgement, which can save more of the class time,
the teacher could proceed to next student or other activities. The much lower percentage in
the students questionnaire indicates that students do not favor this follow up. Since it fails
to give students more recognition of his work and more encouragement to students, it is
suggested that teachers should just add a few more words to this brief acknowledgement to
make it a kind of positive comment or encouragement. For example: A very smart answer!
You are so clever to say that! You are a genius! You are so talented! Positive comments
of various kinds should be more frequently used in the Chinas classroom, even when it is
obvious that the answer given by the students is not correct.

5. Conclusion
To sum up the results, in initiating an interaction, invitation is the first preferred choice

LIU Yanfen & ZHAO Yuqin

by both teachers and students, but the least employed one. Question was more preferred
by teachers and the least preferred by students, but it is the mostly used one in class.
Direction is not preferred by teachers but more used by them in class, and students prefer
them to questions. In ways of follow up, when students produce no answer or an incorrect
answer, teachers usually prefer ways of prompting to get students to work out the answer
by themselves, and this is what teachers really did in class. However, students would prefer
to be informed by the teacher. When students have provided the expected answer, they still
prefer to be commented, rather than being just simply acknowledged. No matter whether
students provide or not provide the expected answer, encouragement is always welcomed.
Teacher talk plays an important role in provoking interactions between teachers and
students, Therefore, teachers should try to understand what languages would be more efficient
in creating an environment in which students feel more comfortable and more confident and
become more involved in interactive activities in the language classroom. Particularly, more
positive commenting and encouraging languages should be employed by teachers.

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Put the following ways of initiating an activity in class in a preferred order:

1st choice 2nd choice 3rd choice
Ways to initiate interactions
Ways to follow up no or incorrect answers
Ways to follow up correct answers

(Examples were given for each way of teacher talk, but omitted here.)