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Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110

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Teacher questions: Learning the discourse of science in a linguistically

diverse elementary classroom
Gisela Ernst-Slavit ,1 , Kristen L. Pratt
Washington State University Vancouver, 14204 NE Salmon Creek Ave., Vancouver, WA 98686, United States

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Using ethnographic and sociolinguistic perspectives the authors examined the quality and quantity of
Received 27 May 2016 questions asked by one teacher in a diverse fourth grade classroom with a large number of emergent
Received in revised form 10 May 2017 bilinguals and low-income students during a six-week science unit in a school located in the Pacic
Accepted 10 May 2017
Northwest of the United States. This study illustrates how teacher questions played a pivotal role in
facilitating students access to both the content and the genre specic language of science.
2017 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Classroom discourse
Teacher questions
Emergent bilinguals
Science instruction
English language learners

1. Introduction Council, 2012) and set forth by the Next Generation Science
Standards (NGSS) stresses the importance of creating content-
Research on classroom discourse, including asking questions, rich and discourse-rich classroom environments. For example, a
has been an important area of study beginning with the ground- main component of the standards are the eight science and engi-
breaking work of Sinclair and Coulthard (1975), Mehan (1979), and neering practices: (1) asking questions and dening problems;
Cazden (2001) and spanning the subsequent contributions, particu- (2) developing and using models; (3) planning and carrying out
larly in science classrooms, of Chin (2006, 2007), Chin and Osborne investigations; (4) analyzing and interpreting data; (5) using math-
(2010), Kelly (2014), Lemke (1990), Tan and Wong (2012), Van ematics and computational thinking; (6) constructing explanations
Booven (2015), van Zee and Minstrell (1997), and several others. and developing designs; (7) engaging in argument from evidence;
As a whole, this body of work points to the centrality of classroom and (8) obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.
discourse in knowledge construction. Discourse is at the core of Clearly, engagement in any of these practices involves both scien-
how communities and classrooms develop community norms and tic sense-making and language use (Lee, Quinn, & Valds, 2013),
expectations, dene what counts as knowledge for the group, build especially practices # 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8. Without question, teach-
afliation, and provide or limit access both to disciplinary content ers play a crucial role in translating science, including the use of
and language knowledge (Cazden, 2001; Gee & Green, 1998; Long, questions, into reform-based classroom practice (Forbes & Davis,
van Es, & Black, 2013). Teacher questions, a central part of the teach- 2010).
ing and learning process, have the potential to enhance or hinder This study centers on the rst practice, asking questions. The
students access to the content to be learned and the language to NGSS underscore that asking questions is critical to developing
access and demonstrate content knowledge. expertise in science. A major goal of the NGSS is for students to learn
The new vision for science teaching and learning established how to generate questions about the texts they read, the features
in the Framework for K-12 Science Education (National Research of the phenomena they observe, and the conclusions they draw
from their models or scientic investigations (NRC Framework,
2012, p. 56). Given the importance of asking questions in science
classrooms, teacher questions can serve as models for the kinds of
Corresponding author.
questions we want students to ask.
E-mail addresses: (G. Ernst-Slavit),
(K.L. Pratt).
Within this context, and given the importance of the teachers
Both authors contributed equally to this paper. role in generating discourse norms and practices, especially for
0898-5898/ 2017 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
2 G. Ernst-Slavit, K.L. Pratt / Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110

students who are learning English as a second language, the timeless than 3 s (Blosser, 2000; Rowe, 1978) then most students
following questions guided this study: do not engage in thinking about the question asked unless directly
addressed by the teacher. The brevity in wait time and the type of
1. What is the nature of teacher talk during content area instruc- exchange that occurs is often linked to teachers asking questions
tion? to which they already know the answer. Lemke (1982) indicated
2. What kinds of questions do teachers ask during content area that when teachers ask questions they know the answers to, the
instruction? entire lesson can be seen as an interactional transformation of a
3. What purposes do teacher questions serve during content area lecture. The teacher could have given a lecture, yet instead trans-
instruction? formed it into IRE sequences to keep students attention and check
for understanding.
We address the above questions by presenting a ne-grained In their study of teacher questioning patterns in primary schools,
analysis of the types of questions asked by one teacher during a Wragg and Brown (2001) found that 53% of the questions teachers
six-week science unit on rocks and minerals in a Grade 4 class- asked are standalone questions while 47% were part of a sequence
room located in a low-income neighborhood. The diversity in this of two or more questions. Of this 47%, only 10% were part of a
classroom, where about half of the students speak a language other sequence with four or more questions (Wragg & Brown, 2001). The
than English at home, is of particular importance in considering prevalence of the IRE sequence in science classrooms is particularly
how students from a variety of backgrounds engaged in science problematic since it runs counter to inquiry-based instructional
discourse. approaches and because it is often used by teachers who work
with culturally and linguistically diverse as well as economically
disadvantaged students (Cazden, 2001). It follows that by using
1.1. Learning the discourse of science
this kind of intellectual hide-n-seek (Beghetto, 2013) found in
IRE sequences, teachers potentially limit all students, particularly
Discourse is central to the ways communities develop their own
economically disadvantaged and emergent bilinguals (students
norms and expectations, dene and frame knowledge, build afl- learning English as an additional language), opportunities to think
iation, provide access to disciplinary ways of knowing, and invite
and talk in extended ways about their ideas, questions, and inter-
or limit participation (Cazden, 2001; Gee & Green, 1998). Thus, the ests.
nature of science discourse shapes the ways of thinking, knowing,
Much of the early work on classroom discourse has focused on
doing and being that occur within the classroom (Gee & Green, the ways in which teachers and students construct the norms of
1998). The language of science, characterized by abstraction of
communication in the classroom and how these often-implied rules
reasoning, precision of expression, conciseness achieved by avoid- for verbal interactions enhance or limit students opportunities to
ing redundancy, and avoidance of personal opinions and relations talk science (Lemke, 1990). Research on teacher questions has gar-
(Snow, 2010), is essential for doing science (Lemke, 1990). Students nered important insight into the nature and practice of classroom
cannot conduct experiments, write lab reports, or understand a lm inquiry.
on neuroimaging if they cannot use the appropriate terminology
(e.g., zygote, ferrous), grammatical structures (e.g., passive voice, 1.2. The nature of questions, typologies, and teacher questions
syntactic ambiguity), and specic genres (e.g., research reports, lab
directions) that characterize the language of science (Gottlieb & Gadamer (1991) argued, the essence of the question is to open
Ernst-Slavit, 2014). The role of such characteristics in the classroom up possibilities and keep them open (p. 299). With the under-
is best summarized by Stoddart, Pinal, Lazke, and Canaday (2002): standing that questions afford possibilities and potentially function
The relationship between science learning and language learn- as scaffolding tools for learning, it is no wonder that questions
ing is reciprocal and synergistic. Through the contextualized use and questioning have been a source of continued research. Ear-
of language in science inquiry, students develop and practice lier research analyzed the philosophy of the question (Gadamer,
complex language forms and functions. Through the use of lan- 1991; Meyer, 1988) and the role of the question within a vari-
guage functions such as description, explanation, and discussion ety of contexts exploring questions and hierarchical taxonomies
in inquiry science, students enhance their conceptual under- as well as typologies (Bloom, 1956; Chin, 2006, 2007; Gall, 1970).
standing. (Stoddart et al., 2002, p. 667). Hierarchical typologies were further explored, constructing under-
standings on the epistemology and function of open and closed
Earlier research on classroom discourse indicates that teacher questions (Blosser, 1991; Carr, 1998; Kearsley, 1976; Long & Sato,
talk dominates classroom talk and teacher questions constitute 1983), which inuenced how we envision productive discussions
a key component of teacher talk. Typical school conversations in classrooms (Cavagnetto, 2010; Lustick, 2010; Mortimer & Scott,
involve initiation-response-evaluation (IRE) cycles (Cazden, 2001; 2003; van Zee, Iwasyk, Kurose, Simpson, & Wild, 2001; van Zee &
Mehan, 2001, 1979), as illustrated in the following dialog: Minstrell, 1997).
Teacher: What is the name of the closest star to the earth? (initiation) The substantial number of taxonomies, classications, labels
Student: The sun (response) and varieties of questions risks compromising transferability to
Teacher: Very good (evaluation)
classroom contexts. However, because teacher questions are such
an important component of classroom talk and because they shape
The teacher initiates an interaction, often with a question, the students ways of knowing and being, understanding just how
student responds, and the teacher evaluates the response before questions are used in teaching and learning contexts is paramount
making another initiation. Unfortunately, this kind of interaction in maximizing their usefulness in classrooms. In fact, Meyer (1988)
is typical in U.S. classroom contexts and is generally expected by suggests the nature of scientic inquiry is a means to advance the
both teachers and students. progression of science through the process of asking questions and
A great deal has been written about the dominance of this kind then answering them.
of exchange and about its negative results in terms of the kinds of In recent years there has been an increasing interest in ques-
questions asked (often recall of factual information), the limitations tioning in science classrooms. Five inuential studies deserve
for student participation (only one student at a time), and learning attention. Gallas (1995) study on science talks in her combined
(low-level factual knowledge). If, in addition, there is a short wait 1st/2nd grade classroom brought to the forefront the value of
G. Ernst-Slavit, K.L. Pratt / Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110 3

focusing on students ideas and questions during classroom dis- 2. Research context and science unit
cussions. In her classroom, apart from direct instruction and other
science activities and events, Gallas structured formal science talks 2.1. Methods
with students talking with each other, exchanging ideas, and col-
laborating in their attempts to understand scientic concepts. This paper is part of a larger ethnographic (see Hornberger,
Gallas study underscores the need to look more carefully at how 1994), sociolinguistic (Bloome & Clark, 2006; Erickson, 2006a;
students learn to talk and think like members of disciplinary com- Ernst-Slavit & Mason, 2011; Green & Wallat, 1981) and multi-site
munities in response to careful questioning on the part of the (Coleman & von Hellerman, 2013) study that sought to unpack the
teacher. different patterns of interaction, registers, teacher talk and teacher
Similarly, in a study of an engineering design unit in a questions used by teachers during content area instruction in upper
combined 4th/5th grade classroom, Roth (1996) explored how elementary classrooms in the Pacic Northwest (Ernst-Slavit &
teacher questioning was mediated by the situational social con- Mason, 2011; Mason & Ernst-Slavit, 2010).
text. Unlike many of the questions asked in classrooms, which The larger study involved eight classrooms in three school dis-
often have a preconceived answer, the teacher did not know tricts. Classrooms selected met the following criteria: were 4th
the answers to many of the open-ended question she asked. An or 5th grade; included at least 5 emergent bilingual students;
analysis of the content of the teachers questions and the ensu- and had a classroom teacher with at least 5 years of teaching
ing conversations indicated that the students were learning and experience and advanced specialization in teaching emergent bilin-
talking about knowledge of the natural world, design practice, guals. All educators were middle class, native-English speaking,
and testing of the designs. In this case, the kinds of questions European-American women who were highly regarded by peers
asked by the teacher served to increase student competence in and administrators. Data was collected during the 20092014 aca-
pertinent engineering knowledge, practices, and accompanying demic years and included individual interviews with teachers,
language. The study also illustrates the power of authentic ques- classroom observations, video and audio recordings, photographs,
tions posed by teachers as a means of initiating inquiry-oriented and eld notes. One or two researchers at a time video- and audio-
science. recorded complete content area units in mathematics, science and
Likewise, van Zee and Minstrell (1997) provided a case study of social studies. Units lasted between one to six weeks. The rea-
an exemplary physics teacher who used questions to engage stu- son for selecting this particular unit for analysis was threefold:
dents with scientic knowledge. In this study, the teacher used a (1) when data was collected, very few fourth grade teachers were
questioning method called reective toss. Unlike the IRE sequence, teaching complete science units, due partly to state standards and
a reective toss invited students into the conversation by building assessments that stressed English language arts and mathemat-
on an initial student statement. A three-part dialogic exchange that ics instruction; (2) given the large number of students with home
included a student statement, teacher question, and student elabo- languages other than English, we ere interested in exploring how
ration expanded the dialog and served three main goals: to engage students were able to keep up with a fast-talking instructor; and
students in a proposed method offered by a student, to begin rene- (3) due to the importance of asking questions in science class-
ment process of a previously discussed method, and to assess an rooms, this one unit offered abundant material. Microanalysis of the
alternative method. data was guided by an interactive sociolinguistic perspective (e.g.,
Chin (2006), in her study of questioning in a science middle Bloome & Clark, 2006; Ernst-Slavit, 1997; Ernst-Slavit & Mason,
school classroom in Singapore, found that when teachers decreased 2011; Green & Wallat, 1981; Gumperz, 1982; Hymes, 1981). This
the number of authoritative oriented questions (e.g., explicit evalu- detailed analysis of participants interactions in naturally occurring
ation or put-downs) in favor of dialogically oriented questions (e.g., events provided a principled approach for freezing, reconstructing,
acknowledgment of students contributions, posing subsequent and analyzing recurrent events.
questions that built on students earlier responses, and restate-
ments of students earlier answers), teachers were able to promote
productive talk activity in students at a level beyond mere recall 2.2. Fine-grained analysis of teacher questions
(p. 1343).
More recently, a study that focused on teacher-student dis- Once video- and audio-recordings were mapped out (Green
course during Pre-K science activities, with particular attention & Wallat, 1981), transcribed, and coded (see transcription con-
to teacher questioning, Lee and Kinzie (2012) found that teachers ventions in Appendix A), an inductive analysis was performed
asked mostly open-ended questions. However, during experiments (Erickson, 2006b) to identify interactional patterns, themes, and
teachers open-ended questions were aimed at prediction and categories of analysis (i.e., types of questions). After repeated
reasoning. In these instances, students employed a more varied readings of the data by both authors, initial categories were for-
vocabulary and more complex sentence structures. In other words, mulated about questioning sequences and types of questions asked
when teacher questions were oriented toward prediction and rea- by teachers and students. On the transcripts, teachers utterances
soning, students practiced both a higher level of cognition as well that contained a grammatical form of a question (e.g., beginning
as language use. with interrogative words, such as, can, could, do, does, how, what,
The above studies afford a moment-by-moment view across when, where, why, who, are, am, is) or ended with a rising intona-
events, lessons, and science units and allude to science classrooms tion (e.g., other comments?) were labeled. On some occasions,
as potentially rich discourse spaces (Lee et al., 2013; Mortimer & requests took the form of a statement (e.g., please elaborate on
Scott, 2003; Tan & Wong, 2012) with questions that can shape the that or compare. . .). In these cases, contextual cues (e.g., prior
type of talk that occurs (Chin, 2007). To further understand how exchanges, body language) extracted from video recording view-
teacher questions can support elementary students, including lin- ing or transcript analysis as well as paralinguistic markers such as
guistically and culturally diverse students, as they learn both the intonation, pacing, volume and inexion used by the teacher were
content and the language of science, this paper describes and ana- taken into account to determine whether the message required an
lyzes the questions asked by one teacher during one instructional action on the part of the students. Those same contextual cues were
unit on rocks and minerals. key in the categorization of questions, when distinctions were not
4 G. Ernst-Slavit, K.L. Pratt / Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110

Table 1
Question categories, purpose, and illustrative examples.a

Category Purpose Examples

Higher Order Questions To encourage students to analyze, make If you were a scientist, because you are all geologists right now, how would
generalizations, or infer you gure out which mineral is which?
What is your evidence for that? Where did you get your ideas?
How do we know. . .how do we know where the rim of re is located?
Which mountain is older. . .? Why do you think that mountain A is probably
Parlance Questions To prompt the use of genre specic ways of speaking What is the Latin root in the word geologist?
the language of the discipline How do we put this in a good sentence?
So when it says rocks versus minerals, are these guys ghting?
So to make that correct, you would have to put something at the beginning of
the sentence, what would it be?
Reective Questions To promote discussion, generally following students Why do you think that?
answers; to stimulate student thinking; to encourage How do you know that you are seeing different minerals?
students to modify, conrm or contemplate their Why do you disagree?
thinking Your thinking is not necessarily awed, I just want you to go deeper. . .
Display Questions To check retention of prior knowledge or recall So what is our signal word?
previously stated information; to maintain student You all talked about properties in third grade, right?
engagement Which one is heavier?
Its igneous rock which means its formed where, Sheila?
Managerial Questions To keep the classroom operations moving; to redirect May I have your attention?
actions and behaviors Is that showing respect?
Has everybody nished in your groups?
Who is your spokesperson?
Arranged from more frequent to less frequent.

clear-cut. For example, a question like Why do you think that? in the middle of each table. Gathering spaces were located in the
could have been coded as higher order or reective. If, however, front of the room where students could sit on the carpet and in
the question was part of a sequence and was used as a follow up the back of the room where the class moved to sing songs, collect
to another question or in response to a prior response by a stu- experiment materials, and wash their hands. The classroom was
dent, it was coded as reective. Questions were coded and re-coded often full of energy coming from the students and their teacher
and initial categories were revised as a result of several rounds of and had students entering and exiting for a variety of reasons
analysis and are summarized in Table 1. throughout the day.
To illustrate how these different types of questions appear in The earth science unit on rocks and minerals spanned a six-week
context, four segments are analyzed in the remainder of this paper. period and consisted of ten lessons. Each lesson lasted an average of
Segment 1 provides an extended interaction illustrating how ques- one hour although the length varied from 32 min to 1 h 27 min. The
tions were classied according to their purpose and in relation to science unit was designed for students to study rocks, including
the context. rock properties, rock cycles, rock classications, rock formations,
scientists who study rocks, and how rocks inuence our world
2.3. Participants, context and unit of instruction today. No science textbook was used for this unit although there
were about 70 books in a bookstand lled with informational, c-
This study focuses on one fourth-grade classroom in a high- tion, and non-ction books related to the science unit. The teacher
poverty elementary school located in a suburban neighborhood also used a Foss science kit (i.e., research based science program
in the Pacic Northwest. In this uniquely diverse classroom there for grades K-8 developed with support from the National Science
were 24 students (10 girls and 14 boys) including six emergent Foundation) for this unit.
bilingual students receiving ELL (English language learning) ser- The structure of the observed unit can be divided into three
vices whose rst languages were Romanian, Russian, Spanish and types of interactive contexts: carpet time, table groups, and expert
Ukranian. In addition, seven students spoke a language other than groups. Carpet time served as a gathering place for the whole class
English at home and had been either exited from the ELL pro- to sit on the oor and participate in lectures, think-pair-share,
gram or never received ELL support. Their families home countries or shared writing. Multiple visual aids, including charts, books,
included Cambodia, Mexico, Philippines, Russia, and Tonga. In this graphic organizers about rocks, minerals, and land formations
classroom, three students were experiencing homelessness during were used. In addition, teacher and students used rocks, minerals,
the time of the study and four students were receiving additional and tools during this time. Table groups were formed by the
learning support. grouping of four or ve desks in a cluster and labeled by color.
The teacher, Ms. Christensen (pseudonyms are used through- These groups, which changed every 46 weeks, were also used for
out), had over 10 years of teaching experience, had a masters degree other content areas. Each group included children with different
in education, and certication and extensive professional develop- levels of English language prociency and from different language
ment in teaching emergent bilinguals. During the time of the study and cultural backgrounds. Expert groups met with the teacher to
she was a half-time teacher in this fourth grade classroom and a gain in-depth knowledge of a topic and to share that knowledge
half-time ELL coach for her district. Ms. Christensen taught science, with their table partners. As part of the expert group, students read
math, and social studies. A second teacher focused on literacy. In expert texts, manipulated physical evidence under the supervision
addition, students received additional assistance from two support of the teacher, worked on graphic organizers and lab reports, were
staff personnel who came to the classroom for 30 min daily. asked many questions by the teacher and, in turn, they also asked
The classroom, decorated with student work and collabora- questions to teacher and peers. Once they became experts, each
tively created charts, maps, songs, and graphs, was situated as an student taught their peers at their table groups. Throughout the
annex of the hallway dened by partitions. Students were seated unit all students were part of an expert group at least once. In
in table groups labeled by color with baskets of supplies placed addition to these three interactive contexts, teacher and students
G. Ernst-Slavit, K.L. Pratt / Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110 5

used different parts of the classroom to sing songs, recite chants,

use measuring tools to gather data, and write questions and
observations on posters and charts. Examples of activities for this
unit include: separating components of mock rocks by taking them
apart, dissolving parts in water or using evaporation; observing,
describing and recording properties of minerals; analyzing the
minerals that are in granite; sorting objects according to proper-
ties; observing and recording results from a variety of experiments
conducted with rocks, discussing scientic terminology, sharing
information with and asking questions to peers in the group and
at times with teacher.

3. Results
Fig. 2. Percentage of teacher questions by category throughout the unit.
Data analysis indicates that the teacher in this study, through
a variety of interactive contexts and grouping formats, asked a
1015 s. An average wait time for Ms. Christensen following one of
large number of questions, which she used to engage students in
her initiated questions was just less than three and a half seconds.
higher order thinking and to facilitate students understanding of
While asking a large number of questions can be both a strength
the genre specic ways of speaking and knowing science. Each of
and a potential risk, the analysis indicates that nearly two thirds of
these aspects is explained below.
the teacher questions asked throughout the unit centered around
the content and the parlance of science. In other words and as indi-
3.1. Teacher asked a large number of questions
cated in Fig. 2, 29% of the questions were classied as higher order,
28% of the questions focused on the language of science (parlance),
Prior research indicates that teachers ask, on an average day,
and 15% were reective. The remaining questions asked during
between 300 and 400 questions (Leven & Long, 1981). When not
this unit were categorized as display (14%) and managerial (14%)
used appropriately, a large number of questions can be potentially
excessive (e.g., Schiller & Joseph, 2010); however, when focused
Of the substantial number of questions covered by Ms.
and intentional, teacher questions are an important way of pro-
Christensen for the science unit, the two largest categories of
viding the scaffolding for students to articulate their thinking
questionshigher order and parlanceshed light on pertinent seg-
(Rosenshine, 2012). As evidenced in Fig. 1, Ms. Christensen asked
ments of classroom interaction.
a total of 1207 questions over the course of the unit, averaging
about 120 questions per hour during approximately 10 h of science
instruction. 3.2. Teacher asked predominantly higher order questions
Such a large amount of questions during a single unit alone
might suggest the dominance of teacher talk leaving no room for Twenty-nine percent of questions asked by Ms. Christensen
student-to-teacher and student-to-student interaction. However, were categorized as higher order, that is, questions that asked stu-
in the context of this study, that was not the case. As mentioned dents to go beyond the mere recall of facts, inviting them to analyze,
earlier, the teacher used a variety of interactive contexts and activ- make generalizations or inferences during an investigation, dis-
ities, such as think-pair-share, table groups, expert groups, talk cussion of a text, or debrieng of a lm. Many of these questions
through the answer with a neighbor, and raise-your-hand-if-you- were posed during whole-class discussion, when Ms. Christensen
agree-with the-answer-that-someone-gave. In many instances her presented a question or a challenge for students and then asked
questions were directed to a small group of students, for example, students to turn and talkto confer with their partnerin order
during expert group discussions. to expand their thinking and understanding, as in the following
An important characteristic of Ms. Christensens talk is her fast- vignette (Segment 1).
paced speech, which allows her to pack more words in a short After a busy week doing science where students completed two
time. Ms. Christensen used different wait times ranging from less investigations with their rocks and their daily write in their science
than one second to eight seconds with an occasional long pause of journal, Ms. Christensen read aloud a class-made book about ero-
sion and asked students to make predictions and back them up
with evidence and build on your schema. As it will be apparent
in Segment 1, this teacher used her questioning to push student
thinking beyond their rst answers and to expand or provide evi-
dence to their claims. Segment 1 depicts the interaction that ensued
after Ms. Christensen called the whole class to the carpet and pre-
sented them with the challenge of deciding which mountain is
older, the taller, more pointed Mountain B or the smaller, smooth
and rounded Mountain A. Students had the opportunity to turn and
talk and in the segment below they were sharing the results of their
conversations with the whole class.
Within this discursive space, the teacher used questions to
extend student explanations by probing and soliciting additional
information from initial student responses. This example is indica-
tive of the daily interactional norms within the classroom where
students engage in sense-making discussions. When students pro-
vided an answer, Ms. Christensen followed up with an additional
question. In the above example, Ms. Christensen encouraged stu-
Fig. 1. Number of questions per lesson. dents to tell her more, to explain why they said what they
6 G. Ernst-Slavit, K.L. Pratt / Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110

Segment 1. Which Mountain is older?

Turn Speaker Talk/Questions Context Purpose of
1. Teacher WHAT OUR JOB IS, IS TO FIGURE OUT WHICH MOUNTAIN IS Students form four Higher order
2. Students {different students talking} In groups for 2.5
3. Teacher WHY DO YOU [] THINK THAT MOUNTAIN A IS PROBABLY Pointing to the Higher order
YOUNGER? larger group of
4. Joshua I think its cause its shorter and its smoother.
6. Joshua Cause isnt it like a smaller mountain []
7. Teacher ERICA, WHAT DO YOU HAVE? Related to Q in turn Higher order
8. Erica Well I thought it, mountain A was younger than mountain B
because mountain B could have been have started out like
mountain A but then over the years like things could have built
onto the mountain and made it bigger.
10. Erica Maybe mountain B started out like mountain A then over the
years mountain B like had things built onto it like lava and stuff
that would make it bigger.
12. Erica Yeah, and then maybe mountain A just formed [].
14. Erica Cause mountain A is like smaller and it looks smooth.
16. Jazmin We thought, my group thought that the tectonic plates crashed Long pause
together []
18. Jazmin We do but
19. Teacher WHATS THE GROUPS OPINION? Higher order
20. Rod Um, um that it was shorter.
22. Jelena Because mountain A might have been as big as mountain B but
like rain and stuff wore it down.
24. Jelena Erosion
26. Jelena Weathering
27. Teacher WEATHERING. [] VERY GOOD. OK, WEATHERING. SO THATS YOUR Teacher looking at Reective
28. Jorge Cause it looks smooth.
29. Teacher OK, YOU [] THINK IT MIGHT BE THE SAME AGE. WHY? Higher order
30. Jorge Because maybe . . . I kind of agree with Megan that the erosion and
the eruption made it smaller, but I think its the same age because
maybe. . . it was as tall as mountain B but when it like went boom
that some of the parts that made it as big as it maybe just came off.
31. Teacher OK, WHAT DID YOU THINK VIKTOR? Responds to Higher order
Viktors eye
contact, even
though he is not a
32. Viktor I thought (the mountains were the same age) because the tectonic
plates were crashing at the same time.
G. Ernst-Slavit, K.L. Pratt / Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110 7

said while abstaining from providing feedback as to the correct Kalib Yeah, whats the colors?
answer (turns 5, 9 and 13). Obtaining the correct answer was not It looks like theres glass. It looks like it has layers of um [].
Jadra And the texture?
the goal (as stated later in turn 33), but rather facilitating students Kalib Its soft. The color, black and white. And well this is heavy, with
thinking, wondering and hypothesizing. Via the use of questions, the sides []
the teacher asked for evidence (turn 13), restated and probed (turns Alex Um. . .black and white and the brown under the white. The
11, 25), restated and invited elaboration (turn 27), and extended the bottom, it is smooth on the bottom. [] size. Here you go, its
your turn. Its your turn
conversation by inviting other students (turns 27, 31). In this par-
Kalib Okay, texture
ticular case, she called on Viktor (turn 31) after recognizing that Brian Very soft
Viktor, an emergent bilingual, was making eye contact with her Jadra Soft and bumpy
but was not offering to participate. Even in inquiry-based science Kalib Color
classrooms, reluctant and often marginalized students can remain Brian Blue and white

in the periphery without a concerted, yet subtle, intervention by

the teacher (Schiller & Joseph, 2010).
In the above segment, Ms. Christensen encouraged students to Important to highlight is that, with the exception of Jadra, the
compare the two mountains and facilitated student learning on four other students in this group speak a language other than
how to provide explanations while they participated in a low-risk English at home. Similar to the ndings in Roths (1996) study of a
environment where students shared and defended their ideas. The Grade 4/5 engineering unit, students in this classroom are learning
use of open-ended questions, such as Why do you think the way how to participate in conversations, how to ask and answer ques-
you think? (turn 1), Tell me more (turn 9), Whats your evidence tions, and how to provide evidence for their assertions. In essence
for that? Where did you get your ideas? (turn 13), are ways of they are learning about the properties of rocks while learning the
pumping and encouraging students to provide more information parlance of science.
and foster student talk (Chin, 2007). Ultimately, the teacher ends
this discussion with I am not going to tell you the answer right 3.3. Teacher questions modeled and encouraged genre specic
now (turn 33) and revisited the topic later that day. ways of talking science
This kind of science talk (Gallas, 1995) builds students concep-
tual understanding, engages students with scientic knowledge, During this science unit, 28% of the questions asked by the
and sustains their passion for science (Ballenger, 2003; Rosebery & teacher were classied as parlance questions, that is, questions that
Ballenger, 2008). Students were able to successfully conduct inves- focused on learning about the language of science. These questions
tigations and subsequent discussions using the language of science. were directed to help students notice and use different features
For example, when students were learning about properties of of talking science, such as, asking questions that emerge based
rocks while sitting on the carpet, Ms. Christensen held different on their interests or misunderstandings, producing language that
rocks and asked one or two questions in relation to their prop- is precise and concise, and understanding discourse patterns, syn-
erties. Students then discussed their answers in small groups and tactical features, and specialized vocabulary that characterize the
reported to the whole class. Examples of the teacher questions that language of science (Gottlieb & Ernst-Slavit, 2014; Snow, 2010).
guided this conversation included: If you were holding this rock, Throughout the unit Ms. Christensen and her students created
what would you also be able to tell? So it could be something transition words, chants, tables, charts, maps, and posters that
about how heavy, but do you have a scale? Is there a smell? Its allowed students to hear, see, and practice using genre specic
a tinier rock, but its almost as heavy, isnt it? What did you guys ways of speaking on a daily basis. In the next segment, the students
say for shape? What did you notice about this one? Can you had just nished reading and singing a chant about what geologists
be more specic than that? Weve got, its pointy, is that color, do. Students then transitioned to the front carpet to construct, via
size or texture? Its bumpy and its smooth, is that . . .? Its very discussion, a class understanding about geologists. The students
holey, is that color, size or texture? Some of the parts are bumpy gathered around the white board as the teacher wrote their ideas
and some are smooth, is that. . .? The rock is rough and smooth on chart paper.
at the same time, is that . . .? So what is it that has layers? Do
the colors have layers? Do you think the properties of a meta-
19 Jadra A scientist that studies rocks.
morphic and an igneous and a sedimentary rock are the same or 20 T A SCIENTIST THAT STUDIES ROCKS. DOES ANYBODY
are they different? During this extended discussion teacher and 21 DISAGREE WITH THAT? (a few students raise their
students negotiated a denition of properties as used to describe hands.)
the characteristics, including color, size, and texture of an object 22 T YOU DISAGREE WITH THAT. OK, WHAT IS IT?
23 Jov A scientist that studies the earth.
and verbalized descriptive terms such as heavy, rough, dark, 24 T A SCIENTIST WHO STUDIES THE EARTH.
and grainy and concepts such as layers, weathering, texture, 25 Dimitri Or digs rocks up its the same thing.
The next brief segment took place during the ensuing table THAT. LETS
group conversation that followed the above large group discussion.
Students were tasked to discuss the properties of the rock she had 28 MEANS SCIENCE. OK? THE WORD IST MEANS A
put on their tables. Using magnifying glasses, nails, and glass plates, PERSON.
students gathered in their small groups and began examining each 29 NOT THE WORD, THE SUFFIX IST MEANS A PERSON.
of their rocks. NOW, SO
Jadra I noticed that this surface is a [] stone because it goes around. It PREFIX
goes around and around and around 31 OVER HERE THATS GEO. NOW SOME OF YOU ARE
Kalib But, I have a question, does it go black, white, black, white, or SAYING
does it go black one color, white? 32 THAT GEO, IF YOURE USING THIS AS A GUIDE HERE,
Jadra No the [] stones, it can just be one color. The different colors, THAT
its white you know []. It is very soft and the color is white and 33 YOUR GEO IS SAYING NO THATS ROCKS. AND SOME
[] its bumpy like, right here, and it goes around OF YOU
Chris I see texture. I see its like heavy 34 ARE SAYING EARTH. {separates each afx}
8 G. Ernst-Slavit, K.L. Pratt / Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110

35 Ss Earth and rocks. Both. No its both. [Additional In the above segment, after Ms. Christensen asked Paul and
inaudible comments] Omar to share their sentence, she modeled active listening and
revoiced (lines 32930) for students what was just said. In revoic-
37 Ss Yes. Yeah it is. The crust, inner core and outer core. ing, Ms. Christensen acknowledged and validated Omars answer.
[Additional In addition, she posed intentional and specic questions to posi-
38 inaudible comments] tion students to listen and reect on their own language use (lines
330332). More specically, in lines 334 and 335, Ms. Christensen
40 CAUSE THIS IS ALL LATIN, THESE ARE ALL LATIN did not allow Omar to merely state the indenite article and restate
ROOTS. THIS the noun, she encouraged Omar to fulll the stated request of com-
41 WORD LITERALLY MEANS A PERSON WHO ing up with a meaningful, accurate, and complete sentence which
STUDIES. . .OH, he did when he stated A geologist studies rocks and minerals
(line 336). Additionally, Ms. Christensen assisted students in the
43 WAS SOMETHING MISSING. ITS A PERSON WHO construction of complete sentences by asking the class to assess
STUDIES THE if the sentence is complete (line 337) and accurate (line 339). The
44 EARTH. THERE ARE LOTS OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF segment above not only illustrates students learning a common
language function in school, dene, but also learning the craft of
46 SEISMOLOGISTS. critical listeninga much needed skill in 21st century classrooms.
47 Kabir Meteorologist. Students success using the science parlance is also evident in
48 T METEOROLOGISTS ARE ACTUALLY IN A SLIGHTLY their writing. For example, when Paul, a student who receives
DIFFERENT special education services, was asked to compare extrusive and
intrusive rocks, he wrote, Extrusive rocks are formed outside of
50 Jasha Volcano-ologist
51 T VOLCANOLOGIST, WHICH IS A VOLCANO-OLOGIST. SO earth, intrusive rocks are formed inside of earth. Olga, a Russian
52 THERES LOTS OF THOSE. student with less than a year in the United States, described her
The exchange continued with students playfully offering their igneous rocks, My rocks are formed when lava cools down and
invented words such as, rock-ologist and student-ologist. changes into solid rocks. While Amarilis, who arrived from Mexico
The previous segment illustrates how Ms. Christensen encour- at the beginning of the school year, described her rock as: Are [Our]
aged students to grapple with What does a geologist do? In the rock is shaped like a heart. Are [Our] rock is 2 inches and tall and
process, she made students aware of the morphology of scientic 3 inches wide. My rock is not hevy [heavy]. My rock is rufe [rough].
words. After allowing students to ponder upon the denition of As James Britton (1970) put it so powerfully, Reading and writing
geologist (line 19: a person who studies rocks), instead of pro- oat on a sea of talk (p. 11). When students know how to express
viding students with a denition (e.g., a person who studies the their thinking orally, they will more likely and perhaps effortlessly
physical aspects of the Earth), Ms. Christensen helped students produce writing.
arrive at a denition by analyzing the morphology of geologist
and pointing out to the meaning of the Latin root geo as earth 4. Conclusions and implications
and to the sufx ologist to refer to a person who studies science.
Ms. Christensens practice reveals a belief that all her students, This study focused on the quality and quantity of teacher ques-
regardless of their language background, need to be cognizant of the tions during a six-week rocks and minerals instructional unit in a
specialized language of the content areas. She also knows that in 4th grade classroom. Central to our project was the ways in which
her planning she needs to be very deliberate and include language this classroom teacher used questions not following an IRE pat-
objectives that go beyond teaching ten vocabulary words. Recent tern but fostering collaborative interactions and creating spaces for
research indicates that educators often equate academic language students voices and student-to-student conversations. Findings in
as challenging vocabulary or hard words (Ernst-Slavit & Mason, this study contribute to prior work on teacher questioning in sci-
2011; Wong Fillmore & Fillmore, 2012). However, disciplinary lan- ence classrooms by examining questions in the context of a diverse
guage involves more than word lists. classroom located in a low-income neighborhood where slightly
This kind of attention to the teaching and learning of the par- over half of the students spoke a language other than English at
lance of science is exemplied in the segment below. In this home.
instance, the teacher swayed students to apply their recently Findings in this paper can be summarized as follows: First,
acquired understanding of geologists to create a meaningful, accu- the teacher asked a large number of questions, averaging about
rate, and complete sentence for their explanations. Ms. Christensen 120 questions per hour during approximately 10 hours of science
asked students to come up with a sentence that uses geologist in instruction. While the high number of questions might imply the
a meaningful way. Prior to this interaction, students had an oppor- dominance of teacher talk, the nature of her questions was student
tunity to share their own denitions of geologist by talking to their focused and higher-order oriented. Second, 29% of teacher ques-
neighbor during a turn and talk exchange. tions were higher order in nature, that is, they asked students to
go beyond the mere recall of facts or to support their statements
327 T PAUL AND OMAR, WHAT WAS YOUR SENTENCE? with evidence. Third, 15% of teacher questions were classied as
328 Omar Um. . .geologist studies rocks and minerals. reective, that is, questions that stimulate student thinking and
329 T OKAY, SO YOU SAID, GEOLOGIST STUDIES ROCKS AND encourage students to modify, conrm or contemplate their think-
ing. Fourth, during this unit, 28% of teacher questions modeled
332 SENTENCE, WHAT WOULD IT BE? and encouraged genre specic ways of talking science. The teacher
333 Omar A geologist. modeled good questioning skills in the class and encouraged stu-
334 T A GEOLOGIST. WILL YOU FINISH YOUR SENTENCE, dents to raise a variety of questions. In addition, both teacher and
students paid close attention not only to the vocabulary but also to
336 Omar A geologist studies rocks and minerals.
337 T IS THAT A COMPLETE SENTENCE? the grammatical and discourse features that characterize the lan-
338 Ss Yes! guage of science, including how to produce complete sentences
339 T IS IT ACCURATE? that are accurate and meaningful. The remaining teacher questions
340 Ss Yes! were categorized as display and managerial.
G. Ernst-Slavit, K.L. Pratt / Linguistics and Education 40 (2017) 110 9

Throughout the unit, the teacher provided ongoing opportuni- were presented at the annual meetings of the American Educational
ties for all her students, including emergent bilinguals, to bounce Research Association in Chicago, IL, April 2015 and the American
ideas off each other as they interacted with each other, with the Association for Applied Linguistics in Toronto, Canada, March 2015.
texts they read, and with the materials (e.g., rocks, fossils), just as
professional scientists do (Kelly, 2007). Similarly to related studies, Acknowledgements
the kinds of questions asked by the teacher served to increase com-
petence in the topic (e.g., Roth, 1996; van Zee & Minstrell, 1997) and We are grateful to the teacher and students who opened their
in the pertinent practices and accompanying language (e.g., Chin, doors for this study. Our sincere thanks to Tamara Nelson, David
2006; Lee & Kinzie, 2012; Roth, 1996). Slavit and Steven Morrison for their thoughtful feedback on earlier
Several implications can be derived from this study. First, this versions of this paper, to the anonymous Linguistics and Education
study contributes to current research on classroom discourse by reviewers for their helpful comments, and to Kate T. Anderson, for
highlighting the types of questions asked by one teacher, their fre- her detailed and thoughtful editorial suggestions.
quency, purpose, and the context in which they are asked. Our study
corroborates the centrality of classroom discourse in knowledge
construction (e.g., Kelly, 2014) and the predominance of teacher Appendix A. Transcription conventions
talk (e.g., Cazden, 2001; Mercer & Dawes, 2014).
T teacher
Second, this work illustrates the nature of sustained, thought-
Students several students speaking at once
ful, and meaningful conversations about science in classrooms XXX TEACHER TALK
with large number of emergent bilinguals and low-income stu- xxxx students talk
dents. Science classrooms can be rich language-learning as well as bold emphasized for discussion
... pause
science-learning environments, provided that teachers ensure that
[] inaudible messages
emergent bilinguals are supported to participate (Lee et al., 2013). {} nonverbal information
If we want to increase the number of diverse students entering
careers in science and engineering, all teachers, including content
area teachers, will need to be prepared to support the language and References
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