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Classroom dialogue: More than just words

Written by: Katie Jump
9 min read
Katie Jump, Associate Lecturer in ITE, National Institute of Teaching and Education (NITE), UK

When observing an expert teacher, the modes of effective classroom dialogue (word choice, prosody, proxemics and kinesics – described by Norris (2004) as embodied methods) can be interwoven in such a complex way that they would be impossible for a novice to discern comprehensively. To ensure that trainee teachers learn from expert teacher mentors, these decisions need to be unpacked so that trainee teachers can identify techniques and try to replicate them. Mercer’s (2005, p. 137) ‘sociocultural discourse analysis’ describes a process of researching educational settings from the perspective of ‘language [being] regarded as a cultural and psychological tool’. This is the perspective from which this research took place. The research focused on the communication techniques of word choice (what is said), prosody (how it is said), proxemics (teacher positioning) and kinesics (teacher gesture) that expert teachers use, and the motivations behind them. Its assumption is that effective communication can become subconscious to the extent that an expert teacher mentoring a trainee teacher or early career teacher (ECT) may struggle to decipher the precision of and reason behind their choices. This may make it difficult to discuss in a meaningful way when analysing with a less experienced teacher. 

The two teachers who were the focus of this research completed a questionnaire about their own perception of how they used these four communication techniques, and then a lesson observation was carried out where the communication types were logged and categorised using a recording form based on the work of the researchers discussed above. The lesson was also recorded so that the communication could be discussed with the two teachers using a stimulated recall interview (SRI). Following the SRI, the results were analysed using a sociocultural applied discourse analysis approach to consider the synthesis of different communication techniques and the reasons behind them. Dominant methods for each teacher were also analysed and compared with the initial questionnaire on teacher perceptions.

In addition to the considerations of permission from the gatekeeper, informed consent of participants and parental assent for pupils in the room at the time of the observation, this research was also designed in adherence to BERA’s Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (2018).

Alexander’s (2004) five repertoires (and the sixth added by Michaels and O’Connor, 2012) are precise in specifying the type of talk in classroom dialogue, offering 18 categories covering the dialogue types seen across a wide range of lessons, and were used to inform the data collection of this research. As the technique of dialogic teaching is well known in many schools, including the research school, these terms were chosen because the participants would be familiar with their definitions.

Sikvelanda et al. (2021) noted prosody as a contributing factor in the communication between teacher and student. And Hellerman (2003) suggested that pitch and volume in teacher response can imply whether or not an answer needs further clarification. Beyond this use of prosody to signal teacher thought about response, Koch’s (2017) study suggests that teacher use of prosody alters a pupil’s perception of their role in the classroom, suggesting that practitioners adopt the roles of nurturer, mentor, controller or playmate, depending on manipulation of speed, volume and pitch, and the categories for recording prosody were developed from this. 

Hall (1966) describes four spatial ‘distance sets’ – public, social-consultative, causal-personal and intimate – which were used as the categories to record proxemics in this research. Classroom interaction sits predominantly in social-consultative, although there may be crossovers in Early Years settings and higher education to closer and more distant categories respectively. Maldonado et al.’s (2020) studies raise the critical point that classroom design and task design will have a considerable impact on teacher proxemics. This supports the decision to afford the teachers in the research the opportunity to explain the reasoning behind their decisions, as they may be unavoidable or deliberate. 

Kang and Tversky (2016) and Wagner-Cook et al. (2013) have carried out research that demonstrates the benefits to students when gesture is used as part of effective communication. While Goldin-Meadow et al. (1999) and McNeill (1992) attempted to categorise gesture, none go as far as Liu et al. (2020), who incorporated McNeill’s categories and devised eight occupation-specific domains. These formed the basis of the recording criteria in this research.

While it may seem antithetical to discuss each communication mode in turn, for the purposes of the analysis of findings, the episodes of interest have been categorised by determining which mode of communication appears as dominant, to ensure a full consideration of each technique. The following findings apply the most relevant of Gee’s (2014) 28 discourse analysis tools to this research. Each analysis is preceded by the results to which they refer (taken from the observation data informed by the literature above).

Word choice as dominant

(13.30 minutes. Word choice: repeat; prosody: low pitch, medium speed, medium volume; proxemics: moving; kinesics: operational (tidying).)

Teacher 1 responded to the questionnaire with the opinion that precise word choice was a frequent consideration. As only eight of the 30-second intervals recorded silence, this could be considered accurate. When discussed in the SRI, Teacher 1 confirmed that the chosen moments of silence were deliberate, in an attempt to reinforce the kinesic communication that was taking place at the time (e.g. motioning to stop a behaviour). Deliberate choice of words is categorised as ‘significance building’ (Gee, 2014, p. 98), in this instance by inferring to the class that a student was correct in the answer that they had given by repeating it in a louder and clearer voice than the pupil. While there were no affirmatives, repetition became part of the teacher explanation and elevated the status of a pupil answer. 

(0.30 minutes. Word choice: explain; prosody: medium pitch, medium speed, medium volume; proxemics: standing still; kinesics: habitual (hands on hips).)

Teacher 2’s perception of word choice was that it was always a consideration and a dominant technique. The context of teaching upper Key Stage 2 may go some way to explaining why she was noted to have used 13 of the 18 categories of word choice in the observation, possibly reflecting the skill and competence required when drawing on various aspects of previous learning and preparing students for end-of-key-stage assessments. It was also noted that of the 64 individual recording points, the teacher was only silent for one. Gee’s (2014, p. 132) ‘connection building’ tool substantiates this notion and recognises the techniques of choosing precise terminology, acknowledging previous work and what will be completed in this lesson, and signposting the further learning that will take place. During the SRI, the teacher confirmed that this sequence of word choices was a regular occurrence, as well as prosodic choice to ensure that explanations were clear and heard by all.

Prosody as dominant

(23.00 minutes. Word choice: instruct; prosody: medium pitch, high speed, medium volume; proxemics: walking around; kinesics: negative (pen clicking).)

Teacher 1 recalled that during training he had been advised to lower his volume when teaching to counteract being a male and potentially intimidating younger students. The teacher stated that this advice had stayed with him, and he very rarely used a loud volume, instead choosing to add effect by varying speed and pitch (Gee’s tool of ‘intonation’ – 2014, p.34). Before the observation, Teacher 1 had completed the questionnaire suggesting that he used both only sometimes, and during the SRI we discussed how this process revealed to teachers the disparity between what they thought they did and what actually happened in the classroom. 

(3.30–6.30 minutes. Word choice: read/repeat/explain; prosody: varying; proxemics: standing still; kinesics: operational and metaphoric.)

Teacher 2 showed the largest disparity between questionnaire response and observation result. Teacher 2 echoed Koch’s (2017) study in articulating that she adopted the role of nurturer, mentor and controller through prosodic choice, again adopting Gee’s (2014, p. 34) ‘intonation’ tool. She also remembered during the SRI that she had received previous coaching on how to effectively communicate using prosodic manipulation and, in the same way as Teacher 1, was surprised at how revealing the SRI had been for understanding her own influences.

Proxemics as dominant

(3.30 minutes. Word choice: explain; prosody: whisper; proxemics: crouch; kinesics: metaphoric (clicking).) 

Although in the questionnaire Teacher 1 stated that he communicated through position only occasionally, during the SRI he was able to see that proxemic communication was his most dominant method. Examples such as moving to influence student behaviour and crouching so as not to appear intimidating were elucidated, demonstrating Gee’s (2014, p. 52) tool of ‘doing not just saying’. The discussion also expanded into the wider topic of how a teacher often uses a dual-channel approach of using verbal communication to the whole class and physical communication to an individual student at the same time – another example of the ways in which expert teachers convey information with a considerable degree of complexity during a lesson.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Teacher 2’s proxemic communication was hampered due to the imposed classroom layout.  However, she was able to apply a usual practice of working with one small group by sitting on the carpet with them, interspersed with moving around the class and talking to individuals, thereby conveying her presence. Taking position at the front of the classroom for the start and end of lessons also conveyed to students the expectation that they would listen and that the whole class would be addressed.

Kinesics as dominant

(2.00–2.30 minutes. Word choice: instruct; prosody: varying; proxemics: standing still; kinesics: metaphoric (hands palm up), deictic (point).) 

For the time that Teacher 1 was not whole-class teaching, his actions were largely operational and habitual. However, once at the front of the class, these became a direct channel of communication, ranging through metaphoric, emotional, deictic and representational. Both he and Teacher 2 were concerned when watching the observations in the SRI that they had considerable quantities of habitual actions (clicking pens, hands on hips) that could potentially detract from their effective communication, and both made conscious decisions to try to reduce them in future. This is another potential benefit to this research: teachers have the opportunity to view and then improve their communication to make it even more effective. 

Teacher 2 used a considerable quantity of metaphoric gestures in comparison; however, this may be due to the subjects being taught (maths vs English). One example (opening hands palms upward to represent feeling like a student who was confused) was followed by a deictic point to the working wall to indicate where help may be found. Gee (2014, p. 177) describes this as the ‘figured world’, in which the communication may only make complete sense to those who understand the created environment (in this case, primary school students and teachers are familiar with the concept of seeking help from a working wall).


As anticipated, the findings demonstrated that all four techniques were interwoven in each teacher’s practice. It provided insight into the extent to which the teachers had dominant techniques and also how the reasons for their preferences were both conscious (e.g. moving to a new classroom position to address behaviour) and sub-conscious (e.g. communication through metaphorical hand gesture). The intention of the communication also contributed to the decision-making about which techniques were used and in which combination. The research revealed that there is great potential for expert teachers to repeat this process and analyse their own communication in order to support trainee teachers and ECTs more effectively. Both teachers agreed that participation had enabled them to articulate their choices more effectively. They could also see how undertaking this research would improve teacher training experiences for their future trainees and ECTs, as well as offer relevant continuous professional development for more expert practitioners.

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