Greta Morine-Dershimer

Emeritus Professor of the Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Greta Morine-Dershimer: Classroom Management and Language Use

A CaseNEX Critical Perspective

Greta Morine-Dershimer’s Professional and Personal Experience

In my ten years as a classroom teacher I worked with a wide variety of students. I taught primary, intermediate, and junior high school students; lower-achieving first graders struggling to learn how to read, and 5th through 8th grade gifted students; rural students in a two-room schoolhouse, and suburban students in an over-crowded school where two classes used the same classroom, each on a half-day session; students in traditional programs in public schools, and students in a private school with an innovative curriculum. These varied experiences made me acutely aware of students’ individual differences. During this period (1953-63 and 1973-74) innovative curricula were being introduced in many schools across the country, and I learned to teach in new ways. Most of the new curricula focused on promoting students’ thinking skills, and I became very interested in how different instructional processes led to different responses from students.

After graduate work, I taught courses for both prospective and experienced teachers. Both groups seemed to benefit from teaching two different types of lessons and comparing the results from different instructional processes. We videotaped their lessons and observed them together in small groups to discuss what we saw happening with students, and what the teachers liked or wished they could change in their lessons. I learned a lot about teachers’ perceptions of their students and their own teaching.

When I had the chance to do some research in classrooms, I wanted to learn more about students’ perceptions of instruction. I videotaped lessons, played the lessons back for students, and interviewed them. I asked things like “What did you hear anybody saying?” and “What would you tell a new student about how people talk in your classroom?” I showed them copies of some questions the teacher had asked in the lesson, and said, “Who do you think said these things? Why did they say these things?” I learned a lot about what students thought about the “rules” governing classroom language use.

Over many years as a teacher educator and classroom researcher I have studied the verbal behavior of teachers and students, and encouraged teachers to study their own patterns of classroom interaction as well as their students’ patterns of participation. Those teachers shared with me much of what they learned. In addition I have met and talked with many classroom researchers from a variety of countries and learned much from their research on classroom language use and the influence of language use on classroom learning.

Most recently, I reviewed a great deal of the recent research on classroom language in order to write a chapter called “Classroom Management and Classroom Discourse” for the Handbook of Classroom Management edited by Carolyn Evertson and Carol Weinstein (2006). My experiences over 45 years as a teacher, teacher educator, classroom researcher, reader and writer of research reports have all contributed to my views on teaching, learning, and classroom language use. In this critical perspective I share some of what I consider to be the most important ideas about classroom management and classroom language use.

Classroom management can best be defined as “the actions teachers take to create an environment that supports and facilitates both academic and social-emotional learning” (Evertson & Weinstein, 2006, pg. 4). Carolyn Evertson and Carol Weinstein are two specialists who have conducted extensive classroom management research and designed effective programs for improving classroom management practice. These authors believe that “how a teacher achieves order is as important as whether a teacher achieves order” (Evertson& Weinstein, 2006, pg. 4). They identify five specific tasks that teachers must carry out to be effective classroom managers:

  • Organize and implement instruction in ways that optimize students’ access to learning
  • Promote the development of students’ social skills and self-regulation
  • Develop caring, supportive relationships with and among students
  • Use group management methods that encourage students’ engagement in academic tasks
  • Use appropriate interventions to assist students with behavior problems

Optimizing students’ access to learning can be seen as the central task. Each of the other tasks contributes to accomplishment of that central task in some special way.

Studies of teacher and student talk during classroom lessons, commonly called classroom discourse research, provide many clues about ways that classroom language use can contribute to (or undermine) accomplishment of these important tasks (Morine-Dershimer, 2006). Careful consideration of patterns of classroom language use can help teachers to develop greater awareness of how classroom language can support good classroom management practice. In this critical perspective I introduce some key features of classroom language patterns that are associated with effective classroom management practices, and that help to promote the development of students’ social skills and self-regulation. I also suggest some procedures that teachers can use to get feedback on patterns of language use and student learning in their own classrooms.

Promoting the Development of Students’ Social Skills and Self-Regulation

Sociolinguists study how language operates in social settings, noting the cultural patterns of appropriate behavior that designate who can say what to whom in what situations. In studying classroom talk, sociolinguists have been particularly interested in how the communication patterns children learn at home may differ from those they are expected to use at school. The communication skills that students exhibit are critical social skills in the classroom setting, where much of the teaching and learning occurs through verbal interaction. Important concepts from sociolinguistic research that relate to teachers’ effectiveness in developing students’ social (communication) skills and self-regulation include question types, sequences of interaction in question cycles, patterns of participation in class discussions, form-function relationships, and communicative competence. These ideas are inter-related in terms of how they operate during whole-class lessons.

Question Types

Much of classroom communication in typical teacher-led discussions involves student responses to teacher questions. The kinds of questions teachers ask differ from the kinds of questions frequently asked at home. Teachers regularly ask questions when they already know the answer, and want to check whether students know the answer as well (e.g., What is 5 times 7?). At home, people are more apt to ask questions when they don’t know the answer, and they hope to learn something from someone else (e.g., Will you be home for supper tonight?). Sociolinguists call the questions that are typical of conversations at home “real” questions, and the questions more typical of class discussions “psuedo” questions. Some students get experience responding to both “real” and “psuedo” questions at home as well as at school, but others hear mainly “real” questions at home. When the types of questions asked of children at home and at school are very different, the communication skills children bring from home may limit their understanding of how to participate in class discussions.

Teacher questions can also be either “open” or “closed.” Closed questions have one right answer, or a very limited set of possible right answers (e.g., Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?). Open questions invite students to report on their own experiences or opinions, and thus can have many different appropriate responses (e.g., What is your favorite television program?). Usually only one student gets to answer a closed question (unless the first response happens to be wrong), but several students can respond to the same open question and all their responses can be considered to be appropriate. The background knowledge and experiences students bring with them from home generally enable most students to respond to open questions with some confidence. Students who lack prior knowledge, or who may be unsure of the accuracy of their knowledge, tend to “self-regulate” their behavior by attempting to avoid responding to closed questions.

Students ask questions in class much less often than teachers, and most of the questions students ask seek clarification of directions for carrying out assigned tasks (e.g., Where can I find information about water conservation?). If students regularly ask such questions, teachers probably need to revise their procedures for giving directions. Asking substantive questions is a useful skill for students to develop if they are to become independent or self-regulated learners. Teachers can encourage students to ask substantive questions by designing lessons to promote this activity. An activity like Twenty Questions can help students target their questions to gradually narrow a search, much like a scientist does in sequentially limiting factors to be considered in testing a hypothesis. A lesson introducing a new topic or unit of instruction could invite students to list questions they would like to see answered during the subsequent lessons. This is recommended as an important first step in a sequential learning process based on a landmark set of studies on student learning in middle school classrooms (Alton-Lee, 2006).

Question Cycles

The most basic form and most frequently studied segment of classroom verbal interaction is the question cycle. The typical cycle involves a teacher question, a student response, and a teacher evaluation or other follow-up comment, and is designated by sociolinguists as the IRE/IRF cycle (Initiation-Response-Evaluation/Follow-Up). Cazden (2001) distinguishes between traditional and non-traditional use of question cycles. In traditional discussion lessons teachers ask mainly closed, “psuedo” questions and evaluate student responses as right or wrong, frequently giving praise for correct answers. Student responses tend to be fairly brief. In non-traditional lessons, often advocated by curriculum reform enthusiasts, teachers ask more “real” or authentic questions, student responses tend to be more extended, and teachers respond to student comments in a wide variety of ways, such as:

  • Asking for the student’s reasoning (why do you think that, how did you get that answer, what’s your evidence)
  • Asking for reactions from peers (what do others think of John’s idea, who wants to comment on that suggestion, has anyone here had a similar experience)
  • Asking for other answers to the same question (who has another idea)
  • Relating the response to an earlier comment from another student (that sounds similar to the experience that Anya told us about)
  • Expanding on the response (or asking a student to expand on it) by adding new, related information
  • Providing a spontaneous teacher reaction to the student response (Wow! What an interesting experience!)

Two common types of teacher reactions in question cycles in traditional lessons are praise and repetition of the student response. Studies have shown that teacher praise can be beneficial if it is not over-used (Soar & Soar, 1979; Brophy, 1981). Praising every student response should generally be avoided, however; such use of praise lessens its value, for the praise is soon seen by students as routine rather than deserved. Teacher use of specific praise, i.e., indicating what was particularly commendable in a given response, is most closely related to student achievement gains.

Teacher repetition of student responses can serve as a more neutral indication of a correct answer, but it can negate students’ need to listen to comments of their peers. When used too frequently, this pattern may tend to reinforce some students’ beliefs that all useful information comes from the teacher (or the “authority”). One useful alternative to teacher repetition is to record student responses on a chalkboard, whiteboard, chart, or overhead projector, using the student’s own words. Students can then process the idea through visual as well as auditory channels. When student contributions remain visible, it also increases the probability that other students can identify relationships between ideas that have been offered. Recording student responses in this manner can work well in both traditional and non-traditional lessons.

Table I presents some examples of question cycles representative of those found in traditional and non-traditional lessons. Note the variation in teacher reactions (evaluation, repetition, or follow-up) to student responses.


Sample Question Cycles from Third Grade Language Arts Lessons*

Traditional Lessons

Question – Mrs. E:                  On page 106 is a poem that we’re going to read and discuss this morning. What is the title of the poem? Elli?

Response – Elli:                      Antonio.

Repeat – Mrs. E:                     Antonio.

Question – Mrs. E:                  And the person who wrote the poem is who? Horace?

Response – Horace:                By Laura E. Richards.

Repeat – Mrs. E:                     By Laura E. Richards.

Evaluate-Mrs. E:                     Good.

Question – Miss D:                 Can you give me some nouns that are people? Mickey?

Response-Mickey:                  Presidents.

Repeat-Miss D:                       Presidents are persons.

(Same Q)-Miss D:                  Matt.

Response-Matt:                       Directors.

Repeat-Miss D:                       A director is a person

Clarify-Miss D:                       What do they do?

Response-Matt:                       They direct movies.

Restate-Miss D:                      OK. Movie directors.

(Same Q)-Miss D:                  Jill.

Response-Jill:                          Sisters.

Evaluate-Miss D:                    Very good.

Non-Traditional Lessons

Question-Ms. F:                      Has anyone here ever accidentally swallowed anything? John?

Response-John:                       Dirt.

Expand Q-Ms. F:                    How did you do that?

Response-John:                       Climbing up a hill on my motorcycle and I hit a rock and uh – the front wheel popped up and I turned around so the bike wouldn’t fall, but it fell on me and my head hit the dirt, and I ate some dirt.

Reaction-Ms. F:                      Your face tells me how you liked the taste of that.

Reaction-Class:                       (Laughter)

Directions-Miss D:                 Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to build mental pictures in our heads…to use our imaginations…everybody’s pictures will probably be different. Close your eyes to see it…and then when you’re picturing in your mind, you can ask – what do you see, what do you feel, what do you hear?

                                                Okay. Can you see something that is red and running in your mind? Try to picture it so you can tell us about it. Okay. Open your eyes.

Question-Miss D:                   Who would like to tell us about what they saw? Ray?

Response-Ray:                        A red fox running.

Repeat-Miss D:                       A red fox running.

(Same Q)-Miss D:                  Robert?

Response-Robert:                    I had my hand up, like that, and I saw first like red bricks, and when I moved my eyes, it made the bricks move.

React-Miss D:                         Wow! Everyone will have different answers, won’t they?

(Same Q)-Miss D:                  Ysa?

Response-Ysa:                        A red clown.

Expand Q-Miss D:                  What was he doing? Was his face red, too? Did he have a red suit on, or what?

Response-Ysa:                        He had red all over him, and red buttons, and he was juggling.

Evaluation-Miss D:                 Everyone’s mental picture is very different. And they’re all very good. You are using good imagination.

*These samples are excerpted from Morine-Dershimer, 1985, pp. 69-72, 197-198.

Patterns of Participation

Sociolinguists are interested in “who participates and how, and who doesn’t and why” (Cazden, 2001, pg. 81). Participation is a good indicator of social status in the setting in which a conversation occurs. In the traditional classroom setting, boys tend to be called on more frequently than girls, and higher achieving students are called on more frequently than lower achieving students. Primary grade students who participate more in class discussions have been shown to learn more (show greater gains in achievement) (Morine-Dershimer, 1985). Studies show that students who have higher classroom status tend to get more opportunities to participate and may learn more as a result.

Getting a turn to talk is an important social skill in the classroom setting. It depends on knowing the classroom participation rules, which are often unstated, and may vary from teacher to teacher. Some students “self-regulate,” and choose to play by their own rules even when they know the teacher’s rules. Think about the way you yourself have tended to participate in class discussions. Do you raise your hand and wait to be called on or call out an answer? Do you volunteer only when you’re sure you know, take a chance on being wrong, or play it for laughs with a humorous, distracting comment? Do you answer a question privately in your own mind, then check your answer against the public student response accepted by the teacher? Many high achievers respond more readily to closed questions, where they can predict the right answer, while lower achievers seem to be more willing to risk an answer to an open-ended question. Thus, teachers can shift patterns of who participates by varying the types of questions they ask, or using a mixture of traditional and non-traditional lessons.

Some alternative methods of distributing turns to talk more evenly include: “round robin” (teacher moves around a circle, calling on each student in turn); “talking stick” (students choose the next person to talk by passing an object from one person to another – only the person holding the object is allowed to talk); and “choral response” (teacher invites all students to answer in unison). To the extent that active participation in class discussions enhances learning, these procedures may increase students’ opportunities to learn.

Getting a turn to talk does not guarantee that a student will be “heard” by other participants in a lesson. Being heard is also associated with social status. In traditional lessons, higher achieving students’ comments are heard and remembered more than the comments of lower achieving students. Student comments praised by the teacher are also heard and remembered more. Higher achieving students report remembering teachers’ comments more than lower achieving students do, but interestingly, although teacher talk dominates in these lessons, students in general report hearing comments of their peers proportionately more than comments of the teacher (Morine-Dershimer, 1985). In more non-traditional lessons lower achieving students’ contributions are heard and remembered more than the comments of higher achieving students. This suggests that these lessons provide such students with an opportunity to be recognized by their peers for the unique knowledge or experience that they can contribute. Teachers acknowledge as well that they are often surprised by the knowledge and thinking displayed by their lower achieving students in more non-traditional lessons. Thus teachers who use a mixture of traditional and non-traditional lessons can learn more about the potential abilities of individual students, and can enhance the classroom status of a wider range of students.

Listening and learning from the comments of peers is an important classroom communication (social) skill. After all, in any question cycle, it is the response of the student that carries the information to be learned and remembered. The teacher question identifies the topic as something important to know, and the teacher reaction indicates whether the student response is appropriate and therefore worth remembering. Specific praise signifies that a given response is particularly appropriate. But the student answer is what must be heard and remembered. Students who “self-regulate” by attending  to classroom discussions according to these unstated “rules” show greater gains in achievement (Morine-Dershimer, 1985).

Teachers can promote better student listening skills in a variety of ways. They can model good listening skills in the ways that they react to student comments. Specific praise, expanding on a student response, asking for clarification, and relating a response to an earlier student comment are all ways to indicate that the teacher has attended carefully to what has been said. As students become accustomed to these types of teacher reactions, teachers can invite them to react to comments of peers in similar ways, noting what they liked about a comment, what they might add to a comment, what further information they might like to ask for, or how they see a comment relating to ideas offered earlier in the lesson. Student practice in using these processes can promote active listening skills. Such practice can also help students to internalize these ways of processing and learning from new information (Nuthall, 1999). This can serve to enhance students’ ability to engage in independent learning.

Special grouping techniques can also help to promote active participation and listening. In a procedure known as “Pair-Share” all students are encouraged to share their response to a question with a partner before offering to report publicly. This enables reluctant participants or those unsure of their answer to gain some peer support. Desks arranged to form tables of 4 to 6 students facing each other can facilitate small group discussion related to a question, enabling more students to provide responses. A student from each group can then report to the full class on responses generated by the group. Small groups can work together to record their ideas on chart paper which can then be posted and explained. This enables the full class to engage in a discussion comparing and relating ideas generated by the various groups, making it possible for the contributions of more students to be “heard” and recognized by their peers.

A circle formation can facilitate active listening as well as help some students to feel more comfortable about contributing to the discussion. Sitting in a circle rather than in rows allows students to see peers’ faces, rather than the backs of their heads, as they speak from their seats. It can also serve to alleviate the pressure some students feel when standing in front of the class to report. In one New Zealand study a Maori girl refused a teacher request to come up to the front and report to the class on her unique experience related to a lesson on health and trips to the hospital. When the teacher quickly rearranged the class from sitting in rows to sitting in a circle, the student sat down next to the teacher and proceeded to tell her story, including responding to further questions raised by her peers (Alton-Lee, Diggins, Klenner, Vine & Dalton, 2001). The teacher’s simple management move allowed the student to feel like a member of a cooperative group rather than someone singled out to serve as an “expert” reporter. This kind of distinction is an important one in the rules governing appropriate communication patterns in some minority communities.

Form-Function Relationships

In the example just given, the student’s refusal to comply with a teacher request could have easily been interpreted as disruptive or inappropriate behavior, and punished as such. Happily, the teacher in question understood the communication patterns typical of the student’s home and community and did not misinterpret her initial response. Teacher knowledge about common discrepancies between home and school patterns of communication can be very useful in preventing misunderstanding of student behavior.

One common discrepancy between home and school language use has to do with form-function relationships. The form of an utterance and the function it is intended to serve do not always correspond. For example, in the classroom a teacher’s directions (or commands) are often issued in the form of a question (Has everyone cleared their desks, ready for work?). If students come from homes in which directions are commonly given in the form of a command (Stop your arguing! Clean up that mess!), they may misunderstand the teacher’s intent and respond to the question as a question, saying “no,” and continuing with their current activity. The lack of an “appropriate” response, stemming from student misunderstanding of school communication patterns, may lead to teacher misinterpretation of a student’s behavior as willful disobedience. This type of communication problem will exist more frequently in the early primary grades than in classrooms with older students. Primary grade teachers who issue directions in a command or request form (Please clear your desks quickly now, and get ready for our next activity) can avoid this kind of misunderstanding by students.

Communicative Competence

Communicative competence is a key concept for sociolinguists. It refers to the idea that appropriate use of language varies from one social setting to another, and competent communicators can and do vary their use of language appropriately as they move from setting to setting. Almost all speakers develop the social skills necessary to display communicative competence in their native language and their home/community. For example, we engage in “self-regulation” and show our communicative competence when we shift our vocabulary and manner of address when speaking with respected authority figures as compared to chatting with peers (Stubbs, 2002).

A study by Crawford, Chen and Kelly (1997) has documented how student language use can shift from one activity setting to another. In a high school science class students worked in small groups to develop projects on topics of their own choosing. They then reported on their projects to two different audiences – a group of science teachers, and a class of 5th grade students. Two 9th grade bilingual Hispanic boys constructed a light-activated burglar alarm for their project. When they reported on the project to the science teachers, they discussed the physics theory behind the circuit that set off the alarm. When they reported to the 5th grade students, however, they explained and demonstrated how the alarm functioned, then checked for the students’ understanding of terms like “voltage” and gave further explanations as needed, much as a teacher would. They even engaged in “code-switching,” giving explanations in both Spanish and English to the bilingual 5th graders. By adapting their style of language use to the two different audiences, they demonstrated their communicative competence as well as their grasp of science.

When there are differences in the patterns of language use deemed appropriate at home and the patterns seen as appropriate in school, as there are for many minority students, then children who exhibit communicative competence in the familiar home-community setting may appear incompetent in their ability to “talk school.” Such students may misunderstand the difference between “real” and “psuedo” questions and misinterpret commands phrased as questions. Teachers, in turn, may misjudge the intellectual capability or social skills of students who do not quickly adapt to the typical classroom rules of language use. New Zealand teachers, for example, have often criticized the teacher in the example noted above, who shifted to a circle formation and again asked her Maori student to tell about her hospital experience. These other teachers thought the student was shy, and should have been allowed to opt out of the conversation.  Alton-Lee and her colleagues contend that such a reaction would serve to limit the opportunities to learn made available to all students in the class when the Maori girl was encouraged to share her experience (Alton-Lee, et al., 2001).

A number of authors have written about how differences between teachers’ and students’ styles of language use may influence students’ opportunities to learn. Stubbs (2002) argues that a child’s use of language can be a disadvantage if the teacher sees it as inappropriate, when it is really just different, not deficient. Delpit (2002) notes that when teachers see students’ language as deficient, their behavior often reflects that attitude; they tend to call on such students less frequently, and pay less attention to the comments they are allowed to contribute. Kohl (2002) explains that the teachers’ use of language may raise negative consequences for students as well, for “ small things – comments, questions, responses, phrases, tone – often make a big difference in student attitudes, not merely toward their teacher, but toward what their teacher teaches” (pg. 153).

Teachers can work to avoid misinterpretations arising from home and school differences in patterns of language use. One approach is to work to insure that students understand the classroom communication rules, and become competent in their use. In one study a good classroom manager working with primary grade minority group children spent extra time directly teaching and having students practice the rules and routines of traditional classroom communication, and her students showed stronger than normal achievement gains for classrooms in her school as a result (Morine-Dershimer, 1985).

Another approach is for the teacher to use a variety of types of activity or lesson structures so students who are more comfortable in non-traditional forms of classroom interaction have an opportunity to exhibit their skills. In a study by Rex (2000), a 9th grade teacher led a lesson on asking “genuine” questions. He carefully supported a question offered by Judy, a girl diagnosed as learning disabled, treating her question as  academically useful. He invited a fellow student, a bilingual Mexican immigrant with relevant personal experience, to answer her question. Thus the teacher set up a context in which both students could perform successfully and be seen by themselves, their peers, and the teacher as academically capable.


These key concepts (question types, question cycles, patterns of participation, form-function relationships, and communicative competence) from sociolinguistic studies  emphasize the importance of clarifying rules and routines of classroom communication early in the school year, so that all students understand how to participate effectively in whole-class discussions. This is especially important because active participation is a factor contributing to students’ learning. Teachers can use special seating arrangements, vary their use of questioning processes and lesson structures, and promote active listening in order to foster wide participation and increase students’ opportunities to learn.

Communicative competence is the concept that ties together the other concepts discussed here. The social skills of knowing what to say when to whom, and when to listen to whom, in what social setting (or what classroom activity setting) are critical classroom communication skills for students. A student’s ability to self-regulate, or accurately identify and use the talking and listening skills appropriate for varied classroom activities, can influence a teacher’s beliefs about the student’s academic ability and can impact, both directly and indirectly, the student’s ability to learn from teacher and peers. Table II summarizes teacher practices that contribute to student development of the social skills associated with classroom communicative competence.


Suggestions for Good Classroom Management Practice

Derived from Studies of Classroom Language Use*


Results of research on classroom language use suggest that good classroom managers help to optimize students’ access to learning when they use the following practices. Many of these practices are supported by classroom management research as well.

  • Clarify rules and routines related to classroom communication early in the school year, and provide students with practice in using these routines
  • Use varied types of questioning processes and lesson/activity structures
  • Define, clarify, and model the appropriate language use patterns for any new types of learning activities as they are introduced
  • Provide students with time to understand and practice patterns of interaction appropriate to each new type of learning activity introduced throughout the year
  • Observe how individual students participate in different types of communication tasks and activity structures
  • Reconsider attitudes and perceptions of students’ abilities while observing them in new or atypical activity settings
  • Use procedures that promote wide participation of students in classroom discussions
  • Use communication patterns and participation structures that promote inclusion of students who exhibit communication differences
  • Promote and use active listening strategies

Regular use of these practices should insure that the teacher is providing all students with extensive opportunities to learn.

*Adapted from Morine-Dershimer, 2006, p. 153-154.

Getting Feedback on Student Learning Related to Classroom Language Use

While much of the teaching that transpires in classrooms involves public talk, the actual learning that occurs takes place in the minds of individual students, and is not readily accessible to teachers. This poses a problematic paradox for teachers who want to know more about what their students are learning. Exemplary programs of research on classroom language use conducted in Christchurch, New Zealand and Santa Barbara, Californiaemphasize the importance of peer interactions in the learning process, and demonstrate the critical contributions of social as well as cognitive processes to the accomplishment of effective learning. Good classroom management is essential in promoting the kinds of social interactions that contribute to cognitive learning.

[Instructional activities] must be designed to engage specific social processes of the kind that will enhance effective and sustaining relationships between students. The tasks should have the effect of increasing the levels of acceptance, trust, sharing, and mutual support that occurs between students. (Nuthall, 1999, pg. 248)

A Santa Barbara study (Tuvay, Jennings & Dixon, 1995) illustrates the way that classroom “rules” or norms can be changed to enhance student sharing of ideas and opportunities to learn from each other. Video recordings and observers’ notes detailed verbal interactions of small groups of students in this study. During small group work two teams of 3rd grade bilingual students seated opposite each other at a worktable were working to develop stories about space travel. In one interactive sequence a student on the team of three boys commented on and contributed ideas to the story draft being created by the team of two girls sitting opposite. Members of both teams treated this as helpful and appropriate behavior, and the idea offered was incorporated into the final draft of the girls’ space story. In another interactive sequence a boy from a third team came by to ask the teacher a question as she worked with the team of three boys. The “drop-by” student stayed to participate in the discussion between the teacher and the three boys and contributed an idea that was incorporated into the boys’ story draft. The teacher and the team of boys all accepted this as helpful and appropriate behavior. These incidents illustrate the norms for sharing information operating in this classroom, norms  that promoted supportive peer relationships and contributed to student learning. Clearly, these norms were different from the “do your own work, no copying, no talking to your neighbor” norms found in many traditional classroom settings.

Observations in the New Zealand studies included videotape recordings, observers’ notes, and audio recordings of the public and private (comments to near-by peers and to oneself) talk during whole-class lessons and independent work. Results of classroom learning in these studies were based on pre-tests and post-tests of information that the teachers intended to have students learn. Individual students were interviewed to learn more about how they experienced the instruction associated with test items that they learned or failed to learn. The results of this research showed that students often remembered and learned from the comments of their peers (Nuthall, 1997). Results also showed how private talk would mimic the public IRE/IRF pattern. Pupils individually reacted like a teacher and evaluated their own covert responses to teacher questions, as well as evaluating the overt, public responses of their peers. As listeners, they also used private talk to reinforce and remember answers marked as correct by the teacher, repeating the answers to themselves (Alton-Lee, Nuthall & Patrick, 1993).

These studies show that students’ private and semi-public (small group) talk, as well as the ways that they listen to public (whole-class) talk during classroom discussions, can have an important impact on students’ task engagement and learning. But information about private talk and listening patterns is rarely accessible to classroom teachers to enable them to understand what is being heard and learned by their students on a daily basis. One helpful procedure to make such information more accessible involves gathering “exit data” from students at the end of a lesson.

In one series of studies I conducted (Morine-Dershimer, 1991) we asked student teachers and experienced teachers to plan and teach two lessons to their students, using two different instructional approaches, one more traditional “teacher-directed” lesson (e.g., lecture/demonstration and discussion), and one more non-traditional “student-centered” lesson (e.g., cooperative learning, small group work). At the end of each lesson, each student was given a 5×8 card and asked to write down what they thought was a “key idea” of the lesson. On the back of the card they were then asked to write down “two things you heard anybody saying during the lesson.” All cards were collected, but students were told not to write their names on the cards, so all comments were anonymous. The student responses on these cards revealed some very interesting information, and could be analyzed in a variety of ways.

We categorized students’ “key idea” statements according to differences in phrasing that seemed to indicate different beliefs about who or what was most important in the instructional interaction. Some statements focused on the lesson topic alone (topic-oriented), some on the presumed teacher’s goal for the lesson (teacher-oriented), and some on the student’s activity during the lesson (pupil-oriented). Table III provides examples of each of these categories of students’ key idea statements.

 Table III

Students’ “Key Idea” Statements Categorized According to Variations in Phrasing

 (Examples Reported By Middle School Students)

Focus on the lesson topic; topic-oriented key ideas

  1. (India’s Hinduism has many gods.)
  2. (The flip-flop method of finding a square root.)
  3. (Graphs can be used to find maximum and minimum values.)
  4. (Insects are very complex animals.)

Focus on the teacher’s role in the lesson; teacher-oriented key ideas

  1. (To teach us about Indian village life.)
  2. (To make us aware of different kinds of angles.)
  3. (To get us to quit complaining.)
  4. (The reason for today’s lesson was to teach us to watch and read more carefully.)

Focus on the students’ role in the lesson; pupil-oriented key ideas

  1. Learning an easier way to solve word problems.)
  2. (The use of groups to learn how to learn and how to teach, as everyone has something to teach, and everyone has something to learn.)
  3. (We learned to debate our answers and fight for our opinion.)
  4.  (To learn about how India’s life in a village is different from America’s.)
  5. (We learned about acute, reflex, and straight angles.)
  6. (We used evidence to back up our opinions.)

When we compared these types of student responses across the traditional and non-traditional lessons for each teacher and student teacher, very clear differences emerged. After traditional (lecture-discussion) lessons, students reported mainly topic-oriented and teacher-oriented key idea statements. After non-traditional lessons, they reported many more pupil-oriented key idea statements. We interpreted these differences as an indication that students felt more “ownership” of the information conveyed in the non-traditional lessons, though clearly they identified important key ideas in both types of lessons. The differences noted were more marked for the experienced teachers than for the student teachers. Table IV illustrates this, presenting the categorized key idea statements for Mr. M., an experienced middle school social studies teacher, and Ken, the student teacher working in Mr. M.’s classroom.

 Table IV

Students’ Key Idea Statements From Comparative Middle School Lessons

LESSON TYPE Topic-oriented Teacher-oriented Pupil-oriented
Mr. M’s Teacher-Directed Lesson 1.The electoral college.

2.The key is the electoral college.

3.How the electoral college works.

4.What the electoral college is and how it works.

5.All about the presidency and the electoral college.

6.Go over the election of the U.S. President.

7.When you vote, you don’t actually vote for the president directly, electors vote for him.

8.I think that the key idea of today’s lesson was about government.

9.Maybe it was that you have to be a U.S. citizen to vote.

1.To define and tell what an electoral college does.

2.The key idea of this lesson was to teach us about the electoral college.

3.The key idea of this lesson was to get us to know more about presidents and how they are elected.

1.The purpose is to learn about the electoral college and how it works.

2.I think the key idea in this lesson was to find out information about the electoral college.

3.To learn what the electoral college is and how it works.

4.To get the basic idea of the electoral college.

5.To know how our presidents or vice-presidents are elected.

6..Learning how the president is elected.

7.To see how voting and all works.

8.To learn more about the Constitution.

Mr. M’s Student-Centered Lesson 1.The lesson today was about the history of presidents and elections.

2.Who won the elections.

1.The object of today’s lesson was to teach us about the presidents and elections. 1.The object of today’s lesson was to find out about the statistics of some elections.

2.We learned about political statistics and past presidents.

3.To be familiar with political statistics of past elections.

4.Learn about political statistics and past elections.

5.To identify the statistics of the elections (presidential) from 1945-1989.

6.Discuss the election stats.

7.The main point was to learn about Presidents and how they were elected and by how much.

8.To learn who Presidents are and what % of votes they won by.

[plus 7 more statements]




Teacher-oriented Pupil-oriented
Ken’s Teacher-Directed Lesson 1.The rights that the Constitution grants you.

2.About the Amendment and how it works.

3.Today’s lesson was about people’s rights.

4.Your rights have limits.

5.That freedom of speech sometimes has limits.

6.How far can the government go in restricting our rights?

7.That there are limits on what the police can do and limits to what people can do and say.

8.Invasion of Constitutional rights, where to draw the line.

9.People’s rights complicate things.

[Plus 3 more statements]

1.You were trying to get across to us how the amendment works and that everybody has rights to religion. The government does not tell you your religion.

2.The key idea of today’s lesson was to teach us about how the government has no right to interfere with religion unless it causes problems.

1.I think the key idea of today’s lessonwas for us to see what kind of limits the government has on our lives, whether or not they are fair, and whether or not they should intervene at certain times or in certain cases.

2.To recognize the rights of the 1st, 4th. 5th, and 6thamendments of the Constitution.

Ken’s Student-Centered Lesson 1.Court decisions are hard to make.

2.Court decisions have to be based on fact and questions that must be asked.

3.What court decisions are based on, and the difficulty of deciding.

4.Is the job of being a judge easy?

5.That there are rules in the Constitution, and if not followed, those who break the law should be prosecuted.

6.What the different amendments do, and about the info a judge has to fund out.

7.How judges decide in court and what they need to know.

8.How the Bill of Rights enters into court decisions, and how it changes the judicial process.

1.The key idea was to make us realize what a tough job judges have.

2.To teach us about the amendments and to help us understand how and when they are used.

3.To show us what a judge has to do to make a decision.

1.Learn how to judge.

2.To act as a judge, and to find out phrases of amendments of the Constitution.

3.For us to see how you would make decisions on certain cases if you were a judge.

4.We were acting like judges and learning about the questions that judges would (or might) ask before a court case is made into a trial.

5.To learn how hard it is to decide cases involved with the amendments.

6.To learn about laws and how they work and what rights you have.

We categorized students’ reports of what they heard anybody saying during the lesson based on who was heard (teacher talk vs. comments of peers) and what was heard (comments on lesson content, instructional management, or comments “unrelated” to instruction, such as students’ side conversations). This yielded six categories: teacher talk about lesson content (Mr. F said religion in India is individualistic); student talk about content (I think that x is greater than 25); teacher talk about instructional management (The lab and paper on amoebas is due Friday); student talk about management (I need a pen); teacher talk unrelated to instruction (You can leave the room right now, Melanie!); and student unrelated talk (Did you go to the game last night?).

Student reports of what they heard being said in the lessons showed that student attention was clearly focused on lesson content during well-managed non-traditional lessons. During some traditional lessons where classroom observation indicated low student engagement, students reported hearing relatively high proportions of “unrelated” student talk. This is illustrated in Table V with examples of 10th grade students’ reports from an algebra lesson and a biology lesson. These lessons were taught by two different student teachers.

Table V

Students’ Reports of What They Heard Being Said in Two Tenth Grade Lessons


  1. Biology Class; Cooperative Learning Format

(3 groups working at learning centers on worms, arthropods, lower invertebrates)

There are three types of worms – segment, round, and flat.

Sponges are simple invertebrates!


There are 5 varieties of mollusks, 3 varieties of sponges, and 3 varieties of coelenterates.

Somebody said, Let’s watch the movie about lower invertebrates.

Mrs. O said to watch the movie on worms.

Sam said that worms are free-living.

Michael said he is immune to pain.

Mollusks are more complex forms of lower invertebrates.

Sponges are the simplest form of lower invertebrates.

Arthropods grow through metamorphosis.

Some examples of arthropods are crabs and snails.

“She ate him!” [videotape showed a female spider eating a male spider]

“Do they actually do that?”

“That’s gross!”

“I’m afraid of spiders.”

Take out your lab notebooks, so you can take notes in your groups.

  1. Advanced Algebra Class; Teacher Lecture and Demonstration

(whole-class instruction introducing Linear Programming)

Gimme some gum, Bill.

The person in back of me told me somebody was looking for me.

Somebody said, “This is called linear programming.” (I’ll let you guess who.)

Let x = # of hours store operates. Let y = # skates.

What a great party this weekend.

What is the value for y?

I don’t know.

What page are we on?

We’re on page 150.

You plug the corner points into the equation.

X and Y cannot be less than zero.

3x + 4y = 240.

This is confusing.

Ian is so cool.

I like your hair.

These kinds of information are relatively easy for teachers to collect from students in the intermediate grades through high school. The procedure takes minimal time away from class instruction, and has the potential to provide teachers with useful feedback about students’ levels of engagement, depth of understanding of content, and sense of responsibility for their own learning. As long as responses are anonymous, students appear to provide an honest representation of their reactions to the lesson. Comparing responses across types of lessons (or types of subject matter) might help teachers become more aware of how different instructional settings can affect their students’ perceptions and reactions.

Primary grade teachers cannot easily get written responses of these types from their students, but they can get oral responses from a limited number of selected students after lessons they have taught. These might be recorded on a tape recorder for later playback and analysis. Teachers in the primary grades might also ask a classroom aide to keep a simple chart to show which students participate during a class discussion and note whether there is a change in patterns of participation when different types of lessons or different subject areas are compared. A third possibility would be to work with two or three small groups to discuss student reactions to two different lessons. Student comments during these discussions might be recorded in chart form to encourage comparison of their responses to the two lessons. If this procedure were used, it would be important for the teacher to indicate that individual students would be expected to have (and express) different points of view.

The recommendations I am making here involve two important parts. First, teachers who choose to follow the suggested procedures will intentionally plan and conduct two lessons that involve rather different approaches to instruction. Second, they will gather feedback from students who have participated in both of the two lessons, in order to compare student reactions to the two different approaches. By following these procedures, teachers may learn much about their own comfort levels with particular patterns of classroom language use, as well as learning useful information about the language and thinking skills of their students.

Changing from familiar patterns of verbal interaction to use of new forms is not easy for many teachers, any more than changing from patterns of communication learned at home to patterns of participation expected in traditional school settings is easy for many students. But teachers’ perceptions of their own roles and responsibilities, as well as their expectations for students, can change over a period of time as they practice new patterns of interaction along with their students. Wood (1995) observed such a change occurring over time in one classroom.

[The teacher] struggled throughout the year to establish a way of teaching that shifted from an interaction involving questioning that was intended to check to an interaction in which negotiation of meaning was of central interest. This created for students a different classroom setting, one in which children did not feel they were in a situation of constant evaluation. Instead, they found themselves in an atmosphere in which their ideas were listened to and in which the teacher attempted to understand their thoughts. (p.225)

Incorporating some non-traditional classroom language patterns into lessons requires extra effort from teachers, but it can have important payoff in facilitating both academic and social-emotional learning by students. I found that to be the case in my own classrooms, whether I was working with elementary and secondary students, or prospective and experienced teachers. The classroom management practices listed in Table II can help teachers provide increased opportunities for students to learn. The feedback procedures suggested here can help teachers track responses of their students as they practice new patterns of classroom interaction designed to promote development of varied communication skills and optimize students’ access to learning. I hope some teachers who read these suggestions will try them, adapting them to their own classroom situations, and find them to be productive.

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