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chapter 1

The IRE/IRF pattern is quite typical and it has been found to be one of the least effective interactional patterns for the classroom (Cazden, 1986; 2001; Mehan, 1979; Watson & Young, 1986). More similar to an interrogation than to a discussion, this type of teacher-student interaction stifles academic language development and does not encour- age higher level thinking because most of the questions have a straightforward, known answer. Further, we have observed from kindergarten through high school that most students become conditioned to wait for someone else to answer. Often it is the teacher who ultimately answers his or her own question, especially when no students volunteer.

In classrooms where the IRF (Initiation, Response, Feedback) pattern dominates, the teacher’s feedback may actually inhibit learning because she changes students’ responses by adding to or deleting from their statements, or completely changes a student’s intent and meaning. Because the teacher is searching for a preconceived answer and often “fishes” until it is found, the cognitive work of the lesson is often carried out by the teacher rather than the students. In these classrooms, students are seldom given the opportunity to elaborate on their answers; rather, the teacher does the analyzing, synthesizing, generalizing, and elaborating.

Changing ineffective classroom discourse patterns by creating authentic opportuni- ties for students to develop academic language is critically important because as one acquires language, new concepts are also developed. Think about the previous example of trying to understand technology terms. Each new vocabulary word you read and under- stand (e.g., influencer) is attached to a concept that in turn expands your ability to think about technology resources. As your own system of word-meaning grows in complexity, you are more capable of understanding the associated concepts and generating the self- directed speech of verbal thinking: “Now that I know what twittering is, I can give it a try.” Without an understanding of the words and the concepts they represent, you would be incapable of thinking about (self-directed speech) or discussing (talking with another) your newest electronic gadget.

Why Do English Learners Have Difficulty with Academic Language?

Developing academic language has proven to be quite challenging for English learners. In fact, in a study that followed EL students’ academic progress in U.S. schools, researchers found that the ELs actually regressed over time (Suarez-Oroczo, Suarez-Oroczo & Todor- ova, 2008). There are myriad influences that affect overall student learning, and academic language learning in particular. Some factors, such as poverty and transiency, are outside of the school’s sphere of influence, but let’s focus on some of the influences that are in our control, namely what happens instructionally for these students that facilitates or impedes their learning.

Many classrooms are devoid of the kinds of supports that assist students in their quest to learn new material in a new language. Since proficiency in English is the best predictor of academic success, it seems reasonable that teachers of English learners should spend a significant amount of time teaching the vocabulary required to understand the lesson’s topic. However, in a study that observed 23 ethnically diverse classrooms, researchers found that in the core academic subject areas only 1.4% of instructional time was spent developing vocabulary knowledge (Scott, Jamison-Noel, & Asselin, 2003).

/ Academic Language of the English-Language Arts

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