1.3 The nature of educational discourse

Schools are special kinds of places, social institutions with particular purposes, conventions and traditions. So, although teaching and learning go on in many other places outside the formal education system, schools, colleges and so on are associated with particular, distinctive patterns of language use. Life in classrooms generates and sustains some distinctive ways of using language, though this may not be well recognised by teachers because they are immersed in it, and because they take these features for granted. Even students whose mother tongue is the language they use in school have much to learn about how that language is used as an educational medium.

The most obvious kind of spoken language used in education is between teachers and learners. We will consider that first, before looking at talk amongst students. The patterns of language use established by teachers have important consequences for how their students use language. One of the most obvious functions of spoken language in a classroom is for teachers to tell students what they are to do, how they are to do it, when to start and when to stop. Talk is the means by which teachers can provide students with information, a lot of which would be very hard to communicate in any other way. They tell students stories, read texts to them and describe objects, events and processes (sometimes introducing new descriptive vocabulary as they do so). Language in most educational contexts is also the main tool for a teacher’s control of events in the classroom. And teachers assess students’ learning through talk, in the familiar question-and-answer sequence of classroom life.

1.2 What is meant by ‘discourse’?

1.3.1 IRF exchanges