1.3.1 IRF exchanges
As described by Hicks in her reading (in the section headed ‘IRE/IRF: The Unmarked Case’), one of the most persistent and common features of classroom talk is the interaction between a teacher and a pupil known as an Initiation–Response–Follow-up (or ‘Feedback’) exchange (usually abbreviated as IRF).
Some researchers, such as Lemke (1990) and Wood (1992), have argued that the dominance of this exchange pattern of question-and-answer seriously limits the kind of participation that a student can have in classroom discourse, and that its use is really a reflection of teachers’ need to control classroom events, rather than being justifiable for pedagogic reasons. Others, such as Newman et al. (1989) and Wells (1999) have mounted the counter-argument that such criticisms are based on an inadequate understanding of the relationship between language form and language function. By this, they mean that critics of teachers’ use of IRFs have tended to assume that such exchanges inevitably perform the same type of function, which is to test students’ ability to provide a ‘right answer’ predefined by the teacher. They argue instead that IRF exchanges can be used to carry out a range of different kinds of interaction, within which a teacher’s questions may be used to elicit many other kinds of responses, such as explanations about what students have done or plan to do, their reasons for holding particular opinions, and their reflective comments on their own understanding. That is, there is no necessary association between a teacher’s frequent involvement of their students in IRF exchanges and a particular pedagogy or style of teaching. This point of view is supported by comparative research by Robin Alexander (2000), in which he observed classroom interaction in primary schools in five countries: England, France, India, Russia and the USA.
Alexander found that although teachers everywhere habitually asked many questions, there was significant variation in the functions of questions and their effects. For example, in Russian classrooms, he observed that teachers’ questions often generated quite long and thoughtful responses from children which contributed to whole-class discussion of problems encountered in doing work, and in finding solutions to them. Such elaborated IRF exchanges were relatively uncommon in British and American classrooms, reflecting differences of cultural tradition and practice between schools in the different countries.