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6.1. Introduction

In the previous units we have looked at some Politeness theories as explanatory theories for why people might be indirect. As you have seen, Brown and Levinson were mostly interested in how to account for different ways of performing certain speech acts. However, applied linguists were also interested to examine longer stretches of discourse, to see not only how meaning develops at a certain point, but also how a particular type of discourse is structured. Because such structures are conventional, and hence culturally specific, the non-native speakers need to be able both to identify what type of discourse he/she is involved in, and to predict how it will be typically structured, in order to operate effectively as a participant in the discourse. Discourse is thus seen as a product and not as a process in development.

6.2.   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; The Birmingham School: Sinclair and Coulthard (1975)

The Birmingham School approach to discourse recognizes distinct discourse units for the analysis of interactive talk. The pioneering work of this school involved recognizing discourse as a level of language organization. Their model of discourse organization of school lessons, based on hierarchically organized speech acts, can be applied, with modifications, to discourse in general. Sinclair and Coulthard recorded a number of British primary school lessons and proposed the following rank structure (the examples are taken from Cook, 1989:44-45):

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; Lesson

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; Transaction

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; Exchange (teaching exchange)

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; Move (Opening move: eg.: We are going to continue.)

(Re)Initiation: eg.: What is the capital of Australia?

Response: eg.: Cambera

Feedback: eg.: Right

(Closing move: eg.: That's all about geography today)

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; Act (speech acts)

As you can notice in the IRF example above, the teacher's first contribution is an initiation move, the pupil's answer is a response, and then the teacher gives feedback. Usually, one contribution may consist of more than one move. As Fairclough (1992:14) observes, the consistent presence of the teacher's feedback can be interpreted as his/her power to evaluate pupils' contributions, and teachers' questions are not 'real' question to find out information, but 'display' questions, to test what pupils know, and train them to say things which are relevant according to their criteria.

As already mentioned above, a move consists of one or more acts. Sinclair and Coulthard distinguish 22 acts for classroom discourse. Here are some examples:

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; A bid - when, for example, the pupil signals that he/she wants to contribute

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; Elicitation - when the teacher asks a question requesting an answer

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; Metastatement when the teacher explicitly refers to development of the lesson.

The major contribution of this type of discourse analysis is that of specifying the structure of the conversational exchange. It tried to develop a functional-structural model of conversational exchanges, as the basic unit of conversational structure. The discourse analysts defined the exchange as simply 'two or more utterances' (Sinclair and Coulthard, 1975:21)

The strength of Sinclair and Coulthard framework is in the way in which they draw attention to systematic organizational properties of dialogues, and provides ways of describing them. However, it is doubtful that such a model would have been attempted for more free-flowing conversational interaction. Also, the IRF model tends to obscure the social relations of the classroom, since Sinclair and Coulthard's classroom was a traditional one, and in their model they tend to ignore the task of analyzing how mutual understanding is achieved by the participants.

Discourse analysts are thus interested in conversational structure as an extension of other linguistic rules. The Birmingham School approach has been applied to different other discourse types, such as medical consultations (Coulthard and Montgomery, 1981), or TV quiz shows (Berry, 1981).

If the Birmingham School analysts are interested in discourse as a product, ignoring the on-going development of mutual understanding in the classroom, Conversation Analysts are interested mainly in what they call 'everyday conversation'.

6.3. Conversation analysis

'Conversation analysis' is a branch of study which sets out to discover order in conversations. Associated with the ethnomethodologists (a group of scholars in USA - Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson - who set out to discover what methods (methodology) people (ethno) use to participate and make sense of interaction. They start from the most local level to see how participants handle conversation, that is, how they judge who can speak and when. Unlike the Birmingham School, they view discourse as a developing process. In other words, they focus on the sequential structure of talk, that is, the way one turn follows another. Most important, they insist they are looking for the way the talkers organize their talk, not for structure brought in by the analyst. So, they look for the way the participants respond to any unusual patterns.

6.4. Basic concepts of conversation analysis

The starting point in conversation analysts' work has been the observation, on corpora of North American conversational data, the conversation involves turn-taking, and that the end of one speaker's turn and the beginning of the next latch to each other with almost perfect precision and split-second timing. Overlap of turns occurs only in about 5% of cases, and this suggests that speakers know how, when and where to enter. They signal that one turn has come to an end and another should begin. So the basic characteristic of conversation, or talk, in their opinion, is the turn-taking mechanism.

6.4.1. Turn-taking mechanism (rules):

On the basis of this observation, Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson (1974/1978) describe a system for selection of next speaker within the turn-taking mechanisms, that is, the way in which speakers hold on or pass the floor. In summary, they have come up with the following turn-taking rules:

1.   &n 424u2014e bsp;  if current speaker selects next speaker in current turn, the speaker must stop speaking and the selected speaker must speak.

2.   &n 424u2014e bsp;  if current speaker does not select next speaker, then any other party may self-select, first speaker gaining rights to the next turn.

3.   &n 424u2014e bsp;  if current speaker has not selected next speaker, and no other party self-selects, then current speaker may (but need not) continue.

Where there is an overlap between turns it has significance, signaling urgency, annoyance, or desire to correct what is being said. Turn-taking mechanisms vary, however, between cultures and languages. Thus, it has been observed that Latin people allow for more overlaps in their talk as compared to the Anglo Saxons.

It should also be mentioned that there are other factors involved in signaling turn-taking, such as eye-contact, body position and movement, intonation and volume of the speech, and also the relative status of the speakers or the roles they play.

6.4.2. Turn types

Adjacency pairs

Conversation analysts introduce the notion of adjacency pairs as the basic turn-taking type. Adjacency pairs refer to turn alternations where the utterance of one speaker makes a particular kind of response very likely. For example, a greeting, as first pair part, is normally followed by greeting (as second pair part). A farewell is followed by a farewell; a question by an answer. If they are not, we are likely to interpret this somehow, either as being rudeness, or lack of attention, etc. In these examples, the adjacency pairs are tightly constructed, with strong limitations on the second parts to be followed.

Preference structure

In other adjacency pairs, there is a choice of two likely responses, of which one is termed preferred response (because it occurs most frequently), and the other dispreferred (because it is less common). Here are some examples of preference organization of adjacency pair:

  1. Offer

- Acceptance (preferred)

- Refusal (dispreferred)

  1. Compliment

- Acceptance (preferred)

- rejection (dispreferred)

- agreement (preferred)

  1. Question

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; expected answer (preferred)

-   &n 424u2014e bsp;   &n 424u2014e bsp; unexpected answer (dispreferred)

  1. Complaint

- apology (preferred)

- denial (dispreferred)

- excuse .

- challenge


Usually, the dispreferred responses a marked by a slight pause or by prefaces such as 'Well', or 'You see', or by an explanation or justification. This is also a cue for the analyst that the participant perceives the response as being the unexpected one.

Insertion sequences and side sequences

There are also cases in which the second part of an adjacency pair is delayed by an alternation of turns occurring within it. These sequences are called insertion sequences, whenever the topic discussed is related to that of the main sequence in which it occurs.


1. A: Did you enjoy the film?

2. B: (Did you?)

3. A: Yes)

4. B: So did I.

As you can see in the example, the main sequence consists of a question (1) and the answer (4). However, before giving the answer, B inserts a related question to which A has to answer, before the answer to the first question is given. Thus, the format of an insertion sequence would be: Q (Q-A) A.

Whenever the speakers simply switch from one topic to an unrelated one, and then back again, we have what the conversation analysts call a side sequence.

In the example below, the side sequence is typed in bold.

E.G (from Cook, 1989:54)

A: I'm dying to know -where's my watch by the way?

B; What?

A: What Gillian's aerobics sessions are like. HA HA HA.

B: What aerobics sessions? It's here

A: Gillian does aerobics sessions every evening. LEADS them. Thanks. Can you imagine?



Unlike most written discourse, conversation is constructed and executed as it happens, by the participants. There is no possibility of restructuring, crossing out or rewriting. Consequently, participants may often correct either their own words or those of another participant, edging towards a situation in which maximum communication is achieved.

These corrections or reformulations are called by conversation analysts repairs.

E.g.: (from Schegloff, Jefferson, Sacks:1976:370

A: Hey (.) the first time they stopped me from selling cigarettes was this


B: (slight pause)

A: From selling cigarettes.

B: Or buying cigarettes.

In the example above, A initiates and does the repair, by partially repeating the prior turn, with the repair done in the same turn as the partial repetition.


Finally, another notion introduced by conversation analysts, that of pre-sequences, refers to the fact that participants in a conversation draw attention, or prepare the ground for, the kind of turn they are going to take next. Thus, usually, before an invitation or a request, for example, there is a pre-invitation, as in the examples below:


A: Are you free tonight?

B: Yes.

A: Let's go to a film.

Often these turns also act as devices for obtaining the right to a longer turn, like a story or a joke. If the right to a longer turn is obtained, then its ending also must be signaled so that the other participants know it is finished and a contribution from them will not be construed as an interruption. Such signals might be pauses, laughter (especially in the case of jokes), or fillers, such as 'Anyway.' 'So.'. Clarifications are also considered as a form of repair.

6.5. Conclusion

Conversation analysts depict conversation as discourse constructed and negotiated between participants, following pre-established pattern, and marking the direction they are taking in particular ways, such as, pauses, laughter, intonation, fillers. These conventions enable the participants to orient to what is happening, and make sense of the interaction. Discourse analysts following the Birmingham School model, on the other hand, are more interested in the structural organization of discourse, looking for recurrent patterns, or regularities, and for categories.



Identify the turn types and turn taking mechanisms in the following extract:


A: so if there's a hardware store we could call in and get one on the way back

B: do you think there is one?

A: yes

B: OK then

A: that would be nice, wouldn't it?

B: yes it would.

A: I mean the job not the hardware shop.

B: yea I REAlise. What do you keep telling me for.

(from Cook, 1989:57)


Try to record and then transcribe a very short classroom exchange and analyse it according to the Birmingham School model.


Analyse the following classroom extract and see to what extent the IRF model can be applied. Try also to apply some concepts from conversation analysis.

The following extract comes from a lesson where an American teacher teaches Romanian 11-th form pupils. The following exchange occurs at the beginning of the lesson, after the teacher has called the roll and has introduced the topic of the lesson ('yesterday this poem er (.) I did get to read about half of them, I didn't still get through all of them').

T stands for 'teacher', and the other letters stand for different students.

T: so but some of you had some very interesting answers or responses to the poem (.) Denisa I liked ah what you said . could you tell me (2) there were two things you mentioned. first of all you mentione

something about how they were all different people or different voices. could you tell me ?

D: er people are presented (?) for different parts of the world wise men good men wild men brave men old age.

T: yes ?


D: and at the end his own father who is a very important figure for him

T: OK then how does he (.) do these different people go together, I mean how does he connect them?

D: they form the world I think they (.) they make a home.


D: /but still

A: /they have the same reaction.

Ro: so I think

D: /yes the same reaction

Ro: /it presents the world from a general point of view.


Ro: then from a personal one.

T: OK at the end it's a personal one right? he finally ends up with a very personal point.

D: they react in the same way in front of death facing death.

T: OK and how does he characterise that ? I think that's important. it's pretty clear.

(from Coposescu, 2003)


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