Early Childhood Education

Classroom Discourse


Classroom discourse is the vehicle through which much of the teaching and learning occurs in educational settings. It consists of the communications system that teachers set up to carry out educational functions and maintain social relationships. The discourse between teachers and children includes spoken language and nonverbal gestures and facial expressions that are connected to each other in the flow of talk. A guiding principle in considering discourse is that teacher and student comments cannot be analyzed in isolation from each other or the larger classroom culture.

Classroom discourse is the means by which children gain access to the curriculum. Activities alone cannot help the child construct understandings without accompanying teacher-child interactions that help the child make connections to his or her world of ideas. To learn, students must use what they already know so as to give meaning to new ideas in the curriculum. The young child uses her language to construct her own understanding about what is going on. When children give voice to their ideas, their speech makes their interpretations visible to themselves and others, facilitating their ability to relate new knowledge to old. But this potential new learning depends on how the teacher structures the learning dialogue

Careful examination of classroom discourse magnifies the actual teacher-child encounter and enables the observer to see the dynamic nature of teaching, in which teachers and children influence and become environments for each other and the activity changes from minute to minute as the interaction proceeds. In this way curriculum is much more than or sometimes even different from what teachers plan in advance. Teachers’ and children’s responses to each other during classroom discourse play a powerful role in determining what is actually taught and what is actually learned.

The actual (as opposed to the intended) curriculum consists in the meanings enacted or realized by a particular teacher and class ... On the basis of the cues, people in interaction develop an idea of what the context is at the moment; in a sense they define the context. Because in the course of the on-going interaction, the context may change from moment to moment, their definition of context may also change.

It is partly because of these momentary definitions that people are able to know and decide what is going on. How they shape their discourse shows what they really understand the task to be: what they do shows they understand what is going on. (Erikson and Schultz, 1981, p. 62)

Curriculum, within this perspective, is an evolving process created through reciprocal interactions as the teacher attempts to make the child a partner in the discourse. Children in early childhood classrooms are struggling to refine their own language, and simultaneously learn how to participate in the classroom dialogue and use that dialogue to understand curriculum content and social relationships.

The study of classroom discourse has its roots in the research on teaching as a linguistic process and the influence of anthropologists on making the study of language relevant to classroom practice. Dell Hymes (1972) was one of the first to highlight the importance of studying language as embedded in the social context of the classroom. Courtney Cazden (1986, 2001) further inspired and shaped this field of study.

Green (1983) offers the following five constructs that characterize classroom discourse:

1. Face to face interactions between teachers and children are governed by context specific rules.

2. Activities in classrooms have participation structures with rights and obligations for participation. Contextualization cues are the verbal and nonverbal cues that signal how utterances are to be understood and inferencing is required for conversational comprehension. Rules for participation are often implicit, conveyed and learned through the interaction itself.

3. Meaning is context specific.

4. Frames of reference are developed over time and guide individual participation.

5. Complex communicative demands are placed on both teachers and students by the diversity of communicative structures.

Teachers establish participation rules specific to their own classrooms. Teachers may communicate rules orally or with the way they look at a child, a gesture (hands on hips, pointing), or by maintaining or breaking eye contact. For children to participate successfully in a classroom dialogue, they need to develop communicative competence—understanding how to participate in that particular setting and the ability to use that knowledge in the process of communicating. For example, children must learn the rules about taking turns, acceptable ways of getting into the discussion (getting the floor) and staying in the conversation (keeping the floor).

These participation rules often change when a child moves to another classroom, as illustrated by the variety of acceptable ways children have of “getting the floor,” for example, by nomination (child gets a turn when teacher calls her name), calling out (child allowed to talk when she has an idea about the topic), hand raising (child raises hand and waits until called on), going around the circle or passing a “talk object,” or being quiet and sitting still—“I’m waiting to see who’s sitting still and being quiet.”


Traditional and Nontraditional Discourse

The most commonly practiced discourse pattern remains the IRE (teacher initiation, child responds to teacher, teacher evaluates response as right or wrong). For example:

Teacher: What are the three things a plant needs to grow?

Child: Sun.

Teacher: Right.

One feature of classroom life highlighted in this discourse pattern is the inequality of power between teachers and children. In traditional classroom discourse the teacher generally does most of the talking and controls all talk by deciding who speaks and when, regaining the floor after each student turn. In the traditional pattern the teacher asks for the correct answer (usually one word), and, if given an incorrect answer, corrects the child, moves onto another child, or disapproves the answer in some way, essentially cutting off the discussion after the correct answer is uttered. The teacher can interrupt the child at any time and usually waits only a few seconds for a response. In this discourse pattern, the teacher typically uses a specialized kind of talk that is particular to and may only have meaning in the classroom. This conventionalized way of speaking in classrooms is known as the teacher-talk register. Most teachers employ some or all of this conventional talk form. For example, a teacher says “Excuse me” to control or reprimand a misbehaving child and uses test questions that are not genuine questions because the teacher already knows the answer (see example above). Analyses of teacher talk categorize these questions as lower level questions because they require little thinking or language to answer; they can be answered with one word, often by repeating the teacher’s words or reiterating simple facts learned previously.

This discourse style best matches a theory of learning that considers the transmission of facts from teacher to child as the best way for children to acquire knowledge. The goal of the discourse is to get specific words from the curriculum spoken in the “official classroom talk.”

In the past three decades teachers (particularly those in early childhood classrooms) have begun to use nontraditional discourse styles, due to the growing awareness of the how classroom discourse style influences knowledge construction. In nontraditional classroom discourse, there is an emphasis on making the student a more significant part of the official learning environment based on the idea that children are shapers of their own knowledge and must have many opportunities to do so in the learning dialogue. Increasingly, teachers share power with the children and attempt to make each child a more equal partner in the discourse. In this form of classroom discourse, the teacher does not continually control who is allowed to speak and expects, and often promotes, more child talk than teacher talk. The children are encouraged to initiate talk and express their own ideas and the teacher builds on the information and experiences of the children as well as provides new information. The teacher accepts alternative answers and children are asked to elaborate on their responses.

In this more contemporary classroom, the teacher tries to implement discourse practices that are intended to create a community of learners which children are asked to listen to and learn from their peers as well as the teacher. With a focus on genuine inquiry (as opposed to test questions), nontraditional discourse resembles discussions where children are invited to contribute ideas and engage in collaborative problem solving; and encouraged, when necessary, to disagree with classmates or the teacher. The potentials of this non-traditional discourse practice are illustrated in the following example as kindergarten children discuss Leo Lionni’s book Tico and the Golden Wings:

Teacher: I don’t think it’s fair that Tico has to give up his golden wings.

Lisa: It is fair. See he was nicer when he didn’t have any wings. They didn’t like him when he had gold.

Wally: He thinks he’s better if he has golden wings.

Eddie: He is better.

Jill: But he’s not supposed to be better. The wishing bird was wrong to give him those wings.

Deanna: She has to give him his wings. He’s the one who shouldn’t have asked for golden wings.

Wally: He could put black wings on top of the golden wings and try to trick them.

Deanna: They’d just sneak up and see the gold. He should just give every bird one gold feather and keep one for himself.

Teacher: Why can’t he decide for himself what wings he wants?

(Cazden, 2001, p. 83)


In this discussion of fairness, the turn taking is managed and initiated by the children without the teacher controlling who speaks. They listen to and build on each others’ ideas. The teacher and children coconstruct the text as they present and defend their points of view. In the participation structure established in this classroom the children are free to disagree with the teacher. They are equal partners in determining the direction of the discussion. The teacher promotes cognitive development by putting the children’s voices in the foreground and asking them to reflect on and state their own ideas. They become the meaning makers. The teacher gains insight into their ability to understand and analyze the text as well as their skill in using language. Of course these types of conversations also influence children’s social development as they learn of and debate the merits of different points of view.

Educational researchers have examined the kinds of questions teachers use in the classroom as they influence cognitive and linguistic demands and learning opportunities. Results of such studies suggest that open ended questions and questions that create discrepancies, pose contradictions, and require shifts of perspective are the more cognitively and communicatively demanding, usually involving evaluation or synthesis of information since there are typically many possible answers to these questions. The kinds of classroom conversations where children are asked to recall experiences outside the educational setting are also important because they require children to distance themselves in time and space from the present. Thinking about past or future events requires a mental presentation of what has happened to the child at an earlier time or of what may happen and thus require more cognitive effort and more complex language than is necessary when describing what is immediately observable.


Form Versus Function and Different Patterns of Language

Two features of nontraditional classroom discourse are (1) the movement from a focus on the form to the function of language and (2) the recognition of the need to address what anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath (1983) calls culturally distinctive “ways with words.”

Beginning in the 1970s educators, and sociolinguists focused attention on discourse in preschool classrooms and set the stage for growth in preschool discourse practices (Genishi and Dyson, 1984; Halliday, 1975; Tough, 1976). At the time many early language programs focused teachers primarily on syntax, phonology, morphology—how the language looks and sounds, the form of language—rather than on how well a child was able to use language to convey meanings and relate successfully to peers and his teachers—the functions of language. Classroom discourse was characterized by correcting children’s grammatical errors and by teacher modeling and children repeating linguistic forms based on the premise that their knowledge of language was inadequate. However, studies of three to five-year-olds from low socioeconomic and minority backgrounds found that rather than having an inadequate knowledge of the language (as some educators and linguists assumed), these children were disposed to use language differently Their interactions within family and communities often did not match the ways that language was used in educational settings. The resulting lack of mutual comprehension between the teacher and child in the discourse interferes with the verbal and cognitive growth the teacher may seek and of which the children are capable.

While both form and function are integrated and necessary in communication, these studies suggested that if teachers responded to what children were saying and how they were able to use language in the process of interacting (the functions of language), both children’s learning and communication skills would improve. Tough (1976) and others (Genishi and Dyson, 1984; Halliday, 1975) developed tools for assessing language use in the classroom that help teachers to reconceptualize their role in the discourse; and assist children to convey meaning more effectively. Teachers could document the complexity of children’s thinking and gain useful information about how young children use their language to interpret experiences. Instead of asking for one-word “labels” for objects or pictures in a book, teachers asked children to use language to perform a variety of functions such as describe what happened in a book, report on their experiences, provide explanations, reflect on reasons or predict outcomes of events.

Current curriculum standards and pedagogical practice in early childhood education builds and expands on these ideas as illustrated in the expectations for early childhood professionals by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and other professional resources. Strategies are offered to help infant/toddler and preschool teachers lay the foundation for conversations, foster peer interactions, and help children become more equal partners in the discourse (Weitzman and Greenberg, 2002). Standards for Speaking and Listening (2001) outlines the kinds of talk we should expect from children preschool through the third grade and describes how teachers can help children participate successfully in the classroom dialogue. The National Council of Teachers in Mathematics, a discipline previously noted for its traditional discourse pattern, has also issued guidelines calling for the teacher of math to promote classroom discourse in which students listen to, respond to, and question the teacher and one another, initiate problems and questions, and explain how they arrived at math answers. Reflecting premises of social constructivism and sociocultural theory, teachers are now asked to co-construct the science curriculum with children, framing the discussion around children’s questions and responses. The Reggio Emilia program is the most prominent early childhood education approach where the child becomes the meaning maker and the classroom dialogue is used to help children unpack their knowledge so that it is available for review and further symbolic representation.

In classrooms characterized by teacher research and portfolio assessment, teachers will use transcripts of small group dialogues and children’s reasoning in problem-solving tasks to understand their science learning (Gallas, 1995). This form of documentation allows educators to gain a better understanding of individual development and the nature of shared knowledge being constructed by children in the classroom. Studying classroom discourse also helps teachers become more reflective practitioners, giving them a valuable tool to study and improve their own practice. “There is no other way that is as honest and powerful as a transcript to take you back to that moment in time, and bring everyone else back to that moment... allow an outsider to pay close attention to the words of a particular classroom” (Cazden, 2001, pp. 6, 7). Recording the voices of children within the curriculum discourse also validates children as they come to see that their ideas are valued and play a key role in the curriculum as meaning-makers (Wells, in Cazden, 2001). The growing popularity of the idea of accountable talk asks that students make use of specific and accurate knowledge, justify claims, use rational strategies to present arguments and be accountable to each other by listening attentively and asking for clarification (Resnick, in Cazden, 2001). In this sense, respect for children’s talk can help children learn to be more respectful and responsible citizens in the classroom.

Most early childhood teachers favor non-traditional discourse styles, although varying degrees of traditional classroom discourse can be still in observed in early education settings. Teachers in public elementary schools and federally funded programs, many of whom feel constrained by the No Child Left Behind Act accountability and high-stakes testing, are more prone to employ traditional strategies in their discourse. But classroom discourse in early childhood settings has changed significantly in the past three decades as teachers recognize the importance of creating a space for children to have a voice, to become full partners in classrooms. As more teachers use the educational dialogue to support the dynamic and reciprocal nature of teaching and learning, non-traditional classroom discourse will become the tradition. See also Curriculum, Science; Development, Social; Symbolic Languages.

Further Readings: Cazden, C. B. (1986). Classroom discourse. In M. E. Wittrock, ed. Handbook of research on teaching. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, pp. 432-463; Cazden, C. B. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning, 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; Erikson, F., and J. Schultz (1981). When is a context? In J. Green and C. Wallat, eds. Ethnography and language in educational settings. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Hymes, D., C. B. Cazden, and V. P. John (1972). Functions of language in the classroom. New York: Teachers College Press; Gallas, K. (1995). Talking their way to science: Hearing children’s questions and theories, responding with curricula. New York: Teachers College Press; Genishi, C., and A. Dyson (1984). Language assessment in the early years. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Green, J. (1983). Research on teaching as a linguistic process: A state of the art. In E. Gordon, ed. Review of research in education. Washington, DC: American Education Research Association, pp. 151-254; Halliday, M. A. K. (1975). Learning how to mean: Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward Arnold; Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press; New Standards. Speaking and Listening Committee (2001). Speaking and listening for preschool through third grade. Washington, DC: National Center on Education and the Economy and the University of Pittsburgh; Tough, J. (1976). Listening to children talking: A guide to the appraisal of children’s use of language. London: Ward Lock Educational for the Schools Council; Weitzman, E., and J. Greenberg (2002). Learning language and loving it: A guide to promoting children’s social, language and literacy development in early childhood settings, 2nd ed. Toronto: The Hanen Centre.

Gail Perry