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Framing the Question
Framing the Question

A physics teacher is making a presentation to the class. A student asks, “Should we write any of that down?” and the teacher responds, “Sure.”

Did the student’s question make a good impression or a bad impression on the teacher?

Each time students participate in class they leave themselves open for an assessment by the teacher, positive or negative. These incremental assessments have implications for the students’ class grades as well as their future options. But while classroom discussion may involve an element of risk, an important part of learning occurs here.

Zuengler and colleagues at WCER’s Center on English Learning and Achievement (CELA) are examining learning by students who are English language learners, compared with those who are monolingual in English. Their research is funded by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education. The Team’s recent findings have implications for the teaching and subject matter learning of English language learners: Many students need to be guided in the ways of participating in mainstream subject matter classroom talk. How a student initiates an interaction is important.

However, Zuengler and colleagues have not observed subject matter teachers offering students substantial guidance in the process of talk in their classes.

Zuengler and colleagues are observing classrooms in a high school in a Midwestern city— the most linguistically and ethnically diverse high school in its urban area. Sixty percent of the students are Hispanic, 20 percent are African American, 10 percent are White, 8 percent are Asian, and 2 percent are Native American. The team is documenting the socialization to subject matter language of a cohort of students that entered the school as ninth graders in fall 1997. The study has followed this cohort in their science and social studies classrooms through their junior year.

Depending on their language proficiency, second-language learners take either one or two classes in the school’s ESL program. This program serves students whose native languages include Spanish, Hmong, Lao, Thai, and Arabic. The research team videotapes classroom activities and focuses on the “risky” moments when students initiate classroom interaction. In considering the teacher’s response to each of the student initiations, some utterances proved less risky than others for the student producing them.

In a physics class of juniors and seniors. Mr. James, the teacher, has been standing up front explaining the transfer of energy from one form to another. (All names are pseudonyms.) In his presentation, Mr. James points to text and diagrams on the overhead projector, plays short clips on the VCR, and demonstrates using his hands and arms. In this excerpt the teacher is looking and pointing to the overhead.

A student, Ramon, asks, “Should we write any of that down?” and Mr. James responds, “Sure.” The outcome of this exchange is that Ramon and several other students in the class, none of whom had been taking notes up until this point, got out their notebooks and began copying down the information. In so doing, Ramon and the others displayed their willingness to follow the advice given and their intent to take down the material that Mr. James had just emphasized.

One might say then that Ramon’s question and the teacher’s ratification of that led him and several others toward efforts that at least corresponded to what Mr. James thought important enough for them to learn. However, in a conversation with the teacher after class, researchers found that he condemned Ramon’s question. Complaining about the class as a whole, Mr. James shook his head as he described a class of what he called “lazy” students who “just think they can pick up everything by sitting there, not doing anything of their own initiative, without keeping up with any of the reading outside of class.” Portraying his physics students as clueless, Mr. James brought up Ramon’s question and used it to make the point that what Ramon had asked just confirmed what Mr. James had been complaining about.

Zuengler says this example represents interactional patterns that are frequent. There is a place in the flow of classroom talk where the student has initiated some exchange and put himself on display. Ramon’s placing his question on the floor led to a confirming negative assessment by the teacher.

“From our research,” Zuengler says, “it appears that when students draw on subject matter, embed their comment or question in some larger context, or offer an account for why they are raising a particular observation or question, they are far more successful than when the more ‘bald-faced’ comments are placed in the conversational space.” For example, another student, Jennifer, questions the teacher as they discuss exponents in scientific notation.

Mr. Walsh: Ten to the eleventh. . . . notice I just add the five and the six. . . .

Jennifer: But that contradicts what were doing in Algebra right now with, um, the order of operations. . .

Mr. Walsh: Okay. What here goes against the order of operations?

Jennifer: (I don’t know) I understand what you’re doing like that but . . . .That goes against the order of operations. . . .”

Mr. Walsh: Okay. . . . Ten to the sixth is the same as ten times ten times ten times ten times ten times ten. Six of them. It’s just easier to write it this way. . .

Jennifer’s question contains some elements of “challenge” to the teacher, but she says “but that contradicts. . . ” and “that goes against. . . ” so Mr. Walsh accepts it as something to pursue in his talk.

This difference in the teacher’s reactions, says Zuengler, may be that teachers and students are all doing many complex and interwoven activities in any given class period. This complexity means that for any student utterance there are many possible interpretations of the student’s intent and the “question behind the question.” In the absence of any other contextualization, the teacher freely interprets, or must build a context within which to interpret, the student’s comment. With any luck, the intent and interpretation match, and the teacher responds to the real question that is asked, whether it is the one that is uttered or not.

However, it is possible for the teacher to interpret the student’s question in ways that put the student at risk for a negative assessment. By providing an account or framing the question, the student has the chance to control the teacher’s interpretation of the turn. This control may also help shape the teacher’s assessment of the student or class by students taking an active role in shaping the positions and identities that are ascribed to them.

“In our experience talking with both students and teachers about successful communication,” says Zuengler, “the ways by which students initiate classroom exchanges never comes up; this suggests that it’s probably below their consciousness. If this is true, then it raises some important implications for what ESL teachers might do with their students to reduce the conversational risks they encounter in their mainstream classes.”


How a student initiates an interaction is important; however, other than socializing students to be quiet and not swear, Zuengler and colleagues have not seen or heard subject matter teachers offering any guidance in how to talk, on the process of talk, in their classes. Instead, they seem to make the assumption that students already know, or should know, how to talk—by having learned it before coming into their class. Yet many examples show that that assumption is unfounded.

While it may not be true for subject matter classes, within the ESL classes the ways of talking, the process of talk, are emphasized. Since the ESL teachers are guiding learners in their acquisition of English, and since their learners are often already taking some mainstream classes, Zuengler would encourage ESL teachers to consider some ways in which their learners can reduce risks in their mainstream classroom participation.

Zuengler and colleagues recommend the following as possible actions for ESL teachers to take:

  1. Determine what the talk is like in your students’ subject matter classes
  2. Begin conversations with subject-matter teachers about their beliefs and assumptions about appropriate student talk, and how they believe students learn to talk in their classrooms, and
  3. Train students to do contextualizing work tailored to those beliefs and assumptions.

For more information visit the CELA web site at or contact Zuengler at