TEIS Newsletter

Understanding Classroom Communication (from Oct. 1994, Vol. 10, No. 1)

by User Not Found | 10/31/2011

Teachers intuitively know that how their students talk and act in second language classrooms will influence what they learn as well as their opportunities for second language acquisition. Consequently, they are constantly seeking ways to promote active and meaningful communication in their classrooms. This concern led me to develop a conceptual framework that examines the dynamics of communication in second language classrooms (Johnson, in press). Overall, the framework places classroom communication at the center of teaching and learning within second language classrooms. It acknowledges that what makes up the whole of classroom communication is the interrelationship between what teachers and students bring to classrooms and what actually occurs during face to face communication within classrooms. Thus, the dynamics of classroom communication can be thought of as being shaped by two interrelated dimensions. On the one hand, there are the moment-to-moment actions and interactions that occur during face-to-face communication between teachers and students and, on the other hand, there is what resides within teachers and students that shape, in part, how they communicate with one another.

Initially, the framework recognizes that teachers play a dominant role in controlling the patterns of classroom communication. Teachers tend to control the topic of discussion, what counts as relevant to that topic, who may participate, and when. At times, they may place their students in small groups where they have more opportunity to control their own talk, to select which topics to talk about, and to direct their talk to whomever they wish. However, at any point in the lesson, teachers can regain control over the patterns of classroom communication, and tend to do so by the way they use language to control both the structure and the content of what is said and done.

The dynamics of classroom communication are also shaped, in part, by teachers, frames of reference These frames of reference include who they are as people, the accumulation of time spent in classrooms watching teachers teach, the images they hold of teachers and students, and their belief about what is and is not supposed to happen in classrooms. Moreover, teachers' frames of reference tend to have a filtering effect on what teachers do in classrooms. Thus, understanding why teachers control the patterns of classroom communication as hey do, requires recognizing teachers' Personal and practical knowledge about teaching, their beliefs about teachers, students, teaching, and learning and how they make sense of their own instructional practices.

Next, the framework recognizes that students' perceptions of the patterns of classroom communication are based on how they perceive and respond to what their teachers say and do, and their own frames of reference. Second, language students come to classrooms with knowledge and use of language that has, thus far, guided how they understand and participate in the world around then This knowledge is acquired within the linguistic, social, and cultural context of their real-life experiences and represents the means through which these students use language to make sense of and interact with those around them. When these students enter second language classrooms, they enter into a communication context where the patterns of communication, or shared understandings of how, when, where, and with whom language is to be used, are not permanent, but continually constructed and reconstructed by teachers as they exert control over patterns of classroom communication and by students as they interpret and respond to what their teachers say and do. For many second language students, the norms that govern classroom communication differ dramatically from what they experience at home or in the classrooms in their Own cultures. In addition, when these students begin to operate in a second language they must acquire a new, or subtly different, means of talking and interacting. When differences exist between students' knowledge and use of language and the language that is expected and, more importantly, accepted in classrooms, this can create social, linguistic, and education obstacles for second language students.

Finally, the framework characterizes the patterns of classroom communication as determining to a greater or lesser degree, the ways in which students will use language for classroom learning and their opportunities for Second language acquisition. If, in fact, language use in meaningful contexts is essential for second language acquisition, then the patterns of classroom communication that exist in second language classrooms will likely influence students' opportunities for second language acquisition.

Thus, the framework is designed to enable teachers to recognize how the patterns of communication are established and maintained in second language classrooms, the effect these patterns have on how second language students participate in classroom activities, and how their participation shapes the ways in which they use language for learning and their opportunities for second language acquisition. Ultimately, the challenge set before teachers is to recognize how both the obvious in their classrooms and the not so obvious within themselves and their students interacts with and shapes the dynamics of classroom communication. By recognizing these two interrelated dimensions as making up the whole classroom communication, teachers can begin to alter and adjust the patterns of classroom communication so as to create an environment that promotes students' use of language for learning and opportunities for second language acquisition.


Johnson, K. E. (in press). Understanding communication in second language classrooms NY, New York: Cambridge University Press.