The analysis of classroom discourse has always been a topic about which researchers are very passionate. According to Cazden (2001) , the role of classroom discourse is not only a medium through which teaching takes place, but also an indicator to demonstrate to teachers how much students have learned in classroom. Among all kinds of classroom discourse, discussion is an indispensable part. Mercer (2000) pointed out that discussions help students to consider others’ opinions, elaborate their own responses, provide evidence to support their thinking and enhance their understanding through collaborative analysis and mutual inquiry. Langer (1995) stated that classroom discussions promote students’ literal thinking. In other words, their experience in discussions about text provides benefits in learning from cognitive and social aspects. However, Fisher (1993) and Mercer (2000) both identified the three-type typology of talk, disputational talk, cumulative talk, and exploratory talk. Fisher further claimed that in classroom discussions, only exploratory talk “offers a potential for learning not obvious in the other two types” ( Fisher, 1993: p. 255 ). In addition, teachers’ potential contribution to students’ learning should be taken into account. Fisher (1993) suggested that the positive influence of a classroom discussion can be more obvious only when a teacher, or a more experienced participant, engages in the discussion and their expertise can serve as a support for learning. Reninger and Rehark (2009) highlighted the need for informal assessment and teachers’ feedback to promote students’ good thinking and inquiry abilities. In this paper, I would like to explore how exploratory talk is employed in the group discussion, the pedagogical implication of employing it, as well as the influence and the need for teachers’ modeling, feedback and assessment of it.
2. Literature Review
The purpose of my reviewing the two research papers is to find out the similarities and differences in their attempts to justify the importance of exploratory talk. Fisher (1993) compared teacher-pupil (t-p) talk with pupil-pupil (p-p) talk in his paper and discussed the possible benefit of p-p talk to students’ cognitive development. The discourse analyzed in the paper was extracted from the SLANT (Spoken Language and New Technology) Project. From “neo-Vygoskian” perspective, the researcher employed qualitative analysis to examine how cognition is represented in classroom discourse, especially in the form of exploratory talk. He concluded that successful exploratory talk is characterized by suggestions with challenges and explanations, with consensus followed. Given that exploratory discourse strategies need to be enhanced within pupil groups, explicit teaching of exploratory discourse strategies is recommended.
Reninger and Rehark (2009) observed and recorded five fourth-grade boys’ discussion practices during the 2005-2006 school year. They transcribed these discussions and then analyzed these transcripts in different ways to explore in which way exploratory talk contributed to promotion of inquiry and good thinking. Three dimensions of the discussions―linguistic elements, psychological dimension and cultural dimension―were analyzed to explore students’ engagement with collaboration and inquiry. The students were interviewed about their awareness of the ground rules of the exploratory talk after the discussions had ended. Based on Mercer’s (1995, 2000, 2002) ground rules of exploratory talk, the researchers tried to define dialogic discourse and see how exploratory talk helped students acquire dialogic identities.
The similarity of the two papers lies in their analysis method. However, the two papers differ from each other in their framework and pedagogical implications. Fisher (1993) emphasized the importance of the asymmetric relationship between teachers and students as well as the contribution of teachers’ guidance. On the other hand, Reninger and Rehark (2009) proposed that teachers’ feedback and assessment should play a part in classroom discussion. Whether it is to guide or to assess, teachers’ role is considered essential in the two researchers’ views.
3. Data and Method
In order to test whether without teachers’ participation students are able to make a good use of exploratory talk to improve their reading comprehension, to solve problems together, and to promote their cognitive development, I try to analyze a classroom discussion using the same method as Fisher (1993) does. The video I choose is a book sharing discussion on YouTube and the visiting address of the video is as follows: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zdMsQL6WW4. In this video, four fifth-grade students from AFM Elementary School share with each other what they have learned from the storybook “Granny Torrelli Makes Soup”. The story is about how Rosie and her best friend Bailey grow up together. Bailey is blind and sensitive about his blindness. Rosie’s attempt to help Bailey sometimes becomes a burden to him. Whenever Rosie gets upset, she relies on Granny Torrelli to talk her through it. Through cooking and storytelling Granny Torrelli helps Rosie realize that friendship is what matters in life. I transcribe and analyze the discussion to see whether it demonstrates features of exploratory talk and how such a talk contributes to children’s cognitive development. Three excerpts are drawn from the 14-minute video. The four students are labeled as B (the boy), G1 (Girl1), G2 (Girl2), and G3 (Girl3).
I present my transcriptions in a non-technical way and I add punctuation and some symbols to make the transcriptions more comprehensible. The transcription symbols include:
1) When the speaker continues after being interrupted, ellipsis is used, as is shown in the following example.
G2: Yeah, because she missed Pardo. And then she told Bailey, I mean Rosie, about how she never saw Pardo again after...
B: The train incident.
G2: ...Yeah. When she came to America.
2) Nonverbal actions are shown in italics. For example:
B: Like you know that you could do this; nothing could go wrong.
G1: (Nodding her head.)
3) Unclear or uncertain words appear in parentheses. For example:
B: Bailey doesn’t say how he wants to read books. He’s fine with what he has. But Rosie wants. Rosie has the, the option to read books and Bailey doesn’t. And she kind of (goes gross).
My analysis is based on Mercer’s (1995, 2000, 2002) ground rules of exploratory talk. Under his ground rules, students’ exploratory talk is presented in the form of stating and evaluating proposals, considering and challenging ideas, backing up claims with reasonable explanations, and giving alternative ideas. Such a constructive process is very crucial to the successful completion of a given task. The significance of using exploratory talk in group discussion is that creative problem solving can be achieved and knowledge can be created through joint mental effort. When I was analyzing the transcripts, I borrowed the method that Fisher (1993) used in his research. He analyzed the classroom talk according to the functions of sentences, which include “initiates”, “challenges”/“questions”, “counters”/“rejects”, “accepts”, “extends”, “repeats”, “explains”, “ignores”, “corrects”, and so on. Through such a classification, the pattern of exploratory talk can be shown clearly and explicitly to the readers.
4. Findings and Discussions
4.1. Findings: Analysis of the Transcripts
Excerpt 1: Discussion about word meaning
In the first excerpt the meaning of the word “smug” in the storybook is discussed and the language clearly shows some features of exploratory talk. Girl3 initiates the interaction by stating her explanation of “smug”―“feeling down or upset”. The boy supplements the meaning by adding the condition of when “you can’t do this”. Girl2 challenges girl3 and the boy’s explanation by saying “but I thought...” and her challenge is followed by an alternative explanation of the word which is opposite to girl3 and the boy’s explanation. Girl1 extends the meaning of “smug” by relating it to self-confidence. Then the boy supplements the meaning again and a consensus seems to be reached because the discussion of the meaning of “smug” ends here. We cannot see girl2 and girl3’s facial expression or body language from the video, but we can clearly see that girl1 nodded her head to show her agreement. From this excerpt we notice that all four children are almost equally involved in this discussion and each member makes contribution to the discussion. No one dominates the discussion and the turn-taking is natural. Their interactions are task-focused and productive. They are mutually supportive and were constructively critical of each other’s ideas. In their discussion, language is used as a tool for thinking together and it only focuses on the task in which they are engaged. Thus, their discussion presents characteristics of exploratory talk.
Excerpt 2: Discussion about stubbornness
The second excerpt shows how the four children collaboratively construct their understanding of the story together. In this excerpt the four children talk about Granny Torrelli’s personal experience and they discuss where Rosie’s stubbornness is from. It is noticeable that there are extensions of ideas, supplements as well as challenges in their discussion. The excerpt begins with the boy talking about Granny Torrelli’s personal experience. Then girl2 extends it by adding the possible reason of Granny Torrelli’s crying. With the boy’s reminding of some details, girl2 finishes her explanation of the reason, which is followed by the boy’s extension of their discussion by shifting the topic to where Rosie’s stubbornness is from. After that, girl1 develops the boy’s idea and gives her own explanation. Girl3 challenges girl1 with alternative explanation and she extends the topic by emphasizing the possible result of Rosie’s stubbornness. The boy develops girl3’s idea and supplements some examples of the possible results. These ideas lead to the end of their discussion about this topic and their discussion seems to construct a concordant understanding of the story. In their discussion there is an attempt not only to challenge given ideas, but also to justify them with explanations. The problem that needs to be addressed is always the focus of their discussion. We can see that the four children engage in each other’s exploratory ideas both constructively and critically. We can also see the four children in this excerpt combining their efforts to solve the problem collaboratively. In this excerpt, through the use of additive and contradictory framing, the children successfully arrive at an agreement. Their discussion presents characteristics of exploratory talk again, in which suggestions, ideas, and explanations “may be challenged and counter-challenged, but challenges are justified and alternative hypotheses are oﬀered” ( Mercer, 1995: p. 104 ). Fisher (1993) claimed that “progress then rests on the joint acceptance of one of the suggestions, or of a modification of what has been put forward” (p. 255).
Excerpt 3: Discussion about the two children’s understanding of blindness
The topic of the third excerpt is Rosie and Bailey’s different understandings of blindness. Gril2 initiates the topic and girl1 extends it with a brief comparison of Bailey and Rosie’s different understanding. Gril3 simply agrees with girl1 and girl2. The boy supplements with his own assumption. Girl2 shows agreement by supplementing some details. Gril3 agrees again. Gril2 continues to supplement to make her argument more complete. After the boy extends the topic, gril3 raises her question/confusion to other children but it is ignored by others. At last, gril2 makes a irrelevant conclusion. Different from the previous two excerpts, the third excerpt shows limited elements of exploratory talk. It seems that this discussion is less successful than the previous two. There are some problems in their discussion which are worth noticing. First, there is a clear disagreement between the topic of discussion and the conclusion. Second, the four children talk about the topic in a superficial way. They fail to dig deeper into the meaning behind the story. Third, there is no sign of questioning, objection or correction. Such features urge us to think about whether the lack of teachers’ guidance makes exploratory talk less effective in helping children to learn.
From the above excerpts and the rest of the video we can see that exploratory talk appears repeatedly in the four children’s discussion. It can be seen as a proof that children are capable of using exploratory talk in their discussion even if they are young. However, through observation we find that some exploratory talk is less effective in promoting children’s literal thinking and constructing their cognitive development. Sometimes even if the discussion exhibits some exploratory features, it occasionally becomes off-task or a superficial discussion of the relevant topics. Some children fail to provide very clear evidence for their arguments. Another problem is that some discussions only involve some of the children. Such discussions are less successful in enhancing students’ ability of critical thinking or in stretching their intellect. There is no doubt that exploratory talk offers a potential for learning. But its limitation also brings inspiration to our teaching.
5. Implications and Conclusion
As classroom instructors, how can we help students to make full use of exploratory talk and better play its role to construct valuable knowledge? Although exploratory talk is needed in learning, the analysis in this paper proposes a possibility that it is less effective, especially among young children, when teachers’ guidance is unavailable. Teachers should clearly and explicitly provide a ground rule for generating exploratory talk before the discussion begins. In order to elicit exploratory talk naturally, teachers should also raise students’ awareness of using this strategy. Without a training of using exploratory talk, students may fail to acquire such a skill or strategy to construct knowledge and improve critical thinking. Another important thing is for teachers to group children with different expertise and knowledge to form an asymmetric relationship. Such an asymmetric relationship can be considered as an alternative to teacher-student relationship and help students to promote exploratory talk.
In the process of approaching their goals, children may make mistakes; they may be confused or lose their way. Appropriate assistance and help from teachers are significant. In this sense, teachers should provide an instant feedback to students after the task is completed so that students can be informed whether they employ the strategy properly and how they can improve their discussion skills next time. The feedback should be given in a cautious manner so that students will not be discouraged from seeking solutions to problems by themselves. Only when a teacher guides students in a discussion task and provides timely feedback on students’ performance, can a discussion with better quality be expected.
 Fisher, E. (1993). Distinctive Features of Pupil-Pupil Classroom Talk and Their Relationship to Learning: How Discursive Exploration Might Be Encouraged. Language and Education, 7, 239-257. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500789309541363