The magic of “How do you know?”

Student answering a question

“How do I talk to students?”

It seemed like a simple question, but the new teacher asking it wasn’t shy. He didn’t lack subject material or feel classroom jitters up in front of the room. He was wondering about one of the most important — yet under-discussed — aspects of teaching: classroom interaction.

In CLT, we tend to think of interaction as something we’re trying to get students to do. As we should: facilitating meaningful student-student interaction is the heart of our approach. But how should we talk to students? What can we say to prime key ‘learning moments?’

Here’s where mainstream education research can help. An important research topic that sits at the nexus of applied linguistics, communication studies and education is classroom interaction research: the study of how students and teachers behave toward each other in educational settings.

Questioning our questioning patterns

What might surprise you is how common certain interaction patterns are in these environments. All of us have been students, and probably all of us have experienced thousands of iterations of the following sequence:

  • The teacher asks a known-answer question: “Which tense should we use here?”
  • A student supplies an answer: “Past simple.”
  • The teacher evaluates: “Correct. Past simple.”

Sound familiar? Chances are you’ve performed this sequence hundreds of times yourself–likely both as a teacher and as a student.

Sociologist Hugh Mehan (working closely with the now-legendary Courtney Cazden) identified this pattern in the 1970’s and called it the “I-R-E”: Teachers Initiate an interaction, students Respond, and the teacher Evaluates (or provides Feedback–it’s also known as “I-R-F.”).

And one of the reasons Mehan and Cazden highlighted this was to raise our awareness of how this pattern could be turned on its head. What affordances might arise from doing something different — from not parroting this routine we’ve all assimilated?

Imagine this sequence with a different third turn:

  • Teacher: “Which tense should we use here?”
  • Student: “Past simple.”
  • Teacher: “How do you know?”

Consider the power of that simple question: “How do you know?”

Instantly it drives students toward toward the reason for their answer: the equivalent of ‘showing their work’ in a mathematics lesson. Perhaps in this case, our student would explain that the sentence context is about a previous event. Perhaps she would say she doesn’t know why she said this.

So with this one simple question, this teacher has exposed the student’s thinking behind the answer. This raises her metacognitive awareness (knowledge of her own thought process) and helps the teacher identify the next necessary pedagogical step to ensure the learning point is clear. The teacher may involve other students in this work — asking them what they think — or simply confirm that the student’s logic is sound.

Whatever happens next, it’s something that likely wouldn’t have happened in the I-R-E sequence. This probing third turn has transformed what could have been a routine concept check into a meaningful learning moment.

This is how you talk to students.

Finding balance in your teaching interactions

Since Mehan exposed this pattern to the education community, criticisms of the IRE sequence have abounded. Do a Google search for “IRE,” and you’ll find plenty of indictments: It positions teachers as the sole classroom authority. It privileges students who know the answer, preventing teachers from knowing who didn’t. And for us in language education, it produces less output from students than the alternative.

But it should be noted that the IRE is nearly impossible to escape completely. Mehan and Cazden weren’t saying this sequence is always negative: they just held up a mirror and showed us that we do this all the time. There will certainly be times in your teaching in which the economy of the IRE is useful.

Our advice: try to notice when you’re ‘doing IRE’ and why, and be open to flouting it to delve deeper. Shaking up the “third turn” is a simple way to dramatically improve your teaching.

Go deeper

Courtney Cazden’s glorious 1988/2001 book, Classroom Discourse, is a concise and highly readable overview of the IRE, its alternatives and other classroom-interaction issues. Definitely worth checking out!

What’s your favorite third-turn question to promote deeper learning? Let us know in the comments!

Discussed in this post

Cazden, C. (2001). Classroom discourse: the language of teaching and learning (2nd edition). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Mehan, H. (1979). Learning lessons: Social organization in the classroom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.