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Annual  Review of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, Volume 2, 2005







Much research on second language (L2) classroom interaction adopts purely linguistic approaches. Nevertheless, with more studies of discourse, social interaction, and second language acquisition, conversation analysis (CA) methodology has been utilized to analyse this type of institutional talk. This paper provides a literature review of two approaches to L2 classroom interaction: conversation analysis (CA) and discourse analysis (DA). By examining the two approaches, their strengths and limitations are highlighted in an attempt to discern the most dynamic approach that informs the different varieties of communication in the L2 classroom context.


          Learning a language in the classroom is a consequence of the exposure of the learner to the linguistic environment manifested in the interaction between the participants in that context. This interaction differs in form and function from casual conversation and other institutional varieties of talk which occur in different institutions such as hospitals, court rooms, etc. Given the constraints on space, there is no room here to discuss the differences between casual conversation and institutional talk which might be interesting to some readers. However, it is important at this point to note that institutional talk has some distinct features which have drawn the attention of researchers to study this type of interaction. Kurhila (2004), for example, contends that institutional talk is characterised by being goal-oriented and containing contributions shaped by the institutional goals. Another study (Heritage 1997) examines the institutional identities in interaction and shows that the “institutionality” (ibid: 164) of this type of interaction can be investigated in six places: turn taking, overall structural organisation, sequence organisation, turn design, lexical choice, and epistemological and other forms of asymmetry.

          Studying classroom interaction has helped in finding effective ways of preparing L2 teachers, evaluating teaching, studying the relationship between teaching and learning, and promoting teachers' awareness of their teaching and consequently improving it. For these purposes and many others, several approaches including CA and DA are used to measure, analyse and describe the behaviour of participants in classrooms.

          In this article, CA and DA are addressed to see to what extent they converge or diverge. At the outset, I explore the relationship of each approach to theory, and discuss its advantages and disadvantages, beginning with conversation analysis (CA) followed by discourse analysis (DA). The differences between the two approaches are, then, discussed and as the article progresses a conclusion is attained.

Approaches to L2 classroom interaction

          Language in general has been studied using linguistic approaches to understand what language is and how it works. Such approaches, including DA, have investigated the structure and functions of a language in terms of the linguistic units it contains. Similarly, much research has been conducted on institutional interaction using a DA approach. For example, L1 classroom interaction was studied by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) who analysed classroom spoken discourse linguistically and identified the three-part IRF sequence, which comprises teacher initiation (I), learner response (R) and teacher follow-up or feedback (F) (also referred to as teacher evaluation (E), hence forming the sequence IRE). Consider the pattern of IRF/IRE in the following extract:

Extract 1

1 T: What do you think? (I)
2 L: It was very exciting. (R)
3 T: It was very exciting. Right. (F/E)

(Tsui 1985, p. 19).


          With more studies on discourse, social interaction, and second language acquisition, in addition to ongoing developments

in the CA field, the CA methodology has been widely used to analyse classroom interaction and other kinds of institutional talk.

          In what follows, I will give an overview of the theoretical foundation of both CA and DA focusing on their strengths and


The conversation analysis perspective on L2 classroom interaction

          Being based on sociology and ethnomethodology and having roots in second language acquisition, CA can be considered

a powerful methodology for analysing talk and social interaction. It began with Harvey Sacks's first 'Lectures on Conversation' in

1964, and has developed over the years displaying many findings on the nature and social organisation of talk-in-interaction.

Sacks discovered that talk in interaction was ordered, methodical, and systematically organised, rather than chaotic and

disorderly (Firth 1996; Ten Have 1999, p.3; Seedhouse 2004, p.2).

          This research methodology studies how participants use unnoticeable normative principles to accomplish their social

actions and make others understand them as well as how speakers deviate from these norms (Garfinckle 1967, Firth 1996; Firth

and Wagner 1997; Rampton 1997). CA, then, studies the underlying machinery that enables interactants to achieve organisation

and order for social action in interaction (Seedhouse 2004, p.12; Seedhouse 2005, p.251). It utilizes the three parts of the

question “why that, in that way, right now?” to analyse interaction in real time. (Seedhouse 2004, p. 66).

          Thus, being a systematic procedure for studying “social interaction (rather than language per se)”, as Samra-Fredericks

(1998) states, CA examines how grounding social facts is carried out.

          In order to give an overall view of CA, its principles are summarised in the following points:

          Working with these principles, researchers have identified four different types of interactional organisation: adjacency

pairs, preference organisation, turn taking, and repair. Each is briefly defined below with illustrations from L2 classroom

interaction. Adjacency Pairs: sequences of related utterances by two different speakers, such as a question and its answer, as

illustrated in the following extract:

Extract 2

1 T: Do you know what an emperor is? What is an emperor, Joyce?
2 L: A man who ruled the country.

(Tsui 1995, p. 56)

          The teacher in this extract produces an initiation which is a question representing the first part of the adjacency pair. Then

the learner gives the second part of the adjacency pair by responding to the question and producing an answer.

Preference organisation: using the preferred second part of an adjacency pair which will create affiliation, rather than the

dispreferred part which will create a disaffiliative response. Extract 3 illustrates the preferred response in Line 2, and Extract 4

illustrates the dispreferred one in Lines 2 and 4:

Extract 3
1 T: What's the time?
2 L: Ten o'clock.

(Tsui 1995, p.27)

Extract 4
1 L: Can we give in our grammar on, um, Wednesday?
(five turns are omitted)
2 T: Oh that's because you have been lazy and didn't do your work properly. That's
why you have extra work to do. Right?
3LL: No.
4 T: So, I'm sorry, you have to do it, otherwise I won't be able to finish marking
your books to give you back before the holidays.

(Tsui 1995, p.3)

Turn Taking: exchanging turns by interlocutors as they converse. Turn taking is considered the basic procedure for organising

conversation as a social activity since it forms the major principle of sequential organisation. Consider the turns in Extract 5:

Extract 5
1 T: Can you tell me what are the three parts of the description she gives about this
2 L: His character?
3 T: Yes, character.

(Van Lier 1988: 202)

          In this extract the teacher asks a question in the first turn. The learner then takes the turn and gives an answer to which the

teacher provides an evaluation in the following turn.

Repair: a mechanism used by interactants for correcting errors in interaction. In Extract 6 the teacher supplies the correct

linguistic form in Line 3:

Extract 6

1 L: because she can't
2 T: because she counted
3 L: because she counted the wrong number of tourists.

(Tsui 1995, p.48)

          Subsequent research has noted that a wide range of forms of talk, in addition to casual conversation, has been subject to

detailed study over the past three decades. CA researchers such as Seedhouse (2004, 2005), Johnson (1995), Drew and

Heritage (1992), Hester and Francis (2001), Levinson (1992), Van Lier (1988), Edmondson (1985), Ellis (1984) and many

others have studied classroom interaction and analysed audio or video recordings of individuals' talk found within institutional

settings. Most of their analyses have shown a consensus that the different types of L2 classroom interaction demonstrate an

essential relationship between the institutional aim and the organisation of the interaction. To put it differently, the way this variety

of talk is formed is closely related to and contingent upon the goal of the institution (Levinson 1992; Seedhouse 2004).

          It is true that CA has major strengths; yet, striking a critical chord, it must be mentioned that there is ample evidence

(Day 1990; Markee 2000; Seedhouse 2004; Steensig 2004) pointing out the problematic procedures of data collection and

analysis. One chief problem is the difficulty of recording data because of the 'noise' present in the context. Moreover,

transcription is tedious, mechanical and needs a great deal of accuracy while the level of data resulting from transcription is low

(Markee 2000, p.53). This process of transcription is slow and time-consuming, particularly when dealing with multi-party talk.

It is, as Steensig (2004) asserts, complex due to the multiple factors that have to be taken into consideration. Above all, the

potential methodological risk of CA lies in the analyst’s inferences and presuppositions ignoring that CA stresses examining data

for any discoveries they might yield. As a result, this might lead to overwhelming problems.


The discourse analysis perspective on L2 classroom interaction

          DA is a diverse area of study but it is used here to refer mainly to the linguistic analysis of naturally occurring speech. This

approach follows from descriptive linguistics which focuses on describing suprasentential structures by studying how sentences in

spoken and written language form larger meaningful units. Hence, the goal of DA, as broadly conceived, is dealing with linguistic

issues such as sentence cohesion, turn taking, the relationship between utterances, and how speakers use 'speech moves' and

'speech acts' in their discourse (Richards and Schmidt 2002).

          There are different approaches of DA; some are similar to CA and some have been the product of critical discourse

analysis and post-structural philosophy. These approaches refer to the study of the organisation of language and its use in social

contexts by examining the interrelationship between language and society and identifying the ideologies and values underlying the


          For analysing classroom discourse the DA methodology looks at the structural-functional position of linguistic terms

(Chaudron 1988, p.14) and uses Searle's speech act theory to analyse sequences of discourse. The speech act theory perceives

utterances as functional units with two types of meaning:

1. The propositional or locutionary meaning which is the basic literal meaning the particular words of the utterance convey.

2. The illocutionary meaning or force which is the effect produced on the listener by the utterance.

          Thus a classroom lesson, according to the speech act theory and the DA approach, is a speech situation consisting of one

or more speech events that have different speech acts, such as commissives, declaratives, directives, expressives, and

representatives (Richards and Schmidt 2002).

          Although DA is a broad method of analysis and forms an essential and useful consideration for developing effective

teaching methods, some shortcomings have been related to it. A study by Levinson (1983 cited Seedhouse 2004) lists a number

of problems in this approach. First, each utterance is considered to perform only one speech act, while in reality it can perform

multiple speech acts. Examine Extract 7 below:

Extract 7

1 W: Let's go out tonight.
2 H: I've got many things to do.

(author's data)

          The husband's utterance conveys a basic literal or propositional meaning informing about his state. But considering the

illocutionary meaning of the utterance, there are two effects the husband may want to produce on his wife: a rejection of the

suggestion or a request for help. Second, there is an inability to determine the units of behaviour that will constitute an

interactional act. The wife in the example above might perform the request or react to the rejection. Third, there is a lack of a

clear correlation between form and meaning. Fourth, there is an inability to find specific sets of rules that govern coherent

discourse. Last, there is superficiality in the textual analyses where the analyst only focuses on identifying the IRF/IRE cycles

within the interaction.

          Additionally, it has been claimed that DA uses coding schemes to analyse data in terms of the pedagogic “move on one

level at a time” (Seedhouse 2004, p. 57) (This issue will be discussed in the following section) and although these coding

schemes are fast and straightforward to apply, they do not reflect the complexity and fluidity of L2 classroom interaction.

          Roughly speaking, from the review above an initial picture of the distinction between CA and DA can be formed. It is

reinforced in the following discussion.

CA and DA: points of difference

          Within the context of the analysis of the teacher-pupil exchange and drawing extensively on the discussion by Seedhouse

(2004), I will present seven points of difference between CA and DA which are worthy of consideration:

Both DA and CA analyse L2 classroom interaction in terms of interlocutors' turns, but DA primarily focuses, as noted earlier, on the linguistic features of interaction whereas CA focuses on the social actions as well (Antaki 2002). CA stresses that interactants continually show to each other their own understanding of what they are doing in the course of their interaction. Consequently, a much more dynamic interactional outlook on speech acts is created by CA than that produced by DA.

The coding scheme used by DA to analyse classroom interaction makes this type of discourse appear simple. On the contrary, CA reveals the complex and dynamic nature of the interaction (Seedhouse 2004, p.60). Consider how the following extract can be analysed from the DA and the CA perspectives:

Extract 8
1 T: Vin, have you ever been to the movies? What’s your favourite movie?
2 L: Big.
3 T: Big, OK, that’s a good movie, that was about a little boy inside a big man,
wasn’t it?
4 L: Yeah, boy get surprise all the time.
5 T: Yes, he was surprised, wasn’t he? Usually little boys don’t do the things that
men do, do they?
6 L: No, little boy no drink.
7 T: That’s right, little boys don’t drink.

(Johnson 1995, p. 23)

          According to the conventional DA approach, this extract simply contains a sequence of IRF/IRE cycles. In Line 1, the

teacher initiates a question to which the learner replies in Line 2. Then a follow-up and another initiation are given by the teacher

in Line 3 and a reply to the initiation is provided by the learner in Line 4. Again, Line 5 presents a follow-up and initiation by the

teacher followed by the learner’s reply in Line 6. Finally, the teacher gives a follow-up in Line 7.

          From the CA perspective, this extract can be analysed in terms of the four types of interactional organization. The

adjacency pairs are represented in the question-answer sequence by Lines 1 and 2, 3 and 4, and 5 and 6. All of the learner’s

responses in Lines 2, 4, and 6 and the teacher’s feedback in Line 7 display the mechanism of preference organization creating

affiliation through the use of the preferred part of a pair. By exchanging turns the teacher and the learner manage the talk locally.

Repair is also manifested in the teacher’s mitigated corrections in Lines 5 and 7.

          CA claims that because interculture marks the social action of the interlocutors, it is important, as Seedhouse (2004)

asserts, that the internal “details of the interaction” are approached first and not “the external details of the culture.” This leads to

identifying the cultural characteristics relevant to the linguistic forms, the topic, and the social actions of the participants

(Seedhouse 2004, pp.91-92) and accounting for any deviant norms that characterise the L2 classroom (Larsen-Freeman 2000).

          With an emic perspective, Extract 8 could be approached on a turn-by-turn basis. The teacher asks two questions in Line

1, giving the learner the possibility of answering one or both of them. The topic of 'movies' is introduced by the teacher and then

a shift is made to the subtopic of the movie 'Big' in the learner's response in Line 2. The topic sharing is explicit in Line 3 when

the teacher describes the plot of the movie 'Big' to inform the other learners about the movie and uses a tag question to invite the

learner to develop the subtopic. Despite using inaccurate linguistic forms, the learner responds to the tag question in Line 4 and

extends the information about the movie. Instead of dropping the current topic and making a topic change, the teacher in Line 5

gives an embedded correction and continues the subtopic development by clarifying the proposition presented by the learner and

inviting him to talk again. The learner, then, agrees with the teacher's view in Line 6 and provides an example confirming the

teacher's previous explanation or clarification. Finally the teacher gives another mitigated embedded correction in Line 7.

          Thus far, the etic or external analyst's perspective on human behaviour adopted by DA is clearly seen in the analysis of

Extract 8 above when the previously planned and formulated cycle of the IRF/IRE is used and applied to analyse the dialogue.

In contrast, the interaction categories are discovered by the CA perspective while the analysis is being conducted and different

interactional aspects such as the unpredictable responses of the learner and the orientation to the other learners are considered.

Extract 9
1 T: After they have put up their tent, what did the boys do? (I)
2 L: They cooking food. (R)
3 T: No, not they cooking food, pay attention. (F)(I)
4 L: They cook their meal. (R)
5 T: Right, they cook their meal over an open fire. (F)

(Tsui 1995, p. 52)

          The teacher in Line1 produces an initiation to get a specific linguistic form, and in Line 3 gives a negative evaluation of the

learner's response in Line 2 and another prompt saying “pay attention.” The learner's response in Line 4 presents the accurate

linguistic form for which the teacher issues a positive evaluation and a repetition of the learner's forms in Line 5.

          If the interactional work of the IRF/IRE cycles of this extract is contrasted with the interactional work of Extract 8, we

can see the different contexts and the different focuses of the interaction which the CA methodology brings to the surface while

being obscured by the DA approach. Through the IRF/IRE analysis, the DA approach makes a similar analysis of both extracts

and shows that the teacher is only doing one pedagogical action at a time, e.g., asking or correcting. The multiple pedagogical

works performed simultaneously can be shown only by the CA methodology which is able to demonstrate how the teacher, for

example, in Lines 5 and 7 in Extract 8 is orienting to other learners while providing correctly formed linguistic input.

Extract 10
1 L: it bug me to have =
2 T: =it bugs me. It (bugzz) me
3 L: it bugs me when my brother takes my bicycle.

(Lightbown and Spada 1993, p. 76)

          In this extract the pedagogical focus is the production of correctly formed linguistic forms, so when the learner produces

an erroneous verb form in Line 1, the teacher in Line 2 gives a double repair and gets a correct linguistic form from the learner in

Line 3. Thus, it is clear that in a form-and-accuracy context, teacher-initiated repair utterances are predominant. On the

contrary, in a task-oriented interaction, this type of utterance is absolutely absent as illustrated in Extract 11 where learners are

performing a task to complete and label a geometric figure and the teacher withdraws from the scene in favour of the student-

student activity:

Extract 11
1 L1: what?
2 L2: stop.
3 L3: dot?
4 L4: dot?
5 L5: point?
6 L6: dot?
7 LL: point, point, yeah
8 L1: point?
9 L5: small point.
10 L3: dot.

(Lynch 1989, p. 124)

          Moreover, the CA approach shows how the pedagogical focus of the lesson affects the organisation of interaction even if

natural conversation is to be replicated as part of a lesson (Seedhouse 2004, p. 75) In Extract 12 below, what the learners

produce is still not real conversation). The learners here are governed by the pedagogical focus (producing genuine

communication of English sentences of likes and dislikes about fashion) and the institutional goal (learning English):

Extract 12
1 L1: I like this fashion because I can wear it for: sleep! not to go anywhere.
2 L2: ooh
3 L3: I like this fashion.
4 L2: I like this.
5 L4: why?
6 L5: I like this.
7 L2: because: be [ cause:, ]
8 L1: [ the girl,]
9 LL: (laugh)
10 L4: this is good this fashion.
11 L2: this is a beautiful skirt.
12 L1: (.) beautiful, (.) but when I: done it [ I put it long: long ]
13 L4: [this one better than] that one.
14 L4: (5.0) who like this one?
13 L1: aah, I like this.

(Warren 1985, p. 223)

          Furthermore, the CA perspective to L2 classroom interaction gives consideration to how pedagogy is translated into

interaction and argues that the interaction organisation transforms the intended pedagogy into actual pedagogy (Seedhouse

2004, pp. 93-94). Look at the following extract:

Extract 13
1 T: ?have you ever? (whispers)
2 L8: (.) you ever: (.) gone to (.)
3 T: gone to?
4 L8: er: gone to S?mela Manast?r? S?mela attraction?
5 L11: (1.0) hmm yes=
6 T: =YES [(laughs) ]
7 LL: [(laughter) ]
8 T: yes okay ask him now when? when?
9 L1: when?
10 LL: (laughter)
11 T: ( uses body language) make a sentence (laughs)
12 L1: when uhm-
13 L11: last summer
14 TLL: (laughter)
15 T: when last summer okay (laughter) okay now someone else (.) ask him
with who with who

(Ustunel 2003, p. 75)

          According to the intended pedagogy of the lesson, L8 must ask two questions using the present perfect in the first then the

simple past in the second. However, the learners interpret the pedagogical focus differently from that intended by the teacher, so

L1 in Line 9 does not produce a fully worded question and L11 does not provide a full sentence in Line 13. Thus, the task-as-

workplan has been deformed due to the interaction between the pedagogical focus and the interactional organisation of the L2

classroom, and also due to the way the learners have dealt with the task.


          The exploration addressing research on L2 classroom interaction in this article has shown how CA approaches the

interactional architecture of the L2 classroom and uniquely reflects the dynamic, fluid nature of L2 classroom interaction and

displays the reflexive relationship between pedagogy and interaction, an essential trait which DA lacks. The argument eventually

infers that although DA studies the interrelationships between language and society, it is necessary to adopt a CA institutional-

discourse perspective in the analysis of this type of institutional discourse.

          More research in this area would help to search for insights into pragmatic phenomena in general, better identify and

describe potentially essential phenomena in L2 classroom interaction in particular and ultimately establish a clear relationship

between these phenomena and student learning outcomes.


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About the author

Buthayna Al-garawi ( is a second year Integrated PhD student at the School of Education,

Communication and Language Sciences. Her interests are conversation analysis, L2 classroom interaction and TESOL for

young learners.