March 2014
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Lucy Pickering, Texas A&M-Commerce, Commerce, Texas, USA

A hallmark of good practice in any profession is the will of its practitioners to revisit the principles that underlie the choices they make in their day-to-day work. ITA practitioners know this very well as we continue to maintain an exceptional level of professional dedication despite increasingly limited resources and frustrating reversals in administrative policies. The initial framework that I describe below was conceived in light of the current situation many of our programs find themselves in with regard to pedagogical options. As will be clear, it is a conceptual model and is not designed for immediate implementation in ITA classrooms; however, I hope it may encourage discussion on how ITA instruction and applied linguistics may inform each other’s practice.

Forming ITA Practice
At their initiation in the 1980s, ITA programs were essentially triage operations. Their shape was largely driven by the growing alarm of stakeholders in U.S. tertiary education that something was amiss. As Kaplan (1989) noted at the time, “it came as a great surprise to campus administrators, legislative bodies and taxpayers that there was a problem” (pp. 110–111).

In response, program resources were put into place in institutions to quickly and efficiently qualify this group of instructors. An English for specific purposes (ESP) focus was typically employed. Course designs reflected specific disciplines or contexts, and classroom activities comprised pedagogical tasks designed to mirror the real-world tasks in which the ITAs were about to engage. Early examples of literature in the field reflect this focus in ITA training with titles such as “The Communicative Needs of ITAs in the Undergraduate Physics Lab,” “The Language of Teaching Mathematics,” and “Question-Based Discourse in Science Labs.”

In recent years, however, we have been faced with an increasing shortfall in program support, including the dismantling of some dedicated ITA programs across the United States. Even large institutions whose programs have traditionally been at the forefront of ITA research and development have been targeted for significant reduction or cut altogether. If we are to be faced as a profession with ever-diminishing resources, at least in the short term, can we consider alternative models of practice that can harness fewer resources for greater good?

The initial framework that I outline here evolves from models of conversational discourse developed in applied linguistics. It prioritizes the features used by interlocutors to collaborate in everyday interaction and proposes that classroom discourse can be fundamentally reconfigured as a form of conversation in the sense that it is “a co-operative achievement between at least two participants” and “involves the study of the use of language in communication and the relations between linguistic features and contexts of situation” (Tsui, 1994, p. 3). Accordingly, the basic principles of interaction underlying conversational discourse may be productively accessed by both ITA practitioners and teaching assistants themselves once we bring them to the forefront of our practice.

A Conversational Involvement Model
The first iteration of the model comprises three principles anchored in discourse: the three-part exchange, the underlying dialogic nature of all spoken discourse, and prosodic orientation in talk. These principles demonstrate the fundamental ways in which teaching discourse aligns with interpersonal, conversational discourse. Interacting with these are two pedagogical or learning principles, metaknowledge and informal learning, which suggest ways in which discourse-based tenets might be successfully communicated in the workplace. The model is shown in Figure 1 and described in detail below.

Figure 1 (click on image to enlarge)

The Three-part Exchange

The three-part exchange is the structure at the heart of the conversational model proposed by Amy Tsui (1994). This has typically been regarded as a feature of classroom discourse (i.e., Initiation, Response, and Feedback, or IRF, sequences) and one that is not generalizable to conversational discourse which is usually described in terms of two part adjacency pairs. Tsui argues, however, that the three-part exchange should be considered the “natural basic unit of conversation” as interlocutors use the third follow-up move to signal some kind of acknowledgment such as in the example below:

B: Where is he staying?
A: He’s staying at the ah the Chung Chi Guest House
B: Oh, I see (Tsui, 1994, p. 29)

When viewed in situ, Tsui proposes that the final move (whether it comprises verbal or nonverbal acknowledgment) is often crucial for the perceived success of the interaction:

It may be too strong a statement to say that when the follow-up move does not occur, its non-occurrence is noticeable and noticed in the way the absence of a second pair part is, but it is certainly true that when it does not occur, it is often perceived by participants to be deliberately withheld for social or strategic reasons. (p. 42)

This conceptualization of the basic building block of successful interaction clearly aligns classroom discourse with conversational discourse and leads directly to the second principle of an enhanced view of the dialogic nature of classroom discourse.

The Dialogic Nature of Spoken Discourse
A distinction has often been made between the transactional (information-giving) nature of classroom discourse as opposed to the interactional (rapport-building) nature of conversation. I have argued elsewhere that this dichotomy does not adequately describe what happens in the moment-by-moment interaction that typifies the classroom. Rather, close inspection of the classroom context supports a view of classroom discourse as a cooperative achievement between participants regardless of whether the hearer(s) are able to verbally respond to the message. An example of such a feature is the deictic function of the rising tone that is often used by teachers to indicate their presumption that the information they are communicating is shared by the students (Pickering, 2001). From this perspective, teachers are continually in an ongoing negotiation with students. Thus, teaching discourse becomes a systematic variant of more overtly dialogic discourse events and restructures the role of the teacher as a co-participant.

Prosodic Orientation in Talk
This principle is a consistent feature of interaction in English. Designed to minimize the gap between conversational interlocutors, it describes the process of melodic or prosodic matching typical in interaction in which interlocutors match their prosodic immediacy behaviors such as pitch register, speech rate, rhythm, or volume to those of their interactants in order to signal a positive orientation toward their co-participants. This principle is uniquely important to face-to-face interaction as it establishes shared participation; conversely, a lack of orientation, or prosodic mismatching, can signal dissonance or the perceived absence of shared understanding. One famous example of mismatched conversational prosodic style is Deborah Tannen’s (2005) “machine gun question talk” in which the fast pace of speech and frequent overlaps used by some interlocutors disconcerts others at a Thanksgiving dinner.

The behaviors which constitute conversational principles such as prosodic orientation are largely tacit and, as a rule, participants are unaware of the crucial role they play in interaction. They are easily overlooked and yet powerfully affect interactional success when taken in aggregate and viewed cumulatively over time. Due to the nature of these features and the need to highlight their role in teaching discourse, I include a pedagogical or learning principle which I term metaknowledge and by which I mean knowing something about what you already know or are learning. This is an initial characterization of how ITA practitioners and ITAs themselves can bring these conversational behaviors to the surface to be observed and discussed. It is also closely tied to the second pedagogical principle of situated learning.

Situated Learning
ITAs are both teachers and students in their workplace; as such, they are in a unique position to observe the multiple roles that they and those around them take on in the institution. Traditionally, however, ITA education has been an example of formal learning in that it typically takes place in a classroom-based environment that is controlled by the teacher. In contrast, informal or situated learning is focused on the learning that takes place in the workplace itself and derives from the people, activities, and events within which the learner is immersed. This type of learning is also described as experience-based learning, incidental learning, and even “karma in the walls and halls.” In order to become present to situated learning, learners are encouraged to observe and challenge their experiences in the workplace and then reflect on them. Crucially, it is self-directed and occurs when learners “continually scan their environment, heighten their awareness around learning, pay attention to goals and turning points, and develop skills of reflection while taking action” (Marsick & Volpe, 1999, p. 1).

The model of conversational involvement outlined above has several features that distinguish it from traditional conceptualizations of ITA practice. The skills that are developed are not domain- and register-specific, and learners apply the principles in whatever workplace environment they find themselves in. It is a general purpose model rather than one based in ESP. However, it is also a model that can be used in conjunction with more standard ITA curricula as these broad conversational principles apply independently to interactional success. Because this is not yet a model designed for implementation, my next task is to provide a roadmap for how we might integrate these principles into our day-to-day practice.

I thank Gordon Tapper and Kathi Cennamo for fruitful discussions regarding the current dilemmas faced by ITA programs. I also thank Pauline Carpenter, an anonymous reviewer, and the organizers and presenters at the TESOL 2013 ITA Academic Session, “Recent Research Regarding ITAs: The Dynamics of Interaction,” from which this piece has evolved.

Kaplan, R. (1989). The life and times of ITA programs. English for Specific Purposes, 8(2), 109–124.

Marsick, V. J., & Volpe, M. (1999). The nature and need for informal learning. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 1(3), 1–9.

Pickering, L. (2001). The role of tone choice in improving ITA communication in the classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 35, 233–255.

Tannen, D. (2005). Conversational style: Analyzing talk among friends. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Tsui, A. B. M. (1994). English conversation. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lucy Pickering is associate professor of applied linguistics and director of the Applied Linguistics Laboratory in the Department of Literature and Languages at Texas A&M-Commerce. Her interest in ITA research and program development began with her dissertation research in 1999 in which she investigated the prosodic patterns of ITAs. Most recently, she co-authored a textbook for ITAs titled English Communication for International Teaching Assistants (Waveland Press).
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