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Gender, Speech Styles and the Assessment of Discussion

Chapter 4 - Data Analysis I: The Classroom Discussions

4.2.1 Group I

There are five pupils in Group I: G1, G2, G3, B1, and B2. The male classroom teacher joins the group towards the end of the discussion, but does not speak. The pupil assessed by the S.E.B. is B1, who is assessed as Foundation Level, Grade 6, the lowest grade represented on the film.

The group's task is to design a film script, into which they have to incorporate elements of the lyrics of six pop songs, which are to be the sound track of the film. The songs, which their classroom teacher has played twice to them in class, are "Nowhere Man" by the Beatles, "Only 16" by Sam Cooke, "My Hometown" by Bruce Springsteen, "My little town" by Simon and Garfunkel, "Glory Days" by Bruce Springsteen, "Randolph and Me" by Gallacher and Lyle. The group concentrate in the recorded discussion on the lyrics of the two songs "My Hometown" and "Randolph and Me".

The three girls dominate this discussion, and amongst them there appears to be a hierarchy, headed by G2, who is supported by G3, while G1 is occasionally excluded or opposed. G2 and G3 use co-operative strategies towards one another throughout, and fewer towards G1, who also uses fewer to them than they do to each other (with the exception of back channel support, which G1 supplies more of, to G2, G3, and B1, than any other group member).

The two boys have a very low profile in the discussion. B1 speaks twice during the recording, but is largely ignored by the girls. B2 does not speak at all during the discussion, or even make perceptible eye contact with other speakers. There is insufficient evidence on the film to explain B2's lack of contribution; it might have been a result of his reluctance to speak under any circumstances, or a reaction to any element/s of the context. B2's linguistic behaviour will therefore not be commented on in this analysis. Floor apportionment

The relative number of words each pupil speaks indicates the extent to which the three girls dominate this discussion, and the relative status of each girl. The table below shows the speaker, the number of words she or he utters during the discussion, what percentage this is of the total number of words uttered in the discussion by all speakers, the number of turns taken by each speaker, what percentage this is of the total number of turns taken by all speakers in the discussion, and the average length of each speaker's turn. At the foot of the table is given the total number of words uttered in the discussion, the total number of turns taken, the average length of turns in the discussion, and the total length of the discussion as it appears on the film. These figures allow the quantity one pupil speaks to be compared with another, and for patterns of floor distribution to be compared across the seven discussions in 4.3.

speakerno.of words% age of words spokenno. of turns% age of turns takenav. turn length
G1 153 21.6 10 21.25 15.3 words
G2 297 41.9 18 38.3 16.5 words
G3 220 31.0 17 36.2 12.9 words
B1 38 5.3 2 4.25 19 words
B2 0 0 0 0 0

 total no. of words: 708

total no. of turns: 47

average length of turn: 15 words

total length of discussion: 5minutes 5seconds

G2 speaks more than any other group member, taking more, and longer, turns. She speaks almost twice as many words as G1, and her turns are longer than G3's. G1 makes fewer contributions than G2 or G3. The boys are far from being verbose members of this group: B1 speaks on two occasions, and B2 does not speak at all. Back channel support

The rank order amongst the three girls also shows up in their use of back channel support. G1, who speaks least of the three girls, gives the most back channel support items of any group member (she gives 7 items) but receives fewer than either of the other two girls (she receives only 2 items). G2, who speaks the most, is given the most back channel support. The table shows the distribution below. 'Giver' is the pupil who gives the item of back channel support, while the 'recipient' is the pupil who is supported. At the foot of the table is the total number of back channel items given in the whole discussion, and the ratio of back channel items to words uttered for the whole discussion. This figure again enables cross-discussion comparisons to be made in 4.3.

Giver recipient no.of items Giver recipient no. of items

G1 G2 2 G2 G1 2

G3 4 G3 1

B1 1 B1 0

G1 gives 7 items G2 gives 3 items

G1 receives 2 items G2 receives 6 items


Giver recipient no.of items Giver recipient no. of items

G3 G1 0 B1 G1 0

G2 4 G2 0

B1 0 G3 0

G3 gives 4 items B1 gives 0 items

G3 receives 5 items B1 receives 1 item


Giver recipient no. of items

B2 G1 0

G2 0

G3 0

B1 0

B2 gives 0 items

B2 receives 0 items

Total number of back channel items in discussion: 14

Ratio of back channel items to number of words: 1:50.5

Neither of the boys used back channel support to show interest or to become active in the discussion, although B1 showed he was listening by his eye movement, and by laughing at appropriate moments. When B1 eventually takes the floor, he does receive back channel support from G1 (line 37) during his first turn. However, G2 interrupts him at line 38, and he stops speaking. His second turn at line 48 receives no back channel support and is ignored by the girls.

As commented on above, the girl who speaks the least, G1, gives the most back channel support and receives the least of the three girls, while G2, who receives the most, gives the fewest items. This pattern emerges also in other discussions in the sample. There may be a simple relationship between the quantity of back channel items produced and the amount someone speaks - that back channel is received in proportion to how much someone talks, so those who talk more will receive more, while those who talk less have more available time to listen and to produce back channel. On the other hand, the data may be revealing that the quantity of back channel support given to speakers affects how long they hold the floor for: speakers who are given back channel support hold the floor for longer than those who are not given back channel support. If this is the case, G1, G2 and G3 (who gives back channel support to G2 but not to G1) appear to be actively engaged in creating and perpetuating a hierarchy amongst themselves. Questions and tag questions

The three girls use question forms on only two occasions. G1 uses a question to include G2 and G3 in making a decision (line 28), and G3 uses a rhetorical question to emphasise a point (line 14). B1 however, who finds himself not participating in the discussion, uses questions three times (lines 35-36, 37, 47-48) , in an apparent attempt to gain access to the conversation. It has been argued that questions are very powerful discourse forms, because they require a response, and so B1 has selected an appropriate strategy when he attempts to join the discussion. However, his bid fails because the three girls and B2 do not respond to his questions. He receives a back channel support item from G1 in response to his informal tag "right?", but strikingly no response at all to his final direct question at lines 47-48.

47. G2: husband Bobby (.) well they split up=

B1: =what about all the

48. G1: (.) because it says in (2) my home town

B1: other songs though


49. G1: he's (.) s. sitting in a car with his father (.) how're

G2: uhuh

In this respect, B1's behaviour resembles that of the wives in the married couples who participated in Fishman's studies (1978, 1980a, 1980b), using the strategies open to a powerless speaker who wants to engage with others in interaction. This is a striking example of a boy using strategies which have been associated with female speakers, and suggests that the use of these strategies is depends on relative status rather than gender. Epistemic modality and hedging

The girls demonstrate they are competent at using hedges to negotiate disagreement, and do not use hedges or epistemic modality when they are in agreement. Lines 1, 30, and 63 below illustrate utterances which are agreed on by the three girls and are not hedged.

1. G2: there's Bobby and Randolph


30. G2: =uhuh Bobby marries her

G3: Bobby must marry her=


63. G2: it starts off when they're really young


At other stages in the discussion, however, the three girls are not in total agreement, and use a high frequency of hedging devices. For example, when G3 first introduces the character of Kate into the discussion as a candidate for a leading role in the film of the songs, G1 does not initially accept G3's suggestion to concentrate on the character of Kate. G1, G2 and G3 make use of hedges and other devices for mitigating their conflict (for example, G1 leaves her objection incomplete at line 5), and reach agreement after hedged negotiation. Mitigating forms are in italics.


3. G3: yeah they're mentioned and there's somebody called Kate


4. G1: (.) but that's just like a mention in a song (.)

G2: (.) oh aye


5. G1: it's not really (.) you know

G2: yeah (.) but it doesn't have to be a

G3: I know (.) but you could build it up


6. G2: character

G3: you could build it up though (.) because (.)


[G3 supports her argument here by giving a sample plot]


10. G3: so (.) you could build it up or you could just (.) fade it


11. G1: =you could

G2: (1) yeah (.) you could=

G3: away

G2 and G1 support G3 at this point, with "yeah (.) you could", and "you could" respectively. G2 takes up the argument:


11. G2: (.) it'd probably be


12. G2: better if sh. she was the main character (.) cos (.) I mean


13. G1: yeah

G2: it (.) it would be just the two boys

G3: just the two boys (.) I


14. G1: ((laughter))

G2: ((laughter))=it'd be pretty boring

G3: mean what're the girls going to do=


15. G1: =yes okay

G2: boring for them=

G3: =I mean (.) so


At line 15 G1 agrees "yes okay"; consensus has apparently been reached by G1, G2, and G3.

B1 shows signs of tentativeness in his first contribution to the discussion. He hedges, using well twice (1.35, 36) and you know once (l.35); he also hesitates (l.35, 36), makes a false start (l.37), and uses pause fillers (l.35) - all features of disfluency, and also possible signals of insecurity. It seems probable that his language use indicates that making a contribution to a discussion which has proceeded without him so far, and to which he has not been invited to contribute, is a face-threatening act for B1:


35. B1: yeah (.) well uh you know ehm (2) in


36. B1: that (1) last verse in (.) in m. my home town? (3) well it


37. B1: says that (.) he's thirty five now right? (1) tha. so


38. B1: (.) if you go back a bit (.) and there's


He also hedges the second time he speaks as well (lines 47-48): "what about all the other songs though". On both occasions, his contributions are ignored by the three girls despite his hedging.

Hedging and epistemic modal forms are used co-operatively by the three girls with each other to negotiate areas of potential conflict, and not used when they are in consensus. The three girls do not use these forms in interaction with B1, however. B1 uses the same forms in the manner of a subordinate addressing dominant speakers, and the three girls treat him as subordinate and ignore him. Topic development

The three girls participate in joint topic construction; noticeably at lines 3-15, where the discussion shifts its focus onto the character of Kate. G2 and G3 are the main agents of this development; G1 is not as enthusiastic about this line of discussion initially, but is persuaded by G2 and G3 (see above). In this respect they are all co-operative.

B1's comments do not contribute to the discussion on Kate. His contributions, in so far as they are completed, appear to be sudden topic shifts: they are tangential to the direction the discussion has taken, though relevant to the original question (35- 37, 47-48). This is particularly true of lines 47- 48, when he asks "what about all the other songs though", which is a complete change of direction from the discussion up to that point.

This is another aspect of the discussion where the girls are selectively co-operative. They exhibit the co-operative skill of joint topic development, but do so to one another, and not to B1 or B2. Through joint topic development, they produce a discussion to which all three girls contribute. By discussing a female character's romance and marriage, they may have selected a topic which effectively excludes B1 and B2.

The exclusion of B1 is the result of the behaviour of all members of the group. He does not participate in the co-operative development of the topic, but the girls' selective use of co-operative topic development also contributes to his exclusion. Lexical repetition

In this discussion, there is frequent lexical repetition between G2 and G3, who support each other by reiterating each other's comments. Examples of this occur at lines 13 and 30:


13. G1: yeah

G2: it (.) it would (.) just the two boys

G3: just the two boys (.) I


30. G1: whites no? =sure

G2: (.) no =uhuh Bobby marries her=

G3: Bobby must marry her= =cos


However, although G1, G2 and G3 co-operate in some respects in this discussion, and G2 and G3 are co-operative in their behaviour towards each other regarding lexical repetition, but non-co-operative towards G1, who is non-co-operative in return.

On one occasion, G1 uses lexical repetition to voice a measure of dissent to G2 and G3's proposals. This dissent does not become open conflict, but G1 does use a competitive feature to make her point:


2. G2: = and that's got to be because they're named in the songs=


3. G3: = yeah they're mentioned and there's somebody called Kate


4. G1: (.) but that's just like a mention in a song (.)

G2: (.) oh aye


G1 repeats G3's lexical item "mention", "just like a mention", but uses it to oppose G3's suggestion that Kate might be a main character in their film plot, by making the point that this is an insufficient reason to include a character from the songs into the film.

As might be expected, no lexical repetition by B1, or of his utterances, occurs; ie. he is treated, and behaves, non-co-operatively. Interruptions and overlap

G2 and G3 overlap each other co-operatively throughout the discussion, as in the instance at lines 41- 43:


41. G2: Kate


42. G2: is mentioned (.) oh no it's not that one cos= =it's

G3: yeah there's a Kate =it's Kate=


43. G2: Kate in my home town

G3: in my home town


Less co-operative overlap appears to occur between these two speakers and G1. At line 17, G3 begins to speak at a TRP in G1's turn, but breaks off when G1 continues speaking.


17. G1: Kate is (.) Kate's going to be their wife (.) or one of

G3: she's the one


18. G1: their wives

Similarly, G1 begins to speak at a TRP in G3's turn at line 24, but breaks off when G3 continues speaking. This is a further example of the co-operative features which occur between G2 and G3 not extending into G1's behaviour towards them, or theirs towards her. They are non-co-operative in this respect.

B1, on the other hand, is actually interrupted by G2 when he first attempts to participate:


38. G2: (1) uhuh there's somebody

B1: (.) if you go back a bit (.) and there's


39. G2: called Kate mentioned twice= uhuh (.) cos

G3: = he must marry (XXXX)


When B1 pauses after 'and' at line 38, G2 begins to speak, and B1 does not speak again. G2 interprets B1's comment as drawing attention to a reference to Kate in the lyrics of one of the songs, but there is in fact no indication that this was the case from what B1 said.

Again, G2 and G3 behave co-operatively towards each other, G1 behaves non- co-operatively towards them, and they behave non-co-operatively towards her, while B1 is treated competitively in this respect. Simultaneous speech

Simultaneous speech occurs only once in the discussion, between G2 and G3, the two speakers who consistently display the most co-operative features in their interaction with each other.


40. G2: there's Kate and (1) which one is (.) and (5.5) I can't


41. G2: find it just now (1.5) um glory days I think it is (.) Kate

G3: mm


42. G2: is mentioned (.) oh no it's not that one cos= =it's

G3: yeah there's a Kate =it's Kate=


43. G2: Kate in my home town (.) that's (.) here in (1.5) there's a

G3: in my home town


Again the close linguistic relationship between G2 and G3 does not include other group members. Summary of Group I discussion

The girls in this discussion are co-operative, but selectively so. One identifying factor of co-operative talk as defined by Coates is the discomfort speakers feel if there are unequal contributions to a conversation. The girls however tolerate the total non-contribution of a group member (B2), without attempting to draw him into the discussion, or apparently feeling inhibited in their own talk. The lack of discomfort exhibited by the girls is one piece of evidence which suggests that speakers are selective in their use of co-operativeness, that it is not an invariant characteristic of the speaker, but a response to the context - the gender of the other group members, or the relative degrees of friendship between them.

A second aspect of the discussion where the girls are not co-operative is in their behaviour towards B1. As the S.E.B. comments in its assessment, B1 does appear ready to contribute. He follows the discussion, making eye contact with the speaker, and laughs when the three girls laugh. The three girls who hold the floor for almost the entire discussion do not invite him to speak, nor do they look to him for a response. His two attempts to speak are not supportively received by the three girls, nor does B2 respond. B1 does attempt to pull the discussion round to areas on which he can contribute twice; when these fail, it is not surprising that B1 makes no further attempt to speak. His oral skills are unassessable from this discussion; he is unable to impose himself in a discussion in which the others make no attempt to include him. This is further evidence that speakers select with whom they co-operate, that it need not be a characteristic of an entire discussion.

The interaction between the three girls, while predominantly co-operative, is also not entirely so. The greatest number of co-operative linguistic features occur in the exchanges of G2 and G3. G1 uses fewer co-operative features towards G2 and G3 than the latter do towards each other, and they use fewer to G1 than they do to each other, and G1 is often non-co-operative towards G2 and G3, who are non-co- operative towards G1. This suggests a hierarchy does exist among the three girls, contradicting the common assumption in literature of girls' groups that they are non- hierarchical.

B1's profile is co-operative regarding his use of hedging and questions, competitive with regard to topic development, and non-co-operative with regard to back channelling, lexical repetition, and simultaneous speech.

The discussion demonstrates girls using a mixture of co-operative and non-co- operative features amongst themselves, and competitive linguistic features in their treatment of boys, and a boy using the 'powerless' strategies which have been associated with women in mixed sex conversation by Fishman (1978) and Lakoff (1975).