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Gender, Speech Styles and the Assessment of Discussion

Chapter 4 - Data Analysis I: The Classroom Discussions

4.2.3 Group III

Four pupils participate in Group III's discussion, one girl, G4, and three boys, B5, B6, and B7. G4 is the chairperson, and B5 the speaker graded by the S.E.B.; he was assessed as General Level, Grade 4. The female teacher is walking around the classroom; she contributes to the discussion at one point, and addresses the class as a whole towards the end of the recording. The group has been asked to discuss arguments for and against the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.

The topic of this discussion may have affected its form; it is possible that some topics may provoke participants into defending extreme positions, as happens in this case, since evaluating the evidence on either side is unlikely to change someone's belief in the existence or non-existence of the Loch Ness Monster.

B5 is a dominating speaker, and this is the only discussion in the sample with a speaker who demonstrates almost exclusively competitive features. Floor apportionment

The most significant aspect of the floor apportionment results is that almost exactly half the words spoken in the discussion are uttered by B5 (49.4%). His turns are by far the longest. The other two boys, B6 and B7, appear to have largely withdrawn from competition for the floor, while G4, as the chair, attempts to steer the discussion group through the questions to a consensus. Her turns are shorter than B5's, and although she takes practically the same number of turns as he does, the number of words she contributes is far lower. She nevertheless speaks considerably more than either B6 or B7. The distribution was as follows:

speakerno.of words% age of words spokenno. of turns% age of turns takenav. turn length
B5 538 49.4 40 35 13.5
B6 103 9.4 17 15 6
B7 77 7.0 18 16 4.3
G4 371 34.0 39 34 9.5

Total number of words: 1089

Total number of turns: 114

Average number of words per turn: 9.5

Total length of discussion: 5minutes 30seconds

B5's behaviour is extremely competitive and he overwhelmingly dominates the floor. G4 does not respond by submitting to B5's dominating behaviour; instead she frequently enters into explicit conflict with him. Back channel support

The ratio of back channel items to the number of words in the discussion is relatively low, lower than for either Groups I or II, which is in keeping with other non-co- operative features of this discussion. B5 receives more back channel support than any other speaker: half the total back channel support items in the entire discussion are given to him. He is the speaker who gives the fewest back channel support items to other speakers, which is additional evidence of his lack of co-operativeness as a speaker. In this respect, the discussion corresponds to the discussion of Group I, in that the speaker who talks most receives the most items of back channel support. The table of back channel items below shows the extent to which the other three group members produced back channel support for B5.

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

B5 B6 0 B6 B5 2

B7 1 B7 0

G4 1 G4 1

B5 gives 2 items B6 gives 3 items

B5 receives 10 items B6 receives 1 item

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

B7 B5 3 G4 B5 5

B6 0 B6 1

G4 2 B7 0

B7 gives 5 items G4 gives 6 items

B7 receives 1 item G4 receives 4 items


Total number of back channel items in discussion: 16

Ratio of back channel items to number of words: 1:68

G4 gives six back channel support items, followed by B7 who gives five, and B6 who gives three. G4, as the only girl in the group, and in the role of chair, might be expected to give the greatest number of back channel support items. However, as she only gives one more than B7, the difference is negligible.

Only B5 in the group is strikingly non-co-operative regarding the use of back channel support. Questions and tag questions

Questions are a common linguistic form in this discussion. They are used frequently by B5, and appear to be an important factor in his control of the floor. He uses questions competitively, to coerce others into agreement, and to challenge other speakers. Examples of this occur at lines 54-55, and lines 57-58:

54/55 B5: who says that's Loch Ness

57/58 B5: is there any (.) bits that says that that is Loch Ness

B5 does ask a question at line 84, which appears to be introducing an idea for discussion, but G4 ignores it. B6 and G4 both use questions competitively to oppose B5 and to control the discussion:

45. B6: what do you mean (to B5)

46/47. G4: how could it be two boats Christopher (to B5)

G4 also uses questions to take the floor from B5 and give it to B6 and B7.

108. G4: what do you think Stephen (to B6)

108/9. G4: don't you think that (.) it'd be a good idea if they could

clean a bit (to B6 and B7)


G4 uses questions effectively to take to floor from B5, and gain a turn herself, although she does not succeed in enlisting the explicit support of the other two boys, as she attempts to do.

Regarding tag questions in the discussion, these are used coercively, to persuade, or produce a semblance of consent where in fact dissent exists. B5 uses two formal tag questions which appear in context to be coercive, and six informal tag questions, usually of the form 'ken'.

19. B5: you're not going to get none are you

3/4. B5: see ken he's famous ken

G4 is the only other speaker to use a tag question in this discussion, and she also uses a coercive tag:

25. G4: it was just round the castle wasn't it

B5, B6, and G4 all use questions as a way to control the floor and direct the discussion. B5 and G4 in particular, excepting B5's use of the informal tag 'ken', appear to use question and tag question forms to a similar extent and for a similar effect, ie. both are competitive in this respect. Epistemic modality and hedging

None of the pupils in this discussion exploits the ambiguity of epistemic modality to negotiate the areas where there is strong disagreement. B5 and G4 use a competitive form, a "yes it is / no it isn't" pattern of discussion.


73. B5: that is a hand there


74. B5: =that is a

G4: it's not a hand if you look at it closely=


75. B5: hand


77. G4: it's not a hand though


Although initially in the discussion B5 uses some epistemic modal forms, for the most part he makes completely unsoftened propositions, and unmitigated contradictions of other speakers. G4 uses some hedges in the later exchanges, but not to a great extent. Both G4 and B5 respond competitively to their present context with the use of unmitigated, and often aggravated, disagreement. Topic development

Topic change in this discussion is also marked with competitive linguistic choices. G4 uses competitive strategies in her role of chair to keep the discussion moving, and to prevent B5 from following his own agenda. B5 uses competitive strategies in attempts to retain the floor, and complete his own arguments. An instance of this occurs at lines 84-88.


84. B5: can you not get a bit of plastic and make


85. B5: it into a sculpture or something like that (.) or a


86. B5: bit of a bit of clay

G4: (going onto the other) questions (.)


87. B5: dinna hurry me I'm I'm trying to explain

G4: right (.)


88. G4: right (where are we)


G4 here cuts into B5's turn before he has finished, and abruptly changes the topic. She appears to be trying to cut short his contribution, so to enable the group to complete the set task; time is clearly running out as the teacher asks immediately afterwards if they are ready yet. The linguistic forms she uses are competitive ones - interruption and abrupt topic shift. B5 explicitly challenges her change of topic, with an aggravated directive: "dinna hurry me". Both G4 and B5 use competitive linguistic devices at this topic change.

Another example of abrupt topic shift occurs at lines 7-8, in which B6 participates in support of G4.

7. B5: yeah

B6: (.) go onto

G4: but you still wouldn't believe in it ((laugh))


8. B5: I dinna really ken (.) ken

B6: the next one= (XXXX) oh sh

G4: =right (.) Loch Ness is is very large deep


B6 gives an unmitigated directive to G4: "go on to the next one", helping her to extract herself from a futile argument with B5. B5 rejects the topic shift, and continues with the previous topic, speaking while G4 has the floor to do so, and incurring an "oh sh" from B6.

This discussion has the abrupt topic shifts of a competitive discussion. While B5 may be the immediate cause of this, G4 also participates, again showing herself to be able to use competitive linguistic strategies. Lexical repetition

Very little co-operative lexical repetition occurs in this discussion. The two occasions on which it does are when B5 and B6 agree with the observation in the statement G4 reads out, that Loch Ness is large and deep (line 9), and when B5 and B6 agree that a supposed photograph of the monster might be a man's forearm and hand (lines 51- 52).

Apart from these instances, lexical repetition occurs in conflicts, where the second speaker repeats the lexis of the first in overt disagreement. Sometimes the lexis remains the same, but the polarity is reversed, and sometimes the lexis is repeated to draw attention to what the speaker appears to see as the absurdity of the first. Two examples are given below. The first occurs at lines 46-48.


46. B5: that could be two boats

G4: (.) how could it be two boats


47. B5: =it could be two boats

B6: it couldn't be (.) it couldn't be

G4: Christopher=


48. B5: two boats I'd say

B6: two boats boats


In this instance of lexical repetition of the items "two boats", the polarity of B5's utterance is reversed by G4 and B6, and all three parties repeat "two boats" to emphasise their own view and their opposition to the other view. Another instance occurs at lines 66-68.


66. B5: well look you ken surgeons don't get


67. B5: paid a lot (do they)=

G4: =they they get paid a

T : =oh they do=


68. G4: lot Christopher


Here almost word-for-word repetition is being used competitively, rather than co-operatively. G4 reverses the polarity of B5's previous proposition, and repeats his words, strongly contradicting his claim.

This competitive use of lexical repetition underlines the importance of context in the analysis of linguistic forms.

In respect of lexical repetition, the discussion is again highly competitive, and G4 demonstrates that she can be as competitive as B5 in this context. Interruptions and 0verlap

There are very frequent interruptions in this discussion, as is shown by the following extract of lines 19-22.

19. B5: (.) (so) you're not going to get none are you (XXXX)

G4: mhmm (but XXXX)


20. B5: cos you're going to get eh all rocks and that

B7: (XXXX)

G4: they didn't go round the full


21. B5: (XXXX)

B7: (XXXX) they didn't do

G4: loch (.) Christopher (.) they did the sonar scan


22. B7: the full loch (XXXX)

G4: just round the castle they did the sonar scan just round


The above extract shows B5, B7, and G4 in conflict and competing for the floor. A considerable number of contributions are indistinct because they overlap those of other speakers.

There are examples of overlaps in the discussion where the speakers do not apparently disagree over an issue, but even in these cases, speakers seem to be competing for the floor, so the overlap is closer to an interruption than a co-operative overlap:


8. G4: =right (.) Loch Ness is is very large deep


9. B5: well tha. that's true (.) it's deep

B6: (it's large XXXX)

G4: dark (and also of the XXXX)


10. B5: it's deep=

B7: it's hard to get (to get to the bottom)

G4: =it's deep


The discussion is again very competitive in this respect, and again, the girl in the group, G4 participates to the same extent as the boys in the competitive interruption and the absence of co- operative overlaps. Simultaneous speech

There are no examples of simultaneous speech in the discussion. Its absence is additional evidence of the lack of co-operativeness of this discussion. Summary of Group III discussion

In this discussion, the speakers display few co-operative features, and many competitive ones. There is a low rate of epistemic modality, back channel support, and supportive lexical repetition. Turns are very unequal in length, there are high rates of interruption, questions and tag questions are mostly coercive. One speaker, B5, dominates: he makes unmitigated assertions, he interrupts other speakers, he attempts to control the topic, he speaks more than anyone else in the group, he does not encourage other speakers to take the floor, he does not provide back channel support.

The other speakers in the group react to B5 in kind: there is a high frequency of other competitive features, and a low rate of co-operative ones for all speakers, except that G4, B6 and B7 all supply B5 with a degree of back channel support. G4, the chair, interrupts B5, and unmitigatedly contradicts his proposals. She uses many of the strategies B5 uses. The other two speakers, B6 and B7 also use the same competitive strategies, although they speak less frequently. G4, B6, and B7 do not display competitive features in their exchanges with each other to the extent they do in their exchanges with B5. As B5 speaks half the words in the entire discussion, the other three speakers are usually reacting to him rather than to each other. However, there is enough evidence to suggest that B5's behaviour is the reason for many of the competitive features the other speakers display.

One notable feature of this discussion is the variety of linguistic forms which are co-operative in some contexts, but in this context are competitive - G4's repetition of B5's words to mock him, for example.