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Gender, Speech Styles and the Assessment of Discussion

Chapter 4 - Data Analysis I: The Classroom Discussions

4.2.4 Group VII

4.2.7 Group VII

Discussion group VII consists of three girls, G13, G14, and G15. G14 is the Chair, and G13 is taking notes. No teacher is present. This discussion was recorded for the S.E.B.'s film Young People Talking, but was not included in the film; therefore there is no S.E.B. assessment of any of the speakers in this group. The topic of discussion is identical to that of group VI above, characters in Act I of The Long and the Short and the Tall. This was the most co-operative of the groups in the sample. Teachers were shown an extract from this discussion (marked on the transcript in bold typeface) and asked to assess speaker G14, as part of this study. The results of the teachers' assessments are dealt with in Chapter Five. Floor apportionment

There was a problem in distinguishing one speaker's turn from another, because speakers in this discussion construct joint turns. I resolved this by counting as a turn an utterance which contains a lexical item and is uttered when no other speaker is speaking. If an utterance is spoken while someone else is speaking, but is different in semantic content from the other speaker's utterance, I have counted this also as a turn. The distribution of the floor, based on this method of counting, was as follows:

speakerno.of words% age of words spokenno. of turns% age of turns takenav. turn length
G13 715 41.0 36 30.0 20.0
G14 460 26.5 46 38.0 10.0
G15 565 32.5 39 32.0 14.5

Total number of words: 1,740

Total number of turns: 121

Average number of words per turn: 14.4

Total length of discussion: 9minutes 40 seconds

G13 speaks the most, and her turns are the longest although she takes fewer turns than the other group members. G14 speaks the least, and her turns are the shortest, although she takes the greatest number of turns. Her being the chair may be a factor in this distribution. G15 speaks one third of the total number of words uttered, and the average length of her turns is also the average for the whole group. Overall, there is less disparity between the amounts the members of this group speak than there has been in the other groups considered in this study. Back channel support

There is a relatively high frequency of back channel items to the number of words in the discussion in comparison to the other discussions considered. The distribution of the floor was as follows:

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

G13 G14 11 G14 G13 8

G15 13 G15 9

G13 gives 24 items G14 gives 17 items

G13 receives 30 items G14 receives 21 items


Giver recipient no.of items

G15 G13 22

G14 10

G15 gives 32 items

G15 receives 22 items


Total number of back channel items in discussion: 73

Ratio of back channel items to number of words: 1:24

The distribution of back channel support differs from that found in the other groups in that all speakers both give and receive a substantial amount of back channel support, although it is still the case that the pupil who speaks most (G13) receives the most items of back channel support from other group members. The high frequency of the back channel support is one of the features which suggests that this is a co- operative discussion.

> Questions and tag questions

There are 19 "proper" questions in this discussion, of which eight are the set questions which G14 reads in her role as chair. G14 asks three questions before reading out set questions, to monitor whether the other group members are ready to move on, as for example at lines 12-13:


12. G14: (.) right (.) d'you want

G15: (.) right


13. G13: (.) mmm

G14: to go onto the next question then (.) how does

G15: (.) yeah


She also asks two questions which are requests for help while reading out a set question; one instance of this occurs at lines 36-37:



36. G13: care for the (XXXX)= ((giggles))

G14: ((giggles)) uh where

G15: =uhuh (.) right ((giggles))


37. G13:

G14: am I= =what do you learn about him from

G15: =what do you learn=


Thus of the 19 questions, 13 are asked by G14 in her role as chairperson, and five of these have the effect of bringing the other two group members in to help with the role of chairing the discussion, reducing the distance between G14 as chairperson, and G13 and G15 as non-chairing group members.

G13 asks two questions to clarify information, and two more to invite the opinions of the other two group members. G15 only asks one question, when she seems to be seeking the opinions of the others. In this case, G13 answers her:


164. G13: (2secsXXXX) (.) but

G14: (.) right (.) why does

G15: (2) right Jean


165. G13: =because of

G14: MacLiesh lose his temper?

G15: (1.5) why does he?=


166. G13: his stripes


Group members also use questions in this discussion to hedge contentious opinions, as in the case of G13's partially completed question at lines 118-120:


118. G13: =but (.) but (.) do you


119. G13: not think that's just a big a. (.) it could be just a


120. G13: big act (1) he might not

G15: (1) he might be just putting it


121. G15: on


Two tag questions are used as hedges in the negotiation of areas of potential disagreement, by G14 at line 142, and by G13 at line 154. The instance at line 154 is analysed below.


151. G15: (.) you know when Bamforth


152. G15: is annoying Evans about his girlfriend (1) I think it got


153. G13: yeah it showed a bit

G15: to him then (.) although he didn't (.) show it (.) well


154. G13: he broke a bit didn't he just to let it

G15: it did a bit yeah mhmm


155. G13: show (.) but then he sort of pulled himself together=

G14: =aye

G15: =yeah


G13 has wrongly predicted what G15 is going to say at line 153, and they have gone on record expressing opposing opinions. G15 modifies her first statement, which was unhedged: "although he didn't show it", to one which no longer contradicts G13's statement: "well it did a bit yeah". G13 also works to reduce the distance between the opinions she and G15 initially expressed. G13's original statement was already hedged "yeah it showed a bit". She repeats the hedge "a bit" and adds the tag question: "he broke a bit didn't he", which produces a back channel response from G15 at line 154. G13 completes her turn with "but then he sort of pulled himself together", which concedes to G15's first statement without contradicting G13's. G15 and G14 both indicate they accept this with "aye" and "yeah" latched on at the completion of G13's turn. Thus the apparent conflict has been resolved by the efforts of both G15 and G13. G14, who does not speak during the exchange, also acknowledges the satisfactory resolution of the disagreement with her "aye". In this case, therefore, the tag question is used in a context where the speaker appears to be hoping for a response from her addressee that shows the speaker has the support of the addressee. Epistemic modality and hedging

In some parts of the discussion, there is a high frequency of epistemic modal forms and hedges. Elsewhere, however, very few appear. The three speakers use these forms to varying degrees, and the frequency appears to be triggered by how contentious the content of the discussion is.

The extract below is from the a point in the discussion where very few epistemic modal forms or hedges occurred.


13. G14: how does


14. G13: =mmm=

G14: Johnson treat the prisoner (1) hates him (.) =he

G15: =uhuh=


15. G13: =yeah cruel =uhuh (.) and he

G14: hates him=

G15: =mmm he's sort of the enemy=


16. G13: doesn't care (.) to him it is just a job and the (.) cos

G14: uhuh


In lines 13-16 above there is a conspicuous absence of hedges and epistemic modals. Opinions are baldly stated, with the exception of G15, who describes Johnson's view of the prisoner as "sort of the enemy". Apart from this hedge, G13 and G14 use unhedged assertions. All three group members appear to be in complete agreement on every point, so it is this which perhaps determines the low frequency of hedges.

On the other hand, there are utterances heavily marked with hedges and epistemic modal forms. In the example below G13 makes a false start and produces a second version hedged differently from the first version.


118. G13: but (.) but (.) do you


119. G13: not think that's just a big a. (.) it could be just a


120. G13: big act (1) he might not


G13 marks her utterance with several degrees of uncertainty. Initially she poses it as a negative question "do you not think...", then restructures the suggestion as a proposition: "it could be just...". She begins to make the proposal a third time "he might not...", but this is not completed. Although only one version of the suggestion is completed, the two incomplete versions underline G13's degree of uncertainty.

G15 responds in an equally hedged manner:


120. G13: big act (1) he might not

G15: (1) he might just be putting it


121. G13: I don't think he does (.) I don't think he

G15: on but (1) I don't know


122. G13: would=

G14: =mmm

G15: =uhuh (.) I think he's sort of (.) made like that=


G15 does not agree or disagree with G13, she simply expresses her uncertainty: "He might just be putting it on but (1) I don't know". G13 responds to this expression of uncertainty by withdrawing from the hypothetical situation she has proposed, and expressing that she thinks the opposite of what she originally proposed. G13 still hedges her declaration of her opinion however: "I don't think he does (.) I don't think he would". G15 responds with more commitment to this proposition : "uhuh (.) I think he's sort of made like that". She too still hedges, however, with I think and sort of.

The result of this hedging by G13 and G15 is that they consider a possible explanation for Bamforth's behaviour which neither of them finds convincing, and reject it for a position which they both assent to.

The example below is strongly marked for epistemic modality and hedging, as well as containing false starts and a tag question:


140. G14: (.) Evans as well (.) he jus. he's (.)


141. G14: sort of gives it back (.) he knows how to deal with him


142. G14: (.) doesn't he= it's like

G15: =he does he sort of (.) well he doesn't


143. G14: (.) gives him a bit back

G15: ignore it (.) but he sort of (.)


144. G13: =right=

G14: =it doesn't really bother / him

G15: he takes it in his stride=


G14 introduces the character of Evans into the discussion. She makes a false start, hesitates four times, hedges "sort of", and ends her turn with a tag question (lines 140-142). G15 also makes a false start, hedges twice using "sort of", makes two hesitations, and uses "well" turn-medially (lines 142-143).

When the parameters of the topic have been established, the hedges decrease. G14 completes G15's turn at line 143: "gives him a bit back". G15 adds to that "he takes it in his stride", neither of which comment is hedged. It is at this point that G13 gives back channel support, "right".

From this instance, it appears that the hedges are linked to the speaker's uncertainty as to what the opinions of the other group members are on the topic. The participants negotiate their opinions, and as they reach group consensus, the hedges begin to disappear.

This discussion therefore demonstrates very selective use of epistemic modal forms and hedges to negotiate sites of potential conflict - markedly co-operative behaviour. Topic development

As in many of the other discussions, the set questions largely determine the structure of the discussion. However, within this structure, the speakers are very co-operative in their development of topics. I have already considered above how G14 manages to convert the activity of asking the set questions from a authoritarian process to a more egalitarian one, by encouraging the participation of the other two group members. G14 shares the responsibility for asking the next question, and thus changing the topic, with the other group members. This can be illustrated with lines 12-14. In this instance, G14 checks with the other two speakers if they are ready to progress to the next question. When they agree, she proceeds. In other instances, G14 waits until the group has reached consensus on an issue before she proceeds.

All three group members feed in ideas in response to the set questions, for example they all respond in lines 14-22 to the question "How does Johnson treat the prisoner?". There are other instances of speakers introducing new elements into a discussion only after consensus on the topic under discussion has been reached. An example of this is G15's behaviour at line 24. All three speakers agree the previous point, that Bamforth does not think of the Japanese prisoner as a human being; G15 then introduces a new issue by pointing out that Bamforth also sees the risk involved in taking the prisoner with the returning party.


22. G14: why does he want to shoot him (1)


23. G13: mmhmm

G14: it's because he's the enemy (XXX =cos

G15: just because he is the enemy=


24. G14: he thinks it's so mach

G15: (.) and he also thinks that (.) the


25. G15: prisoner is a risk to take back to base (.) he


26. G13: yeah

G14: yeah

G15: probably is a risk but you've got to think of the


27. G15: other advantages of taking him back and he doesn't


28. G15: sort of realise that


There is also a considerable amount of joint turn taking in the discussion. One example occurs at line 44:


44. G13: than him (.) it's like he's= =uhuh (XXXX)

G14: =a social climber=


In the following example, G14 and G13 pick up on a point raised by G15, and after they have both supported it, G14 takes the discussion back to G15's original point to affirm all group members agree on it:


77. G15: he's sort of (.) I don't know he's kind of curious as (.)


78. G15: to what the prisoner is (.) he doesn't sort of realise


79. G13: uhuh and

G14: oh that's like when he's going put your hands on your

G15: that he's an ordinary human being


80. G13: drop hands on your head and drop drop drop=

G14: head and drop them ((laughs))=and he was

G15: ((laughs))


81. G14: going on about his wife and he'd found out about his wife

G15: mmhmm


82. G13: =three ((laughs)) three (.) yes (.)

G14: and two kids= ((laughs)) (XXXX)

G15: =oh right= oh


83. G13: that was the thing ((laughs))

G14: ((laughs)) (1) he's curious (.) uhuh


G15 introduces the idea that Bamforth is driven by his curiosity. She strongly hedges this proposition: "he's sort of (.) I don't know he's kind of curious". G14 gives her back channel support at line 78. ("uhuh"), and two supporting illustrations, at lines 79-80 and 80-82. G14's first example overlaps G15. G13 also contributes to G14's illustration at lines 79-80, and corrects G14's "two kids" to "three", which causes both G13 and G14 to laugh. There is frequent laughter in this exchange, and overlapping speech. When G13 and G14 have completed the two textual illustrations to support G15's original point, G14 returns to G15's original proposition, and repeats G15's original lexical item: "he's curious (.) uhuh". This is a strong example of joint topic construction.

In this respect, also, the discussion is co-operative, and all group members participate in joint topic construction. Lexical repetition

There is a considerable degree of lexical repetition throughout the discussion, and it frequently signals speakers' attention to and support of one another. The degree of co-operativeness between the participants is strongly marked by their readiness to recycle each others' lexical items. An example of this occurs at as at lines 34-35:


34. G13: =yeah= he's got to =I'd

G14: =as a

G15: =he's got to do his job (.) it's his life and=


35. G13: think it probably would be his life (.)


G13 picks up on G15's point, and draws attention to it through emphasis ("it probably would be his life").

Another instance is also clearly supportive repetition. G14 repeats G15's item "cold", and adds to it "unsympathetic". G15 agrees with this modification and backs up G14: "yeah":


39. G14: =cold (.) unsympathetic=

G15: cold character= =yeah


G14's repetition of "cold" links her turn to G15's preceding turn, maintaining the joint topic development.

The final illustration of lexical repetition from this discussion is the most elaborate. It is the only one in the discussion that all three group members participate in. At line 126, G15 says "or something happens". G14 echoes this, modifying "something" at line 126 "something shocking". G15 accepts G14's modification at line 127 "yeah (.) something happens", and G13 also repeats "something" at line 127. G14 modifies G13's "something" with the adjective "dramatic" at line 127, which G15 echoes: "dramatic". The sequence is then concluded by G13, repeating G14's opening words.


124. G14: he might change (.) at the end


125. G15: (.) maybe (.) if he (.) gets married or something he might


126. G13: ((laughs))

G14: (.) something shocking= =changes

G15: (.) or something happens =yeah=


127. G13: =something= ((laughs))

G14: =dramatic= ((laughs))

G15: something happens= =dramatic ((laughs))


128. G13: (.) so he could change like if it was something like to


129. G13: teach him a le.= =a lesson

G14: =yeah=

G15: =yeah=


This example of lexical repetition indicates how closely the group members are working together. Interruptions and overlap

Throughout this discussion there are many occurrences of more than one person speaking at a time, falling into the categories both of interruption and of overlap. Where occurrences are interruptions, they are usually of the least 'serious' kind, that is, simultaneous self-selection. Another frequently occurring type of interruption is that the second speaker begins to speak, assuming that a TRP and a pause in the turn of the previous speaker means that the floor is free, only to find that the original speaker continues to speak. It is notable, however, that although interruptions do occur in this discussion, they are not treated by participants as competition for the floor. There appears to be no sense of ownership concerning the floor. The group members appear as happy to share the floor, or to give it up to another speaker, as to hold it themselves. A speaker who has relinquished the floor to another speaker after both have been speaking at the same time may respond either with an explicit indication that they feel their turn has been violated, or with silence. There are no occasions of either of these reactions in this discussion; the most frequent response to this situation is explicit support for the speaker.

Some instance of overlap and interruption are given below:


15. G13: =yeah (.) cruel =uhuh

G14: hates him=

G15: =mmm he's sort of the enemy=



G13 and G15 simultaneously self-select in this extract, as they respond to G14's previous comment. Both G13 and G15 are endorsing G14's statement, and both appear to compete their turns, speaking at the same time without apparently feeling that they are competing for the floor. When G15 completes her turn, G13 latches on to give G15 back channel support, a further indicator that their behaviour is co-operative rather than competitive.

In another example, G15's overlap below begins before G14 has completed the main lexical items of her turn. G14 also attempts to continue her turn but after a second of indistinct speech, stops speaking. This appears to be a significant interruption:


23. G13: mmhmm

G14: it's because he's the enemy (XXXX) =cos

G15: just because he is the enemy=


24. G14: he thinks it's so mach


A possible reason why this interruption does not appear to be treated as such by the group is that G15's turn is a reiteration of G14's turn; G15 has accurately predicted the lexical item with which G14 completes the clause: "enemy". She overlaps rather than interrupts therefore, in the sense that she supports G14's utterance. Additionally, G14 latches onto the end of G15's turn when G14 begins her next turn, with a further reason for Johnson's behaviour towards the prisoner; she does not appear to feel resentment at losing the floor.

There are also occasional long periods of overlapping speech; the instance below occurs between G13 and G14.


30. G13: just like him= =because he does have a family and

G14: =uhuh he was just a human being doing his job

G15: =mmhmm=


31. G13: everything and he did care (.) he was just on the other


32. G13: side and that's really why (.) he was just the enemy


G13 pauses at a TRP; G14 begins to speak, latching her turn onto G13's, while G15 gives back channel support to G13. G13 begins to speak again immediately after G15's "mmhmm", which leads to G13 and G14 taking turns simultaneously. Both complete their turns. G13's is an extended turn; she repeats the points previously made in the discussion. G14's turn is shorter, expressing a similar idea in different words. In this instance, G14's turn seems to function like back channel support. It confirms G13's utterance without appearing to be competition for the floor.

One final example shows G13 and G14 participating in reconstructing part of the play they found amusing:


58. G13: been going away off with a Yank and (XXXX) calling MacLeish

G14: ((gasp of laughter)) and


59. G13: a Scotch haggis

G14: calling the Welsh (XXXX) and singing in the choir (XXXX)

G15: ((laughs))


60. G13: ((laughs))

G14: names (1) a Scotch haggis= ((laughs))

G15: =mmhmm ((laughs))


It is clear from the above examples that the three girls in this group share the floor with little sense of exclusive ownership: they build turns co-operatively, and 'joining in' describes their behaviour better than 'interrupting'. Simultaneous speech

Simultaneous speech does not occur in this discussion, despite its co-operative style in other respects. Summary of Group VII discussion

This was a highly co-operative discussion. There was less disparity between length and number of turns than in other discussions in the sample, and there was a relatively high frequency of back channel support, which was distributed between all speakers. Questions were used to dissolve the potential hierarchy created by naming G14 as the chairperson, to open out topics, and as hedges. The speakers were very sensitive to areas that were potentially sites for conflict in their use of hedges and epistemic modal forms. Topics were jointly developed and there was a considerable degree of joint turn construction. Lexical repetition was constant and there was a considerable amount of co-operative overlapping speech. This was a strikingly more co-operative discussion than any of the others in the sample.

G14 was co-operative within this discussion - she participated to the same extent as the other two speakers in the co-operative features analysed above. She also used linguistic features to undermine the authority which comes with the role of chairperson.