Using Language in Context: Classroom Register
Once children enter school, they face a new set of conventions about language use that they have not encountered before in their home environments. Some need to learn another language to use in school; others discover that a different dialect of their language is expected in the school setting. But all children discover that the rules of language use will be different in some ways from those they are used to at home.
We might consider turn-taking as an example. Many conversations at home are one-on-one, with shared turns between child and adult. In this way, children learn how turn-taking works in a conversation and the expected kinds of adjacency pairs, such as questions and answers. They learn when a response is expected and what kinds of responses are appropriate. Parents may “scaffold” conversations to encourage and facilitate a child’s turn. But, as Clark (2003) points out and as every teacher knows, the turn-taking setting in a typical classroom is very different. Conversations are often between the teacher and the rest of the class rather than just one child, so children must compete for turns. Turn-taking may also require a formal request to enter the conversation, such as a raised hand.
Of particular interest are the question-answer pairs in a classroom versus those at home. In everyday use, questions are asked because the questioner does not know the answer. But in classrooms, teachers do know the answers to their questions, and students know that. Furthermore, teachers evaluate answers to questions and may respond with “Good” or “That’s right” if the answer is correct. If the answer is wrong, they might repeat the question so that another student can answer. Thus, children might come to expect that a repeated question in the classroom signals a wrong answer. Experimental evidence shows, in fact, that even if teachers repeat a question for other purposes, children will assume that their first answer was wrong (Clark 2003, p. 356). As we might expect, it takes children time to sort out the conversational conventions of home language from those of school.
Furthermore, interaction is at its most complex in multicultural classrooms, where children may bring to school cultural conventions about conversational appropriateness unfamiliar to the teacher and other students. These may be more subtle to detect than, say, pronunciation or grammatical differences and may be mistaken for individual rather than cultural traits. Failure to respond to direct questions, avoidance of eye contact with adults, and reluctance to volunteer in group discussions may all reflect desired behaviors among certain cultural groups (Kiefer & DeStefano 1985).
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