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Sinclair and Coulthard

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Sinclair and Coulthard

As a student, you'll know what it's like to interact with different teachers in different classes. Each teacher might have their own strategies for getting the attention of the class, getting the students engaged, and eliciting input from everyone.

Sinclair and Coulthard explored this phenomenon of classroom discourse and came up with some significant theories which we'll be exploring in this article.

This article will:

  • Introduce Sinclair and Coulthard's original discourse analysis model
  • Discuss the Initiation - Response - Feedback (IRF) model
  • Provide some examples of IRF discourse in the classroom
  • Highlight the main criticisms of Sinclair and Coulthard's model and the criticisms of using IRF as a framework for teaching.

Let's get into it!

Sinclair and Coulthard Summary

In the 1970s, Sinclair and Coulthard created a model to analyse and explain the discourse that took place in a classroom between the teacher and the student. Their theory was that most interactions followed the same pattern - initiation of discourse by the teacher, a response from the student, and, finally, some form of feedback from the teacher. From this observation, they proposed the IRF model. Today, the IRF model is used as a framework for teaching and as a way of analysing discourse in the classroom.

Sinclair and Coulthard’s Model

Sinclair and Coulthard’s model was created in 1975 and revised in 1992. It is a hierarchical model used predominantly for discourse analysis in classrooms.

The model is an adaptation of Halliday’s (1961) rank scale model for discourse analysisHalliday created his model to show how all language is grammatically interlinked, with the hierarchical aspect highlighting the relationship between morphemes in a sentence.

Sinclair and Coulthard took the hierarchical and rank part of Halliday’s model and adapted it to apply to discourse that takes place in a classroom, particularly between the teacher and the students. The model initially comprised five ranks: lesson, transaction, exchange, move, and act. However, in the 1992 revised version, lesson was removed, leaving 4 ranks.

Sinclair and Coulthard visual representation of Sinclair and Coulthard's model StudySmarter

Visual representation of Sinclair and Coulthard’s hierarchical model. HM - StudySmarter Original

Sinclair and Coulthard said that,

Each rank above the lowest has a structure which can be expressed in terms of the units next below’ - (Towards an analysis of discourse, 1992)

In simpler terms, acts combine to form moves, moves combine to form exchanges, and exchanges combine to form transactions.

Let’s take a look at each rank in detail.

Acts

These are speech acts and are the smallest form and lowest rank of discourse. Examples of speech acts include directives (commands), interrogatives (questions), and markers (eg. ‘okay…’ ‘now…’).

One or more acts are used to initiate discourse and create a ‘move’.

Moves

There are five different types of Move:

  • Framing moves – these usually come first and are used to structure a lesson

  • Focusing moves – these usually follow framing moves and are used to draw the student's attention to the structure of the lesson.

  • Opening moves – these direct the students and encourage them to participate in the discourse.

  • Answering moves – these are usually responses from the students.

  • Following-up moves – these are typically committed by the teacher and are follow-ups to the student's responses.

A combination of different acts and moves comprise various types of exchanges.

Exchanges

According to Sinclair and Coulthard’s model, there are two main types of exchange: boundary exchanges and teaching exchanges.

Boundary exchanges

These exchanges are typically comprised of framing and focusing moves and are used to set the context and intentions of a lesson.

Teacher: Right class, listen up! (Act)

Teacher: Today, we are going to learn about vowels (Framing move)

Teacher: Please look at the letters on the board. (Focusing move)

The act and the framing and focusing moves combine to create a boundary exchange.

Sinclair and Coulthard teaching speaking to class StudySmarter

A boundary exchange can be used to get the students' attention, HM - StudySmarter Original

Teaching exchanges

These exchanges focus on the main content of a lesson. The three main teaching exchanges are: informing, directing, and eliciting exchanges.

Sinclair and Coulthard state that a typical classroom exchange consists of an initiation from the teacher, a response from the student, and, finally, feedback from the teacher. From this observation, they coined the term Initiation - Response - Feedback (IRF) to describe the main exchanges in a classroom and create their IRF model.

Not every exchange has to contain an initiation, response, and feedback, however, and some exchanges only contain one or two of these aspects.

Here's a handy chart explaining the characteristics of each exchange.

Informing exchange

This exchange is used when the teacher wishes to inform their students of something (new information, a fact etc.). In this exchange, the teacher initiates, and the students can respond if they wish. Therefore, it is categorised as I(R) (Initiation + optional response).

Eg.

Teacher: Did you know, the blue whale can weigh up to 200 tons!

Students: Cool! (optional response)

Directing exchange

A directing exchange is used when the teacher wants the students to do something (eg. put their books away). In this case, the response is non-verbal and refers to an action that students commit. The teacher can choose to give feedback if they wish, meaning this exchange is categorised as IR(F) (Initiation + response + optional feedback).

Eg.

Teacher: Okay children, please go get your book.

Students: [go and get their books]

Teacher: Well done everybody. (optional response)

Eliciting exchange

These are arguably the most common classroom exchanges and follow the complete IRF exchange. The teacher asks a question, the students respond, and the teacher gives them some feedback.

Eg.

Teacher: How many vowels are in the alphabet?

Student: 5

Teacher: That’s correct. Well done!

Transactions

A transaction is the name given to the combination of acts, moves, and exchanges.

Initiation - Response - Feedback IRF Model

The Initiation - Response - Feedback (IRF) model is the name given to the simplified version of Sinclair and Coulthard’s discourse analysis model. It looks at the most common form of exchange in a classroom, the eliciting exchange, which goes like this:

Teacher - Initiates discourse

Student - Gives a response

Teacher - Provides some form of feedback.

Teacher - What did you do this weekend?

Student - I went to the museum.

Teacher - That sounds nice. What did you learn?

Sinclair and Coulthard's research significantly influenced our understanding of how teachers and students communicate, and their original discourse analysis model provided the basis of the IRF model. Since then, several theorists and educators have added to and adapted the IRF model.

Today, the IRF model is used as a teaching framework (ie. how to structure a lesson and initiate a response from students), as a way of analysing discourse, and as a way of exploring power relations in the classroom.

Sinclair and Coulthard classroom discourse - IRF

Let’s look at an example of an IRF exchange in the classroom. The following extract is taken from the book Exploring Classroom Discourse Language in Action (2011) by the linguist Steve Walsh:

Teacher: So, can you read question two, Junya? (Initiation)

Student: (Reading from the book) ‘Where was Sabina when this happened?’ (Response)

Teacher: Right, yes, and where was Sabina. (Feedback)

Teacher: In Unit 10, where was she? (Initiation)

Student: Er, go out … (Response)

Teacher: She went out, yes. (Feedback)

Let’s break this discourse down following Sinclair and Coulthard’s model.

  • The teacher initiates the interaction with the discourse marker ‘so’ - this is the act (speech act).

  • They then ask, ‘can you read question two, Junya?’ - this is the opening move from the teacher as it encourages the student to engage in the discourse.

  • The student responds by reading the question - this is considered the answering move.

  • The teacher then replies with ‘Right, yes.’ - this is the teacher’s feedback and is regarded as the follow-up move.

  • The teacher then initiates further discourse by asking another question, and the process starts all over again.

These acts and moves create an eliciting exchange - this is the teaching exchange that follows the complete IRF model.

Criticisms of Sinclair and Coulthard’s theory

Francis and Hunston (1992) highlighted a key flaw with Sinclair and Coulthard’s model.² They noticed that their model fails to recognise the presence or importance of para-linguistic features in discourse, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact.

As a teaching framework, the IRF model has been criticised for several reasons.

  • The model places more emphasis on the teacher than the student, meaning the student may respond with what they think the teacher wants to hear rather than what they actually want to say.

  • Following the IRF model too closely may result in monotonous lessons that the students find boring.

  • The approach doesn’t allow for student-initiated discourse, and important questions or gaps in knowledge may go unacknowledged.

Coulthard and Sinclair- IRF model - Key Takeaways

  • Sinclair and Coulthard’s model is a hierarchal rank model used predominantly for discourse analysis in classrooms. The model comprises 4 ranks: transaction, exchange, move, and act.

  • Each lower rank combines to form the next higher rank. For example, acts combine to form moves, moves combine to form exchanges, and exchanges combine to form transactions.

  • The teacher usually initiates the first act and, subsequently, the first move, resulting in either a boundary exchange (setting the context of a lesson) or a teaching exchange.

  • There are three main types of teaching exchanges: informing, directing, and eliciting exchanges.

  • Teaching exchanges typically follow the Initiation - Response - Feedback (IRF) model in some way. Eliciting exchanges are the most common and follow the complete Initiation - Response - Feedback model.

  • Sinclair and Coulthard’s model has been criticised for being too teacher-focused. As a framework for teaching, it can become monotonous and doesn’t allow for student-initiated discourse.


References

  1. M.A.K. Halliday. Categories of the theory of grammar. 1961.
  2. G. Francis and S. Hunston. Analysing everyday conversation. 1992.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sinclair and Coulthard

Sinclair and Coulthard’s model is a hierarchal rank model used predominantly for discourse analysis in classrooms. The model comprises 4 ranks: transaction, exchange, move, and act. An important aspect of the model is the recognition of the initiation - response - feedback exchange that happens between teachers and students.

The initiation - Response - Feedback (IRF) model refers to the pattern of discourse that happens between teachers and students. Typically, the teacher will initiate discourse, the student will respond, then the teacher will provide feedback. The model is based on Sinclair and Coulthard’s discourse model, which analyses discourse in classrooms.

The term IRF stands for Initiation- Response- Feedback. It refers to the exchange between teacher and student in a classroom, where the teacher will initiate discourse, the student will respond, and the teacher provides feedback.

E.g.

Teacher - What did you do this weekend?

Student - I went to the museum.

Teacher - That sounds nice. What did you learn? 

The Initiation - Response - Feedback (IRF) model was originally proposed by Sinclair and Coulthard.

Sinclair and Coulthard’s model of classroom discourse is a hierarchal rank model, where each lower rank combines to form the next higher rank. The model comprises 4 ranks: transaction, exchange, move, and act.

Final Sinclair and Coulthard Quiz

Question

Sinclair and Coulthard's model examines discourse produced where?

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Answer

In the classroom.

Show question

Question

Sinclair and Coulthard's model comprises 4 ranks, what are they?

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Answer

act, move, exchange, and transaction.

Show question

Question

Who usually initiates discourse in the classroom?

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Answer

The teacher.

Show question

Question

What are the two main types of exchanges?

Show answer

Answer

Boundary exchanges and teaching exchanges.

Show question

Question

Which type of exchange is used to set the context and intentions of a lesson?

Show answer

Answer

Boundary exchange.

Show question

Question

What are the three types of teaching exchanges?

Show answer

Answer

Informing, directing, and eliciting exchanges.

Show question

Question

What does IRF stand for?

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Answer

Initiation - Response - Feedback

Show question

Question

Which teaching exchange follows the complete Initiation - Response - Feedback model?

Show answer

Answer

Eliciting exchange.

Show question

Question

What does IRF model fail to recognise the importance of?

Show answer

Answer

Para-linguistic features (hand movements, eye contact etc).

Show question

Question

True or false, the IRF approach to teaching allows for student-initiated discourse?

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Answer

False. This approach does not allow for student-initiated discorse.

Show question

Question

What was the original intention of Sinclair and Coulthard's model?

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Answer

To analyse and explain the discourse that took place in a classroom between the teacher and the student 

Show question

Question

When was Sinclair and Coulthard's model created and revised?

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Answer

Created: 1975

Revised: 1992

Show question

Question

Why did Halliday create his rank scale model for discourse analysis?

Show answer

Answer

He wanted to show how all language is grammatically interlinked.

Show question

Question

Which rank is at the bottom of Sinclair and Coulthard's model's hierarchy?

Show answer

Answer

Acts

Show question

Question

List three examples of speech acts.

Show answer

Answer

  • interrogatives
  • directives
  • markers

Show question

Question

What are the five kinds of 'moves' in Sinclair and Coulthard's model?

Show answer

Answer

  • framing moves
  • focusing moves
  • opening moves
  • answering moves
  • follow-up moves

Show question

Question

A combination of acts and moves creates an ______? Fill in the blank.

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Answer

Exchange

Show question

Question

What is a 'boundary exchange'?

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Answer

A boundary exchange typically comprised of framing and focusing moves and are used to set the context and intentions of a lesson.  

Show question

Question

What is the main focus of a 'teaching exchange'?

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Answer

The main content of a lesson.

Show question

Question

When is an 'informing exchange' used?

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Answer

When the teacher wishes to inform their students of something new. 

Show question

Question

When is a 'directing exchange' used?

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Answer

When the teacher wants the students to do something.

Show question

Question

What is a 'transaction' in Sinclair and Coulthard's model?

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Answer

A transaction is a combination of acts, moves, and exchanges. 

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Question

True or false: the IRF model has been criticised for putting too much emphasis on the student and not enough on the teacher.

Show answer

Answer

False, the IRF model has been criticised for putting too much emphasis on the teacher and not enough on the student. 

Show question

Question

True or false: following the IRF model too closely can lead to lessons being monotonous and dry.

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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What would be a consequence of the IRF model not allowing student-initiated discourse?

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Answer

Students might have important questions or knowledge gaps that might go unanswered. 

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