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Comprehension requests in writing conferences.


This case study analyzes how teachers use comprehension requests in teacher-student college writing conferences. In these requests, teachers ask questions to check students' understanding of prior discussion or content within the conference itself. Because students typically respond with a sign of acknowledgement such as a head nod, active listening or true understanding may not occur.


Teacher-student writing conferences are a common practice in many college composition courses because they allow teachers to intervene during the writing process and help students overcome difficulties with their writing. In conferences, teachers "offer instruction that is different from that which is attempted in the classroom or comments on a page" (Harris 87). These one-on-one meetings provide students with opportunities to examine their writing from the readers' perspective and reassess their own writing holistically, not just microscopically.

Recent studies on conference discourse focus on ESL college composition courses and investigate language acquisition (Koshik) and students' confidence levels (Strauss and Xiang). Likewise, Richard F. Young and Elizabeth R. Miller analyze ESL conferences, but for the purposes of investigating "revision talk" and how much an ESL student participates over a series of conferences as he navigates this "unfamiliar discursive practice" (521). They contend that "the instructor and student jointly construct the changes in participation [...] as the student develops from peripheral to fuller participation" (533). While Young and Miller focus on the revision talk of ESL students, my research turns attention to the nature of conversation between native speakers and their teachers.

Using case study methodology and conversation analysis, I describe how students and teachers display their reactions to what the other is saying in conferences. In particular, I focus on how students and teachers mutually use response tokens to let the other know how they are understanding and evaluating what is being said. According to Rod Gardner, response tokens, such as continuers and acknowledgments, are important in social interaction because they provide the speaker with information about how the listener reacts to his or her utterances (3). For example, most commonly "mm hm" and "yeah" are used to indicate agreement or understanding, while "uh uh" and head shakes show a lack of agreement or confusion. While tokens, head nods, and eye gazes contribute to and improve the flow of the conference (i.e., nodding encourages the speaker to continue talking), it is not clear if the listener truly understands what the speaker is saying. This article addresses the question of how teachers check students' comprehension of the conference discussion.


The study took place over one semester, Fall 2003, at a Midwest urban research university of 24,000 students. Participants included two college composition instructors and four students--all were part of English 102 (College Writing and Research), the second course of a two-course sequence. Instructors provided all documents (syllabi, handouts, assignments) distributed to students, plus evaluated student drafts. Students provided all drafts written before and after conferences to help me detect and analyze changes in drafts. I conducted interviews at the beginning of the study to determine the instructors' teaching backgrounds and the students' writing backgrounds. Furthermore, I conducted interviews after each conference to determine if each participant's expectations were met. Then, I met with each participant at the conclusion of the study to ask questions about their experiences as a whole with conferences and the study. I entered the community by observing classes and conferences and taking field notes of the setting, body language during discourse, and initial impressions. I videotaped conferences to view nonverbal communication. Also, I audiotaped each conference for discourse analysis and as a backup to the videotape.

Data Analysis

Conversation analysis attempts "to uncover the systematic properties of the sequential organization of talk and the social practices displayed by and embodied in talk-in-interaction" (Lazaraton 37). When transcribing tapes, researchers try to capture talk as it actually occurs, including the following features: precise beginning and end points of speakers' turns, which may be as short as a single word or as long as several sentences; overlap of turns; duration of pauses; audible sounds that are not words (such as breathiness and laughter) or which are "ambiguous" vocalizations; and marking the stresses, extensions and truncations that are found in individual words and syllables including enunciation, intonation and pitch (Hutchby and Wooffitt 75-76).

Furthermore, the listener during talk-in-interaction can be viewed as recipient and constructor of interactive talk. The listener's reaction during conversation is called a "response token." Examples of response tokens include:

* Continuers, which function to hand the floor back to the immediately prior speaker (e.g. Mm hm, Uh huh);

* Acknowledgements, which claim agreement or understanding of the prior turn (e.g. Mm, Yeah);

* Newsmarkers, and newsmarker-like objects, which mark the prior speaker's turn as newsworthy in some way (e.g. Really?);

* Change of activity tokens, which mark a transition to a new activity or a new topic in the talk (e.g. Okay, Alright);

* Assessments, which evaluate the talk of the prior speakers (e.g. Great, How intriguing);

* Brief questions for clarification or other types of repair, which seek to clarify mishearings or misunderstandings (e.g. Who?, Which book do you mean?, Huh?);

* Collaborative completions, whereby one speaker finishes a prior speaker's utterance (e.g. A: So he's moved into ... B: commercial interests);

* Many non-verbal vocalizations and kinesic actions (e.g. sighs, laughter, nods and head shakes). (Gardner 2-3)

I also documented topic shifts (usually indicated by response tokens) and conference content that focused on macro--and micro-level discussions of the student's text.

Participants and Conference Design

Over the course of the study, I coded transcripts for 18 conferences. For this article, I am including one conference per student participant for a total of four. Of the four conferences included in this study, the teachers cancelled class to conduct required conferences for the first essay of the semester. Each student completed a first draft. [1]

The first set of participants are listed below:

* (TG) Gary, white male, mid 40s, teaching for 8 years

* (SA) Amanda, white female, age 18, education major

* (SM) Michael, white male, age 18, architecture major

For Gary's conferences, the students turned in a copy of their draft in the last class, so each conference participant had a copy of the draft. The essay assignment was to write a response to the assigned nonfiction text and to "explore some of the questions you have about, or problems/issues raised by" the assigned reading (Gary, essay assignment sheet). Gary started each conference by asking the students what kind of feedback they had received from their classmates during the peer review in the last class session. After a short discussion about the feedback, he shifted discussion to their thesis statements and whether or not they responded to the author. At the end of the conference, he would ask if they had any questions about the paper or the assignment. Both Michael and Amanda's conferences were about 23 minutes long.

The second set of participants are listed below:

* (TL) Lisa, white female, mid 50s, teaching for 20 years

* (SK) Kathy, white female, age 20, education major

* (SR) Robert, African-American male, age 31, art history major

For Lisa's conferences, the students brought in a draft of their essay. Kathy brought in an extra copy for herself; Robert did not have another copy. According to the assignment, students were to explore an issue dealing with education in order to understand a topic rather than write an argument. It asks that "Rather than structuring paragraphs around analytical topics, exploratory writers use the process of mulling over a problem to organize their text, showing the reader the process of thinking and being confused, making connections and missing them" (Lisa, essay assignment sheet). Lisa started conferences by having the students state their topic, and then Lisa read the paper aloud. Lisa then moved the discussion to why they chose their topic, to asking questions about their thinking process and the sources they used, and to talking about the format. She ended conferences by asking students if they had any questions about the paper or assignment. Kathy's conference lasted 39 minutes and Robert's conference lasted 33 minutes.

Comprehension Requests

While teachers used a variety of speech acts during the conferences--such as directives, suggestions, and information-seeking moves--this article focuses on one speech act: comprehension requests. In comprehension requests (e.g., Thonus 230), teachers ask questions to check the students' understanding of prior talk or content of the conference itself. Within these particular conferences, the evaluation requests came in the form of short phrases or simply one word. Prior to this segment, Gary mentioned a variety of topics that Amanda could research and add to her response paper. After a lengthy discussion, Gary realized that this assignment was not a research paper, so he told her to disregard his topics and just focus on her response.

Segment 1 [2]

((TG leaning back in chair; TG and SA gazing at each other))

TG: that would be stronger than doing all the research. Save this though in case you decide that you want to make this your research paper topic

((SA flips back a page of her draft and writes on bottom of it))

((SA looks up; TG and SA gaze at each other for 4.7 seconds))

TG: that help?

((SA nods))

After staring at each other for 4.7, seconds, Gary asks, "that help?" Amanda waits one second and then nods. Then, Gary shifts topics to what he wrote on her draft before she came to the conference and returns to talking about her response to the author. In one phrase, Gary checks Amanda's understanding of talk prior to this segment, which emphasized that she needs to expand on her response to the assigned reading rather than writing a research paper. Likewise, Lisa uses a short question as a comprehension request. Near the end of the conference, Lisa summarizes what she sees is happening in Robert's paper, and indicates that she wants to see more of Robert's thought process in the paper.

Segment 2

((TL looking at draft and moving left hand over draft; SR looking at TL))

TL: and I think the only thing that happened in the translation on the page was like all of that great thinking and thinking about it and reflecting and pondering you were doing? That got a little like not left out but it's like I don't 1- sort of invisible?

SR: okay

((TL and SR gaze at each other))

TL: you know? And I see the conclusions you drew and the conclusions are fine at the end if you've drawn some. Some people haven't; they go

SR: okay

TL: "ah! now I have even more questions," but if you can tell me more of that that thought process

((TL and SR look down at draft))

SR: okay

TL: yeah and I think the thought process is in there

SR: okay

TL: so, is that helpful?

((TL looks up at SR; SR looking down at draft))

SR: yeah

((SR nods))

TL: okay yeah

((TL nods))

With one question, "So, is that helpful?", Lisa refers to prior talk on the thought process. Immediately following this turn, she gives an evaluation of the paper by saying he has nice sources and nice structure, so her question may refer to the entire conference. In addition, teachers checked students' understanding by asking a question in four ways: "alright?" "okay?" "right?" "you know?" At times, it was difficult to differentiate whose understanding was being checked. In one way, the speaker checks whether his or her own understanding is correct or in accord with what the recipient meant. For example, Lisa asks Robert, "Because you bring that topic up, right?" She clarifies whether or not he wrote about that topic in the paper. In another way, the speaker checks whether the recipient's interpretation accords with his or her own intention. For example, Gary states, "You need to return to that idea at some point. Okay?" He wants to know if Michael understands that he needs to talk about a certain concept in his paper.

In the four conferences, the teachers asked "alright?" "okay?" "right?" "you know?" 63 times. In only seven of these responses (11 percent), the students verbally responded with more than continuer or acknowledgment tokens (i.e., "yeah" or "okay"). The rising intonation on the last syllable of the comprehension request indicated a question, and the teacher typically paused and gazed at the student indicating a desire for some type of response. Because the students usually responded in the affirmative, verbally or nonverbally, the teachers assumed that the students understood, and the teacher moved to the next topic of the conference. In post-conference interviews with students, they provided to me no direct confirmation that they knew what to do when they left the instructor's office.


M. M. Bakhtin claims that true understanding occurs with active response to the utterance, not passive response. Active or passive response is what is at issue in writing conferences. How do students respond when given a directive or a suggestion? Does the teacher or student address miscommunication or misunderstanding? If a teacher gives a directive and the student writes down the comment, is it because the student wants to remember to discuss this comment in the paper or because the student thinks he or she is supposed to take notes? What if students acknowledge directives with an "okay" and a nod? Does it mean they understand the directive or do they use acknowledgment tokens because they are commonly used in conversations to continue the talk, or is it a form of "saving face" so the teacher will not know they do not understand? For example, I was talking to a student about her essay and I asked her, "Does that make sense?" She nodded and said, "mm hm." I was ready to move on to the next topic, but because I recently completed analyzing the data for this study, I stopped myself. Instead, I rechecked her understanding: "Okay, so explain back to me, in your own words, what I just said." She meekly smiled at me and stated that she had no idea what I was talking about or what she should do with her paper. What becomes important, then, is the teacher's reaction to the student's response. Do we interpret the student's verbal and nonverbal response appropriately and react by shifting topics, checking understanding, or elaborating further?

During the conferences, listeners used many continuer and acknowledgement tokens, head nods, and eye gazes. While it contributed to and improved the flow of the conference, it is not clear if the listener truly understood what the speaker said. After comprehension requests, students were more likely to respond with continuer or acknowledgement tokens. Whether the student responded with a token or provided no response, the teacher would switch topics. No true check of understanding occurred; both teachers and students were too dependent on response tokens. While comprehension requests are an appropriate technique to check student understanding, it is not enough to simply accept a response token in return. Teachers must continue the discussion with follow-up questions or encourage the student to respond in more detail before switching topics.

Young and Miller found similar results in their analysis. In an initial conference, the ESL student's responses were "minimal" and "complicit": "His utterances are almost all limited to yeah" (529). Over a series of three more conferences, the student participates more fully in the conference talk and "produces no continuers" in the last conference (530), indicating the student has become more adept at participating in conferences. Subsequently, if teachers do not meet with students more than once outside of the classroom, students may defer to the teacher's authority and respond passively. Because mutual understanding depends on active response, both teachers and students need to recognize how to engage in this kind of interaction. Instead of asking students just about the paper, teachers need to ask about the conference talk. It is not enough to ask "Does that make sense?", wait for a nod, and shift topics. Teachers need to encourage students to respond with more than a response token. One way to do this is to have students summarize the conference discussion in their own words and establish a plan for revision at the end of the conference. In this way, the participants show they are following the conference discourse, making sure that their understanding is the right one.


Bakhtin, M. M. "The Problem of Speech Genres." Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Eds. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 1986. 60-102.

Gardner, Rod. When Listeners Talk: Response Tokens and Listener Stance. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2001.

Harris, Muriel. "The Ins and Outs of Conferencing." The Writing Instructor 6.2 (1987): 87-96.

Hutchby, Ian, and Robin Wooffitt. Conversation Analysis: Principles, Practices and Applications. Cambridge, England: Polity, 1998.

Koshik, Irene. "Designedly Incomplete Utterances: A Pedagogical Practice for Eliciting Knowledge Displays in Error Correction Sequences." Research on Language and Social Interaction 35.3 (2002): 277-309.

Lazaraton, Anne. "Quantitative and Qualitative Approaches to Discourse Analysis." Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 22 (2002): 32-51.

Strauss, Susan, and Xuehua Xiang. "The Writing Conference as a Locus of Emergent Agency." Written Communication 23 (2006): 355-396.

Thonus, Terese. "Dominance in Academic Writing Tutorials: Gender, Language Proficiency, and the Offering of Suggestions." Discourse & Society 10.2 (1999): 225-248.

Young, Richard F., and Elizabeth R. Miller. "Learning as Changing Participation: Discourse Roles in ESL Writing Conferences." The Modern Language Journal 88.4 (2004): 519-535.


[1] All participants' names are pseudonyms.

[2] All transcripts have been simplified and linguistic notation removed. Text in double parentheses and italics indicate nonverbal behavior. For the original transcripts, please email the author.

Margaret A. Artman, Western Oregon University

Artman, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English.
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Author:Artman, Margaret A.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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