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Higgs, Jennifer. K-12 Teachers’ Use of Digital Discussion Tools. RTE, Aug. 2020. Posted 11/27/2020.

Higgs, Jennifer. “Digital Discourse in Classrooms: Language Arts Teachers’ Reported Perceptions and Implementation.” Research in the Teaching of English 55.1 (2020): 32-55. Print.

Jennifer Higgs investigated K-12 teachers’ attitudes toward and uses of digital apps designed to facilitate dialogic discourse in classrooms. Her study suggests a “tension” between teachers’ plans and hopes for such technology and their actual use of it in their courses (43).

The study, conducted in the 2014-15 academic year, examined how teachers implemented Subtext, an “e-reader” used by more than 5600 K-12 “literacy teachers” at the time of the study. The app provides a range of interactive tools as well as opportunities for teachers to organize classroom activities (37). The sample for a Qualtrics survey was taken from a list provided by the company of educators who used the app on a regular basis for at least four weeks (38). Of the 552 surveys submitted from all grade levels, 451 were assessed as “valid” (41). The survey data were augmented with a qualitative case study of the use made of Subtext by “Peter,” an 11-grade English teacher the author met in her previous research. Higgs writes that she chose Peter because he had taken the survey and his responses “mirrored broader trends” in the survey results. Moreover, he had used Subtext for a year and expressed enthusiasm for its value as a teaching tool (39).

Higgs’s queries address theories of literacy and learning that consider “talking to learn” an important contributor to student growth; she cites the work of Vygotsky and Bakhtin as underpinnings for this approach (34-35). In this view, student conversation with diverse classmates encourages the development of ideas and comprehension. “Dialogic” exchanges are theorized to decenter the source of authority by moving to student-centered discourse (35). “[B]road participation” by students is considered essential to the success of this approach (35), as is engagement with “a supportive community for idea exploration and exchange” (36).

Higgs reports that, despite widespread acceptance of the importance of dialogic exchange, teachers have not always been able to fully implement ideal discourse communities in classrooms, with the result that, according to studies, “teacher-dominated talk has remained prevalent across time” (36). For some, Higgs writes, the availability of interactive apps like Subtext seems to offer a way for teachers to overcome some of the challenges that limit their success in encouraging more active dialogue in their classes. She notes research showing such advantages as increased, “ more egalitarian” participation and “more time to form and respond to ideas” (36).

Higgs contends that some advocates for digital discourse tools “ascribe a great deal of agency” to the tools (34), but research also indicates that activities like wikis often underperform, possibly because they don’t accord with embedded classroom organization or teachers’ and students’ understanding of familiar processes (36). Research to address this misfit between teachers’ hopes for the new tools and their actual performance in classrooms, Higgs writes, tends to consist of small-sample studies and to neglect language arts (37). Her study, she argues, pairs a large-scale survey with a more focused examination of the survey’s findings in a single classroom.

Her survey addressed four “constructs”:

  • Teachers’ Reported Classroom Uses for Subtext
  • Teachers’ Reported Reasons for Using Subtext
  • Teachers’ Perceptions of Digital Discourse as a Learning Tool That Encourages Student Participation
  • Teachers’ Perceptions of Affordances and Constraints Associated with a Tool That Supports Digital Discourse

The last two constructs were structured to receive open-ended responses (40).

Analysis of the survey data indicated that teachers tended to see Subtext in terms of its value as a “teacher tool” for managing assignments and activities, a “student tool” for students to use to engage with their reading and the classroom community, and a “digital tool,” that is, a tool with effects resulting specifically from “its digital nature.” For example, a respondent commented on the value of “embedded questions and links” (42).

Higgs’s data suggests that despite believing that Subtext should expand student engagement, teachers most commonly use the app “to assign readings of collective class texts” and to guide students through texts with comments and questions: that is, teachers mostly used Subtext as a “teacher tool” rather than a tool for “student-posed questions” (42). A majority of teachers surveyed responded that they thought the app resulted in more student participation and interaction and gave “shy kids . . . a platform to express ideas” (qtd. in Higgs 45). At the same time, a majority of respondents valued Subtext for its “convenience” and its contribution to “teachers’ productivity” as well as for its usefulness in helping students negotiate the assigned texts through teacher-posed questions and annotations (45). Higgs writes that the teachers “perceiv[ed]” that the digital nature of the app “improved or even transformed learning,” but in their actual uses of its affordances retained a teacher-directed approach (46).

To study Peter’s class, Higgs conducted 300 minutes of observation over five sessions, a 40-minute semi-structured interview, and various informal conversations. She also took extensive field notes and collected 33 threads illustrating class interaction as students read two novels using Subtext (40-41). Peter expressed belief that Subtext was a powerful tool for improving student interaction beyond what was usual in face-to-face classroom discussion (47). The observations and threads led Higgs to conclude that Peter’s use of Subtext accorded with that of the majority of survey respondents in that he primarily used the app to help students improve their ability to read the novels through annotations, modeling, and teacher-posed questions (47). Peter started all threads and student reactions were limited to responses to his original prompt (48). Higgs notes Peter’s “good intentions” but characterizes his results as “more closely aligned with recitation models than dialogic models” (49).

Higgs observes that a truly dialogic discourse community remains elusive even with new digital tools (50). Pointing out that teachers invest considerable time and effort into finding and using the new tools, Higgs rejects the idea that teacher resistance to new technologies is responsible for this result (50). She proposes more research to better understand teachers’ approaches to tools like Subtext and professional development that goes beyond “access to devices” and “decontextualized tutorials that champion frequent use over purposeful use” to encourage more effective uses of the affordances the tools offer (50). She contends that dialogic discourse will not “just happen” but presents challenges regardless of the available tools (51).


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Shi, Matos, and Kuhn. Dialogue and Argument. JoWR, Spring 2019. Posted 06/15/2019.

Shi, Yuchen, Flora Matos, and Deanna Kuhn. “Dialog as a Bridge to Argumentative Writing.” Journal of Writing Research 11.1 (2019): 107-29. Web. 5 June 2019.

Yuchen Shi, Flora Matos, and Deanna Kuhn report on a study of a dialogic approach to argumentative writing conducted with sixth-graders at “an urban public middle school in an underserved neighborhood in a large Northeastern city in the United States” (113). The study replicates earlier research on the same curriculum, with added components to assess whether the intervention increased “meta-level understanding of the purpose and goals of evidence in argumentative writing” (112-13).

Noting that research has documented the degree to which students struggle with the cognitive demands of argumentative writing as opposed to narration (108), the authors report that while the value of discourse as a precursor to writing an argument has been recognized, much of the discourse studied has been at the “whole-classroom level” (108). In contrast, the authors’ intervention paired students so that they could talk “directly” with others who both shared and opposed their positions (108).

In the authors’ view, this process provided students with two elements that affect the success of written communication: “a clearly defined audience and a meaningful purpose” (108). They argue that this direct engagement with the topic and with an audience over a period of time improves on reading about a topic, which they feel students may do “disinterestedly” because they do not yet have a sense of what kind of evidence they may need (110). The authors’ dialogic intervention allows students to develop their own questions as they become aware of the arguments they will have to make (110).

Further, the authors maintain, the dialogic exchange linking individual students “removes the teacher” and makes the process student-centered (109).

Claiming that the ability to produce “evidence-based claims” is central to argument, the authors centered their study on the relation between claims and evidence in students’ discussions and in their subsequent writing (110). Their model, they write, allowed them to see a developmental sequence as students were first most likely to choose evidence that supported their own position, only later beginning to employ evidence that “weaken[s] the opposing claim” (111). Even more sophisticated approaches to evidence, which the authors label “weaker my” and “support other,” develop more slowly if at all (111-12).

Two class were chosen to participate, one as the experimental group (22 students) and one as a comparison group (27 students). The curriculum was implemented in “twice-weekly 40-minute class sessions” that continued in “four cycles” throughout the school year (114). Each cycle began a new topic; the four topics were selected from a list because students seemed equally divided in their views on those issues (114).

The authors divided their process into Pregame, Game, and Endgame sections. In the Pregame, students in small groups generated reasons in support of their position. In the Game, student pairs sharing a position dialogued electronically with “a different opposing pair at each session” (115). During this section, students generated their own “evidence questions” which the researchers answered by the next session; the pairs were given other evidence in Q&A format. The Endgame consisted of a debate, which was then scored and a winning side designated (115). Throughout, students constructed reflection pieces; electronic transcripts preserved the interactions (115).

At the end of each cycle, students wrote individual papers. The comparison group also wrote an essay on the fourth topic, whether students should go directly to college from high school or work for a year. For this essay, students in the both groups were provided with evidence only at the end of the cycle. This essay was used for the final assessment (116-17).

Other elements assessed included whether students could recall answers to 12 evidence questions, in order to determine if differences in the use of evidence in the two groups was a function of superior memory of the material (123). A second component was a fifth essay written by the experimental group on whether teens accused of serious crimes should be tried as adults or juveniles (118). The authors wanted to assess whether the understanding of claims and evidence cultivated during the curriculum informed writing on a topic that had not been addressed through the dialogic intervention (118).

For the assessment, the researchers considered “a claim together with any reason and/or evidence supporting it” as an “idea unit” (118). These units were subcategorized as “either evidence-based or non-evidence-based.” Analyzing only the claims that contained evidence, the researchers further distinguished between “functional” and “non-functional” evidence-based claims. Functional claims were those where there was a clear written link between the evidence and claim. Only the use of functional claims was assessed. (118).

Results indicated that while the number of idea units and evidence-based claims did not vary significantly across the groups, the experimental group was significantly more successful in including functional evidence-based claims (120). Also, the intervention encouraged significantly more use of “weaken-other” claims, which the writers characterize as “a more demanding skill commonly neglected by novice writers” (120). Students did not show progress in using “weaken-own” or “support-other” evidence (121).

With the intention of determining the intervention’s effects on students’ meta-level awareness about evidence in arguing, researchers discovered that the groups did not vary in the kinds of evidence they would like most to see, with both choosing “support-own.” However, the experimental group was much more likely to state that “weaken-other” evidence was the type “they would like to see second most” (122). The groups were similar in students’ ability to recall evidence, in the authors’ view indicating that superior recall in one group or the other did not explain the results (125).

Assessment of the essay on the unfamiliar topic was hampered by an even smaller sample size and the fact that the two groups wrote on different topics. The writers report that 54% of the experimental-group students made support-own or weaken-other claims, but that the number of such claims decreased to a frequency similar to that of the comparison group on the college/work topic (124).

The authors argue that increased use of more sophisticated weaken-other evidence points to higher meta-awareness of evidence as a component of argument, but that students could show more growth as measured by their ability to predict the kind of evidence they would need or use (125).

Noting the small sample size as a limitation, the authors suggest that both the dialogic exchange of their curriculum and the students’ “deep engagement” with topics contributed to the results they recorded. They suggest that “[a]rguing to learn” through dialogue and engagement can be an important pedagogical activity because of the discourse and cognitive skills these activities develop (126).


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King, Emily. Student Silence in Classroom Discussion. TETYC, Mar. 2018. Posted 03/21/2018.

King, Emily. “Understanding Classroom Silence: How Students’ Perceptions of Power Influence Participation in Discussion-Based Composition Classrooms.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 45.3 (2018): 284-305. Web. 16 Mar. 2018.

Emily King conducted a qualitative study of students’ willingness to participate in discussions in writing classrooms. She finds such exchanges essential in critical pedagogy, which, she contends, requires collaborative, dialogic engagement in order to raise student awareness of inequities and power structures “in the classroom and beyond” (284). In particular, she addresses how students’ perceptions of power differentials may influence their willingness to take part in discussion.

King reviews several decades of scholarship on student participation in critical classrooms to reveal hypotheses about the reasons students may or may not choose to speak during class. She cites scholars like Ira Shor, Paulo Freire, and Patricia Bizzell to propose that students often conclude, in Shor’s words, that their job is to “answer questions, not question answers” (qtd. in King 285), and that teachers’ efforts to make the classroom more democratic only arouse students’ suspicions because they perceive that the teacher will always retain power (285).

Other scholars reviewed by King find an explanation in students’ efforts to differentiate their identities from the institutional ones they find imposed when they enter college (285). Russel K. Durst posits that students resist the degree to which critical exploration “complicate[s] rather than simplify[ies]” the lives of students who simply want to see writing as an instrumental means to a goal (qtd. in King 286). King argues that all these explanations revolve around student responses to power relationships and that attention to this question can enhance teachers’ ability to further critical curricula (286).

The study employed “gateway research,” a six-step method related to oral history created by Carolyn Lunsford Mears. Based on interpretation of interview data, the method allows researchers to explore “students’ individual narratives” to understand how they respond to experience (288). King observed a colleague’s first-year writing class for two weeks, taking notes on student participation, and distributed an anonymous questionnaire to several sections, eliciting 75 responses. She conducted in-depth interviews with four students from her own and her colleague’s courses (288-89). King maintains that comparing survey and interview results yielded an informative picture of student attitudes (290).

King found that 43% of the students surveyed said they “seldom participate in class discussion,” while 35% classified themselves as “moderate” participants. Only 23% claimed to speak often (291-92). In King’s own observations of the students in her class and in the class she observed, students participated even less than their survey data indicated, with only 36% of the students falling into the “high” and “moderate” categories (292).

In both the interviews and the surveys, students insisted that “social difference” (292) had no effect on their participation while revealing in comments that they were very aware of issues of race, class, and gender (292-94):

[T]he interviewees spoke freely about social difference and injustice in the world and even on campus but were adamant about the lack of connection between those judgments and their own classroom behavior. (293).

King contends that students appeared to see the teacher’s fairness or lack of bias as the primary guarantor of equality in the classroom (294).

Examining her data on motivation for classroom choices, King finds that despite denying the influence of power and social difference, students are both aware of these components of classroom behavior and work actively to respond to them. King argues that many participation choices are not connected to learning but rather to efforts to “manage reputation” and “alter or affirm social identity” in response to pressures from class, gender, and race (295).

Particularly salient, in King’s view, was the association in students’ comments between speaking in class and appearing intelligent. The two female students, who were the most vocal, noted that classmates often spoke because “they ‘wanted to seem smart’ but really ‘had nothing to say’” (296), while in one case, in King’s representation, the student specifically wanted to appear smart and engaged because “she did not believe [these traits] were generally associated with Hispanic students” (296).

Similarly, the less communicative males King interviewed expressed concerns about appearing less intelligent; in one case the student “was very concerned about racial stereotypes against which he believed he was constantly working, even within his own family” (297). Comments quoted by King indicate he wanted to participate more but “I don’t want to seem like I’m dumb” (qtd. in King 297). This same student indicated concerns about other students’ perceptions about his social class (297).

The other male student exhibited characteristics of what Ira Shor calls “Siberian Syndrome,” casting himself as a “listener” who sat on the periphery in class (298). According to King, this student’s choices indicated an awareness that “his contributions to class discussions would be judged by his peers” (298).

King writes that the two women’s choices allowed them to establish power in the classroom (299). These women connected their classroom behavior to their personas outside the classroom, with one stating that she was a “natural leader” (qtd. in King 299). Their roles included a sense that students had a responsibility to the class and that part of their role was to “maintain” conversations the teacher had started (299). In addition, these women suggested that such a sense of leadership and group responsibility was a gendered trait (297).

These observations lead King to note that while teachers value active participation, “very talkative students” may be motivated more by a desire to be noticed than by learning and that they may stifle contributions from less vocal classmates (299). She presents interview data from one male interviewee suggesting that he did feel silenced when other students dominated the conversation (298). King writes that this reaction may be particularly prevalent in students who struggle with “Imposter Syndrome,” doubting that they actually belong in college (300).

King notes that her study may be limited by the effect on her objectivity of her involvement as researcher and by ambiguities in the definitions of words like “power” and “participation” (301). She contends that her research offers a “different lens” with which to examine student resistance to engagement in critical classrooms because of its focus on student responses (301). Her study leads her to conclude that students are alert to power issues that arise from social difference and often manage their responses to these issues without teacher intervention, even when they actively deny the influence of difference (302).

King urges more attention to student voices through qualitative research to determine how teachers can effectively develop their own roles as facilitators and co-learners in critically informed classrooms (302).


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Lu and Horner. Introduction: Translingual Work. CE, Jan. 2016. Posted 02/28/2016.

Lu, Min-Zhan, and Bruce Horner. “Introduction: Translingual Work.” College English 78.3 (2016): 207-18. Print.

In their Introduction to the symposium on translingualism in the January, 2016, issue of College English, Min-Zhan Lu and Bruce Horner address the complexities of defining and implementing a translingual pedagogy. The Introduction previews the contributions of the participants, who were among those invited after a “conversation among four of us—Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, Anis Bawarshi, and Juan Guerra . . . .” that pointed to the need to explore translingualism as “one possible entry point for work contesting the monolingualism that continues to dominate the teaching and study of college writing and reading in the United States and elsewhere” (207).

Participants received a list of “tenets for a ‘translingual approach'” developed from a list compiled by Lu. Among the concerns noted were attention to

  • “language . . . as performative: not something we have but something we do”;
  • “users of language as actively forming and transforming the very conventions we use. . . .”;
  • “communicative practices as not neutral or innocent but informed by and informing . . . cultural relations of asymmetrical power”; [and]
  • “all communicative practices as mesopolitical acts, actively negotiating and constituting complex relations of power. . . .” (208)

These tenets also posit “difference as the norm of all utterances”; translingualism, in this view, does not address solely “deviations from the norm” (208).

Participants were further invited to consider the question of which tenets were important in their own work and how further work on these issues might “enhance the work of composition in each of the areas” (209).

Following their discussion of the contributions, Lu and Horner address a number of broad questions that they feel shape and emerge from the symposium. They describe translingualism not as it is sometimes construed—as a focus on L2 learning or other apparent deviations from standard usage; rather, they see it as addressing the use of language by “ordinary people” in daily lived experience, naming as its true “other” the claim that there is, indeed, a monolinguistic norm that sets universal standards (212).

They particularly address what they describe as a “conundrum” addressed in a number of the symposium articles: whether a translingual approach can be understood as an extension of approaches already in use in writing studies and classrooms, or whether it ought to be seen as calling for a more active engagement to “combat” the “deleterious sociocultural effects of the monolingual ideology” (213). They endorse the idea of translingualism as a forceful “rejection” of this ideology and its effects, arguing that the work of Mina P. Shaughnessy and others in exploring the language uses of students in 1960s and 1970s constituted “a sociopolitical movement” that, in Shaughnessy’s words, “pedagogically radicalized” writing instruction (qtd. in Lu and Horner 213).

To further address the conundrum, they explore the claims of Louis-Jean Calvet, who contends that, in fact, “languages do not exist” (qtd. in Lu and Horner 213; emphasis original); what does exist are “representations—what people think about languages and the way they are spoken” (qtd. in Lu and Horner 213; emphasis original). Understanding language this way leads Lu and Horner to the view that this process of representation itself makes users active in creating the languages they use. Recognizing the agency of users through their practice, the authors believe, can enable action on the power relations that govern these representations and can, in the words of two contributors, “open up” possibilities within language, genres, and modes that had previously been closed off (214).

Understanding language as “always emergent” rather than “time-less” (214) or fixed, Lu and Horner argue, requires as its corollary understanding that a translingual approach does not point to a particular set of language practices that can be identified in usage or texts. Rather, translingualism itself, as a representation, will be subject to “inevitable reworking,” not just by scholars attempting to apply it but also by “students at the pedagogical site” (215). Translingual pedagogy requires a “shift” from a transmission model of language instruction “to a more dialogical course of study” (215).

Lu and Horner caution that a focus on dialogic classrooms as sites of translingual teaching will not, in itself, upend the dominant monolingual ideology or ensure increased social justice or reorientations of power; instead, it is “an occasion for labor, the labor of revision,” a set of practices that “can be reworked” toward desirable ends (216). They call for readers of the symposium to see the contributions as a call to join in that labor of ongoing reworking and as examples of the kinds of work that can be done (216).