Abstract: One pervasive method of contributing to conversational interaction is through the use of back channel tokens. This paper examines the use of restatement as a back channel token in dyadic conversation between non-impaired instructors and trainees with learning disabilities within an Adult Training Center. The analysis is framed with reference to Clark and Schaefer’s (1987, 1989) model of conversational organization and considers the ways in which instructor restatement does and does not serve to hand over the next turn at talk to trainees. Two major interactional outcomes subsequent to instructors restating the immediately prior trainee talk are examined. These are (a) the production of an acknowledgement token by the trainee, and (b) the trainee continuing with his or her talk. The different interactional outcomes are shown to be associated with different sequential contexts. The first is typically associated with question-answer sequences and the second with installment contributions. The stultifying effect of the use of instructor restatement in question-answer sequences is described. A suggested practical application of this finding is provided which recommends concentrating on altering the non-impaired interactants’ contributions rather than those of the learning disabled interactants.
Conversation and conversational skills training
Recent work within Adult Training Centers for people with learning disabilities has focused on social skills training, i.e. “a structured approach to the teaching of conversational and other social skills using instructions, modeling, and behavioral rehearsal” (Wildman, Wildman and Kelly, 1986:444). Such training programs regularly attempt to teach “appropriate” conversational skills that equip people with learning disabilities with language skills suited to the “real” world. The various approaches typically focus on changing the learning disabled persons’ discourse strategies rather than those of the non-impaired interactants.
Conversation is, of course, much more than a simplistic ‘I say something – you say something’ recursive sequence. Whilst conversations do proceed turn by turn, they are in fact highly coordinated, collaborative activities. Characteristically, the current speaker strives to ensure that he or she is being attended to, heard and understood by the other conversational interactants. The other interactants similarly endeavor to indicate to the current speaker whether or not he or she has succeeded. The success or failure of any interaction is, therefore, a product of the interplay between each interactant’s turn by turn contributions. Any comprehensive account of conversational interaction must, therefore, consider the contribution of both categories of interactant.
Back channel tokens as a conversational management procedure
One pervasive method of contributing to conversational interaction is through the use of bits of talk, marginal words, vocalizations and other related behaviors. These have been variously defined in the literature under the general heading of ‘back channel‘. For instance, Fries (1952) uses the term signal of attention, Kendon (1967) accompaniment signals, Oreström (1977) supports, Fishman (1978) minimal response, Svartvik (1980) particles, Heritage (1989) non-lexical speech objects, and Perkins (1993) minimal turn. The role of these tokens in the management of conversation is a matter of controversy and their status as full or minimal turns is also debatable. However, they are most frequently defined in an undifferentiated way as recipiency or response tokens, uttered by the current non-speaker, which make no claim to take over a full turn at talk and which do not alter the speaker-auditor status. Many back channel tokens are thought to exhibit a continuer function. Jefferson (1984:200) notes that the token mm hm exhibits what she calls passive recipiency, i.e. it “proposes that the co-participant is still in the midst of some course of talk, and shall go on talking.” Schegloff (1982) proposes that, in addition to this continuer function, tokens such as uh huh, mm, and the like, are used to pass an opportunity to initiate a repair. Inasmuch as tokens such as these operate to pass an opportunity to initiate a repair, Schegloff suggests that they betoken the absence of problems and, therefore, they are seen as signaling understanding of the prior talk.
Restatements as back channel tokens
Restatement has been cited as a back channel token (Duncan, 1973, 1974; Duncan and Niederehe, 1974; Duncan and Fiske, 1977). Restatements may be partial or full (verbatim) repeats of the prior utterance and they may occasionally include structural reformulations of the prior utterance including, for example, proforms and other determiners. In contrast with tokens such as uh huh, mm and mm hm, the non-continuative interactional outcome of the use of a restatement in certain contexts has been noted. Robson (1989) highlights the stultifying effect on the flow of conversation between teachers and pupils in that the teachers may deploy restatements in order to end conversations, thereby demonstrating their awareness of the generally non-continuative function of this token.
I know of no previous research that has examined the use of restatements in conversations between non-impaired and learning disabled interlocutors. I shall, therefore, report the findings of my own investigation into conversation between non-impaired instructors and trainees with learning disabilities in an Adult Training Center (Williamson, 1995). In this paper I shall focus on the instructors’ use of restatement and consider whether or not this token displays a continuer function and succeeds in affording opportunities for the trainees to take up the next turn at talk. In order to do this, I shall apply Clark and Schaefer’s (1987, 1989) model of conversational organization.
A model of conversational organization
Under this model, the basic unit of conversation is a contribution. Contributions are made up of a presentation phase, in which the current speaker presents an utterance, and an acceptance phase, which is initiated by the listener. The acceptance phase requires that the listener provides positive evidence of his or her state of understanding. This enables the interlocutors to collaborate to ensure that the presentation phase has been understood to a criterion sufficient for the current purpose. The acceptance phase subsequent to the speaker’s presentation phase can be initiated in a variety of ways depending upon the state of the listener’s understanding. Four hierarchical states of understanding are proposed:
[A = speaker; B = current listener]
State 0: B did not notice that A uttered a presentation.
State 1: B noticed that A uttered some presentation (but was not in State 2).
State 2: B correctly heard A’s presentation (but was not in State 3).
State 3: B understood what A meant by the presentation.
Every time a speaker takes a new turn at talk, the speaker either accepts what the immediately prior speaker has said or initiates a repair. If B is in State 0, A’s presentation has failed and this should be recognizable to A by B’s failure to initiate an acceptance phase. If B is in State 1 or 2 then collaborative work must be carried out by the interlocutors until B is demonstrably in State 3. Only if B is in State 3 can the acceptance phase be completed in the next turn.
A variety of formats may be used to initiate the acceptance phase dependent on the four states of understanding listed above. Under the strongest initiator rule (Clark and Schaefer, 1987:23) interlocutors are expected to “choose the strongest initiator that is consistent with understanding to a criterion sufficient for current purposes.” This ensures that the acceptance phase is completed in a minimum number of turns. Consequently, only the strongest initiators can achieve acceptance in the next turn, i.e. by moving on to the next relevant turn, the production of an acknowledgement token or showing continued attention non-verbally. Weaker acceptance phase initiators will display the need for collaborative repair before acceptance can be completed.
The model is, thus, capable of accounting for the way interlocutors collaborate to ensure that the listener has understood what the speaker meant. It is incumbent upon a recipient to display his or her state of understanding of an utterance before a conversation can proceed and, as back channel tokens are most commonly viewed as recipiency or response tokens, they are assigned a central role in conversation under this model.
Interactional outcome of instructor restatement
The transcription extracts used in this paper are taken from a corpus of 16 five-minute audio tape recordings of dyadic conversation between non-impaired instructors and trainees with learning disabilities within an Adult Training Center. Four male instructors each conversed on separate occasions with two male trainees, one whom they had self-selected as being more able as a communicator and one whom they considered to be less able at communicating (Endnote 1). Similarly, four female instructors each conversed on separate occasions with two female trainees whom they had also self-selected as being more able or less able at communicating.
Restatements followed by trainee acknowledgement tokens
A simple count of the number of occurrences of restatements in the corpus indicated that instructors used a total of 81 restatements in their conversations with the trainees. In addition, the data suggest that both male and female instructors use restatements significantly more with less able trainees than with more able trainees: for male instructors, χ2 = 9.993 (df=1) (p=0.01) and for female instructors χ2 = 37.790 (df=1) (p=0.001). Out of the total of 81 restatements used, 47 (58.02%) resulted in the trainee producing an acknowledgement token immediately following the production of the token by the instructor. Consider the example in (1).
(1) [D=Female Instructor; S=Less Able Female Trainee]
183 D: he shows his fist to you does he?
184 S: yeah (.) he smoking all the time
185 → D: he’s smoking all the time
186 S: yeah
187 D: yeah I know (.) but tell him off
The sequence commences in L183 with the female instructor D asking the less able female trainee S a tag-question, “he shows his fist to you does he?”. This question sets up the conditional relevance that the trainee should provide an answer. This the trainee does in L184 with a preferred second pair part (Pomerantz, 1984) in the form of a follow-up (Stenström, 1986). The acknowledgement token, “yeah” explicitly asserts the female trainee’s understanding and then she immediately continues subsequent to a micropause with, “he smoking all the time”. It is this utterance which is then restated by the instructor in L185. In so doing, she provides a near-verbatim repeat by inserting the auxiliary verb “is” in contracted form where this had been omitted by the trainee.
If the restatement in L185 is to be considered as a back channel token then it should make no claim to take a full turn at talk and should be seen as evidence that the speaker is forgoing the opportunity to make a repair on the immediately prior utterance. The fact that the trainee responds in L186 with the acknowledgement token, “yeah” suggests that the trainee has interpreted the restatement as having full turn status. It suggests that the trainee has interpreted the restatement as highlighting a trouble source. Specifically, it would appear that the trainee is orienting to the restatement as either a hearing check or a request for clarification. What is evident is that the restatement does not assume a continuer function by signaling passive recipiency (Jefferson, 1984): it does not encourage the trainee to add to her answer. The next turn at talk is then taken up by the instructor in L187. A similar sequential structure to that discussed in relation to (1) is shown in (2).
(2) [C=Male Instructor; M=Less Able Male Trainee]
55 C: whats he get upset about
56 M: he g g g g got wrong off Ka:ren (.) last night
57 → C: he got wrong off Karen
58 M: ye:ah
59 C: why: (.) what was he up to
Again, the sequence begins with an instructor’s question (L55) to which the trainee provides a preferred second pair part answer (L56). This answer is then restated as a partial repeat in L57 by the instructor. Again, rather than taking an extended turn at talk, the trainee responds with the acknowledgement token “ye:ah” (L58) before the instructor takes up the next turn in L59. Once more, the trainee would appear to be orienting to the restatement as a signal of trouble in either hearing or understanding.
Schegloff (1982:87) notes that “a variety of constructional formats are used to do the job of initiating the remedying of some problem of hearing or understanding the just prior talk of another” and both partial and full repeats of the prior turn are cited as examples. In addition, brief restatements are often considered to be complete turns (Coulthard, 1985:69). However, merely stating that restatements can assume full turn status and signal other-initiated repair (Schegloff, Jefferson and Sacks, 1977) does not explain why this device should be oriented to as such by interlocutors. For a more adequate insight into such orientations I shall apply Clark and Schaefer’s (1987, 1989) model of conversational organization.
We note that instructor C’s initial presentation in extract (2) is a wh-question (L55). In order to accept this question the trainee produces a conditionally relevant answer (L56). In doing this he provides the instructor with three types of evidence of understanding: (a) he provides a second pair part answer which indicates his recognition that a question was asked, (b) he claims that he has understood the instructor’s contribution by forgoing the opportunity to make a repair on that utterance, and (c) he displays his understanding of the specifics of the wh-question, i.e. he provides an answer which is consistent with a wh-question regarding why someone is upset. The trainee’s L56 acceptance of the instructor’s L55 presentation is itself, of course, a presentation.
Now, subsequent to the delivery of a second pair part of an adjacency pair “it is conditionally relevant immediately to initiate the next contribution at the same level as those two parts” (Clark and Schaefer, 1989:272). In other words, it is relevant and expectable that instructor C should proceed to the use he intends to make of the trainee’s answer. However, the instructor does not initiate his acceptance of the trainee’s L56 presentation by continuing on to the next relevant contribution. Rather, he provides the restatement in L57: a weaker acceptance phase initiator than moving on to the next relevant contribution. Typically, restatements function either as hearing checks, i.e. that the interlocutor is in State 1, or as requests for clarification, i.e. in State 2. As only the strongest initiators can achieve acceptance in the next turn, it is plausible that the trainee orients to the restatement as an indication that the instructor requires more information in order for him to reach State 3 understanding.
Specifically, it would appear that the trainee interprets the restatement as a hearing check, i.e. that the instructor knows that a presentation has been made but that he is not sure if he has heard correctly. The trainee can, therefore, choose to either accept the restatement as correct or initiate further repair. In fact, the trainee goes on to accept it as being correct. As noted, under the strongest initiator rule (Clark and Schaefer, 1987:23) interlocutors are expected to choose the strongest initiator that is consistent with current understanding. The trainee, therefore, accepts the restatement presentation with the relatively stronger acknowledgement token initiator. This acceptance phase initiator displays that the trainee believes himself to be in State 3 and this, in turn, is accepted by the instructor proceeding to the next relevant contribution.
That the trainee does not interpret the restatement as the stronger clarification request (indicating that the instructor is in State 2) is evidenced by the production of an acknowledgement token in accepting this presentation. A clarification request indicates that the interlocutor has heard the presentation but that it has not been understood. Such a presentation would project an altogether different conversational trajectory than that projected by a hearing check, i.e. hearing checks can be accepted by acknowledgement tokens but clarification requests are less likely to be so accepted.
The contribution tree that schematizes the analysis of (2) is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 Contribution tree showing embedded structure of (2).
If the above analysis is correct then a pause subsequent to the trainee’s acknowledgement token would be considered attributable to the instructor as it would be the instructor’s obligation to proceed to the next relevant turn. An example of a pause subsequent to the trainee’s acknowledgement token is shown in extract (3).
(3) [C=Male Instructor; M=Less Able Male Trainee]
78 C: what kind of pictures do you draw
79 M: all sorts
80 C: all sorts
81 M: yeah
82 → (…)
83 C: what kind of pictures do you like drawing (..) do you
84 have any favorite (.) favorite things
The structure of the sequence presented in (3) is essentially the same as those shown in (1) and (2), i.e.:
Trainee: Acknowledgement token
Instructor: Next relevant turn
The only difference is the inclusion of a pause after the trainee’s acknowledgement token. The very presence of the pause may suggest that the trainee has misinterpreted the restatement. Consider, if the instructor intended the restatement (L80) to demonstrate that he is in State 3, i.e. that he understood what the trainee meant by his L79 utterance, then it would be expected that the trainee should proceed with the next relevant turn. This would be true if the instructor intended the restatement as an acknowledgement of the trainee’s immediately prior utterance and as a specific signal that he is forgoing the opportunity to make a repair on it. The pause that follows the trainee’s acknowledgement token (L82) would then be attributable to the trainee as the instructor withholds taking up the talk in the expectation that the trainee would continue with the turn. Evidence in support of this suggestion is to be found in the instructor’s L83-84 presentation. Subsequent to the pause the instructor takes up the talk and re-presents his original L78 question. The wording is slightly altered and the question is made more specific by the addition of, “do you have any favorite (..) favorite things”. The fact that the instructor re-presents the question suggests that he does not consider the trainee’s L79 response to have provided an adequate answer. If this interpretation is accepted, the restatement may be viewed as a failed attempt to encourage the trainee to continue with his talk.
Whilst the existence of pauses subsequent to acknowledgement tokens following instructor restatements may indicate misinterpretation of the restatement by trainees, there are actually very few examples of this kind in the data. Out of the total number of 46 restatements identified as having an immediately following acknowledgement token, only six of the acknowledgement tokens are followed by pauses and five of these are produced by just one male instructor. The most common sequence in the data in relation to acknowledgement tokens following instructor restatements is that exemplified by (1) and (2). Out of the total of 46 immediately following acknowledgement tokens, 27 (58.70%) have the structure schematized in Figure 2. A further three occurrences have this same structure with the addition of a side-sequence between the instructor question and trainee answer which serves to repair a misunderstanding of the presented question.
Figure 2 Contribution tree showing typical structure of trainee acknowledgement subsequent to instructor restatement.
Restatements followed by trainee continuation
Of the 81 restatements used by all instructors, only 18 (22.22%) are followed by the trainee continuing his or her talk. As we have seen, the most common immediately following token subsequent to instructors restating the prior trainee talk is that the trainee produces an acknowledgement token. How, then, can we explain why in some instances a restatement should be followed by the trainee taking up the next turn at talk? Again the answer is to be found through a consideration of the sequential location of the restatement. We noted in Figure 2 a typical exchange structure within which trainee acknowledgement tokens are seen to follow instructor restatements. A consideration of the 18 instances of trainees taking up the next turn at talk subsequent to instructors’ restatement, however, reveals that all of these restatements are located in several different sequential contexts. These sequential contexts are described below.
One instance occurs in a conversation between a female instructor and female trainee after they have been interrupted by a male trainee entering the room where the conversation was taking place. This trainee stays within the room and the conversation, therefore, no longer remains dyadic. This instance is, therefore, not directly comparable with all other occurrences and I shall not discuss it further.
Two instances are accounted for by the restatement being produced in overlap, i.e. the instructor perceived a potential transition relevance place and produced a restatement but the trainee was not ready to yield the floor and produced a further turn-constructional unit (Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson, 1974, 1978). One example of this is shown in extract (4).
(4) [M=Female Instructor; S=More Able Female Trainee]
124 M: yea:h any: any suggestions of how I could stick to my
125 diet better
126 S: we:ll: what you should do is walkings
127 do you good (.) //and do y- (.)
128 → M: walking* yeah
129 S: //and do y-
130 M: I think you’re* right there
131 S: do y- (.) and do your exercises
In L124-125 the instructor M presents a question. The trainee accepts this by presenting a conditionally relevant answer in L126-127. At the end of the first turn-constructional unit of the answer, marked by the first micropause, the instructor accepts this presentation with the restatement, “walking yeah”. However, this utterance is produced in overlap as the trainee attempts to continue with a second turn-constructional unit in L127 which she self-edits, “and do y-“. In L129 the trainee again attempts to continue with her conditionally relevant answer and recycles the part of her prior utterance which was overlapped, “and do y-“. Once more, this attempt is overlapped by the instructor (L130) and the trainee again self-edits her utterance before dropping out. Eventually, the trainee completes her answer in L131 with, “do y- (.) and do your exercises”.
It is apparent that, whereas in examples (1), (2) and (3) the instructor restatement was delivered upon completion of the trainee’s conditionally relevant answer, in this example the restatement represents an inadvertent overlap within the delivery of the trainee’s answer. The restatement would appear, therefore, to have been perceived as a continuer in this sequential location.
A further ten instances of trainees taking up the next turn at talk subsequent to an instructor’s restatement occur within exchange structures which project what look like installment contributions (Clark and Schaefer, 1989:283-285) which require the trainee to provide information in the form of a list. Two instances are exemplified in extract (5).
(5) [D=Female Instructor; S=Less Able Female Trainee]
74 D: say the names again
75 S: Martin
76 → D: Martin
77 S: Geoff:rey
78 → D: Geoffrey
79 S: Sharon (..) that’s all
Prior to this extract the trainee has been telling the instructor the names of her brothers and sister. The extract then commences in L74 with the instructor presenting the imperative, “say the names again”. This imperative projects upcoming talk in which it is relevant and expected that the trainee will re-present the names of her brothers and sister. She begins to do this in L75 with, “Martin”. This presentation is then accepted by the restatement in L76 which is a verbatim repeat. The instructor thereby asserts her acceptance of the trainee’s prior presentation and this allows the trainee to retake the floor (see Clark and Schaefer, 1987:38). This first contribution in response to the instructor’s L74 imperative is then followed by a second. The presentation phase of the second contribution is an utterance which adds incrementally to the list of names, “Geoff:rey” (L77). This presentation is also accepted separately with another verbatim repeat restatement by the instructor in L78. This second contribution is then followed by a third. In the presentation phase of this third contribution the trainee again adds incrementally to the list with, “Sharon” (L79). Subsequent to a brief pause the trainee then produces the terminal element, “that’s all” (L79) which explicitly marks the end of the list.
The trainee’s response to the instructor’s L74 imperative is thus accomplished in three installments: each of which is a separate contribution incorporating both a presentation and acceptance phase. Clark and Schaefer (1989:284) suggest that one reason for using installment presentations “is to enable the partners to register the presented information verbatim.” It is certainly the case in this extract that the instructor has initiated a conversational trajectory in which it is expected that the trainee will go on to produce information in the form of a list. The instructor and trainee subsequently collaborate in evidencing their understanding with each incremental installment, signaling that they have understood each piece of information before proceeding.
A second example demonstrating installment contributions is presented in (6).
(6) [C=Female Instructor; D=Less Able Female Trainee]
114 C: .hh what sort of things do you watch on the
117 D: Home and Away
118 → C: Home and Away
119 D: Neighbors
120 C: mm hm?
122 D: er:: (..) Blind Date (.) on Saturday
123 → C: oh::? Blind Date
This time, rather than commencing with an imperative as in (5), this extract begins with a wh-question which is likely to elicit an answer presented in installments, “.hh what sort of things do you watch on the T.V.” (L114). There is then a long silence of 5.8 seconds that would appear to be used as processing time for the trainee to construct her answer. This is evidenced by her eventually presenting the conditionally relevant answer, “Home and Away” in L117. This presentation is then accepted by the verbatim repeat restatement in L118 which asserts the instructor’s acceptance of the trainee’s prior presentation and allows the trainee to retake the floor. The trainee then adds incrementally to her answer with the initiation of a second contribution by presenting another item on the list of programs she watches on the television, “Neighbors” (L119). Unlike in (5), the second contribution is not accepted by another restatement but rather the continuer “mm hm?” uttered with a rising intonation contour. Following a pause, the trainee again adds incrementally to her list with a third contribution presentation, “er:: (..) Blind Date” and in addition qualifies this information with, “on a Saturday” (L122). This presentation is then accepted by the second restatement in this sequence which is a partial repeat of the prior utterance preceded with the change of state token (Heritage, 1984) “oh::?” in L123.
Once more, this sequence is plausibly analyzable as collaborative work between the interlocutors which evidences their understanding with each incremental installment and, thereby, signals that they have understood each piece of new information before proceeding.
Of the five remaining examples of the trainee taking the next turn at talk subsequent to an instructor’s restatement, four of these occur in one conversation between female instructor M and the less able female trainee A. Again, all instances appear in sequences that are quite different from those which typically occasion the use of an acknowledgement token subsequent to an instructor’s restatement. One example is featured in extract (7).
(7) [M=Female Instructor; A=Less Able Female Trainee]
54 [SOMEONE ENTERS THE ROOM]
55 A: what’s that?
56 M: that’s (.) that’s somebody going to the toilet
57 A: no: (.) knock head (.) (she) poorly head
58 → M: she’s got a poorly head
59 A: go home (.) hur(t)
60 M: oh: I see (.) someone’s gone home with a poorly
This extract begins in L54 with a third party entering the room where the conversation is taking place. Following this disruption the trainee asks, “what’s that?” (L55). The instructor responds to this by presenting a conditionally relevant preferred first pair part answer, “that’s (.) that’s somebody going to the toilet” (L56). The trainee accepts this presentation with an overt rejection, “no:” before proceeding to provide what appears to be her perception of the situation, “knock head (.) (she) poorly head” (L57). The instructor then accepts this presentation by restating the immediately prior utterance and presenting it in a grammatically correct form, “she’s got a poorly head” (L58). This restatement would appear to be functioning supportively, by claiming understanding of the prior utterance by forgoing the opportunity to initiate a repair, and regulatively, in that it makes no claim to a full turn at talk. The continuer function of this restatement is evidenced by the trainee proceeding to the next relevant contribution at the same level as her previous one with, “go home (.) hur(t)” (L59). In L60, the instructor then marks her change of state with, “oh: I see”. Subsequent to a micropause she then goes on to provide a summary paraphrase of the trainee’s prior talk, “someone’s gone home with a poorly headache” (L60-61). It is, therefore, apparent that this sequential context is different to that which typically engenders an acknowledgement token subsequent to an instructor’s restatement
Summary of findings
In this paper I have provided a qualitative analysis of the use of restatement by non-impaired instructors in dyadic conversation with learning disabled trainees. I have argued that, in certain sequential contexts, the trainees appear to orient to the restatement as highlighting a trouble source and as having full turn status. In such contexts the restatement does not assume a continuer function. Clark and Schaefer’s (1987, 1989) model of conversational organization was invoked in order to explain why trainees may orient to restatements as having full turn status and as signaling other-initiated repair. Under this model, it was suggested that restatements represent weaker acceptance phase initiators which are interpretable as indicating that the instructor has not reached State 3 understanding. Therefore, more collaborative work is required before the conversation can proceed. It was argued that the trainees most likely interpret restatements as hearing checks that are accepted by acknowledgement tokens under the strongest initiator rule. In contrast, the occurrence of pauses subsequent to the trainees’ acknowledgement tokens was argued to be evidence that the instructors may be deploying restatements as continuers in an attempt to indicate their intention to remain in a recipient role. The most frequent conversational sequence in relation to acknowledgement tokens following instructor restatement was: instructor question – trainee answer – instructor restatement – trainee acknowledgement token – instructor next relevant turn.
I have noted that in all instances where a restatement was followed by the trainee continuing his or her talk, this occurred in sequences of talk quite dissimilar to the exchange structure just described. One frequently occurring sequence was the use of restatements within installment contributions. In these sequences, instructors project a conversational trajectory in which it is expected that the trainee should provide information in the form of a list. It appears that the instructor then accepts each presentation of the list with a restatement that evidences his or her understanding of each incremental installment before proceeding. Each restatement therefore allows the trainee to re-take the floor.
A suggested application
The setting is a significant factor in the communicative success of persons with learning disabilities and both the environment and the persons within that environment are important variables (Prutting, 1982; Robertson, Richardson and Youngson, 1984; Oetting and Rice, 1991). Many social skills training programs are based on a functional model that necessitates trainees being actively involved in their everyday environments. As already noted, these approaches frequently focus on changing the discourse strategies of the persons with learning disabilities rather than those of the non-disabled interactants. Marková (1990:368, my emphasis) advises that
….training people with a mental handicap in discourse characteristics and changing the qualities of their communicative contexts would make them more efficient participants in conversation….
This suggests a possible practical utilization of the findings reported in this paper. One feasible application would be to make instructors aware of the positive and negative effects of particular back channel uses with respect to encouraging trainees to take turns at talk. For example, one could contrast the negative outcome deriving from the use of restatements in question-answer structures with the more positive continuer function of tokens such as mm and mm hm (Jefferson, 1984). This could be achieved through a workshop format in which example transcription extracts that highlight a particular usage could be shared and explained. The instructors could be encouraged to engage in role-play situations in which they would practice the deployment of particular tokens. Instructors could be given advice regarding how to make simplified transcriptions of audio-recorded materials in order to examine back channel usage. Finally, instructors could be shown how to audiotape record their interactions with trainees, to take random samples, transcribe these and assess the success of the interaction. The advantage of learning how to produce a transcribed text is that the permanent display would allow the instructors (who may be unfamiliar with analyzing interaction) the opportunity of repeatedly inspecting the interaction.
It would be important to ensure that instructors understand that “the concept of appropriacy…is replaced with the concept of success or failure of the interaction” (Lesser and Milroy, 1993:322). Thus, instructors would need to be shown how evidence for success or failure is found in relation to the trainee’s response and the interactional outcome subsequent to the instructor’s back channel usage. Also, I have noted that instructors are more likely to use restatements with less able interactants. Instructors could, therefore, be encouraged to explore alternative strategies for encouraging talk when conversing with less able communicators.
- That instructors were able to make distinctions between trainees on the basis of their communication abilities was demonstrated by having the instructors complete a questionnaire that elicited their judgments of the trainees as being more able and less able at communicating. The scores assigned on the questionnaire were then correlated with the scores obtained on an independent measure of each trainee’s communication abilities using the Communication Assessment Profile for Adults with a Mental Handicap (CASP) (Van der Gaag, 1988). This assessment acted as an external criterion measure against which the questionnaire scores were correlated. A Pearson’s Correlation Coefficient of 0.756 (significant at the 0.1% level) was obtained and indicates that instructors are able to divide trainees into more able and less able groups on a principled basis.
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