Skip to main content


Be a Part of America’s Student Support Network

Learn more at!


Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: Workshop

Person to Person

Focusing on interpersonal communication, session participants discuss how students use language to make themselves understood and to understand others. The session also explores how different teaching approaches encourage or discourage meaningful student interaction.

Classroom interaction is simple. It is the talk that occurs in classrooms between teachers and students and among students. It’s also a very complex thing in that it is the primary medium by which learning occurs in classrooms, and that’s any kind of classroom, be it a history classroom or a math classroom or a social studies classroom. The primary means by which learning occurs is through talk, and for that reason alone it is extremely important.

– Joan Kelly Hall
Professor of Applied Linguistics and Education
Pennsylvania State University

Learning Goals

What is the importance of classroom interaction? In this session, you’ll review relevant research, observe video discussions and classroom examples, and do a culminating activity on the interpersonal mode of communication. At the end of this session, you will better understand how to:

  • analyze the patterns of communication that exist in your classroom;
  • plan for classroom conversations that help students improve their communication skills while they learn content;
  • develop a repertoire of effective communicative strategies; and
  • design student group work for meaningful student interactions.

Unit Glossary

backward design
Backward design, also called backward planning, is a pedagogical approach to unit or lesson planning in which the teacher first identifies the desired end task or product, then works in reverse from the assessment task(s) to identify the prerequisite learning tasks.

Bloom’s taxonomy
Bloom’s taxonomy is a method of categorizing cognitive skills by increasing order of complexity and can be used as a means to organizing tasks and assessments in the classroom. The categories are: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The taxonomy was devised by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom. More information can be found in Bloom, Benjamin S., ed. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Education Goals. Handbook I, Cognitive Domain. New York: Longman, 1956.

classroom discourse
Classroom discourse refers to connected verbal (oral or written) exchanges used for teaching and learning purposes. Discourse may be sustained by the teacher or students.

communicative action
A communicative action is a response given in the course of a conversation between a teacher or expert and a student or group of students that furthers a substantive exchange. For example, one of the speakers might clarify, expand upon, or react to another’s statement, rather than end the conversation with a response such as “Good” or “Correct” that evaluates form rather than message.

communicative modes
The three communicative modes — interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational — are the basis of the Communication goal area of the National Standards. (To read more about each of these standards, go to National Standards.) These modes emphasize the context and purpose of communication, unlike the traditional four-skills approach of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, which treats skills as isolated units.

comprehensible input
Comprehensible input, an element of language acquisition identified by education professor Stephen Krashen, refers to written or spoken language that is possible for students to understand, but is just beyond their current level of competence. The information should also be interesting to students and presented in a low-pressure way to help them better understand it.

Initiation/Response/Evaluation (IRE) communication pattern
IRE is a teacher-led, three-part sequence that begins with the teacher asking a student a question or introducing a topic for the purpose of finding out whether the student knows an answer. In the IRE pattern, the student answer is evaluated by the teacher, who makes a brief reply such as “Good,” or “No, that’s not right.” Then the interaction ends. This is in contrast to the Initiation/Response/Follow-Up pattern defined below.

Initiation/Response/Follow-Up (IRF) communication pattern
IRF is a sequence that begins with either the teacher or student asking a question or introducing a topic. After a response is given, the initiator then uses the response to move the conversation forward. This conversation can continue for as long as the participants wish to talk about the subject, and may include contributions from many people in the class. This approach is in contrast to the Initiation/Response/Evaluation pattern defined above.

instructional conversation (IC)
Instructional conversations are classroom interactions that simulate real conversations, but with a focus on topics and processes related to classroom instruction.

negotiation of meaning
Negotiation of meaning is a natural component of conversation in which speakers work through confusing words, phrases, or ideas that have caused a breakdown in communication. When information is not understood, the speakers must convey meaning through restating, clarifying, and confirming information. The teacher may help students get started or work through a stumbling block using linguistic and other approaches.

Scaffolding is a method of structuring an instructional task in a way that helps learners gradually advance through the process. Initial portions of the task are designed to be within the learners’ competency so that they can complete them on their own. The teacher’s role is to assist with the portions of the task that are just beyond the students’ competency by encouraging and motivating students, simplifying the task, providing knowledge or practice of critical skills, highlighting relevant cues, etc. As students’ confidence, skill, and knowledge increase, the teacher provides less and less scaffolding for that task.

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
The Zone of Proximal Development theory stems from the work of social psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who emphasizes the notion that social interaction is critical to learning. He conceives of learning as constantly moving from an “actual development level” to a “potential development level.” Between these levels lies the ZPD, where learning occurs through the interaction of an expert (the teacher) and a novice (the learner). Eventually the learner’s potential level becomes the actual level and the learning cycle continues. More information can be found in Vygotsky, Lev S. Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Materials Needed

A transcript of a classroom conversation from your class or from one you observe. (For information about creating a classroom transcript, see the Put It Into Practice section.)


Check out these additional resources to explore the topic further.
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. Standards for Foreign Language Learning in the 21st Century. National Standards in Foreign Language Education Collaborative Project. Yonkers, NY: American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, 1999. (To purchase the Standards document, go to or call 1-800-627-0629.)
Bowers, C. A., and David Flinders. Responsive Teaching: An Ecological Approach to Classroom Patterns of Language, Culture, and Thought. New York: Teachers College Press, 1990.
Brooks, Frank B., and Richard Donato. “Vygotskian Approaches to Understanding Foreign Language Learner Discourse During Communicative Tasks.” Hispania 77 (1994): 262-274.
Cazden, Courtney B. Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2001.
Donato, Richard. “Collective Scaffolding in Second Language Learning.” In Vygotskian Approaches to Second Language Research, edited by J. Lantolf and G. Appel, 33-56. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1994.
Goldenberg, Claude. Instructional Conversations and Their Classroom Application (Educational Practice Report 2). Santa Cruz, CA: The National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1991.
Hall, Joan Kelly. “‘Aw, man, where you goin’?’: Classroom Interaction and the Development of L2 Interactional Competence.” Issues in Applied Linguistics 6, no. 2 (1995): 37-61. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)
Hall, Joan Kelly. “Classroom Discourse.” In Methods of Teaching Foreign Languages: Creating a Community of Learners in the Classroom, 77-100. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice-Hall, 2001. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)
Hall, Joan Kelly. “Differential Teacher Attention to Student Utterances: The Construction of Different Opportunities for Learning in the IRF.” Linguistics and Education 9, no. 3 (1998): 287-311.
Hall, Joan Kelly. “Researching Classroom Discourse and Foreign Language Learning.” In Pragmatics and Language Learning. Vol. 9, edited by L. Bouton, 293-312. Urbana-Champaign: Division of English as an International Language, University of Illinois, 1999.
Hall, Joan Kelly, and Megan Walsh. “Teacher-Student Interaction and Language Learning.” Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 22 (2002): 186-203. (This text is available in the Before You Watch section.)
Hall, Joan Kelly, and Lorrie Stoops Verplaetse, eds. Second and Foreign Language Learning Through Classroom Interaction. Mahweh, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.
Johnson, Karen E. Understanding Communication in Second Language Classrooms. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Kumaravadivelu, B. “Critical Classroom Discourse Analysis.” TESOL Quarterly 33, no. 3 (1999): 453-483.
Manke, Mary Phillips. Classroom Power Relations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1997.
Mercer, Neil. The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk Amongst Teachers and Learners. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters, 1995.
Nassaji, Hossein, and Gordon Wells. “What’s the Use of `Triadic Dialogue’?: An Investigation of Teacher-Student Interaction.” Applied Linguistics 21, no. 3 (2000): 376-406.
Rueda, Robert, Claude Goldenberg, and Ronald Gallimore. Rating Instructional Conversations: A Guide (Educational Practice Report 4). Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1992.
Tharp, Roland G., and Ronald Gallimore. The Instructional Conversation: Teaching and Learning in Social Activity (Research Report 02). Santa Cruz, CA: Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1991.

Library Videos Chart

The following lessons from Teaching Foreign Languages K-12: A Library of Classroom Practices are listed in the order in which they appear in the “Person to Person” video:

Lesson Title Instructor Language Grade Level
Interpreting Literature Barbara Pope Bennett Spanish 11
Promoting Attractions of Japan Yo Azama Japanese 10-12
Food Facts and Stories John Pedini Spanish 8
Creating Travel Advice Fran Pettigrew Spanish 11
Russian Cities, Russian Stories Jane Shuffelton Russian 9-12
Comparing Communities Ghislaine Tulou French 9-12
Happy New Year! Leslie Birkland Japanese 9-11
Hearing Authentic Voices Davita Alston Spanish 8
Sports Stats Amy Garcia German 5
Chicken Pox Jai Scott French K


If you are taking this workshop for credit or professional development, submit the following assignments for session 2: Person to Person.

  1. Examine the Research
    Read the article, then submit your written responses to the Reading Questions.
  2. Examine the Topic
    Complete the interactive activity, then write a brief summary of what you learned from the activity.
  3. Put It Into Practice
    Complete one or both of the activities, then submit the transcript and analysis of your classroom conversation and/or your design for a student-student interaction activity.
  4. Action Research Project
    Submit your completed action research project on any one of the eight session topics.
  5. Reflect on Your Learning
    Review your notes, then write a summary of what you have learned and how you plan to apply it in your classroom.