NNSTA-student interaction: An analysis of TAs' questions and students' responses in a laboratory setting

Mark Wittwer Tanner, University of Pennsylvania


Research on the classroom teaching of non-native English speaking teaching assistants (NNSTAs) has shown that NNSTAs are often unsuccessful in communicating subject matter to their students. Research to date has concentrated on studying teaching assistants' (TAs') speech to their students in classroom lectures and quiz sections. The aim of this study was to go beyond analyzing TAs' speech to students and instead concentrate on identifying and describing features present in TA-student discourse. In order to study how NNSTAs' communicate with students, this study employed a three tiered approach. First, the study looked at NNSTAs' communication difficulties by examining them in the larger context of TAs in general. A second part of this approach involved observing TAs in an interactive setting. The science laboratory proved to be an appropriate context for conducting this research. Third, this study investigated TA-student interaction in the laboratory by analyzing TAs' questions and students' responses. Subjects for this study included six chemistry lab TAs, three non-native speaking TAs and three non-native speaking TAs. The data collection involved the use of qualitative research methods to collect data from a variety of sources: on-site observations, transcriptions of taped interaction between the TAs and their students, follow-up interviews with the TAs, and an interview with the faculty TA supervisor. As the data for the study were collected, differences between the native speaking TAs (NSTAs) and their students and the non-native speaking TAs (NNSTAs) and their students began to emerge. Quantitative and qualitative analysis of the TAs' questions and students' responses revealed how NSTAs' and NNSTAs' in the lab used questions syntactically, functionally, contextually and sequentially in the discourse. Significant differences were found to occur in the NSTAs' and NNSTAs' use of questions, particularly in their use of referential, display, and echoic questions. Differences between the two groups of TAs were also identified in their use of "probing sequences" and the syntactic form of questions used to assess students' progress and results in completing the experimental task. Questions were identified as serving specific functions in assessing and assisting students' understanding of the theory and performance of the procedures involved in the experimental task. Results of the study pointed to specific directions for the education of TAs in general and NNSTAs in particular as interactive instructors sensitive to their students' needs.

Subject Area

Language|Language arts|Chemistry|Curricula|Teaching

Recommended Citation

Tanner, Mark Wittwer, "NNSTA-student interaction: An analysis of TAs' questions and students' responses in a laboratory setting" (1991). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9125764.