The complex dynamics of adaptive teaching: Observing teacher-student interaction in the language classroom

Nienke Smit, Marijn Van Dijk, Kees De Bot, Wander Lowie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Real-time verbal interactions between foreign language teachers and their students are of vital importance for language development, but classroom interactions are also multi-faceted and complex. The way a teacher understands and responds to learner utterances can be a powerful pedagogical strategy to scaffold learner language development. In this paper we present the Questions and Answers in English Language Teaching coding scheme which can be used to observe and describe the dynamics of teacher questions and student responses in language classrooms. We piloted the instrument in English as a foreign language lessons of four experienced teachers teaching 16 lessons in total. State Space Grids were used to visualize classroom dynamics and quantify intra-individual variability of each lesson. The results show that interactions between teachers and students have the tendency to self-organize and stabilize in one specific area of the grid. Lessons taught by three of the teachers revealed a dominant pattern formed by closed questions and short student responses. One teacher taught lessons in which more complex question and answer sequences were prevalent. These patterns of variability and stability show that teacher-student interactions have the properties of a shallow attractor state. The analysis of moment-to-moment turns in classroom interaction indicate that students in this study generally adapt their response to the level of teacher questions, but that teachers do not seem to adapt their questions to the level of the previous student answer. This suggests that, even for experienced teachers, scaffolding and adaptive teaching might be easier said than done.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-40
Number of pages18
JournalIRAL - International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching
Issue number1
Early online date22 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2022


  • Classroom interaction
  • Co-adaptation
  • Complex dynamic systems
  • L2 pedagogy
  • Observation
  • State space grids


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