ELFA project

Let’s draw some wood cells: control acts & accessible lectures in ELF


When I introduced the PhD research of the newly-minted Dr. Jaana Suviniitty, I concluded with her main finding – when lectures in English as a lingua franca (ELF) were rated by students as “accessible” or “challenging”, the major difference between the lectures was the presence of interactional features. The accessible lectures which students found more intelligible showed a markedly higher number of interactional features such as questions, repetitions, and control acts. The more challenging, less understandable lectures seemed lack these features.

In this next installment, I review her findings on control acts, one of the most frequently occurring interactive features which differentiated the accessible and challenging lectures. Control acts can be simply defined as statements intended to get someone else to do something. They don’t require a verbal response, but some sort of action, even an internal, mental action such as thinking or remembering. When comparing three accessible and three challenging lectures, Jaana found twice the number of control acts in the accessible lectures (73 vs. 34). In the outlier case of the most challenging lecture, only two control acts were found.

I’ll be focusing on the three most frequent control acts in Jaana’s data – directives, inclusive control acts, and advice.

“You have to understand why”

The most common control acts were directives, which are expressed as imperative statements, and appeared three times more often in the accessible lectures. Some of these dealt with class management (look in your time table), but most were connected to a mental verb, as in this section heading above:

/…/ when we talk about waste waters and their treatment as process water you have to understand why we have to treat the natural waters /…/
(Suviniitty 2012: 94)

These directives involving a mental verb help students to structure new information and take special note of important issues as they arise, providing guidance and increasing audience involvement. In the most accessible lecture in Jaana’s data, there are 17 directives, 16 of which involve a mental verb. The most challenging lecture has none. One of the other challenging lectures featured 11 directives, but none of these involved a mental verb. It would seem that students are responsive to the teacher’s efforts to direct their attention to the key points as they emerge.

“It’s just something we need to know”

The second most frequent control acts were inclusive control acts, typically involving language such as let’s or we. Again, they’re found with mental verbs – as in the section header – and also in the title of this post: let’s draw some wood cells. All the lecturers in Jaana’s data used these inclusive control acts, but they were found in the accessible lectures twice as often as the challenging ones. Like the directives, we can see (hey, I slipped one in!) that they increase audience involvement and, when combined with mental verbs, also serve to direct attention and the group’s collective activity.

Take a look at this example of an inclusive control act in action (and having used a directive with a mental verb, you basically have no choice):

/…/ this is more or less nice to know information i don’t actually need to give this more, we need to look first at the consequences and then i will come back to describe things more in detail /…/
(Suviniitty 2012: 97)

As Jaana points out, the lecturer uses the first-person I when giving the structure of the discussion (in other words, class management). But when he uses the mental verb look, he involves the whole class with the inclusive pronoun we and makes it clear what everyone should be focused on.

“I highly recommend you do that”

Finally, an important differentiator between the challenging and accessible lectures was giving advice. As a control act, it is softened by the use of modal verbs such as should, and it also frequently involves mental verbs as well: this is the one thing that you should understand about wood and fire. There were nine instances of advice in two of the accessible lectures, but only three instances in the lectures rated as challenging.

You should also take a look at this example, where an accessible instructor advises the students to visit a pulp mill:

/…/ if you get a chance to visit those places i highly recommend you do that cause this is a good place to see some of those /…/
(Suviniitty 2012: 98)

So, from these examples of control acts, you start to see a picture emerging of a teacher who directs the students’ attention to key points and helps them to organise new information. What else could an accessible lecturer need? Questions, perhaps?

Update: the third and final discussion of Jaana’s dissertation can be found at Interaction and lecturing in ELF: a final look.


Suviniitty, Jaana (2012). Lectures in English as a Lingua Franca: Interactional Features. Doctoral dissertation, University of Helsinki. Available online: http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-10-8540-6.