Abstract ‘Topic’ is a construct of great practical importance in the fields of language teaching and assessment. Topic organisation featured prominently as an object of early Conversation Analysis (CA) research (for example in Sacks’s ( 1992 ) lectures) but has fallen from the research agenda and become the Cinderella construct in discourse studies in recent years. This article considers two institutional settings in which ‘topic’ is foregrounded and becomes a prominent interactional organisation which drives the institutional business, namely language assessment and language teaching. The argument is that much remains to be discovered about how topic becomes adapted to institutional goals. In these specific settings, topic has developed a ‘dual personality’ in service to the institutional goals; ‘topic-as-script’ is the homogenised topic which examiners give to candidates and teachers give to learners, whereas ‘topic-as-action’ refers to the ways in which candidates and learners talk a topic into being. The movement from ‘topic’ as a single homogeneous script to a heterogeneous series of responses by different learners/candidates (topic-as-action) is the main focus of interest in this study. In both teaching and assessment settings, this transformation of ‘topic’ provides a basis for the analysis and evaluation of learner/candidate performance. Sacks (1992 : 541) argues, in relation to ordinary conversation, that topical organisation is an “accessory” to turn-taking and sequence. By contrast, topic is, in the language classroom and language testing settings examined, employed in multiple ways on multiple levels as an organising principle for the interaction; topic is both a vehicle and a focus of the interaction. It is suggested that research into institutional talk should investigate more closely how topic becomes adapted to the institutional goal.
Applied Linguistics Review – de Gruyter
Published: Sep 1, 2015