Structuring Classroom Talk

The phrase ‘classroom talk’ can induce a vast array of reactions in teachers. For some, it represents chaotic lessons in which the talk is plentiful but the learning less easy to discern. Conversely, some teachers view classroom talk as the pulsing beat behind the thinking in any educational setting.

It is true that there is a risk of allowing the focus on talk to be to the detriment of durable learning. However, this does not mean that talk does not have a place in effective lessons. In fact, if used in a structured and organised manner, classroom talk can benefit all students, and in particular those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

Key questions to consider for ensuring that talk is a meaningful part of the learning in the classroom are:

  1. What types of talk are likely to be most beneficial for learning? This might include thinking individually about teacher talk and student talk, and then how the two work together.
  2. How can we structure talk so that it supports learning rather than being a disparate activity?
  3. How can we ensure that all students benefit from the talk (teacher’s or students’) used in the classroom?

Since the early 2000s, Robin Alexander has developed the concept of dialogic teaching which ‘harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding’.

Fundamental principles of dialogic teaching include:

  • The idea that speaking develops thinking, especially in the early years
  • The quality of teacher talk (modelling) and student talk is equally important
  • Dialogic teaching does not advocate one way of using talk in the classroom, for example small group discussion is not favoured over whole-class discussion
  • A major goal is to increase students’ repertoires of talk.

In his work, Alexander lists the following elements as constituting a student’s ideal repertoire:

  1. Interactions
  2. Questions
  3. Answers
  4. Feedback
  5. Contributions
  6. Exchanges
  7. Discussion and argument
  8. Scaffolding
  9. Professional mastery of subject matter
  10. Time, space, organisation and relationships.

It is the latter three elements in the repertoire that can often be missing in situations where classroom talk ‘goes wrong’. Consequently, it is axiomatic that teachers need to command and model these components of talk as well as the other elements which may feel more in line with some understandings of classroom talk. In other words, incorporating classroom talk into your pedagogy is not synonymous with relinquishing ‘traditional’ teacher talk. Indeed, the dialogic approach seems to suggest that there is an absolute need for this ‘traditional’ teacher talk, as Alexander himself explains:

‘There is a danger…that we consign all but […discussion and dialogue] to the despised archive of ‘traditional methods’. In fact, exposition and recitation have an important role in teaching, for facts need to be imparted, information needs to be memorised, and explanations need to be provided, and even the deeply unfashionable rote has a place (memorising tables, rules, spellings and so on). However, the joint solving of problems through discussion, and the achievement of common understanding through dialogue, are undeniably more demanding of teacher skill than imparting information or testing through rote or recitation.’

It is thus important to note that teachers themselves need mastery of the different elements of talk in order for successful implementation in the classroom, and that teachers tend to be less practised in discussion and dialogue in particular.

Practical Strategies for the Classroom

Alexander’s ‘Ground Rules for Exploratory Talk’ make for a relatively simple way of implementing effective talk in classrooms. The ground rules are as follows:

  1. All relevant information is shared.
  2. The group seeks to reach agreement.
  3. The group takes responsibility for decisions.
  4. Reasons are expected.
  5. Challenges are accepted.
  6. Alternatives are discussed before a decision is made.
  7. All in the group are encouraged to speak by other group members.

These ground rules require explicit modelling from teachers, continual practice from students as well as feedback on how well students are using the rules to develop their cognitive thinking through talk. Crucially, the ground rules do not replace subject knowledge, which would have to be provided as the foundation for dialogic interaction.

Other practical strategies for effective classroom talk include:

  1. Using tasks that are open-ended and challenging, i.e. they require talk. A good example is a pyramid activity where students have to rank statements according to set criteria. Open-ended activities such as this can be more effective as they require students to reason and justify rather than just state.
  2. Provide sentence stems for talk as you would for writing. For example, “I disagree with the claim ______ and my evidence for this is…” This can work with connectives, too.
  3. Assigning roles if students are working in groups can be beneficial, for example devil’s advocate. These become normalised if made routine.
  4. Students can practise creating coherent structures in their talk using the ABCQ strategy: Agree, build, challenge or question using evidence
  5. Model the way talk (and writing) works in the subject. For example, using relevant tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary, or in science beginning with empirical facts and then positing a hypothesis.

Through careful and considerate planning, classroom talk need not be the Marmite of teaching but instead an option that all teachers are confident in using when the moment is right.

Fran Haynes

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