It’s All Talk

Three weeks into the new academic year means that one of the key questions being posed to all teachers is, ‘How have your classes settled’? On the whole, we have had a positive experience here at Durrington and are very much enjoying the return to normality post Covid-19 disruption – teachers having their classrooms back probably being the top of the list! However, one observation that keeps coming up is the fact that some of our students seem much… quieter. This can manifest itself in a number of ways: Sometimes it is reluctance to answer questions; sometimes it is an unwillingness to share ideas with other people; and sometimes it’s the way in which students accept lines of thought with easy passivity when in fact a little intellectual conflict would have been much more productive.

Accordingly, we have introduced SHAPE and SLANT as a whole-school approach to routines and relationships, which you can read about here

Alongside these models, there are also specific pedagogical steps we can take to help ensure that the quality of classroom talk (when we have got students talking more!) is the best it can be.

The EEF has recently updated its toolkit and oral language interventions now ranks as third in terms of potential positive impact on students compared to those who do not receive such interventions. The evidence suggests that early-years pupils can make up to +7 months additional progress, primary pupils can make +6 months and secondary students +5. There are several types of oral language interventions suggested on the toolkit, with the one that is in focus here being the use of purposeful, curriculum-focused dialogue and interaction. A look at the work by Lauren Resnik is useful for probing what this might look like in more concrete terms.

Resnick posits that students need to make their talk accountable in three different ways in order for it to be rigorous and creditable, and thereby achieving the purposefulness outlined by the EEF:

  1. Accountability to knowledge: for example, by seeking to be accurate and true.
  • Accountability to reasoning: for example, by providing justifications for claims.
  • Accountability to community: for example, listening and showing respect to others.

How this might look in the classroom

Accountability to knowledge indicates a move away from ‘discovery’ tasks and instead foregrounds the importance of teachers and students prioritising academic knowledge both before and during the talk.

Suggested Strategies:

  1. Explicitly teaching subject-specific ways of speaking as used by experts in that discipline, for example in science beginning with the empirical evidence then positing a hypothesis.
  2. When students make observations out loud, ensure that they are as specific and accurate as possible. Claims should be validated with subject-specific knowledge, for example referring to knowledge gained in a previous lesson or from a creditable text.
  3. Teachers should model the above by stepping in with knowledge when unvalidated claims are made, misconceptions are used or claims are inaccurate.

Accountability to reasoning means that students also need to understand that having knowledge by itself is not enough: The knowledge has to be examined in order to build thought.

Suggested Strategies:

Students should be taught how to build a line of argument by linking claims in a logical and coherent manner. Use of sentence stems and appropriate tier 2 vocabulary such as however and nevertheless would work well to scaffold this talk in the same way they would work for written responses.Key questions with which students can assess the reasonableness of their talk are:

  • Is it sufficient?
  • Is it credible?
  • Is it relevant?
  • Is it qualified in terms of supporting the idea you are talking about?

Finally, accountability to community is about setting up the routines of talk in the classroom. Establishing these has to be explicit and takes time. Teachers, therefore, have to assess students not only on what they say but how they say it as well.

Suggested Strategies:

Robin Alexander’s ground rules for exploratory talk can be an invaluable set of criteria for promoting this type of discourse:

  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.

Whilst it is no easy feat, sharing these approaches for talk with students, modelling what they look like and then feeding back after purposeful practice will no doubt go a long way in creating the kind of exciting, academic talk that should be the aim of all classrooms.

Fran Haynes

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