We thank the many teachers and researchers for helping us to understand the centrality of talk to development, learning and teaching and the empowering potential of classroom dialogue.
In particular, the work of Professor Robin Alexander details the ways in which talk can significantly improve learning outcomes for all students. Our discussion draws upon his research.
This discussion paper includes the following:
- What is dialogic teaching?
- The balance of writing and talk
- What do we know about effective talk?
- On-going challenges in developing talk
- Practical steps
- Want to read more?
What is dialogic teaching?
Schools have incredibly rich experiences in developing students’ language and communication skills and articulateness.
More schools will also more systematically embrace (and embed as the core of the educational experience) what Robin Alexander calls 'dialogic teaching' and the 'pedagogy of the spoken word'.
Dialogic teaching focuses on using talk and fertile questions to develop all students' understanding in a consistently sustained, structured, profound, conceptually rich and collaborative way.
Because it focuses on how students deeply understand what is presented to them, it has the potential to overcome the barriers between curriculum intent and way it is received by students.
Through structured talk, a school aims to ensure that all students, regardless of social background, acquire a highly-developed capacity to speak clearly, publicly, competently and confidently, and at length, about key themes and topics.
Such methods exploit the strong association that exists between oracy (oral skills), literacy and numeracy and so provide possibilities for significantly improving outcomes - in all learning areas - and reducing the huge achievement gap based on students’ social background.
At the core of culturally and socially inclusive learning, dialogic teaching benefits all students, not only those who may be vulnerable to being excluded. Inclusion is thus not an 'add-on' but is fundamental to a high-quality education.
Understanding this assists us all to ensure that socio-economic background eventually ceases to be a significant determinant of educational outcomes. It is thus worth noting the following points.
Talk has come a long way
In the last twenty-five years or so, research and teachers’ creative practice have provided rich evidence that talk is at the heart of the deep learning experience and a source of major improvements in learning outcomes. The evidence relates to many learning areas, including the arts, science and maths.
Brain research is also providing new insights into how speech shapes the higher mental processes necessary for so much of the learning that takes place in school.
All schools have come a long way from a time when talk could be discredited as not being conducive to thinking and learning, when reading and writing were considered by some as the only ‘real’ school work or when talk was seen more as a discipline problem than a learning opportunity.
Cullinan notes, in this respect, that “traditionally, we have valued silent classrooms because we tend to equate silence with thinking and with productive work”. Indeed, the term ‘oracy’ was coined by Andrew Wilkinson, a professor of education, in the 1960s to draw attention to the then perceived neglect of oral pedagogy and oral learning skills.
Both deep knowledge and skills
There is greater awareness of how talk and dialogic teaching contribute to deep content knowledge and understanding. The work of renowned researchers and theorists (such as Vygotsky and Bruner) supports this conclusion as do the experiences of many educators in developing classroom talk over many decades.
Talk is not simply a matter of acquiring ‘communication skills’, as a subset of interpersonal or social skills, but rather embraces both deep knowledge and generic skills (skills that apply across a variety of jobs and life contexts).
In contrast to a narrow ‘skills’ view of spoken language in education, teachers and students co-work to develop extended, sustained, deeper, conceptually rich and reflective classroom talk! Some researchers (e.g., Bereiter and Scardamalia) refer to this as the ‘fundamental literacy'.
Research is also examining talk in computer-mediated communication and how what some call a new form of oracy is emerging; one that is not speech and not writing but a hybrid fusion. Consider students’ text messages, wikis and e-mails; they can be closer to spoken language in real time than to standard written communication.
With talk via computer screens, and not only verbal exchanges, the possibility arises to solve an old problem. As Wells (2000) points out, ‘old’ talk had a serious disadvantage as a medium for collaborative knowledge-building: it left no record of what has been jointly developed and understood.
The balance of writing and talk
While modern classrooms are obviously places where a great deal of talking goes on, talk that in an effective, sustained way engages all students and scaffolds their deep understanding and learning is less common than it should be. Countries such as England and Australia do not have the same tradition of oral pedagogy that is characteristic of public education in many European countries.
As Robin Alexander also suggests:
We need to “rethink and adjust the balance of writing and talk in the language curriculum; redress the balance of written and oral tasks and activities; and shift from random, brief interactions to sustained and longer ones” (2001).
“We [also] need to move from a view of talk as about ‘communication skills’ and ‘the development of confidence’ to a recognition of the neuroscientific and psychological evidence of its unique status as a sine qua non for all learning, especially during the first 10-12 years of life” (2004).
There are some warnings to heed before embracing talk as part of the solution to exclusion. As with any initiative it requires careful thinking through and planning and the realisation that it will not all fall into place at once. In fact, as with many, if not all, educational initiatives, things may seem to be at their worst just before making a breakthrough and getting on to the road to success.
Achieving effective dialogic talk and not just time wasting exercises is obviously not an easy task and requires highly skilled teachers. It may also require shifts in attitudes among students, as some may have outdated ideas about the value of talk.
Studies show that in some classrooms talk is unproductive and group activities are not organised in ways that best achieve productive interactions.
As well, studies document the ways in which talk in classrooms can be inequitable and thus reinforce rather than diminish the achievement gap. It also obviously takes time for all students to develop the communicative skills for engaging intellectually and collaboratively with each other.
Traditional talk includes taking turns in speaking and listening to and hearing others out. Dialogic learning may go beyond these conversational rules to include correcting others, being open to being corrected oneself and working collaboratively with others.
Teachers find that working with other colleagues to share ideas and resources and document both the triumphs and pitfalls is the best way to mainstream dialogic learning.
A school council in drafting a policy around dialogic teaching would obviously also want to be assured that this practice would be supported by appropriate planning and adequate resources.
What do we know about effective talk?
In Australia, effective talk has been pioneered and practiced by numerous teachers in lots of classrooms over many decades. What, then, do we know about it?
As Robin Alexander puts it, when structured talk is working well and consistently in a classroom, students routinely talk to the class as a whole, read aloud, come out to the whiteboard, write on it and explain in detail and in depth what they are doing.
The form of a student’s oral intervention (clearly audible, well-articulated and grammatically correct) together with intonation, changes of speed, and even facial expression and body language are no less important than its substance.
Related questions which can only be touched on here include:
- What is it that students need to know in order to improve as speakers and listeners?
- How can talk be better built into the curriculum?
- To what extent might the development of spoken language be fostered in learning areas other than English such as Science and Maths?
- What does talk imply for the training, work, expertise, and professional development of teachers?
Dialogic teaching continues to evolve
Alexander’s UK research findings are consistent with Victorian experiences and provide positive evidence that:
- Teachers construct their questions more carefully. The type of questions changes; those starting with 'What?', 'Who?' and 'How many?' are giving way to much more 'Why?' and 'How?'
- Teachers balance factual recall questions with those which more deeply probe thinking
- Further, 'now who can tell me...?' questions, and competitive hands-up bidding to answer them, are being used more discriminatingly
- Student contributions are more diverse. There are more contributions of an expository, explanatory, justificatory or speculative kind. There is also reduced pressure on students to provide instant responses, with student-teacher exchanges becoming longer and more collaborative
- Students are answering more loudly, clearly, and confidently, and at greater length, and speculating, thinking aloud, and helping each other
- Teachers and students are beginning to build on questions and answers, adopting a questioning strategy of extension (staying with one student or theme) rather than rotation (questioning round the class), which can still be the favoured mode in many classrooms (as it obviously gives everyone ‘a fair go’) rather than developing more sustained lines of thinking and in-depth understanding with fewer students at any one time
- There is greater involvement of so-called 'less able' students, who are finding that the changed dynamics of classroom talk provide them with alternative opportunities to show competence and progress, and of quieter, more compliant children 'in the middle' who are often inhibited by unfocused questioning, the competitiveness of bidding and the dominance of some peers
- The reading and writing of all is benefiting from the emphasis on talk.
on-going challenges in developing talk
Alexander acknowledges challenges in attempting to encourage what, in some classrooms, is a transformation of the culture of talk and associated assumptions about the relationship of teacher and taught.
The achievement of deeper learning through complex scaffolding is far more demanding of teacher knowledge and skill than imparting information or testing recall through rote or recitation or, for that matter at the other end of the spectrum, student-centred learning, which are the two extremes that teachers seek to avoid.
- Making the transition is not easy; the pilots show a significant gap between teachers who are achieving real change and those whose practice has shifted little. The proportion of teachers whose work consistently is dialogical may remain small for some time
- There is the challenge of avoiding ostensibly open questions that may stem from a desire to avoid overt didacticism and too much teacher talk, but may be unfocused and unchallenging, and may not provide for sufficiently sustained, profound and meaningful feedback
- Alexander refers to this as ‘pseudo-inquiry’. If there is not a balance between teachers’ and students’ roles in talk, the cognitive potential of verbal exchanges may obviously be lost
- Although students are being given more time for thinking through their responses to questions, and are more frequently encouraged to provide extended answers, it is rather less common for answers to be responded to in a way that helps the student and/or the class to learn from what has been said
- It remains the case that after such extended responses the feedback is often minimal and judgmental ('excellent', 'not quite what I was looking for' or the not-so-ambiguous 'Ye-es...') rather than sufficiently informative and scaffolding to promote deep learning
- Insufficient attention is being given to the repertoire of learning talk, and the far more systematic building of students' capacities
- Teachers need to be supported to make more use of oral assessment, so that they can better assess understanding from what students say as well as from what they write
- With greater emphasis given to classroom talk that is sustained and public, assessment has the option of going public and thus, with a better balance of oral and written assessment, oral pedagogy turns many students into assessors, too.
The challenge is to better exploit the power of talk to improve learning outcomes for all students and to better understand the strong correlation between oracy, literacy and numeracy.
In light of this, the balance of reading, writing and structured talk across the curriculum may need to be reviewed in many schools and education systems.
It is pertinent to discuss what a school is already doing well with dialogic teaching and building students’ language and communication skills as well as to consider how this important work may be further developed over time at a school.
WANT TO READ MORE?
Professor Robin Alexander's discussions of dialogic teaching and talk in learning include the following papers:
- Culture, Dialogue and Learning: Notes on an Emerging Pedagogy
- Talk for Learning: the First Year
- Talk for Learning: the Second Year.