Too much talking in class is often seen as something negative – a sign of low-level disruption. But at our school children’s talk is at the centre of everything we do. We believe that classrooms should place more emphasis on children’s talk than teacher talk.
This approach, known as "dialogic teaching" impacts positively on all children. However, it has a significant and sustained impact on low prior attaining children, who are already facing the greatest challenges in our education system.
Of course, dialogic talk is not just any talk; it breaks away from the question-answer and listen-tell routines that typify traditional teaching practices. In a dialogic classroom, the teacher acts as a facilitator to encourage children to think deeply and to justify their responses, enabling them to build on each other’s ideas.
What is dialogic teaching?
As a staff team, we have engaged in collaborative action research to identify how best to develop a learning environment that authentically values and promotes children’s talk.
Here are the key principles we identified:
1. Give children confidence and opportunities to ask questions
Children need to experience a rich diet of spoken language, and this includes asking plenty of questions. If we want our children to be talking about their learning and posing questions, we need to provide them with the opportunity – and the skills – to do so.
2. Allow time for paired and group discussion
We believe that it is essential for children to have opportunities to work collaboratively and to learn from each other. Planning time into lessons for "mini-reviews" where children can use discussion to summarise and link learning is a good way to get groups, or the whole class, talking.
3. Use a range of questioning strategies
Lessons should provide a range of opportunities to talk are provided, through the use of the following questioning strategies:
Wait time – all pupils are given the chance to think before answering a question
Hands should not be raised; instead, the teacher selects pupils to answer
Pupils are encouraged to discuss with a group or a partner to help them formulate an answer.
The teacher involves a number of pupils in the answer to a single question, creating the opportunity for discussion through phrases such as “What do you think?” and “Do you agree with that answer?”
Incorrect answers are discussed to develop understanding
Time is given for pupils to formulate questions
4. Ask children how they feel
It is always important to ask our pupils how they feel about their learning, as this gives us an idea of how they see what they do and don’t know. Regular reflection points in lessons are invaluable to support pupil progress.
5. Ask open-ended questions
Teachers should ask open-ended questions that have more than one possible answer. These deepen children’s understanding and require them to reflect, rather than restricting them to searching for the "right answer".
We can use the following:
What do you think?
Why do you think that?
How do you know?
Do you have a reason?
Can you be sure?
Is there another way?
6. Promote a balance of talk between teacher and pupils
Traditionally, in most situations in the classroom, either the teacher or the pupil is passive. But in a dialogic classroom pupils actively engage and teachers constructively intervene.
7. Introduce a ‘talk charter’
At the beginning of the year, the teacher discusses with pupils why they feel talk is important to their learning. What skills demonstrate excellent talk and dialogue? Children are given interactive activities to help identify these skills. The key findings are put on display and regularly referred to.
8. Keep scaffolding to a minimum
Pupils need the opportunity to explore and discover new learning for themselves. They need to have the time to think things through rather than have constant scaffolding and prompting.
9. Discuss misconceptions
Pupils need to be able to identify their own misconceptions and be given the opportunity to talk these misconceptions through. This must be within a climate where all pupils feel safe to make mistakes and develop from these.
10. Model thoughts out loud
It is essential that we act as role models for our pupils, demonstrating critical-thinking skills and effective use of language. Pupils especially benefit from the modelling of inter-thinking between adults in the classroom.
Kulvarn Atwal is headteacher at Highlands Primary School in London