Talk is essential to learning, and in primary classrooms a great deal of it goes on. But is it the right kind of talk? My new study of primary education in England, France, India, Russia and the United States illustrates many ways that this precious resource can be fostered and used, but also suggest a typically English ambivalence.
In France, reading and writing are deemed no less important than here. However, pride of place goes to using the spoken word to communicate with confidence and precision, and to keeping the French language at the heart of national culture and identity. There, as in Russia, oracy is part of literacy, while in England "speaking and listening" look like an afterthought.
The ambivalence carries over into practice. The emphasis in primary schools in England and the US on values such as sharing may lead us to view talking as social rather than cognitive, as "helpful" rather than fundamental to learning, as something we encourage ("David should try to participate more...") rather than systematically teach.
However, the warning "I don't mind if you collaborate, as long as I can't hear you", which we heard in more than one English classroom, suggests less than total conviction. Partly, it's a matter of time, organisation and the balance of reading, writing and talking across the curriculum.
In the Russian schools, teachers expected children to look, listen, answer questions, read aloud, write on the blackboard, and articulate their thinking - mistakes and all - often at length. Such structured and public talking consumed a much higher proportion of lesson time than in England, and children never spent half an hour at a time on writing, or on any other single activity, as they often do in England.
In England, in lessons that included "interactive" activities in accordance with the national literacy and numeracy strategies, children were more likely to read silently or to the teacher, to talk with each other rather than to the class as a whole, and to talk randomly, spasmodically and briefly rather than deliberately and at length. Talk even between teacher and child was likely to be semi-private, a by-product of monitoring.
This is not a re-run of the debate about interactive whole-class teaching; the international evidence shows that the magic ingredient is not whole-class teaching as such, but the quality of interaction, whether whole class, group or individual. We don't need less monitoring and more whole-class teaching, but we do need to use monitoring in order to engage and instruct children rather than merely to supervise them. In France, a challenging style of questioning characterised monitoring to the same extent as it characterised whole-class teaching.
It is often said that teaching in other countries is "pacier" than in Britain. But what does this mean? It is true that the Russian idea that teaching is about accelerating children's development is diametrically opposed to the British principle of "letting children learn at their own pace".
But this is a partial clue only. In many Indian lessons, a fast interactive pace went hand in hand with considerable repetition, and - for rote learning is a very blunt instrument - the ratio of new knowledge to revision and practice might be low. More important than interactiv pace, then, is cognitive pace, or the way that teaching introduces ideas, explores, tests and consolidates them, and progresses from one idea to the next. Cognitive pace is not about urging children to "hurry up and finish because it's nearly playtime". It's about the density of tasks and interactions rather than speed alone.
Classroom talk can be expository, interrogatory, dialogic or evaluative - it may transmit information or explain ideas; it may entail asking and answering different kinds of questions; it may nudge the relationship between teacher and pupils (or between pupils themselves) into that of fellow discussants; or it may weigh up and judge what has been said and done. All are necessary, but dialogue is the most difficult to achieve.
In lessons in the US and England, video and transcript evidence at first sight looked promising. Classroom talk - especially in the US - seemed open and conversational and teachers appeared to value negotiation more than direction. Democratising talk, we might suppose, is the basis for dialogue. But conversation and dialogue are not the same. A conversation may go nowhere, while a dialogue, properly defined and conducted, always does.
Dialogue is "inquiry and conversation". It combines the sociability of conversation with the skill of framing questions, constructing answers, and building on both. "If an answer does not give rise to a new question from itself" says the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, "it falls out of the dialogue". Think of how often, in life as in class, a line of enquiry is strangled at birth because discussants won't listen, preferring to talk at or past each other. They may know how to assert, even how to question, but not what to do with answers. Learning demands not just talk but special kinds of talk.
The examples of talk from primary schools across the world which conclude the study show how much in this vital matter we can learn from others.
Robin Alexander is professor of education at Warwick University. Culture and Pedagogy: International Comparisons in Primary Education is published by Blackwell (pound;16.99) MOSCOW AND MICHIGAN
Nine-year-olds solve problems
Teacher: Fifty chairs are distributed between two classrooms. When 10 chairs are removed from one room the same number of chairs remain in each room. How many chairs did we start with? Can you work it out Yuri?
Yuri: Fifty minus 10 equals 40. Forty must be divided by two, which means that you get 20 chairs if there are 40 chairs distributed evenly.
Teacher: But that doesn't tell us how many we started with. What about the chairs left over?
Yuri: Well, in that case we must add 10 to 20, which would mean we started with 30 chairs in one room and 20 in the other.
Teacher: How can we check to see whether Yuri is correct?
Teacher: Come on Cameron, turn around, be a good boy, so I can put your name on the happy-face list. I don't have everybody's eyes up here, so I'm waiting. There. I wanted to buy 50 maths notebooks. The notebooks came in packs of three, so when I bought them, I bought three in one pack. Here's the question. How many packs do I need to buy to make fifty? Work by yourself for five minutes, then if you want to talk with someone you may, to explain your solution. You need problem, solution and explanation. (To Frank) Where are you gonna begin?
Frank: Could this be a times problem?
Teacher: I don't know. What do you think?