Pupil talk: 6 questions to see if you are getting it right

We need more high-quality pupil talk if we want to improve children's learning, argues Kulvarn Atwal

Kulvarn Atwal

Old still of child saying something in teacher's ear

If there is one area of education debate that is woefully neglected, it is the role of pupil talk. So much of the discussion seems to be centred on what the teacher is doing, but when I think of the classrooms in our school, I want to know how much our children are talking and the quality of that talk.

School should be an environment based around learners talking, right from the very start. Our early years settings focus on developing children’s talk and practitioners spend time listening to the children and facilitating opportunities for them to build upon their ideas through talk. This sets the foundation for what happens in the rest of their time at school.

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My concern is whether we are in the minority: how many schools provide dialogic learning environments that enable children to engage in productive talk and the inter-thinking of ideas in quality discussions?

Perhaps it is the case that there is a lack of knowledge about how we create "talking environments" and a culture where pupil talk and dialogue is highly valued. So here’s how we do it.

Nurturing pupil talk

Forefront in our pedagogy is the understanding that the role of the teacher is to enable children to talk. This will include talking in front of the whole class, talking in groups and talking in pairs.


Beyond this, it is useful to ask yourself the following six key questions about your practice, and the answers should help you develop a classroom where pupil talk is valued and utilised for learning.

1. Do you know how children feel about their learning?

What do they enjoy, what do they find challenging and why? How do different learning experiences make them feel? The answers should not dictate your teaching, but they should certainly influence it.

2. Do you encourage children to ask questions to further their own learning?

How do they know when they have learned something? What helps them to remember in their learning? Get them to articulate how they learn.

3. Have you considered the balance in the classroom between children’s and teacher’s talk?

How much time is spent with the teacher talking/explaining and children listening? Do children feel confident in questioning and challenging the teacher? Do children have opportunities to respond to each other? You may be surprised at just how little time for talk the pupils have.

4. Do children know how to engage in quality talk?

Spend time creating the rules of quality talk with the children and display this list as a "talk charter" in your classroom. Children need to develop the skill of active listening in order to be able to effectively build on the ideas of others. Give opportunities for children to summarise both their own thinking and that of others.

5. Do we scaffold and help our children too much?  

How many opportunities do we give for our children to think again or to look at a task again? Being "stuck" is a good thing and children need to challenge themselves. Often, they become reliant on the adult for help. Children demonstrate a very different attitude when they play computer games, for example – they know that effort leads to success. Each time they play the game, they know they are likely to improve. Do they demonstrate this same attitude when they approach a page of maths questions?

6. Do you model quality talk?

As a teacher, model your own thinking and learning out loud to encourage the children to do the same.

Dr Kulvarn Atwal is currently executive headteacher of two large primary schools in the London Borough of Redbridge. He has just published his first book, The Thinking School - Developing a Dynamic Learning Community

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