Say it loud and proud: teacher talk is not a bad thing

Talk is an instinctive part of imparting knowledge, yet teachers are still chastised for doing it. Mark Enser explores our odd problem with teachers talking

Mark Enser

teacher talk

If someone asked you something – how to make scones, how to change a tyre, why the sky is blue – how would you respond?

I am fairly confident that, in most cases, you would talk.

You would tell them how to do it, or why something is the way it is. 

You might also write them some instructions, draw them a diagram, ask them questions about what they already know and to check they are following you, but you will talk.

This is how humans teach people who don’t know something the thing they wish them to know. 

Background: Pedagogy Focus: dialogic teaching

More on this: Five steps to improve teacher explanations

Listen: Podcast on teacher talk 

In his latest book Making Kids Cleverer, David Didau cites psychologists who studied how older children taught younger children how to play with wooden blocks and observed them using the same kinds of strategies deployed by trained teachers. 

This led him to conclude that “this is somewhat alarming as it suggests that much of what teacher training and professional development consists of are competencies possessed by the average five-year-old!” We humans are natural teachers and teaching involves a lot of talking. 


With this in mind it should have been surprising to see a recent result from the teacher surveying app Teacher Tapp that found that 29 per cent of teachers had been timed during a lesson observation and that most of these had then been told they should limit the amount of time they spent talking as a result. 

These findings should have been surprising but, as an experienced teacher, they weren’t. I had been timed when teaching and, like many teachers, have sat through CPD sessions where we were given messages like “if you are talking, they aren’t learning” or that “pupils only remember 20 per cent of what they hear but 90 per cent of what they say or do”.

Those final figures come from something often called the “cone of learning” where suspiciously round figures are given to the amount that a pupil will retain from any given type of activity from reading to doing. This information is often presented in the form of a pyramid and shown to teachers during training sessions to encourage them to talk less. 

The history of this idea is fascinating (see for example Will Thalheimer’s Mythical Retention Data and the Corrupted Cone) but to cut to the chase, there is nothing to support the figures ascribed to it. In fact, research by Schwerdt and Wuppermann (2009) suggests that there is nothing particularly harmful about lecture-style lessons in terms of what people learn, at least for the age groups that they considered.

This is also supported by the work of Rosenshine (2012) who found that the most effective teachers talked for considerably more of the lesson than less effective teachers. 

Talk better, not less

So why is there this lingering squeamishness in our profession about teachers talking? I would suggest that in part it comes from our own experiences of switching off when others are talking to us.

We have all been in situations where we have been sitting in a meeting while one person drones on and found we have taking in very little of what has been said. It therefore makes it very easy to sell the idea that talking doesn’t lead to learning. Instead we should consider that, like any form of instruction, bad talking doesn’t lead to learning.

The problem with insisting that teachers simply talk less is that we then don’t spend time thinking about how we could talk better. 

There is a problem with teacher talk and that is what Sweller terms the transient information effect, whereby the words that are spoken are forgotten before we have had the chance to process them (for an interesting discussion of this effect and its implications, see Leahy's Cognitive load theory, modality of presentation and the transient information effect, 2011).

When planning an effective explanation we need to keep this effect in mind and can do so in several ways:

  • Ensure you don’t take your explanation off on tangents so that pupils are unaware of which bits they are meant to remember. Keep to the point. 

  • Use diagrams to support what you say. The principles of dual coding suggest that we can take in information verbally and visually at the same time.

  • Leave those diagrams on the board for pupils to refer back to when they are then doing something with what you have explained. 

  • Some pupils will struggle more with their working memory and so find it harder to keep hold of what they have heard. Give these pupils a mini whiteboard and add key notes on these for them to refer back to. 

  • Use analogies and examples so that any abstract points become familiar. It is easier to remember something you already know a little about. 

The message to teachers that they should “talk less” is just too blunt to ever really be helpful. It makes as little sense as simply telling us to “talk more”.

Instead, we need to reclaim excellent teacher talk by thinking how to make it better and more memorable. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His new book Teach Like Nobody’s Watching is out now. He tweets @EnserMark 

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