Skip to main content

Talking in class boosts pupils' results

Encouraging pupils to argue and debate during lessons can improve their grades in English, maths and science, research finds

News article image

Encouraging pupils to argue and debate during lessons can improve their grades in English, maths and science, research finds

Encouraging pupils to argue and debate in class can help boost their results in English, maths and science, according to research.

Asking primary school children to explain their answers and reason with their classmates can help them to make more progress in these core subjects, research published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) suggests.

A total of 78 primary schools in England with higher than average proportions of disadvantaged pupils took part in the trial of "dialogic teaching", devised and piloted by Professor Robin Alexander, chairman of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

Around 2,500 nine- and 10-year-olds were given lessons in which they were encouraged to explain their answers and reasoning, and to debate, discuss and argue with others about them.

This was done by instructing the teachers to ask open questions and to encourage pupils to do more than simply state their answer.

Thinking and learning

An independent evaluation of the initiative by academics at Sheffield Hallam University found that those pupils who took part in the study made an average of two months’ more progress in English and science than a similar group of pupils who did not take part, and therefore formed a control group.

In addition, poorer children who took part in the programme made two months’ more progress in maths. In general, children who took part made around a month's more progress in the subject than the control group.

Children in both groups were tested in each of the subjects before and after the programme.

The findings indicate that this type of teaching may improve pupils’ overall thinking and learning skills, rather than just their subject knowledge, the EEF said.

Teachers were in favour of the scheme, but many felt that they needed more than two terms in order to make it fully part of their classroom teaching.

'Damning indictment'

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, said: "Getting children to think and talk about their own learning more explicitly can be one of the most effective ways to improve academic outcomes. But it can be difficult to put this into practice in the classroom.

“While there is no simple strategy or trick, today's evaluation report on dialogic teaching does give primary school heads and teachers practical evidence on an approach that appears to be effective across different subjects."

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said: “Teachers know that giving children space to talk thoughtfully and openly, rather than feeling forced to give correct answers, leads to sustained learning, and it is encouraging that this report supports this.

“That this kind of practice doesn't happen routinely is a damning indictment of the testing regime and accountability system, which ensures teaching to the test is far more common. It's also clear that dialogic teaching is about much more than just letting children talk, and that teachers need time to learn how best to implement this kind of teaching. 

“Until the government addresses the toxic accountability system that leads to children and schools feeling like failures if they don't get the right answers, children, particularly at the top end of primary, will continue to be focused on passing tests, rather than sustained, thoughtful, critical learning.”

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow Tes on Twitter and like Tes on Facebook.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you