Talking to learn

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Robin Alexander heralds a classroom revolution in the making, but warns against letting 'dialogic teaching' become just another fad

After years as the poor relation of reading and writing, speaking and listening are at last gaining the attention they deserve. Not before time: many other European countries have long understood their unique contribution to learning - witness the incisiveness of continental oral teaching at its best, and pupils' consequent articulateness. Speaking and listening were barely mentioned in the Primary National Strategy manifesto Excellence and Enjoyment, published last spring. Belatedly, the Department for Education and Skills has made speaking and listening a priority (commendably, the key stage 3 strategy was already in on the act).

Also last spring, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority published New Perspectives, a research round-up on spoken English. In November came Speaking, Listening, Learning, the new QCADfES guidance for KS1 and 2.

Silly but symptomatic headlines followed, as commentators blamed TV-addicted families rather than acknowledging the deeper problem: that while English schools have always understood the social value of classroom talk, they may have failed fully to exploit its cognitive power. In pursuit of the latter, psychologists and neuroscientists agree, the first 10 years or so of a child's life provide an opportunity which is never repeated.

Next in line - later this term - are the new QCADfES Teaching Through Dialogue materials. Here, the vagueness of "speaking and listening" will be replaced by the more robust and challenging notion of dialogue. In fact, the dialogic perspective was trailed in Speaking, Listening, Learning and in some of its press pickings - encouraging extended rather than brief answers, nominating specific children to answer questions, rather than relying on competitive "hands up" bidding, getting children really to listen and reflect on what is said before contributing, and giving them time to do so.

With "dialogue" and "dialogic teaching" as upcoming buzz-words, we face a familiar mix of danger and opportunity. The opportunity is to transform classroom talk, increase pupil engagement, and lift literacy standards from their current plateau. The danger is that a powerful idea will be jargonised before it is even understood, let alone implemented, and that practice claiming to be "dialogic" will be little more than re-branded chalk and talk or ill-focused discussion.

Dialogic teaching is about more than applying tips such as "less hands-up bidding". It demands changes - in the handling of classroom space and time; in the balance of talk, reading and writing; in the relationship between speaker and listener; and in the content and dynamics of talk itself.

Dialogic teaching is underpinned by five fundamental principles (see box).

Of these, perhaps the most critical is cumulation, or building carefully on what is said and chaining individual utterances and ideas into coherent lines of enquiry. Too often, in our effort to simultaneously involve every child, cover an overcrowded curriculum, and demonstrate Ofsted-approved "pacy" teaching, we ask a question, receive an answer, praise it, and move smartly on.

But this traditional sequence effectively neutralises the provoking question, squanders the thoughtful response, masks children's conceptual difficulties, and restricts the diagnostic as well as the cognitive potential of talk. In dialogic teaching, the answer matters no less than the question, and the oral springboard for learning is what we do with what children say. Forget hardware: children's words are an infinitely more precious teaching resource.

Over the past two years I have been exploring these issues with several LEAs. Now, in pilot schools in North Yorkshire and in Barking and Dagenham, primary and secondary teachers are using video and an array of "indicators of dialogic teaching" to analyse their classroom talk, identify strengths and weaknesses, modify practice and monitor progress. In the North Yorkshire project, which started first, the 2002-3 evaluation shows evidence of a transformation in the making. Not only are patterns of speaking and listening changing, but children are reflecting on talk no less critically than their teachers.

Encouragingly, too, dialogic teaching is making classrooms more inclusive, as less able children find a medium in which they can succeed, and a supportive talk environment engages those habitually quiet, compliant children "in the middle". Next, again using the indicators and video, the North Yorkshire teachers are tracking the impact of the new approach on children's learning across the curriculum. Watch this space.

Professor Robin Alexander is at Cambridge University. His book, Culture and Pedagogy, is published by Blackwell; his booklet, Towards Dialogic Teaching: Rethinking Classroom Talk can be purchased from: Faculty of Education (Dialogic Teaching), Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 2BX. For details about the LEA projects, contact Janet Moore in Barking and Dagenham: Tel: 020 8270 6400Email: janet.moore@ Mary Halliday in North Yorkshire:Tel: 01609 780780Email: mary.halliday@

Teaching principles

Dialogic teaching is:

* collective: teachers and children address learning tasks together, as a group or as a class;

* reciprocal: teachers and children listen to each other, share ideas and consider alternative viewpoints;

* supportive: children articulate their ideas freely, without fear of embarrassment over "wrong" answers; and they help each other to reach common understandings;

* cumulative: teachers and children build on their own and each other's ideas and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry;

* purposeful: teachers plan and steer classroom talk with specific educational goals.

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