Talking point

14th March 2008 at 00:00
A new approach to classroom debate gives youngsters a voice, says Jackie Cosh

Primary pupils are being encouraged to express their opinions in structured discussions, while enjoying an almost equal status to their teachers.

This new approach, called dialogic talk, ditches the traditional notion that teachers do most of the speaking, with children concentrating on coming up with the correct answers rather than thinking through the problem.

Instead, dialogic talk raises the status of speech, making it a major part of teaching and learning.

South Milford Primary in Leeds is taking part in the Talk For Learning project, a five-year scheme to implement dialogic talk in schools throughout the North Yorkshire area.

The approach is the brainchild of Robin Alexander, of Cambridge University. He argues that in most classrooms, supposedly open questions are really closed, and that dialogic talking will extend pupils' thinking, learning and understanding.

North Yorkshire Council is also supporting Talk for Learning to encourage a more creative approach. More than 40 schools took part in a five-year pilot project that started in April 2002.

Les Dennon, a teacher at South Milford, trains colleagues across several schools. "We were asked to video lessons using Robin's criteria to expand dialogic talk. Using videos meant we could discuss and analyse what we watched," he says.

"It was traumatic and embarrassing at times, because we could see what we were doing wrong, but it allowed us to say, 'this is the kind of talk we use, warts and all'."

Pupils also analyse themselves, noticing that when they wave their hand, they are not listening. This matches Robin's research, which encourages pupils to use simple hand signals such as those used when bidding at auction when they want to answer, instead of just putting up their hands.

The emphasis is on discussion and scaffolded dialogue, where teachers use structured questions and discussion to guide, prompt and narrow choice to help pupils focus on concepts.

One way of doing this is through group work where pupils can bounce ideas off each other.

At South Milford they often work in a double horseshoe shape. This allows the teacher in the centre to work with the inside group, while watching discussions taking place on the outside.

The process gives pupils time to fully explain their thoughts. "Normally a child makes a point and the teacher expands on it, effectively translating for the children," says Les.

"We don't do that. Instead we let the child expand. The sort of discussions we have using this technique are amazing, and it can be used in any area of the curriculum."

The project discourages blanket praise, which can be meaningless. Instead, it is tailored to the individual, if and when required.

Originally used in Years 5 and 6, dialogic talk has been rolled out across South Milford. "Expectations are high for children, and even lower-achieving pupils have had their self-esteem raised," says Les.

"Last year an Ofsted inspector said that he was amazed how the children spoke for themselves and got so involved."


- Collective - teachers and pupils approach learning as a group.

- Supportive - pupils voice their ideas freely without fear of being wrong or embarrassed. They help each other to learn.

- Reciprocal - pupils and teachers listen to each other and share ideas.

- Cumulative - pupils and teachers build on their own and each other's ideas.

- Purposeful - teachers plan meaningful learning.

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