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Turn to your partners and...

Encouraging productive dialogue between pupils plays a vital part in their language development, writes Ann Webley

Many primary teachers pair children as "response partners" for oral or written work in English lessons. And most children like it - talking to a friend provides an important "brain break" for children and enables them to re-focus and concentrate.

But is the discussion always effective? How often does one child suggest an answer and the other agree without thinking? Children need to be taught how to work in pairs and there are many ways of helping them to improve the quality of their thinking and talking.

When might children be asked to work with a partner? At foundation stage or key stage 1, they could share fans, boards or phoneme frames - not necessarily because there is a shortage, but to make good use of paired talk. One child responds, the other checks and discussion becomes part of the experience.

In KS2, children can work in pairs to sort out spellings, investigate using connectives or to find out how the passive voice works in a sentence. If children have been properly trained, the talk during these sessions is extremely valuable. And not a worksheet in sight.

The shared part of the literacy hour needs to be pacey and interactive.

Quick instructions to "Turn to your literacy partner andI" or "You have one minute to decide between youI" help to keep children involved and provide frequent opportunities to assess while teaching. This kind of talk, however, can quickly go off track and some children will not know how to proceed.

Here the teacher can help by modelling what to do. For the first couple of weeks of the year, concentrate on effective talk and demonstrate how to discuss and respond to a partner. This is much easier with only a small group of children listening, where everyone can have lots of practice, with the teacher listening in and helping out.

Children also need to collaborate on written composition, whether a single sentence or a paragraph. This is an important stage between teacher demonstration and individual work, and is especially valuable with new types of writing.

The chance to "have a go" and be supported by a friend can empower children to write freely. Again, it is essential to train them for this work and to ensure that both children are contributing.

There are various ways to do this. When modelling writing using a "toolkit" of rules, speak aloud to show how children might talk to each other. For example:

* We must remember to check our list - have we used everything on it?

* I think we can improve that sentence.

At the start of the year a particular type of questioning can help children to work better with response partners. Two children come to the front and read out their work which is projected on the wall. The conversation might go something like this: Teacher: I see you crossed out that word - why was that?

Child: Katie said we should have a more powerful verb, like you did, so we looked in the thesaurus and found one.

Teacher: And what about that? You moved the word "quickly".

Child: We did that at the end when we checked the toolkit together. It said start one sentence with an adverb, so we moved it.

Probing questions are often needed to get this information. Children understand, but cannot always express themselves, so we need to help them to discuss more effectively. Stock questions directed at the class as a whole - "Are you remembering to help each other?" "What questions do you need to ask?" - will remind them of the rules.

Ann Webley is a freelance literacy consultant and former teacher

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