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Using Talk for Learning in the Primary School

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 4270 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Historically, talk was discouraged in a classroom. It was a place for the teacher to give instructions and the class simply to listen. However, the use of talk for learning has been studied in recent years, indicating that it can in fact be constructive.

In this study, I explored how talk could be used for two particular purposes. Firstly, as a tool to optimise children’s learning in a classroom environment; secondly, for a teacher to assess the children’s understanding by listening to the children’s talk in return. Alexander (2008: p.93) states, “If children need talk in order to learn about the world, teachers need talk in order to learn about children”.

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 My theory was that talk is not the obstruction to learning that it was considered in the past, but rather a powerful tool in the classroom. I believed that teachers could use talk constructively in order for children to gain a deeper understanding of the material presented to them. To investigate how to use talk in the classroom effectively, I looked at past research and conducted my own observations and investigations during a four week placement. This will help me to develop my own teaching techniques in the future.

I conducted this study at a Grade 2 Leicester city school with nearly 400 children on roll, aged from 4 to 11. The pupils within the school were mostly from minority ethnic backgrounds, predominantly Asian and Asian British and speaking English as a second language (Ofsted, 2009).  I was based with 27 children in one of two Year 3 classes.

Literature Review

It is only during the last 40 years or so that the quantity and quality of talk in the classroom has been studied and evaluated. A key concern is that constructive talk in the classroom is still underused (Alexander, 2008: p.92). The Primary National Strategy which was introduced in 2003 barely touches upon talk at all (DfES, 2003a cited in Cambridge Primary Review, 2009: p.15) and as a result teachers are left with little advice on how to use talk effectively for learning.

This isn’t the case elsewhere in Europe. Alexander (2008: p.99) reported that in France dialogue has a much greater emphasis in the classroom. He noted that good skills in speech, reasoning and the ability to argue would identify an educated person in France, whereas in Britain good readers and writers are valued higher in society.

Despite this emphasis on reading and writing skills in Britain, the Confederation of British Industry reported in 2006 that spelling and grammar skills are of a low standard (Alexander, 2008: p.99). The National Curriculum requires children to read from age five, but Sage (2000: p.135) thinks that children are sometimes being required to read before they have developed the necessary language and communication skills to read with comprehension. The National Strategies argue that talk is an acquired skill rather than one that can be taught (Alexander, 2008: p.100), but this does not mean that the teacher cannot support children’s talk development. Language can be modelled and encouraged in the classroom and this would particularly benefit children with English as a second language, where it may not be spoken or supported effectively at home.

Alexander (2008), cited in Mercer and Hodgkinson (2008: p.105), gave five principles to outline the key features of dialogic teaching, all of which can encourage classroom talk and increase these language and communication skills. The first three principles were teaching must be collective, reciprocal and cumulative. To achieve this, the teachers and children must learn together as a group, share ideas and build on the ideas of their peers as well as their own. The fourth principle was the teacher’s plan must be purposeful with particular learning objectives, a matter that is now generally used in every lesson. Finally, Alexander (2008: p.185) emphasised the importance of a supportive learning environment; children should be able to express ideas without the worry of being embarrassed if they give what the teacher sees as an unsatisfactory response.

Alexander (2003, 2004b), cited in Alexander (2008: pp. 115-116), found that following a period of dialogic teaching, children answered questions with more clarity and confidence, listened better, thought aloud more and were more helpful and respectful to their peers. Furthermore, following the increase in talk, the children’s skills in reading and writing showed improvement, especially the less able. This supports Sage’s theory that language is essential for literacy.

However, Smith et al. (2004 cited in Alexander, 2008: p.108) found that, in the classes they studied, children’s answers only lasted an average of five seconds and in 70% of occasions were limited to a maximum of three words. This indicates that dialogic teaching is not being widely used.

Question-answer methods are more commonly used, aiming to develop understanding, improve recall and encourage imagination (Sage, 2000: p.64). Questions encourage children to verbalise their thoughts (Van Ments, 1990: p.77), which can provide the vital link between language, reading and writing. Questioning techniques are popular because they enable the teacher not only to control the use and context of talk, but to also gauge the children’s level of understanding, knowledge and creativity.

Questions allow for another perspective to be added and misconceptions to be corrected immediately, making them more accessible than written comments, which can easily be ignored. However, Barnes (1976/1992, cited in Barnes 2008: p.6) noted the difficulty in teachers gaining a full understanding of a child’s thinking by relying on short answers to questions. Thus, although questioning provides an immediate way of informally assessing the children and giving feedback, it can be a vague and narrow minded approach to assessing a child’s ability, so it should be used alongside other methods.

In England, open questions are generally thought of as preferable; children think through the answers themselves rather than merely repeating a teacher’s pre-determined answer. However, teachers still tend to ask a large proportion of closed questions (Barnes et al, 1986, Alexander, 1992; both cited in Myhill and Dunkin, 2005: p.416). Myhill et al. (2006: p.72) used a complex model, creating four categories of questions; process, procedural, factual and speculative. We may generally think of factual questions as closed and speculative as open. They found that the majority (60%) of questions asked by teachers were factual.

Sometimes closed questions are preferable. Sullivan (1992) found that using open questions to teach mathematics had no advantage. This may be due to the extremely factual nature of mathematics, with a right or wrong answer which is not negotiable. Open questions are more effective when the child can use their personal experiences and ideas to extend their understanding.

Barnes’ (1976/1992, cited in Barnes 2008: pp.5-7) constructivist approach divides talk into ‘exploratory’ and ‘presentational’. Exploratory talk defines the child verbalising ideas, taking others’ contributions into account and ordering these to develop their own understanding. Open questions can encourage children to use exploratory talk. Presentational talk takes the audience into account and happens frequently when children recall information, allowing the teacher to assess their knowledge (Barnes, 2008: p.6), thus the teacher can ask closed questions to encourage presentational talk.

Barnes believed a child should have the opportunity to order their ideas through exploratory talk before being asked to present them through presentational talk (Barnes, 2008: p.7). In the classroom both talk types are vital, but teachers must use them appropriately by being aware of the benefits of both; many teachers don’t give children enough time to grasp new ideas through exploratory talk before using presentational talk (Barnes, 2008: p.7). Children need time to talk, develop and share before they can gain a firm understanding (Barnes, 2008: p.2).

Piaget understood the importance of exploratory talk. He believed that a child’s intelligence is based on their interactions with their environment and their commitment to develop their own understanding (Mercer and Littleton, 2007: p.8-9). Piaget believed that every child has a schema – an understanding of the world around them. Exploratory talk supports new knowledge and experiences to be either assimilated if they fit a child’s existing schema, or accommodated if the schema must be changed corresponding to the new information (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969). Piaget labelled the teacher simply as the assessor and provider to give children these facilities to learn actively (Moore, 2000: p.13).

Group work provides children with this opportunity, since it allows the children to self-discover and share their ideas with one another. Piaget believed that children worked most efficiently when grouped into similar stages of development. Children are less likely to be intimidated if placed with others of a similar ability, encouraging them to talk through their ideas together.

Vygotsky’s theory contradicts this. He named the bridge between a child’s current level of knowledge and their potential level the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ and described the support given to reach this potential level as ‘scaffolding’ (Mercer and Littleton, 2007; pp.14-15). Due to the structured and guided nature of scaffolding, Vygotsky believed that dialogue worked best when children were guided by an adult or a child of a higher level of knowledge.

Methods and Procedure

My investigation was based on two science tasks on floating and sinking, a topic in which the children had very little prior knowledge. The same four children attended two twenty minute sessions and my aim was to develop their knowledge on why objects float or sink (see Appendices A and B for lesson plans).

I planned the tasks after observing the teacher and children in a wide range of subjects (Appendices C and D) to gain an understanding of the teacher’s practices and record how talk was used in the classroom. I particularly observed the types of questions the teacher used, the use of exploratory and presentational talk, how the children were grouped together and the use of dialogic teaching, to see their influence on the children’s learning and the teacher’s assessment opportunities. Reflecting upon the effectiveness of these methods influenced my own lessons within the class (Appendix E). I used a lot of talk within these lessons, so the post-lesson evaluations (Appendix F) allowed me to observe which talk methods were the most effective, which in turn influenced my science task plans.

My TE1 partner observed and took notes of the discussion and activities during these tasks (Appendix G). Worksheets also allowed me to record the children’s ideas (Appendices H and I). The first science task was to assess the children’s initial understanding of floating and sinking. I documented the general misconceptions that were stated during this session (Appendix J). The second science task, influenced by these misconceptions, provided the children with experiences aimed to develop their understanding.

Analysis and Interpretation of Evidence

I analysed the areas of dialogic teaching, exploratory talk, questioning and ability grouping with relation to talk for learning and assessment.

Dialogic Teaching

Alexander’s dialogic teaching principles were all present in an observed lesson (Appendix C). The children were sat on the carpet for the starter, sharing and developing their ideas. The teacher had a specific learning objective and used questions to structure the lesson and assess the children’s understanding. This technique was successful in forcing the children to think for themselves and vocalise their ideas aloud, so that their ideas could be shared and developed together. Using talk in the classroom allowed the children to gain a deeper understanding, as misconceptions could be discussed and good contributions verbally rewarded, which encouraged the children to carefully think through their answers. Dialogic talk kept the children engaged, whereas in lessons that did not include much dialogic talk, I observed that the children tended to lose interest sooner, suggesting that talk can aid concentration.

Aspects of dialogic teaching were present in all lessons but not necessarily all five principles, supporting previous research which indicates that dialogic teaching is not widely used (Smith et al, 2004). The lessons always had a purposeful plan and usually incorporated a collective approach, for example via class discussions. However, the other three aspects (reciprocal, cumulative and a supportive environment) were not always present; children didn’t always have the opportunity to share and develop ideas together and the teacher often expected a certain answer, which resulted in many children not being confident enough to answer in case they were wrong.

Shy children and those of a lower ability struggled more in these lessons, possibly due to a lack of structured idea sharing. Appendix K shows the work of a less able child during a literacy lesson before and after dialogue; the improvement of her writing after using talk based on dialogic teaching is astounding. This supports Alexander’s (2008) findings; the writing of less able children improved following dialogic teaching. Thus, Alexander’s principles of dialogic teaching are all important and dictate how talk can be used constructively to create a positive learning environment.

I included dialogic teaching myself within my tasks. I used talk to assess the children’s knowledge, develop their understanding and encourage them to share their ideas without being intimidating; the children had time to express and develop their ideas, or expand on their peer’s ideas. They gave long answers, such as “I was surprised that the wooden cube floated because I thought it would sink because of its shape.” This contradicts Smith et al.’s (2004) research, which found that 70% of answers didn’t exceed three words.

The children added to each others’ ideas politely and seemed genuinely interested in the opinions of others. For example, when one child stated that wood sank, another pointed out that in a film they had recently watched as a class, the boat was made from wood and floated. The first child then admitted that this was true; this new insight allowed them to assimilate this new concept into their schema. Without conversation different perspectives like this, which can be the link to understanding, might be lost.

Exploratory Talk

Within the observed science lesson the teacher set up an experiment. A lot of exploratory talk was encouraged (Appendix C) before the children made their own predictions. During the follow up lesson, the experiment was completed; the children used presentational talk to explain the results. This allocation of talk types worked well, supporting Barnes’s (2008: p.7) theory that giving children time for exploratory talk is favourable, allowing them to gather their ideas before expressing their conclusions using presentational talk.

I found exploratory talk to be very beneficial in my second science task to encourage self-discovery. I found that the children’s talk didn’t always flow fluently, but as Barnes’ (2008: p.4) observed, exploratory talk “is hesitant and incomplete because it enables the speaker to try out ideas, to hear how they sound, to see what others make of them, to arrange information and ideas into different patterns”. Using exploratory talk allowed the children to express opinions and consider everyone’s experiences, thus gaining a deep understanding of the topic.


My findings extend the research of Barnes et al (1986), Alexander (1992) and Myhill at al (2006), who found closed questions were dominant in the classroom overall. I found that in numeracy and some foundation subjects, closed questions were dominant; they simply follow the facts, e.g. “What is half of 50?” According to Sullivan, although open questions are generally preferable, they have no advantage in numeracy. However, within literacy and science most questions were open, e.g. “Why do you think the egg will disappear?” (Appendix C). The children were encouraged to refer to their own experiences and ideas to construct their own predictions. Therefore, the dominant question type depended on the subject.

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I found open questions to be an advantage in my science task; children were encouraged to provide and develop their own original ideas, e.g. “Why did you think the cork will float?” Soon the children offered developed ideas without encouragement, e.g. “I think the cork will float because it is made from wood”. Open questions allowed me to model responses until children expanded their answers naturally.

Ability Grouping

The groupings I saw generally supported Piaget’s approach of ability grouping, which is common practice across the UK. Numeracy consisted of two ability groups and lower ability children were often grouped together in literacy. I found this approach preferable to encourage peer talk within a familiar topic, since they were not intimidated to discuss their ideas.

Vygotsky’s approach of putting a learner with someone of a higher level of knowledge was rarely used on a peer level. It concentrates on developing the skills of the lower ability child and is of little aid to the higher ability child. However, this scaffolding was present in adult-child teaching, for example an autistic child had a teaching assistant – someone of higher ability who supported his development. It was a very effective method, but this level of personalised teaching is too time-consuming and impractical to use on every child.

My science task consisted of both the children developing their ideas together (similar ability teaching) and myself aiding them (higher ability teaching). I found that when I wasn’t controlling the discussion the children were very enthusiastic share ideas, but often presented inaccurate ideas to one another as facts. Therefore, I needed to step in to avoid the children sharing their misconceptions. The children were more relaxed by having no input from someone of a higher ability, but I found that this method did not work in this case. This may have been because it was a new topic; therefore the children had little experience to call upon.


I have based this study on a series of observations within a wide range of subjects to gain a thorough insight into talk for learning within a particular class. However, I concentrated on one teacher, one class and my science task was based on only four children. Therefore, my conclusions assume that other classes would act similarly. On the other hand, my findings are often supported by other studies which have used a larger test sample. These studies increase the validity of my own findings.

Conclusion of Findings

Dialogic Teaching

Dialogic teaching is very effective when encouraging new and creative ideas. It builds confidence, as the children are encouraged not to rely too heavily on their teacher, but to be in charge of their own learning. Children can share ideas, develop their own, improve their communication skills and the teacher can assess the children’s talk content. I found that dialogic talk improved children’s imagination and understanding. My research supported Alexander’s (2003, 2004b) findings that dialogic teaching encourages children to answer questions confidently and clearly and listen respectfully to their peers. Using dialogic teaching also allowed me to assess the children quickly and subtly. Children who needed extra help could be identified before the main activity if dialogic talk is used during the lesson starter.

Exploratory Talk

I found that it is good practice to give children time for exploratory talk when starting a new topic, to discuss and develop ideas in an informal setting. Only when children have personally ordered these ideas should presentational talk be introduced. Exploratory talk allows new concepts to be assimilated or accommodated into the child’s existing schema.


I think open questions are vital to encourage children to think for themselves, allowing the children to achieve a deeper understanding. However, closed questions are appropriate in factual based subjects such as maths, since there is not much room for opinion. Questioning can gauge the general understanding of the class and encourage the children to share and develop their ideas. Individual knowledge can be assessed and immediate feedback given. However, as Barnes (1976/1992) notes, it is difficult to gain a deep understanding of individual’s knowledge, so questioning should be used alongside other methods.

Ability Grouping

Placing children with someone of a higher ability was preferable when developing a new concept, to avoid misconceptions being shared and amplified. However, ability grouping was best to encourage talk when the children were applying and developing their understanding, since the children could discuss their work at the same level and without being intimidated.

Conclusion of Investigation

Focusing on specific areas of classroom talk allowed me to produce a focused analysis. My study was carefully planned, based on my areas of focus and observations of existing practice to analyse the use of talk for learning. I compared my findings to those of existing studies, drawing links between my literature review and my own research to increase validity.

The small test sizes within this investigation may have negatively affected my results. For example, I found dialogic teaching effective, stating that the children were comfortable in expressing their ideas. However, the small group size might have created a less intimidating environment and in fact be the cause to the effect, rather than dialogic teaching itself. My observations were based on the same class, so discrepancies in location, age and teaching will not have been picked up. Therefore, to improve the accuracy and validity of my results, I would have to look at a wider range of schools and age groups.

Overall, by developing my investigation in a structured and focused manner, I gained a well rounded insight into the best ways of using talk for learning, which I will apply in my own teaching.

(Word Count: 3500)


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