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Research School Network: How to Support Classroom Talk – Part 1 What is Dialogic Talk and Why Does it Matter? ELE, Hydeh Fayaz reviews A Dialogic Teaching Companion by Robin Alexander


How to Support Classroom Talk – Part 1

What is Dialogic Talk and Why Does it Matter? ELE, Hydeh Fayaz reviews A Dialogic Teaching Companion by Robin Alexander

by St. Matthew's Research School
on the

In the current climate, we have had to rethink teaching, asking the question, How can I best provide for my pupils remotely?’ As online learning replaces face to face classroom time, we continue to see the day on day, week on week benefits of revisiting key learning in order to embed crucial concepts. However, we cannot know the opportunities children have at home for rich, purposeful talk.


How can we compensate children for a potential lack of rich, purposeful talk during lockdown?

In the EEF’ Improving Literacy in Key Stage 1 / 2’ Develop pupils’ speaking and listening skills and wider understanding of language is recommendation 1 – with evidence strength being extensive[1]. After COVID, we will need to approach talk correctly and efficiently, to help address the fact that some – or many – of our children may have had limited experiences in terms of rich talk during lockdown. How? This is where Robin Alexander’s A Dialogic Teaching Companion’ comes in.

In this informative, evidence-based guide, Alexander shows the reader why developing a child’s range of linguistic ability is necessary if they are to be engaged in their learning and become the critical thinkers that our world so desperately needs. Challenging the government minister who, in 2012, proposed that a focus on speaking and listening’ would promote idle chatter’,[2] Alexander demonstrates how talk has many outcomes: talk for learning; talk for teaching; and talk for mastery, to name but a few.[3]

But why is dialogic talk different from oracy (the ability to talk), or speaking and listening?

Alexander states: talk, by its nature, is always contingent upon others.’ If we think about reading and writing, those can be solitary learning journeys. This is where the dialogic aspect of talk differs.

As Vygotsky argued, The true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual’. In other words, when learning, we rely upon the challenges others pose and it is a reciprocal act – we absorb our surroundings, we pick up what we hear and we emulate ways of talking which we have learned and practised.

Teachers and leaders in primary school must develop an understanding of dialogic teaching because we educate children at the key stages where we have an opportunity to make the biggest change to their linguistic repertoire. Alexander outlines the neuroscientific research which suggests that Between birth and ages 3 / 4 and between ages 3 / 4 and ages 10/11 are those when the brain’s capacity to acquire language is strongest.’[4]

Before COVID, the type of talk that featured in many classrooms up and down the country was talk where teachers, rather than learners, do most of the talking’[5]. Alexander elaborates on some of the recitation talk that happens in our classrooms – closed teacher questions, brief recall answers and minimal feedback’. The few that particularly resonated with me as a year 6 teacher were:

teachers move rapidly from one student to another to maximise participation, or from one question to another to maintain pace; [6]
closed teacher test’ questions dominate, students are not given the time they need to think and reason aloud. [7]

Of course! These recitation scenarios, along with others that Alexander proposes, inhibit our students. Alexander lists the consequences that this style of talk can have . Now, as we reassess our priorities, talk must be placed prominently on our agenda. I want my year 6 pupils to return to a classroom that is able to discuss things openly, without judgement but with challenge. 


But how do we plan for dialogic talk?

Alexander addresses six different types of dialogic talk in Chapter 7: Framework and Fundamentals’. [8]

Collective
Supportive
Reciprocal
Deliberative
Cumulative
Purposeful

Planning opportunities for all these types of talk is made simple and achievable by looking at his eight talk repertoires, which he proposes we work to understand and learn to use alongside our teaching expertise to ensure our children make the best possible progress (somewhat like using the best bets’ proposed by the EEF). 


The eight repertoires

The eight repertoires are as follows:

Interactive culture: Ground rules (and consistent application of these) play a crucial 1. in creating any culture and how to talk carries its own expectations and guide lines.
2. Interactive settings: The outcomes of talk can be facilitated or inhibited’ by the structures we put into place, so we need to think about pairings of children, seating arrangements in our classrooms and the time we dedicate to talk.
3. Learning Talk: Children need the ability to question and discuss in a classroom which has an interactive culture’. (Repertoire 1)
4. Teaching Talk: Teacher’s subject knowledge must enable exploratory, deliberative, imaginative and expressive talk’ rather than solely interrogatory’ talk, which often takes the form of Recitation’ when we ask questions to find out if knowledge required is known or missing.
5. Questioning (see below)
6. Extending (see below)
7 and 8: Discussing, Deliberating, arguing – forms of dialogue which are different from conversation and have different outcomes (e.g. deliberation hopes to achieve a collaborative conclusion, whereas arguing may result in no such thing)


Questioning and extending

Personally, I believe that questioning and extending have an important bond so it’s helpful to go into a little more detail. Whilst unpicking Repertoire 5Questioning’ Alexander points out we must structure questioning, whether it is questioning by the teacher or the pupil. He suggests we think about the following:

- Managing our questions’ – for example, by referring back to our agreed talk rules and ensuring children have thinking time.

- The character of questions – including the difference between test questions’ expecting quick recall of knowledge and authentic questions’ that allow for reasoning and variation in answers. 

- The purposes of our questions – Do we want to initiate a response (e.g. recall of facts) or elicit reasons? Do we want to probe the answer? Do we want to expand on what was initially said? 

- The structures of questions – am I asking one which is open? closed? or leading? (The latter are normally followed up by a nod or head shake to entice the right answer, especially, it seems, when being observed!)

But once we think about questioning, we must then extend the learning and talk by seizing the moment’ and respond to what students say with moves that prompt reasoning and sustain the dialogue’. 


Feedback

Alexander refers to the power of feedback within the context of dialogic talk. It should facilitate learning not just be a nonsensical Wow! Good job’. This reminds me of the power of facilitative feedback, such as when my year 6 pupils are problem solving in maths and a variation of results are found, or methods are queried by their peers. How fantastic it is when one of their peers tries to elaborate how their friend may have come up with the wrong answer, because of a miss-step in method, or a total misunderstanding! Facilitative feedback can allow learners to self-regulate through talk. 


Conclusions

As a teacher, now more than ever, it is crucial to understand why dialogic teaching matters and the role of all the repertoires in creating a dialogic classroom. Robin Alexander’s latest book is a welcome and timely addition to the research on this.

We also need the tools to apply the research in a manageable way. In my companion blog, I will delve further into how’ dialogic classrooms look in practice, considering the repertoires 1 and 2 in more detail and delving into other research to answer very practical questions such as how to arrange children in order to work on exploratory talk.


[1] Education Endowment Foundation (2017) Improving Literacy in Key Stage 1, London: Education Endowment Foundation.’

[2] Government report referenced in Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion [Oxon, Routledge, 2020] p28

[3] Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion [Oxon, Routledge, 2020] p130

[4] Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion [Oxon, Routledge, 2020] p 14

[5] Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion [Oxon, Routledge, 2020] p 15

[6] Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion [Oxon, Routledge, 2020] p 16

[7] Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion [Oxon, Routledge, 2020] p 16

[8] Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion [Oxon, Routledge, 2020] chapter 7

[9] Robin Alexander, A Dialogic Teaching Companion [Oxon, Routledge, 2020] p 150

































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