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The context of this study is a Year two class situated at a Leicester City based Catholic School comprising of thirty one children, with a high proportion of children speaking English as a second language. Alongside the teacher, there is a full time teaching assistant offering support to the children in the classroom.
This assignment will explore the role of talk in developing the children's learning as well as the way in which talk helps the teacher to assess the children's learning. I will look at literature to identify the different types of talk, and focus on which type of talk is most effective for learning, including open and closed questions, exploratory talk (children talking to each other to develop their knowledge and discover things for themselves) and dialogic teaching (teacher engaging in dialogue with children through open ended questions and prompting them to develop their thinking). I will also discuss the way in which talk has an impact on the children when they are working as a class, as well as in pairs and focus on how the teacher uses questioning in order to promote learning. This study will give me a better insight into the role of talk and the impact that this has in the classroom.
Research has shown that talk plays a vital part in a child's school life. Therefore in order for children to learn, it is essential that the teacher asks the children a variety of questions so that s/he can assess the children's understanding. It is important that the teacher uses a combination of both closed and open questions in order to encourage talk and develop the children's thinking. This is so that there is a clear balance between questions which require factual answers and build on the children's thinking as well as those that require the children to make their thinking more explicit through exploratory talk (Myhill et al 2006:72) Furthermore, children should be provided with opportunities to offer their thoughts and suggestions in the classroom in order to encourage talk in the classroom. This form of dialogic teaching gives children a chance to give longer, more thoughtful answers which encourage higher level thinking.
Vygotsky was one of the first psychologists to point out the role of talk in assisting the learner with the wider view of the world. Vygotsky argued that the greatest form of talk for learning comes from the interaction between a learner and a more knowledgeable person such as a parent or a teacher. This is known as the zone of proximal development whereby showing what a learner can do unaided and then with assistance (Mercer et al 2008: 134). Thus stating that the teacher supports the learning of the child by evaluating what the child needs help with and then scaffolding the learning of that child to meet their needs. However this form of learning will not be effective if the child does not take an active part in learning through exploratory talk, whereby children have the opportunity to think out aloud and try out their ideas and arrange information and ideas into different patterns (Mercer et al 2008: 65).
Exploratory talk, therefore works well with open questions as they encourage a cognitive challenge for the children. The teacher should create a balance between 'quick fix' factual questions and those which require further thinking and development. Using a taxonomy or scheme of classification can be helpful when encouraging children to develop their thinking skills. Bloom's (1956) Taxonomy shows the progression in thinking and using his hierarchy can help the teacher to plan effective questions which offer the children a cognitive challenge (Waugh & Jolliffe 2008:95).
Moyles (1989:45) suggests that many of the teacher's questions involve very brief answers, or questions seeking answers the teacher already knows. If this does happen, then the children can feel intimidated as they know that the teacher is searching for a specific answer. Therefore it is important for the teacher to be approachable as the way they talk to the children can determine how competent they appear. To further emphasise this point, Mercer & Dawes (2008:64) state that the questioning techniques and response from the children largely depend on the way in which the teacher responds to the class. If the teacher has established a class where pupils are encouraged to offer extended responses and exploratory contributions then the children will be more confident in answering and offering their opinion. So if Moyles is suggesting that many of the teacher's questions involve brief answers, then this would illustrate that the teacher would not be asking appropriate questions to expand the learning of the children and therefore the "suitable context of shared understanding has not been established" (Mercer & Dawes 2008:64) between the teacher and children. As a result, the teacher would then need to focus on the questioning techniques and the way they talk to the children in order to ensure that the responses for the questions they ask are not always brief.
Moreover, the terms open and closed questions are defined more by the teacher than by the nature of the question itself. A study by Hargreaves et al showed that when a Year two teacher asked: 'what is spring?' the responses from the children suggested that they were responding to an open question. In fact, the teacher was asking a closed question and was searching for a specific answer from the children and wanted to be told that spring is a season (Myhill et al 2006:70) This study shows that it is important to ensure that the children understand the sort of question being asked and to phrase the question in a way which will encourage them to answer the question appropriately.
Having briefly discussed both open and closed questions, it is important for the teacher to be able to create a clear balance between the two, however as Moyles (1989:44) suggests, due to the demands of the teacher in attempting to fit in the curriculum requirements, teachers tend to ask questions which have short answers and tend to rush children by finishing sentences off for them. As a result, the children have then lost the opportunity to reach their fullest potential which could be a factor that can hinder their learning.
The role of talk is also vital during talk partner sessions conducted by the teacher. Research has shown how talk partners have had a large impact on the children's learning and if talk partners are, as Waugh & Jolliffe (2008:97) suggest, implemented correctly, then talk partners can help children to be positive about each other's work and can encourage them to make useful suggestions to each other. Studies have shown that this form of learning created a larger response from the children when they were asked to feedback as they felt confident about their ideas. This shows that the discussion element encourages pupils to reveal their ideas in a 'safe forum' before presenting to the public (Mercer & Dawes 2008:62) whereas, when a question was asked to the whole class where they did not engage in talk partners, the response from the children would not be as great as when they had the opportunity to discuss their ideas. This shows how effective the role of talk partners can be within the classroom. What's more, talk between pupils is more symmetrical as the rules are different to that of a discussion led by the teacher. During talk partner sessions, children are able to ask questions to each other and interrupt the speaker and those children that are tentative will be more likely to offer their opinions to a partner. (Mercer & Dawes 2008:65) This provides an excellent opportunity for the teacher to listen in and assess the opinions and thoughts of those children who would not usually offer their thoughts to the class.
To conclude, the factors listed above are all relevant during a teaching session. From this information I will be able to evaluate the sorts of questions that I asked the children during the lessons and the directed tasks as well as noting how much talk was involved during the lesson introductions.
Methods and procedure
For this study, close observations were made of the mentor to see the way in which she interacted with pupils and how talk was used during a number of lessons. Appendix A shows the way in which the teacher interacted with the children and the questioning techniques that she used in the classroom. Using these examples, I tried to implement the mentor's style of questioning when speaking/interacting with the focus children during different lessons (appendix B). From this, I kept one of my professional development targets as making 'the lesson activity clear to pupils' (appendix C). This would help me to ascertain whether I was able to talk to the children in a way which was easily understood by them so that they could complete the activity assigned to them. The feedback given by my mentor and TE partner informed me that I was able to ask the children appropriate questions during the lesson in order to ascertain what they had learnt. With this feedback in mind, I then went onto conducting my individual directed tasks.
For this investigation I have chosen the maths task, simply because maths is a subject which I struggle with and as a teacher, I would like to ensure that I am able to teach this subject to the best of my ability. This part of the study was designed to investigate the role of talk in helping me to assess what the children knew and to help them develop their learning further through questioning and dialogic teaching. Ruth and Adam were chosen as my focus children, both children were at different ability levels in maths so I was able to differentiate for each child when planning. My TE partner was to observe and collect the data from the tasks.
Task number one involved basic number work and focused on how far each child could count, it included activities such as counting backwards, grouping and estimation (appendix D) after reviewing the results of this activity (appendix E) the second activity was conducted. This involved solving number problems. I used a variety of questions (appendix F) which focused on the children's counting skills and included problems which encouraged the children to think about subtraction, division and multiplication. The questions were phrased in the same way for both the children; however Ruth struggled with understanding some of the questions, therefore by engaging in talk I had the opportunity to assess what she knew, and from this, I was able to rephrase the question to a simpler level. Through talk I was able to find out that maybe the barrier here for Ruth was language, and not necessarily her ability to solve the problems. After this activity was completed it was evaluated (appendix G).
With the results in mind, I conducted a series of Numeracy lessons which I differentiated for the children based on the evaluations and observations I received from my TE partner (appendix H). To ensure that these methods of teaching were successful, a tracking grid (appendix I) was completed to show the progress of the two children during the taught sessions and as I marked the work for the maths sessions (appendix J) I could then evaluate and change the lesson plan for the next session to suit the children's learning.
The final activity was a short session taught to the two focus children on an individual basis. From the previous evaluations, I felt that the children would find it useful to learn about adding near multiples of 10 mentally. Though this would not be such a challenge for Adam, Ruth would find it difficult as she relied heavily on counting objects and this would be a challenge for Ruth to overcome. Nevertheless, I went ahead with the task differentiating respectively for each child and the results were both positive (appendix K).
Analysis and Interpretation of Evidence
During each lesson and directed task, information was written down by my peer based on the focus of the lesson/task. I then completed an individual evaluation which was based on the children's work as well as feedback given by my peer. This helped me to gain a better idea of what worked well and what was to be improved for the next session.
I feel that I planned and facilitated the talk for the children during the lessons appropriately. Children were given the opportunity to discuss the problem on the whiteboard in talk partners and the questions were structured in a way which was appropriate for all the children to answer (see appendix H). When the children were given the opportunity to come out to the front and demonstrate the solution to a problem on the board, it was essential for me to recognise that the child had understood how to tackle the mathematical problem rather than arriving at the right answer. (Myhill et al 2006:78) This also facilitated for those children who had not initially understood the problem but gained a better idea of what was to be done after the demonstration.
From the results of the tasks and the taught sessions, I found that Adam was very confident with the maths tasks and was able to explain the strategies used to solve the problems fully. However, when it came to whole class work, he was not as confident with his work (as shown in the subject tracking grid). This could be due to the fact that as he is more able, the level of work set for him was too difficult or he did not have that one-to-one interaction which he had when undertaking the tasks. Hence any one of the above could have hindered his work. The one-to-one interaction was helpful to Adam because he could show the strategies used to solve the problem and any misconceptions could be cleared easily through exploratory talk. However in a whole class situation, it was difficult to pin point and focus on the needs of one specific child when there are thirty others in the classroom who need to be overlooked simultaneously. The one-to-one interaction gave Adam the reassurance and confidence to solve the problem as there was adult support, whereas in the whole class situation, the individual support was not present.
On the other hand, Ruth did very well in the whole class sessions. She was very confident with the work set for her as it was differentiated and therefore she was able to complete the work given to her successfully. The reason for Ruth struggling on the directed tasks could be due to the fact that the questions were too difficult for her and on a few occasions she confirmed this. It was noted that task two was not differentiated for Ruth, but despite this, she made an effort to tackle the mathematical problem. However, if the question given to her was put into a real life context Ruth found it easier to tackle the problem. For example during the task, she found it difficult to solve 26 + 9. So the question was rephrased, "if there were 26 sweets and I gave you 9 more sweets, how many sweets would you have altogether?" This further emphasises Anghileri's (2000:20) point on a study conducted by Hughes suggesting that if children were given a situation that they can think about in order to give meaning to a numerical question they were able to make sense of the question asked. Similarly, question four in the plan also proved difficult. For this question, I showed her a 10p coin so that she could visualise this, but it was clear that Ruth was struggling with the question; and the question was abandoned. However, the next question which asked Ruth what coins she could use to make 6p proved simple. Ruth said that she found this easy and explained that she could count in two's - 2,4,6 or in one's - 1,2,3,4,5,6. When Ruth was asked why she found this easy, she said that she knew her two times table and knew different ways of making six. Through talk, I was able to assess and identify the strategies she used to work out the answer. Though the questions were very similar to each other, the context of the second question was easy for Ruth to visualise than the first.
In contrast the science task was designed to investigate how exploratory talk between children can help develop their learning and understanding. This task involved collaborative work between pupils. Ruth was not as tentative in answering the questions as she was in the maths and offered her thoughts and opinions on floating and sinking. This form of exploratory talk encouraged the other children to participate too. Children were shown a concept cartoon and were asked to decide what would happen to the paperclip. Ruth decided that the paperclip would sink because it was made of metal and Adam decided that the paperclip would sink because it was heavy. This activity proved useful as I could question the children about their decision and this also gave the other children the chance to interact and intervene in each other's thoughts. Research by Keogh (2007:87) suggests that using concept cartoons can restrict the pupils' thinking to other alternatives; however I found that this was not the case because children's thoughts were asked before the concept cartoon was shown. The answers that were provided were similar to those on the concept cartoon. This reinforced their original ideas and encouraged a discussion. The talk between the children was symmetrical; there was little/no intervening from the adult and this helped them to build on their ideas and come up with higher level responses. To some extent this contrasts with Vygotsky's idea that a more able other (adult) is needed in order for the most effective learning to take place because in this case all the children were at the same sort of level but just had different ideas which encouraged them to talk to each other and look at different viewpoints from theirs to develop their thinking.
Following this task, children gave predictions (appendix L) for the objects to be tested. Ruth was confident whereas Adam appeared more tentative. Their responses helped me to ascertain what the children already knew. Furthermore the children were able to engage in a lively discussion and this offered them the opportunity to draw on their own perception and encouraged them to not only talk more but give me a deeper insight into their way of thinking. I was then able to ask further questions to clarify their ideas and I was able to engage in a genuine dialogue with the children, helping me to assess the child's learning and development (Ireson 2008:110).
After close analysis, I have found that Adam feels more comfortable with factual information and was able to provide a clear logical strategy on how to solve the problem. In contrast, I felt that Ruth preferred group based activities and tasks which were open to discussion with the possibility of more than one answer. The range of talk also varied from the tasks as Ruth was more engaged in the science task and participated more in the discussion whereas Adam showed more enthusiasm with the maths task and was more willing to offer his thoughts.
To conclude, this study has illustrated the importance of maintaining and establishing a clear working relationship with the children whereby the children feel confident in offering their own opinions and thoughts in the class without being rushed. By doing this, the teacher has a better chance of assessing what the children have learnt and also gives them an opportunity to clear any misconceptions.
I have also found that the level of talk will depend on how much enthusiasm is shown in the subject being studied, as both children showed a different level of interest in each subject. I have also found that it is also important to maintain a balance between the two and to ensure that there is an equal combination of teacher talk and child led discussion.
Overall I feel that this investigation has given me a better insight into the role of talk for learning. As I got to know the children well, I felt that I was able to facilitate the level of talk in a way which was easy for them to understand and interpret. By the end of task three, both focus children were able to complete the task successfully. I feel that I had communicated with the children effectively. On the whole, I did try and provide the children with as many opportunities as possible to communicate with me both during the tasks and the class based taught sessions so that I could gain a thoughtful insight into their level of thinking.
Having reviewed my Profile of Communication before and post TE1, I could see personal improvement from the point at which I started. I feel that I am able to successfully use language in order to control the class and if I felt that I could not gain the attention of the children using one strategy then I would try another. For my next placement, I will endeavour to use different pitch tones when speaking and raise my voice so that it is loud enough to keep the children's attention.
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