The Quality Of Teaching And Learning Education Essay

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There is much research to suggest that talk is one of the essential tools of teaching. The role of talk in learning has long been championed by socio cultural theorists of Vygotsky (1986) who argued that language and thinking are interlinked and that by using language in social contexts children become thinkers. (Eke & Lee, 2009) Vygotsky also suggests that children need different forms of talk for thought and learning to develop effectively. (Eke & Lee, 2009) Therefore, talk can be seen as the key to learning as, "language is … not just a means by which individuals can formulate ideas and communicate them, it is also a means for people to think and learn together." (Mercer, 1995, pg.4) This essay will explore the role of talk in the classroom and will draw on observations from the primary phase at school X, which is an academy school in Northamptonshire and school Y, a one form entry primary school in Leicester, to determine whether models of talk are being used to enhance teaching and learning in the core subjects. To begin with this essay will examine the importance of talk in the curriculum and the importance of talk for teaching and learning. It will then examine research into the different types of talk. Finally, it will draw on current research and observations from school X and school Y to see whether the models of talk are being used in practice to enhance the quality of teaching and learning.

Traditional education has placed more emphasis on the importance of the written language than speaking. This is primarily because written work is generally deemed to be the most reliable way of measuring learning. (Alexander, 2005; Alexander, 2006; Edwards and Westgate, 1994) As Alexander (2006) states "Reading, writing and number may be the acknowledged curriculum basics, but talk is arguably the true foundation of learning. (Alexander, 2006, pg.9) The National Oracy Project (1987-1993) first stimulated the interest in the importance of talk for learning and instigated the need for speaking and listening to be an essential part of the National Curriculum. The inclusion of speaking and listening as a separate attainment strand in the National Curriculum has given rise to the importance of talk in teaching and learning. Guidance on speaking and listening became available in schools at the end of 2003 which aimed to ensure that speaking and listening would be taught in a more structured way and through specific routes of progression. However, there is still confusion and difficulty in assessing speaking and listening targets in school. (Alexander, 2005) Although there is guidance available how you actually assess speaking and listening is still a contentious issue. Since the introduction of the National Numeracy Strategy and the National Literacy Strategy the importance of whole class teaching has also increased. This has included expectations that children should take part in answering questions, contribute to more discussions and explain their answers and methods more fully (DfES, 2001). However, although talk has been shown to play an important role in learning, these curriculum initiatives have also raised awareness that deeper levels of oral pedagogy are still underused in teaching.

The role of talk in learning is important as it is the means by which teachers share knowledge with pupils. As Wilkinson & Silliman (2000) state "to a great extent the language used by teachers and pupils in classrooms determines what is learned and how learning takes place." (Wilkinson & Silliman, 2000, pg. 37) Talk also allows us to generate thought, put thoughts and ideas into words, clarify understanding and create deeper intellectual knowledge. Therefore we need talk to formulate our thinking out loud which Vygotsky calls egocentric speech so that we can then process thinking internally, 'inner speech' (Vygotsky,?). Talk has also been shown to be essential for brain development especially in the primary schooling as this is the age when the brain restructures itself and, amongst other capacities, develops the ability for learning and acquiring language. (Alexander, 2006) Talk clearly has an important role in how we learn and what we learn.

There are two general types of talk in the classroom which can be classified as talk between the teacher and the pupil (Teacher - Pupil) and talk between the pupils, primarily in group or paired work (Pupil-Pupil). The most traditional type of talk observed in classrooms in Teacher - Pupil talk where the teacher delivers knowledge through the 'chalk and talk' method. This offers limited opportunities for pupils to use language for thinking as the teacher is the orchestrator. The most commonly observed talk between the teacher and the pupil in classrooms in the UK is the Initiate-Response-Feedback (IRF) exchange (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). This exchange is initiated by the teacher, normally with a question, which the child then responds to with a short general comment. The teacher then gives feedback which indicates the end of the exchange. This type of IRF exchange has been shown to close down talk but is the most common type of talk observed in schools. In the IRF exchange teachers can cue answers and steer the conversation which might explain why it is commonly observed in the classroom. However, teaching pupils by talking at them leads pupils to believe that learning comes from the teacher and what they say is more important than what the pupils think for themselves. (Fisher, 2009) Another criticism of the IRF exchange is that the teacher already knows the answer to the question they are asking and are simply testing the pupil's knowledge rather than extending learning and thinking with more open questions that require high order thinking. On the other hand, the IRF exchange can be used in a variety of ways to check the pupil's understanding of a concept, maintain control of the classroom, find out what the pupil already knows, encourage metacognition (getting them to articulate their own thoughts), helping them to see a learning trajectory and model ways of using language for reasoning. Without this form of exchange it would be difficult to determine what is already known by pupils or whether they have truly understood a concept or method. Therefore this type of talk certainly has its place in teaching and learning, however, there are other types of talk which have been shown to extend and improve pupils learning.

Alexander (2008) identified five categories of teacher talk which are:

Rote - characterised by the drilling of facts and ideas through constant repetition

Recitation - the accumulation of knowledge through questions designed to stimulate recall

Instruction - where pupils are told what to do by the teacher

Discussion - the exchange of ideas and sharing of information

Dialogue - seeking common understanding through questioning and discussion with a guide and prompts

Rote, recitation and instruction were found to be the most common types of talk that teachers used in classrooms. (Alexander, 2008) This is perhaps because these types of talk give the teacher security as pupils are less likely to ask awkward questions and it avoids exposing areas of the curriculum that teachers may not be secure in. Alexander (2008) also found that discussion and dialogue were used less frequently by teachers even though they are most likely to create dialogic talk and have the greatest cognitive potential for children. Dialogic teaching involves extended talk between the teacher and the pupil not just orchestrated teacher talk. Dialogue that achieves the best learning outcomes uses talk to find out what the pupil already knows, support and guide the pupil through the activity, monitor their engagement, assess the development of their understanding and encourage more active and extended dialogue. Dialogic talk should be a collective process where learning and problem solving are addressed together. It should also be reciprocal so that ideas are shared and listened to so that alternative viewpoints can be considered. It is important that dialogic talk is supportive so that ideas can be shared freely without fear of getting the wrong answer and is cumulative so that pupils can build on their own ideas and others. Finally it is essential that dialogic talk is purposeful so that curriculum objectives are met. Dialogic talk is not just dialogue between pupils and the teacher, it is what happens with the response that makes it a dialogic conversation where ideas and concepts are argued and discussed in order to reach a common understanding. Alexander (2008) also points out that rote, recitation and instruction have their place within teaching but the amount of different types of talk needs to be more balanced in order to offer children greater access to different types of talk which will extend their thinking and learning. Wolfe (2006) developed a list of strategies through which productive talk for learning appeared. However, they presuppose that teachers have a sound knowledge of every part of the curriculum and that the questions asked suit the purpose of the learning whether it be to encourage dialogic talk or to find out what prior knowledge they have. Dialogic talk and assessment for learning appear to go hand in hand, as through extended periods of talk the teacher is able to assess what is already known and how learning is progressing. Through the use of talk for assessment teachers can also accelerate learning by knowing where the pupil needs to take their learning next.

Mercer (2007) identified five main oral techniques that teachers use in the classroom, which are similar to Alexander's concepts of talk.

Recapitulation - summarising and reviewing what has gone before

Elicitation - asking a question designed to elicit recall

Repetition - repeating the answer back to the pupil

Reformulation - paraphrasing what the pupil has already said and adding to it

Exhortation - getting pupils to think or remember about what has gone before

Recapitulation, elicitation, repetition and reformulation are very similar to the IRF exchange while exhortation is similar to Alexander's concept of recitation as questions are asked to stimulate thinking of what has happened earlier. Mercer (2007) suggests that only reformulation of children's ideas can eventually lead to dialogic talk, provided that the pupil's contribution is reflected on and discussed further. It is evident from both Alexander and Mercer that pupil's need to experience a range of talk in order to develop their learning. Mercer (2000) also coined the term exploratory talk and established ground rules for the successful use of talk in group situations. Ground rules were designed to encourage pupils to speak together and to use effective communication in order to promote working together and 'inter thinking'. (Lambirth, 2009) Mercer (2000) stated that there are three distinct types of talk that are used in group work scenarios, which emerged from the SLANT project where children were set a task at a computer and the talk was analysed. The types of talk which were analysed were disputational, cumulative and exploratory. Disputational talk is characterised by disagreement within the group with few attempts to offer constructive criticism. This type of talk is evident in many group work scenarios as individuals make their own decisions and then argue their idea rather than pulling ideas together. Cumulative talk is characterised by partners or groups agreeing on ideas without any critical analysis. Exploratory talk on the other hand is where the group or partners engage in critical and constructive talk where they challenge each other's ideas and justify with alternatives. (Mercer & Littleton, 2007) However, although this was a long study term study of 2 years it was only carried out 10 schools which is not representative of all schools. Baines et al (2009) found that children tend to sit in groups when working but don't often interact with one another. This is because some teachers see disruption and off task behaviour as a reason to avoid group work. However, Baines et al (2009) found that where there were high levels of participation in group work, including sustained talk, this lead to a high level of on task engagement. Therefore, the concern that pupils will be off task when working in groups has been shown not be the case. Another reason teachers tend to avoid group work discussion is because talk tends to lead to disputational talk because pupils do not know the ground rules for talk. Mercer & Littleton (2007) found that when exploratory talk was modelled and ground rules were set out there was better group work and the children were better at problem solving both together and independently. However, the Thinking Together Intervention Studies was only carried with a small sample of 700 children and the lessons which were taught on the ground rules for talk were pre planned and structured for the teachers. Not all teachers have access to expert knowledge on how to teach ground rules for talk in their classroom and so we should be careful not to assume that because it was a success in this survey that it would be successful elsewhere. Lambirth (2009) goes on to critique the concept of ground rules for talk as they require pupils to speak and behave in a particular way thus teaching pupils that one form of talk is more important than their own habitual ways of talking. However, the ground rules do create a shared understanding of the importance of talk which encourages pupils to work together and inter think.

Research indicates that in some schools there is often too much teacher talk and a tendency for teachers to close down opportunities for extended periods of talk. (Myhill, 2006) The most effective teachers saw the importance of getting children talking and, in particular, saw the development of their vocabulary as a central priority. (Ofsted, 2012) There is more pressure on teachers to cover a wide range of content and to steer discourse in the classroom and this makes it challenging for teachers to know when and how to disrupt the flow of talk due to the constraints of the classroom in terms of space and time. One way to avoid this challenge is for teachers to hold onto the discourse so that they are in control of what is being taught and learnt. (Wolfe & Alexander, 2008; Myhill, 2006) This may explain why questions asked by teachers are generally heavily directed at elicitating a factual, closed response as teachers feel the need to be in control of the way the talk goes. (Myhill, 2006) The more pupils are questioned and their responses are not developed further the less the pupils learn for themselves as they are essentially learning by rote. (Fisher, 2009) Effective questioning, on the other hand, can lead to effective learning when the right questions are asked. Good questions should create conflict and pose an intellectual challenge for the pupil rather than for the pupil to seek out the right answer that the teacher is looking for. Socratic questions move away from easy do you know questions and offer more challenging open ended questions. (Fisher, 2009) This links with Bloom's taxonomy where questions that ask for knowledge, comprehension and application demand less complex thinking while questions that require analysis, synthesis and evaluation demand higher levels of thinking, which in turn enhances learning. (Fisher, 2009) Myhill (2006) found that the function of questions are generally used for class management, factual elicitation, to build on content, recapping, checking prior knowledge, developing reflection and developing vocabulary amongst others. It is clear that all questioning has a purpose in teaching but for extended learning to take place it is essential that pupils are given the opportunity to respond more fully to questioning and for answers to be developed and discussed further.

We have shown that there are a number of different types of talk which all have an important role to play in teaching and learning. This part of the essay will explore the role of talk in enhancing teaching and learning and draw on observations from School X and School Y in Literacy, Numeracy and Science. We will start by looking at the role talk has in enhancing teaching and learning in Literacy.

Wolf, et al (2005) found that talk in literacy that promotes high levels of comprehension is prominent when teachers reformulate and summarise answers from children, encourage the children to put the ideas into their own words and ask them to elaborate. In one year 6 literacy lesson at school X the learning objective was to write an exciting story ending. The teacher grouped the pupils into ability groups and instructed them to talk to each other about how they thought the story should end. To begin with there was a lot of disputational talk in the groups as each child defended their own ending rather than listening to others ideas. It was clear that in this scenario the pupils didn't have the knowledge of how to talk in a group. This links with Mercer's model of setting ground rules for talk. If the pupils had already mastered the ground rules for talk this group work would have been more effective. However, despite the disputational talk the pupils still met their learning objective and collaborated in writing a story ending. During my own experience of teaching literacy in year 6 I choose to use talk partners in order for the children to think of questions they wanted to know about a picture on the white board. I choose to use paired talk so that the pupils were able to verbalise their own thinking and formulate a response with a partner by rehearsing and improving their answer. However, not all children were necessarily on task and were talking about the picture as I had instructed. When elicitating feedback from the whole class I was guilty of reverting back to the IRF exchange and closed down talk by ignoring answers which were not leading where I had intended. This was primarily due to being uncomfortable with where the dialogue was going and worrying that I would not reach my learning objective had I not steered the dialogue. Although, closed questions certainly have their place it would have been better for the learning had I extended the talk and allowed the pupils to discuss the questions they wanted to ask. This would have meant that they would have been more motivated in their learning as they would have taken charge of what they were learning.

Sorter, et al (2008) found that when teachers ask authentic questions which are not just aimed at recall but are designed to find out what ideas the child has the child will respond by talking for extended periods. During a literacy lesson in year 6 I asked the children to discuss the features of persuasive writing in their ability groups. I scaffolded questions by asking them what they could see that identified the writing as persuasive. I also used more leading questions asking, "Is there any interesting punctuation?" and "What is the layout like?" In this example I can see that I was clearly leading the dialogue to where I wanted. In retrospect it would have been better for their learning if I had grouped them in mixed abilities so that the MKO in the groups could offer up suggestions which could then be discussed by the whole group. Again this would have required the groups to have already learnt the ground rules for talk.

We will now evaluate the role of talk in enhancing teaching and learning in numeracy. Mercer & Sams (2008) found that the development of mathematical understanding occurs when group interaction and expert guidance are combined. In order to teach numeracy concepts need to be explained to the pupils by the teacher before the pupils can use them to problem solve as without the expert knowledge they would not be able to move forward in their understanding. Although dialogic talk has its place within numeracy it is clear that a combination of authorative talk from the teacher and exploratory talk in group talk is essential for learning to take place.

During an observation in School X of a year 3 numeracy lesson on time the teacher grouped the pupils into mixed ability groups. The mixed ability grouping meant that in each group there was a MKO who would be able to offer other ideas and assist in scaffolding the dialogue. The pupils set their clocks to different times and ordered themselves. One of the groups began to talk about where they would put twelve o'clock in the line up. The teacher deliberately left the group to talk through their problem rather than assisting them immediately so as to allow them to inter think with each other and construct their own common understanding. After some ideas had been shared in the group, such as "it goes in the middle because that's the middle of the day," the MKO in the group added that "the clock keeps going round so it goes past twelve o'clock twice." This led to the group having to reconstruct their original idea and led to a joint discussion that it could go at the middle or at the end. Once the pupils had discovered this they began to investigate how they could order themselves if the times were all at night time. In this example the use of exploratory talk in the group was essential for them to come to a common understanding. Fortunately, the group were very cooperative, however, it was noticeable that during the dialogue agreement was quickly sought so they could move on. Although the group were using exploratory talk the lack of Mercer's ground rules was evident. Having said this even without having all the ground rules for talk in place they were still able to construct understanding together.

During the starter of my numeracy lesson in Year 6 I used questioning to extend the pupils thinking. We were looking at mental subtraction methods and after giving a question on the board I then asked the pupils to explain to their partner how they had worked it out. As a whole class I then selected a pupil from each ability group to tell the rest of the class what they had discussed in their pair. This allowed the pupils to talk about their methods and then listen to other methods that they could also use. One of the children responded that she had worked it out by counting backwards but that her partner had counted on and this would be an easier way for her to use in the future. In this example by seeking and comparing different methods children see how to use language to compare and debate which is an example of dialogic teaching. I then posed a higher order question, "Which method of calculation do you think is more efficient?" which meant that in pairs they had to interrogate their own thinking and come up with a reason as to why the method they had chosen was more effective.

At school Y the class teacher modelled a tally chart to the children on the white board and then asked them lower order questions about it such as "what is the difference between group A and group C?" The teacher then asked the children to come up with their own questions about the tally graph to ask each other. This led to higher order thinking as they were having to interpret the chart and then come up with their own question. Goodwin (2001) suggests that pupils should be invited to "tell us what they think" (pg. 71). In this case the teacher did encourage a response from the children and extended it by getting them to ask their own questions.

Plenary maths challenge. In groups come up with answer. You can use x divide adding once you must use all the numbers from 1-10 to make X

Discussion promoted problem solving.

PP3: Teacher asked children to come up with their own questions about the tally chart for the other children to answer.

During my own teaching of Numeracy I was responsible for closing down conversation and giving children limited time for thinking due to my concern about keeping the lesson pacey. Instead of assessing what the children already knew and building on it I was guilty of not building upon their answers in order to construct coherent lines of reasoning due to my concern over behavior management and worrying about keeping the class on track. In retrospect had the children had the opportunity for more talk and were able to ask their own questions this would have been a more valuable learning experience for them.

Mercer & Littleton (2007) Children gain successful problem solving ideas from each other when they talk to each other. They construct robust explanations which have been argued out and external dialogue promotes internal dialogue which then assists in individual problem solving.


During a Year 6 Science lesson the children were split into groups and were all given different badges with their role in the group. They were then given an investigation to carry out on what parachute would be the best. The teacher then left the children to carry out their investigation and went round to monitor their talk. The children in one of the groups were mostly focused on their own individual role and therefore although there was talk it did not necessarily lead to higher understanding.

This could have been a really successful lesson for talk however the children clearly did not have the tools to know how to have an exploratory conversation and need the ground rules for talk before it becomes a tool they are able to use effectively. However, by saying that one type of talk is preferred to another suggests that the only type of talk that they should be using is exploratory and this is not always the case.

In my own science lesson with the year 6 class we carried out a group investigation on what would happen to eggs in different liquids. The children observed what was happening to the eggs in different liquids in mixed ability groups and were instructed to talk to one another and discuss what they could see happening and why it might be happening. It was interesting to hear their thoughts as they moved round. One child thought the shell might be coming off, others agreed. One boy thought that the scum on top of the liquid was bacon. They were clearly drawing from their own personal experiences and by sharing their thoughts through talk in a group scenario we were able to discuss what they thought was happening and why. It was evident that they were not use to this type of freedom of talk and at first found it difficult to reason with each other without arguing.

In a year 3 science lesson the talk was very much held by the teacher. She used the typical IRF exchange and lots of closed questions such as "what is this?". It was clear that in this lesson the teacher's lack of confidence in the subject knowledge meant that she felt uncomfortable with letting the talk go in a direction where she felt she would be out of her depth.

This links in with findings which suggest that hands on experiments combined with dialogue which extends the learning and is relevant to the task promotes a greater understanding.

In science when children talk out loud about their ideas I was able to learn more about what they understood.

Talking about science to each other helps pupils to embed scientific vocabulary.

Talk based science lesson: moved chairs and tables so they are grouped into 4 two facing each other easier to share.

Models how scientists work in the real world. Scientists work as part of teams not alone. Allows them to think critically and gives depth to their thoughts.

Roles of responsibilities, industry roles. Personnel manager, communications officer, health and safety officer

Braund (2009) Found that talk in science helps pupils construct understanding. Helps pupils have a more realistic view f science as conducting experiments requires using scientific language. Childre given roles that occur in collaborative discourse in industry helps authenticate science

Think - pair-share allowed the pupils to clarify their own thinking by discussing their own thoughts with others before building up to a group discussion. This meant that the pupils had the time to assimilate and reflect on their own thinking by drawing on other individual's ideas and concepts which, meant that they were engaging in a deeper understanding. However, it would have been more effective had the teacher allowed a longer wait time before asking for feedback as the pupils were still deep in discussion and many had not yet reached a common understanding.

Mercer, et al (2004) designed a teaching programme to assist pupils with exploratory talk. Exploratory talk when used effectively has great educational value and was shown to improve reasoning skills and improved pupil's performance in science. However, this was only a small scale sample with the lessons specifically planned out for the teachers to follow. Harder to put it into practice without having expert guidance as the teachers had in this programme.


Through observations and evaluation of current research on talk it is clear that to make talk more productive in schools teachers need to have the confidence to be creative and take risks. Talk requires good planning and the introduction of ground rules so that pupils have a framework from which to work. Through the use of ground rules it has been shown that pupils can establish an environment where dialogic talk can flourish. From observations and my own teaching in School X and School Y the use of talk partners and group talk when used effectively can lead to periods of effective dialogic and exploratory talk which extend learning. However, with the time constraints and pressures of teaching the curriculum that teachers are currently under, without proper training or pedagogical knowledge about the value of dialogic and exploratory talk it is likely that dialogic talk will take a back seat to more traditional forms of teacher talk. What is evident is that dialogic teaching doesn't necessarily mean that teachers shouldn't ask questions or instruct learning but there should be a balance between authorative talk from the teacher and dialogic discussion so that the children are exposed to a variety of different types of talk as every type of talk has its place in enhancing teaching and learning. (Kyriacou & Issitt, 2008) Therefore, talk does appear to enhance the quality of teaching and learning when different types of talk are incorporated into lessons.