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As far back as the 1970s, Vygotsky argued that language was extremely important as both a psychological and a cultural tool. In addition, he also concluded that social or group involvement in problem solving activities was critical for the development of the individual. Since 1978, a wealth of research has been conducted into the benefits of talk (or oral pedagogy) to enhance learning in schools (Alexander 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008b; Mercer, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010; Myhill et al 2003, 2006; Newton et al 2000; and Bewley et al, 2007).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines pedagogy as the method and practice of teaching. Oral pedagogy can therefore be defined as the method and practice of teaching using the spoken word. In this assignment, I will attempt to critically analyse available research and discuss how the use of talk within a classroom environment can enhance the quality of teaching and learning outcomes across the core curriculum subjects. I will include relevant observations and experiences from my own teaching of the core subjects, to build upon the findings of this research. I shall also refer to relevant National Curriculum and inspection guidance on the use of talk in the classroom.
The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies place sizeable importance upon whole class interactive teaching (Myhill, 2003), whilst the National Curriculum emphasises the use of Speaking and Listening' within all subjects (Department for Education and Employment, 1999). This would suggest that the Government acknowledges the benefits of talk within the classroom.
Teachers use talk on a daily basis in order to deliver learning to the children in their class, but this use of talk is not always as effective as it could be. Alexander (2001, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008b), argues that children should encounter a more interactive type of talk in the classroom - something he calls Dialogic Teaching. This teaching should engage children, broaden their overall learning, stimulate interest in the topic being taught and improve their understanding of that topic.
Mercer (1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010) Newton et al (2000), Bewley et al (2007) and Myhill (2003, 2006b) also agree with Alexander that talk within the classroom context has a positive benefit on learning as long as it has a cumulative effect. Any communication between the teacher and their pupils should extend and enhance the pupil's development of their own understanding. It would therefore seem then, that there is unanimous agreement, that talk, when used effectively within the classroom can have a positive impact in children's learning.
In general, the majority of classroom talk involves the teacher talking at the children in their class, combining long periods of explanation with a series of short sharp questions designed to check pupil understanding and elicit only brief answers. There is a wealth of research available (Edwards (2003), Alexander (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) and Mercer (1999, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010)), which suggests that, although this type of talk has its place, it is not necessarily the most effective use of talk within the classroom environment.
Through his research, Alexander (2001, 2003, 2005, 2006) identified five different types of talk that were used within the classroom context:
Rote: Teacher to class interaction. Repetition of facts, ideas and routines by whole class;
Recitation: Teacher to class or teacher to group interaction. Children acquire knowledge and information through answering a series of questions from the teacher specifically designed to test their ability to recall previously taught information. Pupils are often provided clues to help them work out the answer;
Instruction/exposition: Teacher to class, teacher to group or teacher to individual interaction. The teacher tells the pupil(s) what to do, provides information, explains facts or procedures.
Discussion: Teacher to class, teacher to group or pupil to pupil interaction. This involves a swapping of ideas and a sharing of information in order to solve problems or agree an answer.
Dialogue: Teacher to class, teacher to group, teacher to individual or pupil to pupil interaction. This involves all participants reaching a common understanding or agreement through structured questioning and discussion, which is cumulative and ultimately guides pupils to reach a common understanding of the concepts and/or principles to be learnt.
Of the five types of talk identified by Alexander, he states that the first three are used regularly within the classroom, whereas the last two are used less frequently. Of the five types, only the last two are identified as meeting the criteria for Dialogic Teaching. Alexander (2006) defines Dialogic Teaching as:
"harnessing the power of talk to engage children, stimulate and extend their thinking and advance their learning and understanding."
Alexander (ibid) also outlines five elements of talk which are required in order for that talk to be dialogic. According to Alexander, Dialogic Teaching is:
By which he means that teachers and children should work together (collective); listen to one another and share ideas; and be willing to consider other people's viewpoints (reciprocal), in order to reach a common agreement. Participants should feel able to express their views freely without fear of getting the answer 'wrong' (supportive) and they should build upon points that have been raised and discussed previously within the session (cumulative). These ideas should be built up into a coherent train of thought. Finally, it is the teacher's role to guide the talk with specific educational goals in mind, whilst allowing children the freedom to talk through their ideas (purposeful). Any classroom talk which meets the above criteria is therefore considered as having a potentially positive effect on children's learning.
Mercer (2000), also identified five common 'talk' techniques used within the classroom, which are used by teachers to build on their pupil's understanding:
Recapitualtion: Summarising or reviewing previous learning / lessons;
Elicitation: Specifically trying to stimulate a recall of previous information through asking questions;
Repetition: Repeating what a pupil has said in order to highlight that point or to encourage an alternative viewpoint;
Reformulation: Rephrasing a pupil's response to make it clearer to the rest of the class; and
Exhortation: Encouraging pupils to 'think' or 'remember' what might have been covered previously.
Unlike Alexander's five types of talk, Mercer's talk types all relate to talk techniques used by the teacher specifically, not necessarily types of talk which might be used by all people in the classroom. As a result, Mercer et al (2003) conclude that , in the majority of classrooms, the function of the questions asked by teachers was simply a means of maintaining control of classroom talk and assessing children's knowledge against a series of academic requirements. They also state that asking such 'closed' questions are common around the world, not just in the United Kingdom. Further, they state that although this type of questioning is common, in other instances, teacher's questions also had the potential to encourage children to explain their thoughts and reasoning clearly, model positive ways of using language and provide opportunities for children to contribute and express their current level of understanding or highlight any difficulties.
Through his research over the years, Mercer (1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010) and his research colleagues have developed a type if talk called 'Exploratory Talk'. Similar to Alexander's Dialogic Talk, Exploratory Talk involves participants engaging critically but supportively in a discussion. Sharing their own and considering each other's, points of view. Agreement is sought as the basis for which the group can then move forward and progress with an idea or process. Mercer identifies a number of ground rules for Exploratory Talk:
Everyone in the group should be encouraged to speak and take part;
All relevant information should be shared with the group;
Reasons for a point of view are expected to be given;
Contributions by participants should be respected by all;
Challenges to a point of view are encouraged as long as a reason is given;
The responsibility for any decision should be taken by the whole group not a few individuals;
An agreement by the whole group should be sought.
Mercer et al (2004) believe that being able to communicate ideas and reason with others are key criteria for educational success. By implementing rules identified above, Mecer et al believe that children will therefore be implementing a more 'dialogic' conversation, one where all children can learn more effectively. Mercer's research also found that communication and reasoning skills have not been taught effectively in many primary schools in recent years, which is also supported by Alexander's research over the years (2001, 2003, 2005, 2006).
Research by Myhill et al (2003) concurs with both Mercer's and Alexander's findings. They found that teacher talk dominated whole class teaching and pupils rarely instigated any discourse throughout whole class teaching in a lesson. They found that any discourse predominately followed a teacher-child-teacher approach similar to that identified as 'Recitation' by Mercer (2000) or 'Elicitation' by Alexander (2001, 2003, 2005, 2006).
Both Alexander (2001) and Mercer (2003, 2004) have conducted a number of research projects in case study schools both in the United Kingdom and abroad. Both researchers instigated a programme of study in a number of case study schools, training teachers to use either Dialogic Talk (Alexander) or Exploratory Talk (Mercer). Observations were made in all schools before the programme of study was implemented and after teachers had implemented the study. Both Alexander and Mercer found that children at the case study schools worked together more effectively, and improved both their reasoning and language skills as a result of the implementation of the teaching programmes.
It should be noted at this point however, that with the exception of his research paper carried out with colleagues into teaching children to reason together (2004), all Mercer's research appears to have been conducted with Key Stage 2 only. Although there is enough research to suggest that Mercer's principles of talk do lead to greater understanding by the pupil of information or a process I question whether his 'Exploratory Talk' would be as successful with Key Stage 1 children, many of whom may find it difficult to critique each other's contributions effectively and give full reasoning behind their own point of view.
Galton (2003) stipulates that we should not think of 'whole-class' discussion as the only means of promoting effective learning. He argues that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that paired or group working is equally as effective. Alexander (2006) also agrees with this, highlighting a number of organisational contexts which, if planned carefully, can provide opportunities for dialogic talk, including:
Whole class teaching (teacher and class)
Collective group work (led by teacher)
Collaborative group work (led by pupils)
One-to-one (teacher and pupil)
On-to-one (pupils in pairs)
There has been a range of research carried out into the effectiveness of talk during core subject lessons (Newton et al, 2000; General Teaching Council, 2011; Mercer, 2004; M. K. Wolf et al, 2005; Mercer, 2006; Askew, 2011). The General Teaching Council for England (GTC) (2011), highlight that science teachers need to use a variety of different types of talk to enable their pupils to move from everyday understanding towards a more scientific viewpoint for a topic. This could include dialogic episodes and 'authoritative' episodes when the teacher is introducing scientific ideas. In addition to this, the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) noted in a report on primary science in 1999 (from Newton et al, 2000) that the most effective teaching made use of discussion and in depth questioning in order to develop pupil understanding. Newton et al (ibid) then go on to state that any discussion within primary science, which focuses attention on relationships, causes and reasons can enhance a pupil's deeper scientific understanding. However, they also noted in their research that when teaching science, teacher's talk was often confined to explaining and developing relevant vocabulary, and describing scientific phenomena or situations rather than allowing the children to develop the discussion themselves. This supports what Alexander (2001, 2003, 2005, 2006), Mercer (2000, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010) and other researchers have observed in lesson observations over the years.
In a science lesson I observed, the class of year 5 and 6 pupils were starting a new topic on Micro-organisms. Since this was an entirely new area for the children, the class teacher started off by giving a brief introduction to the topic, introducing the relevant scientific terms which the children would be using and explaining that the intention for that lesson was for the pupils to be able to identify the different types of micro-organisms and understand why and what types of micro-organisms could be helpful or harmful (authoritative talk). After this introduction, the class teacher opened the floor to questions from pupils and encouraged them to discuss amongst themselves the different types of microbes. Children were encouraged to offer up their own answers or suggestions to any of the questions asked by others (dialogic) and try to build upon what may have already been said. The children responded positively to this discourse and were more than willing to share ideas and opinions with their peers. At the end of the lesson, the class completed a shared write to come up with a suitable definition of micro-organisms. Again, the class teacher asked for suggestions and encouraged pupils to critique each other's contributions as they wrote the definition. In subsequent lessons, it could be seen that pupils had a good understanding of the main principles of the topic as a result of this introductory discussion and question session.
This lesson follows the general pattern identified in the General Teaching Councils report (2011) of a mix of authoritative talk and dialogue. I believe this is a very positive example of how dialogue and discussions can be used effectively within a classroom situation. However I do not think it can be considered truly 'dialogic talk' as defined by Alexander (2006) since, although encouraged to do so, the children did not really build cumulatively upon what had gone before (except in the case of writing the definition). In addition, the class teacher was still very much involved in the discussion and teacher talk time still marginally dominated the overall discussion. In dialogic talk, pupil talk should dominate the discussion. Despite this, I still believe that the use of talk within this lesson had a positive effect and shows how discussion and questioning can enable children to learn effectively and develop a deeper understanding of a topic (Newton et al, 2000). It also allowed the children to meet the learning objective for that lesson in a more engaging and constructive way than simply learning by 'rote' (Alexander 2006).
In a later science lesson, children had to undertake a yeast investigation to find out what conditions yeast works best in. In groups, children were told to set up their investigation, following the instructions and place yeast in 6 different beakers. Water and / or sugar was added to the beakers (yeast only; yeast and sugar; yeast and cold water; yeast, cold water and sugar; yeast and warm water; yeast, warm water and sugar). They were told to make a prediction as a group about which beaker would provide the best environment for yeast to activate. The children were encouraged to discuss in their groups what they thought, offering suggestions and ideas for the group to discuss before they came up with an agreed prediction. Children were told to provide an explanation for why they had put their particular prediction forward, thinking back to what they may remember from previous year's work on life processes. Some children had baked bread at home and were able to remember that they had used yeast to make the bread and that sugar and warm water had also been used in the recipe. These children were therefore able to offer sound evidence from previous experiences for why they thought the warm water and sugar beaker would be the most successful environment for yeast to activate in. Because these children were able to provide a sound argument, the rest of their group were happy to agree with their prediction. In other groups however, where there were no children who had made bread at home, it took longer for an agreed prediction to be decided upon. Despite the fact that a decision took longer, the children in these groups were still able to come to an amicable agreement about their prediction. Mainly, I believe, because they were used to using talk and working with a variety of different people within their lessons. In a school where talk (paired or group) was not used as regularly, I wonder whether these children would have come to such an amicable decision or whether it would have resulted in disagreement. Again however, this lesson provides clear evidence for how discussion can have a positive effect on developing pupil's deeper understanding about science (Newton et al, 2000 and Mercer et al, 2004).
Not all science lessons at this school followed this process however. As noted by Newton et al (2000), many of the lessons I either taught or witnessed followed a more 'traditional' route of mostly teacher talk, coupled with some specific questioning of pupils to check for understanding. It is not to say that this is an entirely negative process as I believe there are times in science lessons when this kind of teacher dominated talk is necessary in order to ensure children have the information they need. However, as a result of conducting the literature review for this report, I have come to realise that there were times when discussion could have been beneficial. For example, in a lesson focusing on different kinds of good and bad bacteria, pupils watched a short film about the topic and then the teacher asked a series of questions about the video which required no more than a few short words for an answer. In this instance, the lesson could have utilised a more dialogic approach, to discuss what other micro-organisms might be good or bad based on what they had watched, what exactly made them good or bad for you and what other processes or situations could they think of where micro-organisms were used or present. This could have helped to deepen the pupil's understanding of the topic and made for a more engaging lesson.
Working together and talking with partners has often been claimed to be beneficial to pupil learning and development whilst carrying out mathematical activities (Mercer et al, 2006). In addition, speaking and listening are both well established within the classroom. Askew (2011), states that when real dialogue occurs, mathematical ideas can be expressed, examined and explored until a whole class understanding is reached. Askew does however, acknowledge that dialogue in mathematics can be a challenge since the standard emphasis on questioning is not the best way to encourage true dialogue. Research by Mercer et al (2006), has also shown that primary school children do not work productively in group based mathematics classroom activities if they are not given clear guidance from the teacher about the expected outcomes of that activity.
Mercer et al (ibid) does however, go on to state that children can be taught and enabled to use talk more effectively for reasoning, problem solving and mathematical understanding. In order to do so, the teacher has a key role to play. The teacher needs to give clear guidance about what is expected from an activity in terms of talk or dialogue and children should be encouraged to discuss their different ideas as a way of working through a problem.
Mercer's research correlates with my own classroom experiences at a rural primary school. Children were regularly encouraged to talk to one another during individual maths work to solve problems they may be struggling with. This is was good start, however, the talk was often off task and did not always benefit the childrens' deeper learning of mathematics. I believe this was because there was no clear guidelines for discussion of problems during individual work and therefore children often got carried away and lost focus from the task. Although talk could often go off task during this kind of maths lesson, the outcomes weren't entirely negative. When children were focused on the work they had to complete the paired talk allowed children to identify errors in their work and self correct. This type of talk therefore worked as a means of self and / or peer assessment. The talk also allowed children to consolidate their own understanding of the mathematical problems by explaining to others the steps that needed to be taken to complete the task. When working effectively, this type of talk worked well, but I do not believe it could be considered 'dialogic' as described by Alexander (2006) because there was no real accumulation of ideas being built up as a result of discussion.
Whilst I was at the school children also undertook a number of organised paired mathematical activities. In one instance, children, having completed a series of lessons on the different methods of division, had to work together to solve a mathematical jigsaw, by matching the right answers with the correct division problem. In order to solve the jigsaw, children had to work through the division problems in order to find what the answer should be, then try to find the corresponding jigsaw piece. In this instance the children worked very well together, working effectively in pairs to solve the mathematical problems and put the jigsaw together. Talk was on task at all times and children were engaged in the activity. I believe that this paired talk in mathematics worked in this instance because the children had clear instructions about what was expected of them and could therefore work effectively and on task. The children built upon each other's ideas effectively to come to an agreed solution or end point, as identified by Alexander (2006) as being part of 'dialogic' talk. The children knew that discussion was expected to be about the division jigsaw only and therefore maintained focus. This is something Mercer et al (2006) state is important if dialogue is to be used effectively in mathematics.
Many researchers have highlighted that 'traditional' lessons often take the form of teacher initiated questions followed by a student response and a teacher evaluation (IRE) (M. K. Wolf et al, 2005; Mercer, 2000; Alexander, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006). Wolf et al (2005) criticise this use of IRE because, they state, the teacher is simply using this questioning to test a pupil's knowledge. They argue that this prevents pupil's from building any meaning from a text. Wolf et al (ibid) argue that a classroom discourse or dialogue, which encourages pupils to listed to each other, critique each other's opinions and build upon their own ideas has a positive effect upon a pupil's reading comprehension.
Although 'dialogic' or 'exploratory' talk have the potential to be used in a variety of settings, I believe that guided reading sessions in literacy lessons are prime examples of where 'dialogic' talk can really be used effectively. I have been fortunate enough to have taught and observed a number of guided reading sessions in my placement school where talk was used effectively in these sessions. As an example, a class of year 5 and 6 children had completed a practice literacy SAT test a week earlier and it had been decided that the guided reading sessions for the following week would be used to go through the test paper, re-reading the excerpts and talking through the questions, discussing why particular answers written by the children may have got particular scores and how those answers could have been improved. Children took it in turns to read the text excerpts then , as the teacher leading this particular group, I got the children to read the question out and discuss what they believed was the best answer for that question. Children were encouraged to critique each other's contributions, as long as this was done politely and they gave a sound reason for that critique. At intervals, I prompted them to consider their own answers in the test and discuss why their answers may have got full, half, no marks and what could be done to improve that answer for next time. The children were engaged in this discussion at all times and I believe they really benefitted from the chance to discuss the test papers in such detail - something that would not normally happen. Talk was on task at all times and children remained polite to one another whilst critiquing ideas and building on the discussion as it happened. I think this is a good example of how 'dialogic' talk can be used effectively within the classroom and is also a very simple way of introducing the concept of dialogue to a lesson.
In other literacy lessons, this type of dialogue was not always as effectively implemented as it could have been. For example, in a literacy lesson on twisted fairy tales, the year 5 and 6 children were asked to work in groups to discuss and sort a series of fairy tale characters into 'good' or 'bad' characters in order to discuss the role of stereotypes within fairytales and how these stereotypes might be challenged in a twisted fairytale. During the group work, talk was effective and on task and children easily discussed why they thought a particular character should fall into a particular category, already starting to discuss how a 'Witch' might not always be bad for example. They used sound reasoning to back their arguments up and justify their decision and the groups would always come to an agreement in the end. This 'dialogue' did not however, translate quite as well when the groups were asked to feed back to the rest of the class why they had put characters under certain headings. As the teacher, I was hoping that the discussion between groups would carry on but unfortunately it fell back into the common teacher - pupil question and answer sessions and did not build up into a discussion. This was probably the result of asking questions which were too closed to establish a discussion and were I to implement this lesson again, I would ensure any questions I asked were more open and led to whole class discussion. This is something identified as an issue by many researchers (Alexander, 2006; Mercer, 2000; Myhill, 2003), identified as 'recitation' by Mercer (2000) or 'elicitation' by Alexander (2001, 2003, 2005, 2006).
Through my own classroom experiences, I have observed a number of positive benefits of talk within a classroom situation. Where paired talk is encouraged, I have witnessed this having a positive effect on lower ability children. If given a chance to talk through their own ideas with another person, and consolidate their own understanding through this discussion, lower ability children appear to have much more confidence in their own ability to then voice their point of view in whole class talk. I believe that this is the result of feeling less 'under pressure' in a paired talk situation than if they were asked for their opinion straightaway in front of the whole class.
Discussion of their ideas with others also allows children to build upon and consolidate their own understanding and may, in the case of a maths lesson for example, assist children in spotting mistakes and self-correcting their work.
A discussion allows all children to be involved in a topic, not just those willing to put their hand up. Where 'rules' for classroom discussion are put in place, children will feel much more confident and secure with the idea of voicing their own opinions in front of the class.
As a result of my own observations, I see no reason to doubt the effectiveness of either 'dialogic talk' or 'exploratory talk' on children's learning and understanding as other researchers (Myhill et al 2003, Newton et al 2000, Kyriacou et al 2008, Bewley 2007 and Wolf et al 2005), have also had similar experiences. However, I question how easily such types of classroom talk could be implemented in all (or as many as possible) lessons nationally without detailed guidance and training of teachers from the researchers or trainee teachers at training institutes. Reading research papers on this type of dialogue in classrooms will provide a certain amount of information about where to start, but it will not necessarily enable a teacher to effectively implement the idea of dialogic talk within the classroom. Alexander (2005) does recognise the difficulties with dialogic talk and suggests that the principles of dialogic talk should be broken down into manageable steps:
Step 1: Focus on making the talk collective, reciprocal and supportive. In doing so, you are teaching the children how to create a positive environment for discussion, one in which everyone's opinions are valued and appreciated. Once teachers are comfortable with these principles, then the next step can be introduced;
Step 2: Making talk cumulative and purposeful. These are much more difficult and will only be achieved if step 1 is in place.
Even so, what about actual training? The majority of teachers would still struggle to implement the requirements of dialogic talk or exploratory talk without training as they will not know where to start. This is also an issue highlighted by Alexander (2005).
In addition, although I can see the value of dialogue and discussion within the classroom setting, I think that being able to implement this on a regular basis would be difficult given the other pressures on teachers in the United Kingdom including attainment of pupils and their performance against a set of national criteria as well as pupil attainment in Key Stage 1 and 2 exams. The need for teachers to cover the large number of topics within the National Curriculum, means that their lesson time is often quite constrained and encouraging discussion within all lessons simply would not be practicable.
I would also argue, that dialogic talk is not relevant for all lessons. There are certain times, in maths or science teaching for example, when children simply need to be taught a certain methodology or theory. How can children have a discussion about something if they do not understand what it might be in the first place? In those instances, a 'dialog' just would not be useful or appropriate.
In conclusion, I believe that, in the right situation, dialogic talk can have a positive benefit on the effective learning of children in the classroom as it will held children to clearly express their own ideas and build upon those ideas as a result of listening to other opinions. This allows consolidation of ideas and a more in-depth understanding of a particular topic. However, I think it is vital that teachers receive some element of training if this concept is to be put effectively into practice. It also needs to be recognised that dialogic talk is not relevant for all lessons but where is can be used, it should be used wherever practicable or possible.
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