Dialogic teaching & classroom talk: Maximising effectiveness

Posted by Christophe Mullings on 18 June, 2018

“Dialogic teaching harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend pupils’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding.” - Prof. Robin Alexander

Is great dialogue taking place in your classroom and across your school?

It’s well worth taking the time to reflect on this given the robust evidence that dialogic teaching (more broadly known as classroom talk) is key to improving formative assessment of pupils.

Research shows that there is a direct relationship between dialogic teaching and improved individual and collective academic outcomes. A report recently published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) shows that spending more class time on meaningful dialogue that encourages pupils to reason, discuss, speculate, argue and explain, rather than simply give the expected answers can boost primary pupils’ maths, science and English results.

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Getting dialogic talk right

However, this does not mean that a teacher should spend all lesson talking. Professor Neil Mercer explains:

“We know enough [from the research] to say you should strive for a balance between authoritative presentation and genuine dialogue. And that the proportion of instructive talk and dialogue should be determined by what you want to achieve, not by your personality. A teacher may be more suited to one of those approaches, but they need both and it needs to fit the objective at that time.

There is tendency to think of oracy as speech-making or taking part in debates, but we actually mean the full range of spoken language skills, which would include working in a team, helping someone else learn something, listening sensitively to someone so you can help them, and so on. Children will differ in these skills. Some may be excellent making speeches but not skilled in a group situation – they may not listen to anyone else at all. While another student may be the opposite.

To hear more from Mercer, listen to his podcast with the TES where he talks at length about the research around teacher and student talk and about strategies that teachers need to implement in order to improve both their own spoken language skills and those of their students. You can also hear this podcast and explore classroom talk in episode 1 (The Empire Talks back) our free professional learning programme, Film Club. Find out more here >>


What does dialogic talk look like?

  • Children share a common goal or purpose
  • Children allow each other to speak
  • Children ask questions in order to understand better
  • Children paraphrase or reflect back each other’s words
  • Children are prepared to express uncertainty or tentativeness
  • Children try to make their own point as clearly as possible
  • Children explore differences of opinion
  • Children give arguments to support their ideas


How to recognise dialogic teaching

Dialogue is more than ‘just talk’. It involves teachers and learners building on each other’s ideas, posing questions and constructing interpretations together.

“…dialogic teaching is as much about the teacher as the learner, and relates to teaching across the curriculum.” - Prof. Robin Alexander

A great dialogic teacher sees pupils as partners in the learning process, not just passive recipients of knowledge (Swaffield, 2011). When observing effective dialogic teaching you might expect to hear:

  • Questions being used that support thinking
  • Pupils being encouraged to elaborate or add detail
  • Both teachers and pupils challenging the thinking of class members
  • Pupils being asked to give reasons, justify what they assert and speculate
  • People negotiating their position and changing their mind


Are you a dialogic teacher?

30 years of research shows that teachers primarily use classroom talk to give information, check understanding and maintain control. All of these are vital, however the evidence indicates that teachers can often dominate classroom interaction.

Key ways you can help improve the quality of interactions with your pupils include:

  • The way you ask questions
  • How you respond to pupils
  • Your ‘wait time’ after asking a question
  • How you respond to an incorrect answer (you could take the question around the class to tease out understanding rather than providing a correction)

You should also think beyond the dominant purposes of providing information and checking understanding.

Reflect on whether you use talk for such purposes as:

  • Linking present activities to past experience
  • Setting up future activities
  • Relating existing ideas to new educational frames of meaning
  • Modelling educated ways of using language

These might be thought of as higher order uses of talk, and the last one in particular has strong associations with the kinds of interactions that might happen during effective dialogue.


Learn more about dialogic teaching and classroom talk with our free ready-made professional learning programme >


Topics: Classroom Strategies

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