Encouraging talking in the classroom

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Many students can be reluctant to speak in lessons but talking confidently is a key skill that we must be encouraging. Adam Riches looks at how we can help young people to find their voices

If we were to ask pupils about the most daunting tasks in school, among them would be speaking in lessons.
For the quiet members of the class, the idea of speaking sparks anxiety and fear and even the most confident pupil can worry about putting their heads above the proverbial parapet when it comes to class discussions.

The problem with this is that pupils need to learn how to speak, discuss and debate, not least because classroom talk is such a powerful way of learning. So how can we as teachers encourage pupils to speak more and with confidence?

Key terminology

A key feature of any discussion in class is specific key terms. These differ from subject to subject (of course) but they are an essential part of building confidence in pupils. The best way to integrate these is to have rich discussions around ideas.

As the teacher, you need to model the use of these key terms so that the pupils can see them being used in context. Have them on display to act as discussion prompts and starters.

Encouraging students to become more independent around their discovery of words is another way in which you can encourage talk. Giving students the responsibility of working with the words will in turn increase their ownership of such vocabulary.

In addition, teaching them about the significance of word families, suffixes and prefixes will help them to build their knowledge and then use that knowledge to get to grips with unfamiliar words. This boosts confidence and further reduces the barriers that are built from the fear of failure.

Finally, consider which words you need to focus on; an overload of vocabulary can be counterproductive, especially when it comes to speaking. Make sure you have a regular key word spot in your lessons, as repeat exposure to words builds up familiarity, which in turn adds to pupils’ confidence.

With that said, do not dial down your language. Encouraging discovery and encouraging use of key words means that learners can become hungry and excited about new words. Quite often, they are more willing to practise speaking words before they begin to write them in context. A little example is one of my classes hearing me use the term “the implicature is...” in place of the stock phrase “this implies...”.

Talking and writing

Linking talking and writing is something that needs to be explicit. Pupils often miss the intrinsic relationship between the two and see them as two disassociated skills. Talking came first, writing came afterwards – writing is a by-product of speaking.

Try changing the expectation in your classroom so that pupils have to verbalise answers in full sentences just as they would write them. Discussion frames are simply writing frames refocused. Not only will this improve your class discussions, it will also have a huge impact on the quality of your pupils’ written work.

Modelling good discussion can be achieved with simple guidance and through effective habits of discussion. It is easy to forget that we are discussing all of the time in class and quite often we overlook the importance of ensuring that the talk is effective and efficient.

An example might be a task that involves persuasion or argument. The first hurdle for some learners is that they do not know (or cannot remember) how to modify their talk to fit this purpose.

With some talking frames in the shape of phrases or sentence starters, the discussion they have with their peers, or that you have as a whole class, becomes significantly more valuable and as a teacher, modelling how to use these approaches further assists your class.

It follows that an improvement in speaking should translate to an improvement in writing due to the cognitive overlap in terms of thinking (not application) of the two skills.

Creating a safe environment

Careful, this is much more complicated than it sounds. The most important thing to remember is that if a pupil does not want to talk, any threat in any form will be used as an excuse for not doing so. A safe environment contains no threats, and that is what as teachers we must aim for. Having clear expectations of pupils is the first step – making sure that everyone is treated equally and fairly is a given, but ensuring there is mutual respect for all speakers as well as empathy really adds to the confidence of the shyest pupils. Simply knowing that they will not be ridiculed is something that empowers them.

Another way in which you can reduce threat is by ensuring that you are consistent and transparent with your approach to talk in the classroom. Following certain methods of questioning in each lesson makes students feel comfortable with responding. Things you can think about include how you approach questioning – cold call, hands up, will the pupils have time to prepare to talk, can you pre-warn pupils that they will be contributing?

It is incredible how responsive students can be if they are aware of a teacher’s approach. And it is equally startling how mute they can go if they are not! If the class knows the expectations, then they know where the goalposts are – we should not be trying to catch them out when we get them to talk.

Always look at creating opportunities for small-scale discussion between a few pupils as well as group and whole-class activities and make sure these are planned in. So much of our planned time is dedicated to writing, but we must not neglect planning for talk.

Start small and work your way up – do not try to get everyone involved in whole class discussions at first, but aim to have everyone contribute by the end of the term or scheme of work.

Creating a non-threatening environment will encourage the members of your class to feel more comfortable with the prospect of speaking. It sounds simple but it is one of the corner stones for a successful talking classroom.

Questioning

Asking questions is an art. It involves skill and initiative to differentiate questions on the spot.

However, answering questions is even harder – we need to remember that. Being asked a question about something that has just been learnt can be a really intimidating thought for a pupil. And there is nothing worse than avoiding eye contact and still being picked to talk (and having nothing to say).

As a teacher, you can modify your question methods – consider the way in which you ask your questions. Can they be written in pupils’ books as you go around the class? Can you get pupils to question each other before contributing to class discussions? Can you flip it so the pupils ask you questions?

Consider, too, who can answer “easy” and “hard” questions. Build confidence by asking questions that you know that pupils can answer. Again, build up to everyone taking part over a period of time.

By considering the way you question, you may be able to build the speaking confidence of the pupils in your class. Do not rely on intrusive questioning all the time – it can be quite scary.

Conclusion

Getting pupils out of their shells and talking in class is a real challenger, but one we all must tackle – the ability to talk confidently and knowledgeably is vital to our children’s future lives.

So think carefully about how you approach talk in your classroom and see if a little tweak in your practice has a positive impact on theirs.


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