Classroom pedagogy: Why talk is more important than ever

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

Effective student talk is a crucial part of effective classroom learning. Adam Riches offers practical tips for teachers on encouraging talk effectively as part of their lesson plans and pedagogical approaches


Talk makes up such an important part of classroom learning. Championing the spoken word can have a huge impact on learning and can help students to comprehend and voice ideas around complex (and simple) topics, furthering their chances of progressing their understanding.

Teaching students to develop effective habits of discussion can have a real impact on the clarity and quality of work produced in your class, too.

Something we have lacked during Covid-19 has been that face-to-face dialogue that can encourage rich classroom discussion. Yes, during online teaching there have been elements of discussion, but the quality of these exercises is significantly reduced when students are not in the same room.

Some students have not been able to discuss and share ideas in a “normal” way for more than a year and that to me is worrying. I fear that without some kind of revamp and relaunch, the focus on talk in the classroom may begin to be lost.

In my eyes, talk is now more important than ever and we need to ensure that we are facilitating talk in the right ways in the classroom. Here are four things to consider when planning effective exercises involved classroom talk.


Differentiate between types of talk

It has been a while since students have been able to freely use discussion in the classroom. A lot of online learning has focused on the presenting of ideas in a monologue rather than a dialogue. As such, we need to help students differentiate between the two.

We often expect students to switch between discursive talk and presentational talk at the drop of a hat. The pair or group discussion quickly goes from a talk about a topic to the presenting of ideas to the whole class.

However, given the lack of talk-based exercises, we need to make sure we are as explicit as possible when it comes to how and when to use each format.

Differentiating between these types of talk and giving students time and guidance on how the two differ can ensure they get the most out of these moments. In addition, reminding students of the conventions of discursive talk will allow for more productive talk, thus building confidence in delivery.

Students may be reluctant to engage with some exercises in a constructive way, and by reminding them of the “rules” and parameters we can help them understand how they should be using talk to support their learning.


Build habits of talk

Strong habits lead to better quality talk and this in turn translates to more effective learning.

However, a lot of children do not have the exposure to talk in their home environments that we might hope for. So exposing students to the different ways in which they can communicate is important for their learning.

The lack of social capital often means that engagement in talk exercises suffers not due to the planning, but simply because students do not know what to do.

By embedding habits around talk exercises, we are able to ensure that learners know exactly what is expected of them in each task. Moreover, the sense of familiarity ensures that students can make clear progress. Effective and clear habits also significantly reduce cognitive load, this in turn leads to more focus on the task at hand.

A good place to start with talk habits is to ensure that students know how to speak and how to listen. Make instructions explicit and ensure that you communicate these simply and clearly. Something as straightforward as stating that students should respond in full sentences significantly increases the impact of a talk task.

Not only does it emulate the metacognitive function of formulating an answer, it also ensures that learners begin to associate their talk with their writing.

As part of your practice, you should also strive to model good communication. If you talk in a certain way in your subject, your students will emulate that. This can be a blessing and a curse depending on your own habits!


Use scaffolded resources

Providing simple scaffolding for students to support their talk can make discussions and presentation of responses in class more effective. Scaffolding needs to be a key part of any talk task, especially after so much disruption and time away from the classroom.

As always, low cognitive load and consistency are two important ingredients, but apart from that anything goes. It might be phrase starters, questions, turn-taking patterns – anything. Over time, these scaffolded resources can be scaled back so that eventually the learnt behaviours become habits.

Scaffolding talk means that it is more productive. We spend so much time planning writing tasks and focusing on ensuring that learners are supported with their formulation of recorded responses, but we often neglect to do the same when it comes to talk.

This might be because of the instantaneous nature of talk, or maybe the fact it is not written in the book. I think that we, as teachers, often assume that students know how to complete talk tasks. But this is not always the case. It is important to ensure that learners know how to talk about topics and ideas in the classroom.


Build a culture of error

Now more than ever, students may lack the confidence to participate in talk activities, be that as a class, in small groups or even one-on-one. Since lockdown, I have found that many who had made so much progress with their talk for learning have regressed, not least in their willingness to participate.

One way to coax back that confidence is to create a culture of error in your classroom. Doug Lemov (Teach Like A Champion, 2010) puts forth one of the clearest definitions: A culture of error is “an environment where individuals feel safe making and discussing mistakes, so you can spend less time hunting for errors and more time fixing them”.

By building in this openness, teachers are able to show students that getting things wrong is not a problem, it is actually an opportunity. A high-performing classroom respects error, normalises it, and values learning from it. By building this culture, students are much more willing to engage and speak-up.


Impact

I have seen a strong correlation between effective talk and effective writing. So as Covid restrictions and guidance begin to ease, do not forget to champion talk. I know it has been a while and we are all a bit rusty when it comes to certain approaches, but a few simple tweaks to your planning will have your classes discussing confidently, effectively and efficiently again in no time.

Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, a Specialist Leader in Education and author of Teach Smarter (Routledge, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @TeachMrRiches. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/seced-riches


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