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Dialogic teaching – how to improve progress in English, maths and science

Megan Mansworth discusses how dialogic methods can help pupils develop ideas and arguments in core subjects

Megan Mansworth
by Megan Mansworth
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In the classroom, we often do not place enough importance on talk.

Barbara Bleiman argues that dialogue is ‘as complicated as writing’ (2021) but whilst we frequently recognise the importance of writing in different contexts in school, we often neglect consideration of the different contexts of talk and the value of talk for learning.

Sinclair and Coulthard’s seminal work in classroom discourse analysis (1975) indicated that much classroom dialogue revolved around an initiation-response-feedback pattern where the teacher asks a question (initiating an exchange), the student responds, and then the teacher provides feedback, as in ‘yes’ or ‘not quite’.

There are instances when the use of this pattern makes sense, such as when recapping information or in retrieval practice, but at other times it can mean that we do not enable students to fully develop their ideas.

The extensive research of Robin Alexander has indicated that this questioning pattern can lead to closed, one-word answers, acting as a ‘cognitively-restricting ritual’ (Alexander, 2006:14) if it is embedded in classroom practice.

Talk for learning

Language, as well as representing our thoughts, helps us to construct ideas (Alexander, 2008:92) and ‘talk mediates the cognitive and cultural spaces between adult and child, among children themselves, between teacher and learner, between society and the individual’ (Alexander, 2008:9).

Alexander’s research is supported by that of Neil Mercer who argues that talk can provide a means of collective reasoning (2019).

In other words, through making room for extended and structured dialogue in the classroom, we can more easily bridge the gap between the learner and what is to be learned, as well as giving students opportunities to think deeply and in extended ways around a topic.

According to the Education Endowment Foundation, dialogic methods seek to enable students to ‘reason, discuss, argue and explain rather than merely respond’ and to develop ‘higher order thinking and articulacy’ (EEF, 2020).

Their recent review of dialogic teaching found that primary school pupils taught using dialogic methods made on average two months additional progress in English, maths and science, compared to control groups.

With dialogic learning, we can seek to have more extended, developed discussions around a particular topic, perhaps by asking a more challenging, conceptually difficult question and then providing students with support to develop detailed verbal responses.

Group work

Such structured dialogue can take place on a whole class basis, in pairs, or in small groups. ‘Group work’ is sometimes denigrated as a tool of pedagogy in the ‘knowledge-rich’ classroom.

At the time of writing, I have just read the knowledge-rich curriculum statement of an academy trust (to remain anonymous here) which discourages group work in favour of a narrow range of other methods that it now states are more ‘research-based’.

Group work can be done badly – like any pedagogical method. Often, ‘group work gone wrong’ might involve minimal framing from the teacher, leading to students’ conversations veering off-topic.

But any pedagogical method can be implemented badly and if we resist all forms of group work simply because this can be practised poorly, we risk abandoning a highly useful opportunity for developing critical thought.

To counter the potential for group discussion to be ineffective, we can provide students with rules or a clear structure for classroom talk.

Critical, exploratory discussion can be difficult so providing a framework for students can ‘represent a kind of freedom’ (Mercer et al, 2004:375) rather than a constraint, providing them with the tools to converse deeply around a topic.

When facilitating effective peer or classroom discussion, we might provide phrases such as:

  • One criticism of your viewpoint could be…
  • I agree that… however…
  • I would develop this point further by…
  • The aspect of your argument I most agree with is…
  • The point I agreed with the least was…
  • Some people might agree that… but …

It can also be useful to provide students with opportunities to develop their ideas or arguments individually before sharing their ideas with the group, or to reflect on a resource before the discussion, in order to ensure confidence in participation.

Well-planned talk can be eminently knowledge-rich, and helps us move away from an IRF pattern and towards a richer level of discourse.

Megan Mansworth is an experienced teacher and leader. This article can be found in her new book, Teach to the Top: aiming high for every learner (£15, John Catt Educational).

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