Great Idea: Enhancing Classroom Talk

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What is enhancing classroom talk?

Language is acquired through social interaction, making classroom conversations essential for language development. However, much of the dialogue that occurs in the classroom is very limited. For example:

  • Learner one: “What did you think?”
  • Learner two: “I thought it was good.”
  • Learner one: “Yeah, me too.”

And the conversation ends.

Enhanced conversations, on the other hand, occur when learners propose ideas (explain, interpret, imagine, justify, etc.), provide evidence and challenge each other. They occur when learners encourage each other to elaborate, clarify fuzzy concepts and build on each other’s ideas.

Teachers can strengthen the quality of conversation in any subject area by explicitly teaching three features of enhanced conversation and the language or ‘talk moves’ that are associated with them (Zwiers, 2019).

  1. Building ideas: (talk moves) ‘I agree/disagree with ___ because…’, ‘I’d like to add onto what ___ said…’, ‘What do you think….?’, ‘I wonder why…’, ‘What if...’
  2. Clarifying ideas: (talk moves) ‘Can you say your answer in a different way?’, ‘I don’t understand why you…’, ‘How do you know that’s the right answer?’, ‘Can you explain why...?’
  3. Supporting ideas: (talk moves) ‘Where did you read (or get) that…?’, ‘Can you give an example?’, ‘How do you know…?', ‘On page ‘X’ it says...'

Once learners are familiar with the different talk moves and can effectively use them during conversations, the sentence starters can be withdrawn (see Enhancing Mathematical Conversations).

Examples of activities

The following activities allow learners to practise using features of enhanced conversations.

1. Anchor charts and gestures

Use anchor charts or table mats to display the three features of enhanced conversations along with visual representations and associated language stems for learners to refer to during conversations.

Building ideas Clarifying ideas Supporting ideas
‘I’d like to add onto what ___ said…’, ‘What do you think...?’ ‘Can you explain why...?’, ‘Can you say that again?’ ‘Can you give an example?’, ‘How do you know...?’

To encourage active listening, assign hand gestures to each feature and ask pupils to use a gesture (instead of simply raising hands) to indicate whether they want to add to, clarify or support what their classmate has just said. The gestures will need to be explicitly taught and practised being used during whole class discussions before use in smaller groups.

Building ideas Clarifying ideas Supporting ideas
E.g., layer hands (or fists) on each other and build up E.g., pull hands apart E.g., place index finger on the little finger of the other hand

2. Elaborated think pair share (TPS)

In a typical TPS, one learner shares an idea, and the other learner shares an idea and then they are usually finished talking. Improve the quality of the TPS by requiring learners to ask each other at least one clarifying question and one supporting question during the pair share (see ‘talk moves’ above).

3. Stronger clearer

Conduct three sets of elaborated pair shares (above) around the same topic or problem in a row, using different partners each time. As learners go along gaining new information from three different partners, allow them time to add to or edit their original idea making it stronger and clearer each time.

4. Changing the 3rd turn

The dominant teacher-pupil talk sequence in a classroom follows an Initiation-Response-Evaluation (IRE) pattern where, (1) the teacher initiates talk, (2) the learner responds, and (3) the teacher evaluates the response (Quigley, 2016). For example, (T) 'What does the image represent?', (L) 'Freedom', (T) 'Right, good'. To encourage more dialogue and extend learners’ thinking, change the 3rd turn. For example, (T) 'What does the image represent?', (L) 'Freedom', (T) 'Tell us more. What makes you think that?'

5. Information gap activities

These are communicative activities where learners have different bits of information that they need to convey orally to others in order to accomplish a task; simulating an authentic purpose for communication. Examples include barrier games, opinion cards and jigsaw activities.

6. Teacher questioning strategies

Teachers can also use talk moves to facilitate enhanced conversations through asking targeted questions.

  • For building ideas: ‘Do you agree with Jorge?’, ‘Can you add to what Aaliyah just said?’
  • For clarifying information: ‘What made you decide to…?’, ‘How could you…?’, ‘Explain why you…?’
  • For supporting ideas: ‘Can you give an example of a…?’, ‘What would I write next…?’ ‘How do you know…?’

See The Bell Foundation’s Great Ideas page on Questioning Strategies for further information.

7. How enhancing classroom talk works

Even learners who are new to English can participate and benefit from enhanced conversations when the following factors are taken into account.

  • Promote wide language use: Learners will need to draw upon all their language resources; home language/s, everyday language and academic language (along with gestures, facial expressions, visuals, etc.) as they co-construct meaning through dialogue.
  • Build background: Use visuals, demonstrations, word mats, graphic organisers, home language and lived experiences to develop content knowledge and vocabulary that pupils will need to engage in the conversation.
  • Establish a conversational culture: Communication works best in a supportive community of learners, where explicit expectations such as respect, trust and empathy have been negotiated and displayed. Some multilingual learners may not be accustomed to dialogical classroom environments, in which case further support and explanation may be needed.
  • Model and scaffold language: Teachers can support interaction by highlighting key language targets and scaffolding their use through sentence frames or substitution tables. Learners who are more proficient in English can also provide good models of the language during conversations.

Top Tip

Enhanced conversations need to be intentionally planned for and built around the curriculum where pupils are purposefully solving problems, exploring topics and co-constructing ideas around interesting projects. Make sure to carefully plan for meaningful conversations to occur.

Why is enhancing classroom talk a good idea for EAL?

It is primarily through conversational interaction that language development occurs. However, some types of classroom talk generate more productive contexts for learning than others (Mercer and Littleton, 2007). Research demonstrates that learning is enhanced when classroom conversations include features that are characteristic of authentic and elaborated dialogue (Zwiers, 2019). Moreover, constructive classroom conversations build confidence, self-esteem and promote healthy relationships among learners (Alexander, 2001).

Enhanced conversations also provide learners who are newer to English with increased opportunity to hear the new language, including discipline specific language, and to produce and practise using English in a variety of contexts and in meaningful ways. These types of repetitive encounters support language development (Jones et al., 2018). Finally, in coming to grips with subject area knowledge, learners will need to know and be able to use the patterns of language that allow them to explore, clarify and imagine new ideas through enhanced conversation.

References

Jones, P., Simpson, A. and Thwaite, A. (2018). Talking the Talk. Newtown, Australia: Primary English Teaching Association Australia.

‌Mercer, N. (2012). Exploratory talk – Professor Neil Mercer. [online] Available at: https://www.slideshare.net/margarubiosoto/exploratory-talk-in-professor-neil-mercer [Accessed on 10 November 2022].

Mercer, N. and Littleton, K. (2007). Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking. Routledge.

‌Quigley, A. (2016). The Confident Teacher : Developing successful habits of mind, body and pedagogy. Routledge.

‌Scott, S. (2021). [online] Collaborative Learning Project. Available at: http://www.collaborativelearning.org/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2022].

‌Zwiers, J. (2019). Next steps with academic conversations : new ideas for improving learning through classroom talk. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Stenhouse Publishers.

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