Children’s Engagement with Talk to Enhance Learning in the Primary School Classroom: Literature Review

This is the winning undergraduate essay in the 2015 Critical prize competition. It was written by Emma Johnston, a third year Undergraduate student on the B.A. (Hons) degree in Primary Education at the University of Wolverhampton. She was nominated by her Lecturer Paul Gurton, Senior Lecturer, Primary Initial Teacher Education, University of Wolverhampton.

It is widely regarded that talk is one of, if not the most, important aspects of children’s learning; “it is through… spoken language that teachers teach and children learn,” (Alexander, 2006, p.5). Vygotsky (1962) believed that linguistic ability determines the development of thoughts; thus the greater a child’s language skills are, the better their ability is likely to be to learn effectively and to form understanding through speech. Vygotsky’s learning theory explains that allowing children to be active learners through talking is necessary to clarify what they have learnt, but also that children need to have good role models to learn from, defined as the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (Pound, 2006). Consequently, learning is constructed socially by talking and consolidating thoughts out loud amongst people engaged in the same tasks, but also when practised, children can succeed without assistance (Vygotsky, 1962). Clark (1998) supports Vygotsky’s concept, extending this by stating that speech acts as a vital tool for enhancing children’s learning and is not purely a tool for the transfer of information between people. It is with this understanding in mind, that this review will discuss children’s level of engagement with talking to enhance their learning in primary school classrooms.

As the topic of talk has been widely researched and debated, and through being influenced by Vygotsky’s theory, the Thinking Together programme was developed in the 1990s to help teachers create an environment where purposeful talk could be enabled and pupils could be active listeners through participation. The outcome of the programme showed that pupils worked effectively together to solve problems verbally (Monaghan, 2005). Similar to the Thinking Together programme, the concept of ‘dialogic teaching’, termed by Alexander (2006), has also been inspired by research into talk in the classroom. “Talk is considered to be more dialogic the more it represents the students’ points of view and the discussion includes their and teachers’ ideas” (Mercer, Dawes and Kleine Staarman, 2009, p.354). Evans and Jones (2007) express the importance of dialogic teaching in relation to metacognition and the development of oracy; practice which allows for dialogic learning enables children to develop their language, thinking and reasoning simultaneously. Fisher states that “it is through our capacity to verbalise that thinking, awareness and understanding develop” (2008, p.106); the concept of thinking aloud strengthens understanding, which can be facilitated through pupil-teacher discussions, or through pupil group discussions without an adult.

In the company of a teacher, children’s learning is scaffolded, allowing them to achieve more in the presence of someone possessing greater knowledge as opposed to being unaided (Bruner, 2006). ‘Talk for Writing’ (DCSF, 2008) is a commonly used strategy in literacy lessons which aims to scaffold writing through oral rehearsal between pupils and their teacher (Mallett, 2012). It has been found that children gain confidence in writing through orally rehearsing and discussing ideas before committing them to paper (Robins, 2011). However, Bignell (2011) voices concerns that although this approach does aid most children’s writing, genuine talk for learning is not apparent in classrooms in other areas of the curriculum. She suggests that this is due to the measurability of children’s progress in writing as opposed to talking. Teachers are likely to be reviewed against children’s attainment by various sources of pressure, for example during appraisals with headteachers and governors, and following Ofsted inspections (Arthur and Cremin, 2010). Therefore, teachers may focus lessons on the measurable development of writing instead of genuine dialogue, which in turn raises issues with the

Barnes (2008) explains the types of talk: exploratory talk concerns speakers arranging their own thoughts, hypothesising and justifying ideas collaboratively, whereas presentational talk concerns speakers formulating a restrictive, expected answer.  Presentational talk is also referred to as ‘Initiation, Response, Feedback’ (IRF) and is often the most common form of talk in classrooms across England (Fisher, 2008; Jones and Hodson, 2006). Observations of primary science lessons revealed that much of the talk relied on the IRF method, with minimal opportunities for exploratory talk to transpire (Mercer, Dawes and Kleine Staarman, 2009). Fisher (2008) explains that although some children may be articulate, their thinking and reasoning skills are not strengthened using the IRF method; it does not see pupils exploring alternative options and opinions, and short responses do not allow the development of deeper understanding. Similarly, research was conducted by Braund and Leigh (2012) due to an awareness of the lack of pupil group discussion during primary science lessons. Children stated that they were mostly asked to answer questions and discuss their own learning directly with their teacher, not very often having the opportunity to explain answers or listen to their peers.  This implies that children seldom receive opportunities to talk to develop their individual understanding, and that talk is primarily used as a form of assessment due to leading or closed-questions. A positive aspect of the IRF method was observed by Rajala, Hilppo and Lipponen (2012) in a Finnish study; they saw that it generated more of a conversation between groups, allowing all children the chance to respond to questions. The IRF method therefore does seem to have positive and negative attributes, but it appears that it should be used sparingly due to the restrictive responses that it allows children to give (Fisher, 2008). The study also shows that the issue of providing opportunities for talk in the classroom is internationally recognised, due to the study being conducted in Finland.

The National Curriculum of 1999 (DfE, 1999), stated aims such as: children learning collaboratively, developing communication skills and being given opportunities to utilise thinking skills to enhance their learning, all of which embody the concept of exploratory talk. The Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander, 2010) was conducted independently to provide recommendations for a reform of the National Curriculum. Seventy-eight conclusions and seventy-five recommendations are listed in the Cambridge Primary Review, stating the researchers’ beliefs as to what constitutes best-practice following their extensive research. In one of the conclusions, it is stated that when children are situated in a linguistically and socially engaging environment, their learning can be stimulated and their understanding can be scaffolded, advocating a need for children to be able to verbalise their thinking to develop understanding (Alexander, 2010). The review was disregarded by the Coalition Government of the United Kingdom in favour of a knowledge-based curriculum (NUT, 2013).

According to the sociologist Bernstein, language skills influence educational success and successes in later life, further promoting the importance of talking to enhance learning (Smith, 2010). The introduction of the 2014 National Curriculum now sees the ‘Spoken Language’ section being explicitly detailed, stating that children should use language for a number of purposes such as: exploring ideas, explaining answers, justifying arguments, evaluating and negotiating with other children’s comments (DfE, 2013). In the non-statutory guidance, it is noted that teachers should give constructive feedback to pupils regarding the effectiveness of their spoken language. Although non-statutory, the guidance for feedback does not appear to seek to enhance children’s learning, appearing only to critique their verbalisation skills. The outlined aims appear to focus highly on children becoming articulate, engaging with the etiquettes of collaborative conversation and increasing their vocabulary. Little attention is given to using language as a means of developing thinking skills to generate learning and consolidating understanding collaboratively. The aims in the curriculum appear to resemble the IRF talk description, a style of talk which some researchers believe should be used less frequently (Barnes, 2008; Fisher, 2008; Mercer and Dawes, 2008). However, the development of such skills listed in the National Curriculum could be seen to influence children’s ability to verbalise their thoughts more effectively over time, without it having to be explicitly stated in the document. The ability to use language proficiently enables exact thoughts to be verbalised coherently; children’s language skills determine and influence the nature of their thoughts (Smith, 2010). Therefore, along with teaching the statutory requirements listed in the National Curriculum, it appears that teachers would have to enable exploratory talk as pedagogy at their own discretion, based on the majority consensus that talk is important in enabling children to develop and deepen their understanding and learn through verbalising their thinking.

The project ‘Philosophy for Children’ (P4C) was created by Professor Matthew Lipman and colleagues in 1972, and encompasses reasoning, creativity and curiosity as a means of developing children’s thinking skills through discussion. It was devised due to many educationalists stating that schooling at the time saw pupils becoming passive learners, unable to think for themselves through lack of opportunity (P4C, 2014). P4C sees questions and topics posed to classes to engage children in collaborative philosophical dialogue and critical thinking (Daniel and Auraic, 2011). Therefore not only does P4C seek to develop children’s language skills, but also how they use their language to construct thought and meaning to become successful thinkers, along with fostering a culture of curiosity and eagerness to learn (White, 2012). If children have interest in the subject, then they will be motivated to investigate further through questioning and discussing, taking control of their own learning.

The social aspects of P4C are advantageous; self-confidence can be improved as the foundations for the ‘Community of Enquiry’ are established; pupils learn to respect one another’s opinions and children’s initial judgements can be challenged through responses (Fisher, 2008; Millett and Tapper, 2011). These factors lead to developing children’s lifelong social skills along with becoming independent thinkers. Topping and Trickey (2013) found that when P4C was implemented, teachers asked more open-ended questions which generated lengthier, well-reasoned responses from children; the teacher-whole class dialogue decreased and consequently pupil-pupil and teacher-pupil dialogue increased. This approach could be seen to cater more to developing and deepening children’s individual understandings due to the reduction of whole class discussion, and more frequent small-group conversations. P4C’s method can be applied to all areas of the curriculum to enable children to verbally and collaboratively formulate coherence around various concepts. For example in Maths, questions can be posed to children at the beginning of a new topic to engage them in making connections between concepts to obtain a mutually developed answer, having taken all of their peers’ reasons and arguments into consideration (Pound and Lee, 2011). The notion of P4C allows children to take risks and allows for discovery without the fear of being wrong; in turn this improves children’s confidence and allows for experimental learning through verbally exploring possibilities to develop understanding (Pound and Lee, 2011).

P4C reflects the description of exploratory talk; children can collaboratively hypothesise, justify and reason to develop a rational answer. It is argued that the critical nature of exploratory talk is “essential for making meaning” (Pierce and Gilles, 2008, p.40). Rabel and Wooldridge (2013) suggested that when exploratory talk was facilitated effectively, it enabled pupils to scaffold their own learning and access mathematical content through group discussions, working particularly well for pupils of average attainment. In the 2014 National Curriculum for Mathematics it is stated that children should use talk to develop their mathematical reasoning through justifying concepts through the use of appropriate vocabulary (DfE, 2013); although this was not in the NC at the time of the study, the aim mirrors the findings of Rabel and Wooldridge, showing that talk for learning is becoming an increasingly recognised and important pedagogy. Similarly, Wheeldon (2006) conducted research in her own Year One class due to the realisation that children rarely spoke to one another during group activities in maths lessons, mainly relying on her input as their teacher to assist and intervene when difficulties arose. During the study, Wheeldon implemented rules for talk, modelling the foundations of exploratory talk, which children increasingly adopted independently during maths investigations. This implies that with appropriate guidance and opportunities, children are able to access knowledge using exploratory talk as a learning tool.

Mercer and Dawes (2008) express the importance of putting rules in place regarding talk in the classroom in order to maintain social order and to ensure that discussions are relevant to children’s learning. Furthermore, guidelines are seen to provide a shared expectation of how talk is used in the classroom, meaning that children are aware of the purpose of talk, continually practising how to use it effectively to communicate and enhance their own learning. Lambirth (2009) contests the ideas for setting ground rules for all children, stating that it is impractical to assume that all children can effectively engage in collaborative talk due to a number of factors such as: children learning English as an Additional Language, their social-class and parental involvement in children’s learning at home.

Parallel to exploratory talk, Littleton and Mercer (2013) also use the term ‘interthinking’: thinking and discussing socially to create and develop understanding and to solve problems. An example of this in practice is discussed by Pratt (2006); during a practical, teacher-led activity regarding symmetry, children actively engaged with the demonstration through listening and responding effectively. Although the teacher dominated the dialogue, pupils were able to expand on comments made by the teacher through answering open-ended questions. Seemingly, children’s understanding was developed through the social interactions with their peers and the teacher, along with the visual aids to accompany their learning. It would have been beneficial for a comparative study to be conducted simultaneously, allowing a similarly attaining group of children to engage with the same activity without the presence of a teacher. The results of a comparative simultaneous study would have shown whether children could reach a sound understanding of symmetry using the same resources, through discussing collaboratively without adult intervention.

Educationalists do recognise that collective thinking is not without its limitations; Rajala, Hilppo and Lipponen (2012) express concerns that exploratory talk is not always accessible to all children due to members of the group appearing to dominate conversations. This observation is similar to a finding of Rabel and Wooldridge’s research, they observed a higher ability child who was “over-confident and able to impose an incorrect answer” onto lower ability children (2013, p.19). It was also found that children are unlikely to voice their thoughts unless they feel safe to do so, without ridicule (Mercer and Dawes, 2008; Wolfe and Alexander, 2008). Tolmie et al. (2010) counteract this finding, stating that exploratory talk occurred positively in mixed-ability and mixed-age groups; social dynamics hold importance when involving children in group discussions. In a separate study, some children stated they felt impolite when challenging what their classmates had said (Robins, 2011). It is therefore questionable whether exploratory talk is appropriately facilitated by teachers in order to be inclusive and free from judgement.

Mercer and Dawes (2008) suggest that teachers should facilitate exploratory talk more frequently, especially in the initial stages of a new topic, as this is where pupils are forming and merging concepts. ‘Talk partners’ is a commonly used pedagogy in primary school classrooms; teachers will often pose a question to a whole class and ask pupils to discuss their answer with a partner before receiving feedback (Mercer and Dawes 2008). Whilst this pedagogy does encourage children to formulate thoughtful answers collaboratively instead of immediately responding to questions without being given time to think, it could be interpreted that the strategy is a way of children simply rehearsing answers as opposed to engaging with new learning. A study in an Australian Early Years setting established that when teachers predetermined opportunities for children to think before responding, termed as ‘purposeful pauses’, it had a significant impact on their further verbal contributions during the mathematics investigation (Cohrssen, Church and Tayler, 2014). It is suggested that systematic, targeted questions should be posed in order for dialogic learning and exploratory talk to transpire (Wolfe and Alexander, 2008; Kazepides, 2012). The Bullock Report (DES, 1975) stresses the complexity of lessons, emphasising the difficulties that teachers face with regards to balancing the length of time they spend leading discussions and the amount of time they allow for pupil exploratory talk. Arnott (2014) supports this finding, stating that when teaching, she often found herself asking closed-questions requiring an instant response to sustain the pace and direction of the lesson. In addition to this, Arnott also details difficulties in knowing when or how to generate moments for exploratory talk. This raises concerns that teachers may lack confidence in implementing purposeful talk, or that they may be unsure of how to embed it within a lesson. Additionally, it is noted that the occurrence of exploratory talk could rely on teachers’ personal beliefs and educational philosophies; if teachers do not see exploratory talk as important or valuable to children’s learning then they are not likely to adopt it as a method (Kerawalla, Petrou and Scanlon, 2012).

In an ever-developing technology-orientated world, pedagogy involving ICT is more prevalent in primary classrooms (Beauchamp, 2012). Whilst it may be common for children to work relatively silently and individually at computer stations, Knight and Mercer (2014) argue that Computing lessons offer a multitude of opportunities for exploratory talk to transpire, particularly when it comes to children searching online for information. Their research discussed the prior concern that children lack the ability to determine the reliability of sources online. Following the implementation of the study, most children were able to effectively discuss the internet search results in an exploratory manner to determine their suitability. Although small-scale, this study shows that the facilitation of exploratory talk can effectively be adopted in lessons across the range of subjects in the National Curriculum (DfE, 2013). In addition to facilitating exploratory talk between groups of pupils during the main part of lessons, Kerawalla, Petrou and Scanlon (2012) suggest that plenaries can offer ideal opportunities for exploratory talk to transpire. ‘Talk Factory’ software was used, which was displayed on the interactive whiteboard during discussions and allowed children to view the types of talk they were engaging with. This type of interaction with talking whilst using technology can be deemed advantageous, as it can develop children’s understanding of effective talk through the use of the graph feature representing the six types of talk (OU, 2015). Through setting ground rules and allowing exploratory talk to emerge, stimulated by asking open-ended and evaluative questions, teachers were able to engage children in expanded answers to consolidate what they had learnt in science lessons. Similarly, an Australian study found that using the interactive whiteboard stimulated exploratory talk and dialogic exchanges in whole-class learning; lessons were less dominated by teacher-led talk, which allowed children to interact with one another with the teacher taking on the role as the facilitator of pupil-pupil discourse (Maher, 2011). This study exemplifies children engaging critically with one another’s contributions to develop understanding and taking responsibility for their own learning.

Tolmie et al. (2010) agree with the recommendation that setting rules will have a positive impact on the occurrence of exploratory talk, mainly due to social factors such as learning to listen and respond appropriately. However, their study also found that cognition and achievement were improved due to more frequent collaborative work, but there is recognition that children will not all benefit from such activities. Nevertheless, research studies show that the majority of children regard talk as an important part of their learning experience, and motivated further learning during lessons (Braund and Leigh, 2012). Along with children’s recognition of the importance of talking to enhance their learning, it is perceived that talking in an exploratory manner allows children to take responsibility for their own learning due to the increasing development of individual understanding through social interaction (Robins, 2011).

It is evident that collaborative interactions are often found to be difficult to manage between pupils; irrelevant contributions may lead them away from the topic of intended focus (Wolfe and Alexander, 2008). Venville (2008) supports this finding and appears to suggest that when children discuss and hypothesise without adult intervention, they could reach an agreement which is in fact incorrect. This is deemed problematic due to teachers then having to rectify misconceptions that pupils may not have encountered had the teacher been present during the discussion. When discussions were monitored however, Venville (2008) found that interactions between the teacher and the child produced higher quality understanding and reasoning. This further promotes the notion that rules and guidance would be required before students could fully engage in exploratory talk without an adult.

Alexander argues that it is only in the minority of schools that talk is used to “impressive effect” to “impact on student’s engagement, learning and understanding” (2012, p.4). Arnott (2014) supports Alexander, stating that talk must be purposeful, “it must have a fundamental learning intention for it to be an effective tool,” (Arnott, 2014, p.15). Talk must be facilitated in the classroom, but the type of talk that children are exposed to and use themselves is subjective to their level of understanding, and their own and their teacher’s confidence ultimately. Children develop understanding through interactions and communicating with teachers and peers; the spoken communications are vital not only for children’s academic lives, but for their personal development also (Alexander, 2006). Robins (2011) agrees with this statement, yet further expands by arguing that issues regarding teacher involvement and pupil dynamics need to be addressed before exploratory talk can significantly impact children’s learning. Having collated literature and researchers’ opinions and results, it appears that the consensus is that teachers must give opportunities for children to talk collaboratively whilst giving guidance initially; teachers “can use dialogue to orchestrate and foster the development of a community of enquiry,” (Mercer and Littleton, 2007, p. 64).


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