The educational value of dialogic talk in whole-class dialogue
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This resource is part of a larger document (QCA, (2003), New Perspectives on Spoken English in the Classroom), downloadable from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6062/
The educational value of 'dialogic talk' in 'whole-class dialogue'
Neil Mercer, Open University
In this paper, I will discuss the nature and educational significance of the kind of interaction called 'dialogic talk' and its use in 'whole-class dialogue'. To do so, I must begin by saying something more general about patterns of classroom interaction and teachers' use of questions. Research in many countries has shown that in whole-class sessions teachers tend to talk much more than their pupils. They also ask the great majority of questions. Moreover, most of their questions will form the first part of an exchange between a teacher and pupil known as an initiation-response-feedback (IRF) exchange.1 These IRF exchanges give classroom talk its distinctive and familiar form.
There has been much debate amongst educational researchers over the years about the functions and value of this characteristic form of classroom interaction.2 In this debate, it was at one time very common to find researchers criticising teachers for talking and questioning too much. However, most classroom researchers would probably now agree that such judgements were too simplistic. One reason is that critics did not properly acknowledge teachers' professional responsibility for directing and assessing pupils' learning of a curriculum, and the ways that they must rely on questions and other prompts to do so. Secondly, they tended to assume that all IRF exchanges were performing the same communicative function. Through the work of sociolinguists, linguistic philosophers and psychologists, we now know that it is dangerous to assume that forms of language have any direct and necessary relation to their functions. By this I mean that, for example, we cannot assume that when someone poses a question to another person, they will always be 'doing the same thing'. At an everyday level, we all appreciate this very well. In a personal conversation we are likely to perceive the question 'Do you really think that you can talk to me like that?' as carrying a very different kind of message from 'Do you want a cup of tea?'. What is more, even an apparently simple and direct question may take on special meanings within a particular setting or relationship.
In the classroom, teachers' questions can have a range of different communicative functions. For example, they can be used to test pupils' factual knowledge or understanding ('Can anyone tell me the capital city of Argentina?'), to manage classroom activity ('Are you all ready now to put your pencils down and listen?') and to find out more about what pupils are doing ('Why did you decide to have just three characters in your play?').
Even the above analysis is an oversimplification, because a question can have more than one function (for example, to find out what pupils are doing and to make them think about it) and because it takes on special meanings in the life of a particular class (have they studied Argentina already or are they about to begin?). But the key point is that the distinction between form and function is important for analysing and evaluating teacher-pupil dialogue.
'Dialogic talk' and 'whole-class dialogue'
Through his comparative research in the primary school classrooms of five countries, Robin Alexander3 has shown that if we look beneath the superficial similarity of talk in classrooms the world over, we will find teachers organising the communicative process of teaching and learning in very different ways. In most of the classrooms he observed, teachers talked more than the pupils; but the balance and nature of contributions varied considerably, both between countries and between classrooms. One of the reasons for this variation was that in some classrooms a teacher's questions (or other prompts) would elicit only brief responses from pupils, while in others they often generated much more extended and reflective talk. The concept of 'dialogic talk' emerged from these observations as a way of describing a particularly effective type of classroom interaction. 'Dialogic talk' is that in which both teachers and pupils make substantial and significant contributions and through which pupils' thinking on a given idea or theme is helped to move forward. It may be used when teachers are interacting with groups or with whole classes.
I can illustrate my understanding of the function of this kind of talk through the example below. It was recorded in an English primary school by Open University researcher Manuel Fernandez, who is investigating the role of computers in children's literacy development. In this extract, the teacher is talking with some members of her year 5/6 class about their current activity; they are communicating by e-mail with members of a class in another local school about the shared curriculum topic 'How to have a healthy lifestyle'.
In the first part of the example, the teacher uses prompts to find out what the children have done. The first actual question comes from a child, on a point of spelling accuracy. When the teacher then begins to question the children, it is not to assess their spelling; it is to elicit their reasons for what they are writing to the children in the other school. She provides feedback on their answers ('OK. Excellent.'), so the episode has some features of the familiar IRF structure; but the teacher's questioning is used to encourage the pupils to perceive more clearly the nature of their task. She then picks up on what they have said to guide the next part of their activity, by suggesting that it will be useful to share their reasoning with their audience (and modelling how they might do it: 'We are sending you this information because ...'). She is using this interaction to build the knowledge foundations for the next stage of their activity - talking with them to guide their thinking forward. So we have here talk in which pupils make substantial and thoughtful contributions, and in which the teacher does not merely test understanding, but guides its development. What is more, all the pupils present are exposed to this reasoned discussion. This may not be 'whole-class dialogue', because the discussion is not shared with all members of the class; but it certainly seems to qualify as 'dialogic talk'.
We can consider further what 'dialogic talk' offers, from an educational point of view. One of the prime goals of education is to enable children to become more adept at using language, to express their thoughts and to engage with others in joint intellectual activity (their communication skills). A second important goal is to advance children's individual capacity for productive, rational and reflective thinking (their thinking skills). Dialogic talk can help achieve both these goals. The work of the Russian psychologist Vygotsky is relevant for understanding why this is so.4 He suggested that using language to communicate helps us learn ways to think. As he put it, what children gain from their 'intermental' experience (communication between minds through social interaction) shapes their 'intramental' activity (the ways they think as individuals). What is more, he suggested that some of the most important influences on the development of thinking will come from the interaction between a learner and more knowledgeable, supportive members of their community.
Although developed over half a century ago, Vygotsky's intriguing ideas have only really been put to the test in recent years. Now research has confirmed the validity of some of his claims about the link between language use and the learning of ways of thinking. Research has shown that teachers' modelling of ways of asking questions, offering explanations and providing reasons can have a significant and positive effect on how children use language in problem-solving tasks.5 Research by myself and colleagues has shown that a programme of carefully designed teacher-led and group- based activities enables children not only to become better at talking and working together but also at solving problems alone.6 The group-based activities of this programme are very important; but equally important is the kind of dialogue a teacher uses in whole-class plenaries and group monitoring. It is no coincidence that the teacher in the example above has been involved in this programme. And this brings us back to 'dialogic talk'.
For children to become more able in using language as a tool for both solitary and collective thinking, they need involvement in thoughtful and reasoned dialogue, inwhich conversational partners 'model' useful language strategies and in which they can practise using language to reason, reflect, enquire and explain their thinking to others. By using questions to draw out children's reasons for their views or actions, teachers can help them not only to reflect on their reasoning but also to see how and why to seek reasons from others. By seeking and comparing different points of view, a teacher can help those views to be shared and help children see how to use language to compare, debate and perhaps reconcile different perspectives. Providing only brief factual answers to IRF exchanges will not give children suitable opportunities for practice, whereas being drawn into more extended explanations and discussions of problems or topics will. This is the valuable kind of educational experience that 'dialogic talk' and 'whole-class dialogue' can offer.
1 Sinclair, J and Coulthard, M, Towards an analysis of discourse: the English used by teachers and pupils, London, Oxford University Press, 1975.
2 Norman, K (ed) Thinking voices: the work of the National Oracy Project, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1992; Edwards, AD and Westgate, DPG, Investigating classroom talk, second edition, London, Falmer Press, 1994; and Wells, G, Dialogic inquiry: towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
3 Alexander, R, Culture and pedagogy: international comparisons in primary education, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000.
4 Vygotsky, LS, Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1978.
5 Brown, A and Palincsar, AS, 'Guided, co-operative learning and individual knowledge acquisition', in L Resnick (ed), Knowing, learning and instruction, New York, Lawrence Erlbaum, 1989; and Rojas-Drummond, S, 'Guided participation, discourse and the construction of knowledge in Mexican classrooms', in H Cowie and D van der Aalsvoort (eds), Social interaction in learning and instruction: the meaning of discourse for the construction of knowledge, Oxford, Elsevier, 2000.
6 Mercer, N, Wegerif, R and Dawes, L, Children's talk and the development of reasoning in the classroom, British educational research journal, 25(1), 1999, pages 95 to 111.