There are so many important reasons to create opportunities for students to talk as part of the learning process:
- To practise using new vocabulary, from first encounters to fluent use.
- To explore their ideas and depth of understanding.
- To rehearse explaining ideas to others.
- As form of preparation for a writing task.
- To support various forms of retrieval practice.
- To exchange ideas with others as part of a collaborative endeavour.
- To provide real time feedback to their teacher about how their ideas are forming.
The challenge for teachers is to manage talk so that a) it is productive in terms of the learning process in hand and b) it involves everyone in the class. Very often teachers can be inhibited in their deployment of talking tasks and it is possible for some students to sit through whole lessons without talking at all. This means sitting through whole lessons without rehearsing using language, airing their thoughts, practising explaining concepts verbally or sharing ideas with others.
Why might this happen? It’s usually a combination of
- Over-reliance on sampled responses – a few people are asked to talk but not everyone. This is very common. If 4,5,6,7 students are chipping in answers, using the right vocab, it creates the impression that everyone can use it – but that’s a big leap. I can leave 10+ students silent in their self-doubt, with half-grasped ideas or pronunciations.
- Being uncomfortable with the very idea of ‘everyone talking at once’ for fear of it being unproductive or difficult to interrupt in order to regain full attention. It can seem easier to keep control, asking for students to talk one at a time.
- A lack of awareness or understanding of the need for all students to practise verbalising words, phrases and explanations in order to think, build fluency and deepen their understanding – in addition to listening to others’ doing it. (I once had a rather tense exchange with a French teacher who insisted vocab could and should ‘sink in’ by listening and writing, to counter my observation that lots of her students did not participate in choral work and were never asked to talk in pairs or respond to questions which explained why they felt they were ‘rubbish at French’. )
First of all, teachers need to commit to the idea that they need to give everyone a chance to talk, to rehearse using words, exploring their thinking and rehearsing explaining. Unless you intentionally create opportunities for talk, some students get to talk and others don’t.
Then, we need to have the behaviour routines sorted: In the previous Everyday Routines post, I explored the all- important Signal for Attention. That needs to be working well before you start – so you are confident you can bring a class back to full attention mode when asked.
I’ve often felt that it is helpful to link behaviour management techniques to learning routines so that the behaviour routines have an explicit purpose and, at the same time, the learning routines have a structure and some rigour to them. If you can get everyone listening whenever you want and involve everyone in productive purposeful…
I’ve previously explored the central role of Cold Calling. Students need to be ready to respond to questions – and, when using other forms of talk, the expectation that they could be asked to share their discussions is vital to keep the focus; to create the best possible chance that everyone is thinking. If that low-level accountability is missing, students can and will opt out; they just wait for others to do the thinking and speaking.
Based on my experience working with hundreds of teachers in numerous contexts, I’d suggest that one of the strategies with the biggest impact on the overall effectiveness of lessons is the routine use of cold-call questioning. More and more I find that, rather than merely promoting it, I am strongly advocating it, basically saying: every…
Now, to reinforce the cold calling, it’s a case of mixing up the repertoire over the course of a learning sequence to include whole-class talk methods. There are basically two core options: Choral response and pair talk. Let’s imagine how they might be used in a specific situation.
This is best used to ensure all students say the key words and phrases e.g. we want all students to say condensation as in ‘condensation occurs in the formation of clouds’ and condenses as in ‘the water vapour condenses as the temperature drops’ to reinforce the use of the grammatical forms. Despite the obvious time efficiency of this, teachers can be oddly reluctant to do it – but once established as a norm, students respond well.
There are three phases:
Teacher modelling: At the most basic level, saying the words one at a time: condensation, condenses, precipitation – either isolated or in a phrase: The vapour condenses; the process of condensation creates water droplets; precipitation includes rain, hail, sleet and snow.
Choral response: Students repeat back the words or phrases in a call-echo style, simply repeating what has been heard. OR – they learn set responses.
- Teacher: Rain, water and snow are……
- Students chorally: forms of precipitation.
This has the effect of allowing all students to verbalise the words -to get the lips around them! To feel the words coming out of their mouths correctly, without guessing how to say them. Normally it works best with some repetition. Precipitation. Precipitation. Rain is a form of precipitation.
Individual response: This final step involves cold calling some students to say the words on their own. Why? Because that’s the goal and by choosing a few students to do it, we build that expectation in and students commit to the choral rehearsal. Without this step, students begin opting out of choral rehearsal and can get away with just mumbling along, not really practising.
This is the core of it. Pair talk has very many applications. I strongly favour pairs instead of threes as the default – so you might have just one three for an odd number of students – to maximise each student’s airtime. It’s useful if talk partners are well-established so that when you say ‘in your pairs’ or ‘turn to your partner’, there’s no faff deciding who that will be. Give a task and a time limit – 2-5 tight minutes used frequently can be much more productive and dynamic than 5-8 slightly looser minutes. Tasks might include:
Agreeing shared responses: e.g Table of key terms presented, without definitions: students must agree the definitions. Precipitation includes rain, snow, sleet and hail. Or there’s a blank diagram on the board, students have to read each label aloud and agree which one goes in each place and prepare to explain the sequence verbally. Or, show incorrectly labelled diagram – students have to agree which labels are wrongly placed, using the words each time. Or, students have to agree ‘the four main changes’ that happen to water during the cycle. All of these things involve all the students using and thinking about the terminology and their understanding of it. It should be a mainstay of day-to-day teaching.
Practising explaining: One student has a fully annotated diagram; the other has a blank. The question is ‘Why does it rain?’ They take turns to explain their answer to the other, using as many of the target terms as possible. Their partner offers corrective feedback, then they swap. Then they do it again! This allows them to elaborate further and very simply, to practise saying the words again. Cold calling is the norm -so they know they could be asked to share their explanation with the class.
Paired quizzing: One student as the diagram, a knowledge organiser and some prompt questions, perhaps in the style of Elaborative Interrogation: Why does snow fall over high mountains? Why are some places drier than others? Does evaporation mainly happen? How does it happen? One student asks questions, thereby practising using the terminology, selecting good questions to ask, and checking the answers. The other provides answers based on what they know – without prompts. Then they swap.
Talk for writing: Here the goal is for students to air their ideas for an imminent writing task. They share their ideas about what they want to say, how they will say it, the order of their arguments, how they will start. In the water cycle context, this could be a report, looking at some data, graphs or some photo resources, where they have to give an account of the related weather and water movement.
Of course there are other forms of student talk such as planned presentations, instructional inputs where students explain things to the class, multiple forms of debate, larger group discussions. However these are best done when other forms of talk are more established. They are harder to do so that everyone is gaining value from them – group work needs proper structure if everyone is going to get air time – and so they are not really ‘everyday routines’ in the spirit of this particular blog series.
A couple of very simple self-evaluation questions for thinking about a lesson in relation to student talk:
- Did every single student say aloud all of the words you wanted them to learn?
- Did every single student get a chance to see if they could explain the concept you wanted them to understand?