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Learning to Talk

A research project at Saffron Walden County High School led by the University of Cambridge and the University of Oslo using Talkwall to develop dialogue in the classroom

21st century students are growing up and being educated in a fast-paced, ever changing and increasingly technologically focused world. Yet, whilst technology enables them to access a plethora of information and experiences, its use may detract from the one skill which, it has been argued, has a profound influence on a student’s uptake of the education they are offered: oracy (Warwick and Dawes, 2018). Oracy is a key component in the ‘soft skills’ set deemed a necessary attribute in an increasingly digitalised society. The ‘ability to use the oral skills of speaking and listening’ (Wilkinson, 1965) is argued by Warwick and Dawes as one that all students have the right to be taught. Building on the research of Mercer and others (Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Mercer & Hodgkinson, 2008) on the teaching and learning of dialogue in schools, Saffron Walden County High School (SWCHS), along with Honywood School, another Essex secondary comprehensive school, took part in the Digitalised Dialogue Across the Curriculum (DiDiAC) research project, led by the University of Cambridge and the University of Oslo. This focused on how a web-based microblogging software, called Talkwall, could impact on the teaching and learning of dialogue in the classroom. Three classes of Year 7 students and teachers, each from a different subject - English, Geography and Science - were involved.



Students were put into groups of four and two baseline tests were carried out at the outset of the project: one individual and one a group-based task looking at the four aspects of reasoning. The individual and group tests, based on the Raven's matrices tests, were designed to be of comparable difficulty but were not the same.

Figure 1: A reasoning test item in the style of Raven’s progressive

Matrix AuditFurthermore, at the outset of the project, SWCHS teachers reflected on their practice, completing audits which helped to identify common traits of their use of dialogue in the classroom. We were in accordance with many research findings on students’ collaboration in groups (seeBlatchford & Kutnick, 2003) and agreed that:

  • The quality of classroom talk is generally not of a good quality

  • When students are assigned roles/tasks within groups, they do not follow instructions well

  • Students do not always listen to each other

  • Students do not know how to talk and think critically as a group or as an individual

  • There are many benefits of working as part of a group compared to working on your own

  • The way the teacher communicates with the class is just as important as how students communicate with each other

As the project progressed, it became increasingly clear to us that ‘Dialogue is more than ‘just talk’. It involves teachers and learners commenting and cumulatively building on each other’s ideas, posing questions and constructing interpretations together’ (Alexander, 2008).

Establishing Ground Rules for Talk

In order to determine quality standards for talk, ground rules for talk in the classroom needed to be decided upon in collaboration with the students. We began by asking students to consider what they thought about the purpose of talk in different contexts. Each class then devised a set of ground rules for talk that they could refer to in lessons every time they were given a dialogic task; this became fundamental when asking students to be dialogic (Dawes, 2008).

The top six rules for talk, taken from the SWCHS English, Geography and Science classrooms, were:

  • Show respect to everyone in the group by being mindful of body language, eye contact and tone of voice.

  • Listen to everyone’s point of view.

  • Strive to reach an agreement where possible but accept it is also fine to disagree.

  • Question others by asking “Why do you think that?”

  • Explain your point of view by backing up your ideas with reasons.

  • Try to make the conversation flow by building on each other’s ideas.

The rules were referred to in every lesson, resulting in the ideas of respect and challenge beginning to be instilled in the students’ behaviour.

Talk Tools and Dialogic Goals

The introduction of ‘talk tools’ (Dawes, 2012) was of great benefit to both students and teachers in focusing on the dialogic element of the lesson, before even beginning to introduce the Talkwall software. Helping the students to formulate their dialogic structures was key and, whilst initially there was an inevitable ‘clunkiness’ to their conversations, fluency and confidence increased surprisingly quickly given the limited hours per subject in the secondary classroom. A simple card prompt was used to remind the students of that lesson’s dialogic intention or talk ‘goal’ as well as being referred to alongside the learning objective by the teachers on a regular basis. For us as teachers, the idea of an expressed ‘dialogic intention’ underpinning the activity in a lesson proved to be of particular importance.

Figure 2: Example of talk prompts for Year 7 English students

Figure 3: Example of talk prompts for Year 7 Geography students