Harnessing the benefits of dialogic teaching

These days, exams and assessments are right at the front of most teachers’ minds most of the time, so it is completely understandable that many give more attention and time to written work than talk on the basis that it is more important.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Really good talk in lessons promotes the very best learning that itself supports deeper understanding and recall and leads to higher quality written work and assessment outcomes.

As Michael Halliday said in 1993, ‘When children learn language they are not simply engaging in one type of learning among many; rather, they are learning the foundations of learning itself’.

As developed by Robin Alexander in the early 2000s, dialogic teaching harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding. As defined by his own website, the term ‘dialogic teaching’ is now in regular use but like all such terms means different things to different people. It helps the teacher more precisely to diagnose students’ needs, frame their learning tasks and assess their progress. It empowers the student for lifelong learning and active citizenship. Dialogic teaching is not just any talk. It is as distinct from the question-answer and listen-tell routines of traditional teaching as it is from the casual conversation of informal discussion. It requires:

  • interactions which encourage students to think, and to think in different ways
  • questions which invite much more than simple recall
  • answers which are justified, followed up and built upon rather than merely received
  • feedback which informs and leads thinking forward as well as encourages
  • contributions which are extended rather than fragmented
  • exchanges which chain together into coherent and deepening lines of enquiry
  • discussion and argumentation which probe and challenge rather than unquestioningly accept
  • professional engagement with subject matter which liberates classroom discourse from the safe and conventional
  • classroom organisation, climate and relationships which make all this possible.

 My own favourite eight simple classroom strategies to support dialogic teaching

To achieve dialogic teaching, there needs to be a fundamental recognition by the teacher that the quality of classroom talk is important. The development of language is now widely accepted as being an integral part of students overall cognitive development. Being able to talk about what they are learning is itself key to students’ learning overall. There needs to be a focus on the quality of talk in lessons. If teachers can get the students talking well, they are also well on the way to getting them to write effectively.

The challenge for the teacher is to try to move from the traditional rote or question-answer approach to a more fluid way of managing and promoting talk that allows for a more genuine discussion with students.

At its most basic level, whole class talk is no more than rote learning, where simple repetition leads to the drilling of facts and ideas. Taken a step further, questioning can be used to test understanding of facts already taught – effectively requiring no more than the recall. This basic question and answer technique forms a large part of the questioning that traditionally happens in classrooms. Moving to a more genuine dialogue requires the teacher to listen carefully to student answers and respond in a way that will elucidate further thinking on the part of the student. This then takes the learning forward, provides that extra cognitive challenge and gives the teacher the chance to gain a better assessment or understanding of the students’ learning.

So in reality, what do teachers need to do? The eight strategies below have been designed to turn the complex theory into practical steps that teachers can take.

  1. Uninterrupted teacher exposition
  2. Well-structured pair and group talk
  3. Good use of wait time
  4. Use ‘no hands up’ more often
  5. Use ‘hands up’ for voting
  6. Not repeating what pupils say
  7. Going into the woods
  8. Pupils leading the lesson

1.  Uninterrupted teacher exposition

Uninterrupted teacher exposition is not in itself dialogic teaching but is a key platform to enable it to take place. Contrary to the generally accepted view, the assumption is that this phase of teaching should not usually be punctuated by questioning the class.  Students should be concentrating on understanding what is happening, and on trying to remember as much as they can of what they have learnt. By asking students questions throughout the explanation can often confuse students.

Every teacher can remember a situation when they have asked ‘Now, what would happen if…?’ part way through an explanation. The thinking behind the question is that it helps to keep the class engaged. The first student chosen gives a perfectly valid answer that therefore gains praise from the teacher. Unfortunately, this answer is often not the response the teacher needs in order to develop further their explanation. This often brings the response ‘What about if…?’ or ‘anything else…?’ By this point some of the class, especially students with special educational needs, are getting confused or becoming disengaged from the learning. During the initial teacher exposition, the focus needs to be on giving the students sufficient understanding on which to then base further learning and discovery later in the lesson.

2.  Well-structured pair and group talk

Pair and group activities will often provide the natural bridge between the teacher’s exposition and whole-class questioning or demonstration. It gives students the opportunity to extend their thinking in a low-risk environment. It allows students built-in time for reflection, particularly important for boys. It also gives a chance for students to rehearse arguments and build up their confidence before presenting to a wider audience. This has a direct benefit to the behaviour and attitude of the students during later whole-class discussion. The students feel they have something worthwhile to say. They have practised it and refined it whilst working with others. They do not then need to hide behind poor behaviour to mask an inability to access the work being demanded of them.

A whole book could be written on the kind of activities that are appropriate for this phase of a lesson and most teachers will need little advice about what will work in their curriculum area or phase. The blogosphere is full of great ideas on pair and group work. However, there are a number of useful tips to keep in mind.

Teachers should:

  • Make sure the pair or group activity has a clearly defined time allocated to it. These activities have a nasty habit of over-running, leaving teachers short of time in the all-important conclusion to a lesson;
  • Need to think carefully about how the students are grouped. Will they allow students to select friendship groups or should the teacher want to take control?
  • Make sure the students are clear about what they need to do in their group before they start. The best way to do this is to ask one of the them to explain back what it is they need to do;
  • Make sure the students know what will be required of them at a later part of the lesson. As with the teacher exposition, if they know they may be called upon to make a contribution at a later time there will be a higher rate of engagement with the activity;
  • Make use of pairs wherever possible, rather than groups. Whilst pairs may require a higher level of resourcing, there will usually be greater involvement from the class as a whole because faced with working in a pair there is only one other person for the student to talk to and therefore a reduced opportunity to opt out;
  • Make sure that the task is active, requires thinking, and will generate talk focussed on the learning objectives;
  • Not worry if only some of the students have the chance to ‘report back’.  The main aim of this technique is to allow opportunities for all students to engage with the learning. They will be interested in the feedback from other groups, even if indirectly, by seeing what other groups have come up. Taking too much feedback means the pace slackens and, in particular, the most able students will start to disengage.

3.  Good use of wait time

When asking a question or prompting a response, the first thing a teacher should do is build in some thinking time. Boys particularly are often keen to guess at an answer before thinking it through. The quality of likely response therefore suffers. Students are also much more likely to listen to what another student says in response to a question if it one they have been thinking about themselves. Add to this the fact that they don’t know who the teacher will choose, there is already a much greater chances they will have engaged with the question in the first place.  If the pedagogical approach underpinning the framework is about maximising engagement then ‘wait time’ is a key element of the process.

Of course, as with any way of working there are potential pitfalls. What do you do if the child you select to answer a question is unable to answer? The first response should be to wait again. Sometimes students just need a little more time. If time on its own is not enough, teachers should try to ask a question one or two ‘stages back’ in the development of the thinking. This will usually work. Sometimes, however, nothing will work! The student has become a bag of nerves and just needs to have the focus on them taken away.

In these situations it is important to try to keep the student in control. By asking them to choose someone to help them (or ‘phone a friend’ if you prefer) can remove the focus on the individual whilst reducing the loss of face, particularly if the teacher goes back and praises the original student for their choice of helper once the answer has been given. Another strategy is to leave the student who can’t answer, ask someone else, and then go back to the original student and ask a similar question. Invariably, having the benefit of the first example is enough for the student to succeed on the second.  However it is achieved, it is always a good idea that the teacher makes sure the child leaves the lesson feeling positive.

4.  Use ‘no hands up’ more often 

There are a number of reasons why teachers should try to limit their use of ‘hands up’ in lessons, despite the fact that has been the preferred way to conduct whole class discussion in this country for decades.

Firstly, ‘hands up’ can often place the teacher in the middle of a potentially complicated situation. Imagine the scene when a teacher first meets a class. Discussion begins, questions are asked and hands go up. The teacher chooses who will answer. After a while it becomes obvious that it is the same few students who put their hands up. What about involving the rest of the class? What does the teacher do? Usually questions start being directed at students who haven’t put their hands up. Then it starts to get complicated. The students chosen think they are being ‘picked on’ because they didn’t put their hands up and are also often feeling unprepared to answer the question (they hadn’t expected to be asked so hadn’t really been listening). But they can’t be seen to lose face in front of the rest of the class. The chances of an inappropriate or poorly considered response are greatly increased.

And what about the ‘hands up’ faithfuls? Well, they start to lose interest. What’s the point in putting your hand up if the teacher only chooses those who don’t? Quite quickly, the teacher can begin to lose the support and goodwill of a range of students within the class. Add to this the irritation of the students (often boys, I’m afraid) who put their hands up when they don’t even know the answer simply to gain attention; or the bright students who don’t want to be labelled as ‘swats’ and never put their hands up but secretly want to take part, and you have a complex set of social parameters in operation that make things very difficult for the teacher.

Much better, therefore, for the teacher to select students to answer.  This makes for a more manageable process in terms of overall behaviour management, as it puts the teacher in control of this part of the lesson. This has the added advantage of enabling teachers to target questions accordingly, to push more able students and to support the learning of students with special educational needs. It also means the teacher can build in a delay between question and response, the importance of which is explained later.

By stressing the disadvantages of using ‘hands up’ it should not be assumed, however, that there aren’t times when it is has a useful role to play. As will be explained later, it can provide a good way to help a student who is finding it hard to answer a question; it is particularly useful towards the end of a dialogue or discussion phase when the teacher may be asking a really challenging question and cannot be sure that the person they are choosing will know the answer. It is naturally helpful to know which students think they might have the answer.

5.  Use ‘hands up’ for voting 

There is however, a really useful role for ‘hands up’ is to seek whole-class opinion on any issue or question. Let’s imagine the teacher is engaged in a class discussion and a student gives an opinion or answer to a question. The teacher may decide to assess how well the class have understood the point that is being made and whether they agree with it. There is no quicker and more effective way to do this than to ask students to vote with their hands. Often this will take the form of ‘Who agrees…? Who disagrees…? Who’s not sure…?. Everyone is expected to vote. If there appear to be some students who have not put their hands up at all, then the teacher should ask the student to repeat their original response and then carry out the vote again.

There are a number of advantages to this approach. Firstly, the teacher is gaining instant feedback from the class on what they know and understand (this can then feed into how the lesson proceeds from this point); secondly, it reinforces the importance of students listening to each other, as mentioned earlier; finally, it is a way of giving feedback to the original student without it being the teacher’s judgement, which is often more powerful.

6.  Not repeating what pupils say 

Every teacher does it. Question asked. Student replies. Teacher repeats. There are lots of reasons why teachers repeat what students say: to make sure everyone in the class heard the reply; to validate the child’s response; to keep control; and to reinforce the point.

However, there are far more compelling reasons why we should try not to repeat what students say.

First of all, if teachers always repeat what students say then they stop listening to each other and just wait for the teacher. Given that the whole basis of quality classroom talk is centred on the students being at the heart of the dialogue, genuine debate and discussion between students can never happen if they don’t listen to each other, or are always waiting for the teacher’s interjection.

Secondly, teacher repetition tends to encourage students to mumble. Part of our role as teachers is surely to ensure we turn out confident and articulate individuals who are capable of speaking up in front of others.

Thirdly, many teachers do not repeat what students say. More often than not they inadvertently make subtle changes designed to improve the answer. This is designed to ensure the class get to hear the ‘correct’ answer. Unfortunately, this means teachers often miss a valuable assessment for learning opportunity. It is the small changes to vocabulary, meaning or sentence structure that are often at the fringes of the students’ areas for improvement, not just for the individual concerned but for the class as a whole.

It is much better for the teacher to respond with ‘Good answer. Now, can you improve it by…’ Suggestions could include: the use of key vocabulary introduced in the main teaching phase; more clarity around a particular point of explanation; greater volume; or simply asking for the response to be in a full sentence, as if being written as a formal answer.

There are times, however, when repetition of the correct answer can be helpful, particularly in modern foreign languages where the development of accent is important. The key point is for teachers to think about whether they want to repeat, rather than just do it through habit.

7.  Going into the woods 

When carrying out questioning, teachers should not be afraid to ask the same student a series of progressively more challenging questions or prompts. This is something teachers rarely do and yet pays real dividends. The assumption is often that the rest of the class will stop concentrating if you continue a dialogue with just one student. The reality is that the class is often fascinated to listen to the exchange, both to see if they can keep up with the thinking and whether they agree and to see how far the student chosen is able to go. Imagine any given lesson as a journey from A to B along a path through some woodland. Along the way, the class will pick up the key learning objectives from the path. From time to time, however, the discussion may go off at a tangent, ‘into the woods’. As the discussion develops, some students may fail to keep up with the ideas being developed and go back to the path, safe in the knowledge that the teacher will return with the rest of the class soon. This form of discussion is an excellent way to integrate all students into a lesson based around whole-class planning but allowing for an individualised response that challenges the most able in a whole-class context. 

When embarking on whole-class discussion, teachers should try to ensure a range of questions or prompts that move from a low to a high order of complexity. A useful guide is to use key words which demand an increasingly challenging response such as: ‘when, where, who, what, which, why, how and what if’. By carefully building up the type of prompt or question the teacher gives all students the chance to access the discussion and, more critically, take forward their learning.

Again, there is a wealth material out there on this topic, much based on Bloom’s taxonomy. The simplest and most appealing to me, however, is one I discovered a few years ago introduced to me by Geoff Hannan. He talks about moving through a continuum from descriptive to reflective to speculative, which he sums up with a weather analogy: ‘What’s the weather like today? How does it compare with yesterday? I wonder what it will be like tomorrow?’

Towards the end of a questioning phase teachers may want to make use of such mediational phrases and questions that are more about ‘wondering’ than asking.  Examples include: ‘Say more about that, ‘ or ‘I wonder how you knew that’ or ‘Let me tell you something you may not have thought of yet…what do you think of that?’ or just ‘Mmmmm….’.  Whilst not always directly questioning a student, they can often act as a prompt or challenge to deeper thinking and responses. This type of dialogue can really take the learning forward, and students love the challenge it presents. It does of course, require the teacher to really listen to what the students are saying and be completely confidant themselves about the territory they are exploring with the class.

8.       Pupils leading the lesson 

This is perhaps the hardest technique to introduce, but the one that can contribute the most to learning when successfully implemented.  It is very dependent on the creation of the right classroom ethos, and the teacher needs to train students in the routines. That said, if schools in the secondary phase are to respond to changes in primary pedagogy that have developed in recent years, then we need to remember that the notion of students coming to the front of the classroom and taking the lesson forward is a common part of their approach.

As with the other lesson phases, this part of the repertoire will not be appropriate for use in every lesson. It is useful, however, where the teacher wants to give students the chance to share what they have been working on, particularly if the aim to is to allow for peer self-evaluation.

How the technique is used will also vary across the curriculum. In maths, students can very easily be used to take the lesson forward effectively, giving an opportunity for reinforcement and extension. In art, by contrast, it may be appropriate for the class to come together to listen to students talk about their own work and for students to offer praise and constructive criticism. The sharing of work in drama or music, for example, can follow a similar pattern.

Creating the ethos in the classroom to make this happen is very dependent upon mutual respect and the confidence the class have in the teacher to ‘protect’ them from potentially upsetting feedback from other students. One way to create the right ethos is to start off classes with the task of watching something with the intention of only being able to make a positive comment when it is finished. The teacher is immediately creating a reason for students to concentrate, particularly if the class don’t know who the teacher will choose to comment at the end. By limiting the feedback to just positives, the students getting feedback will feel far more confident about entering into the process next time: there is nothing students like more than praise from their peers.

Student demonstration and peer assessment is often best used towards the end of a teaching phase as it builds on prior work in the lesson. It often helps if the teacher models what is required first, followed by a confident student. The teacher should consider moving away from the front of the room to the side or, best of all, to the back of the teaching space. Students are often inclined to direct their answers back to the teacher. By moving to the back of the room, students are therefore facing the rest of the class at the same time.

Depending upon the nature of the presentation, listening students should be encouraged to give feedback, and ask questions of the student at the front. When this works at its best, the lesson starts to take on a momentum of its own, with the students genuinely engaged in dialogue and discussion that is focused on the learning, and the teacher there to occasionally steer the direction of travel, but only when appropriate. In history, geography or citizenship, for example, there are excellent opportunities for debate and discussion to develop during this phase of lessons.

Find out more

Alexander, R.J. (2008) Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk (4th edition), Dialogos.
Alexander, R.J. (2008) Essays on Pedagogy, Routledge, especially pp 72-172 and 184-191.

Download order form for ‘Towards Dialogic Teaching’





3 thoughts on “Harnessing the benefits of dialogic teaching

  1. Pingback: Education Panorama (September ’14) by @TeacherToolkit | @TeacherToolkit

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