11. Classroom talk

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

There are definitely times we want our pupils to talk in lessons. Meaningful classroom talk helps pupils to rehearse ideas, check their understanding, and develop their knowledge. To get the best out of this, classroom talk needs to be carefully planned and delivered. It will take time and practice, but getting classroom talk right can be a rewarding experience for both pupils and teachers.

Presenter main

Effective classroom talk can help pupils to think when teachers plan it carefully and set it up well. When pupils are engaged in well-structured talk it can help them to develop their understanding in lots of different ways. It can help pupils to retrieve previously learned material, connect new content to existing knowledge and extend their vocabulary. Classroom talk can support learning when it’s planned with care.

A good starting point for planning classroom talk is to ask yourself, what do I want my pupils to think hard about? If you’re clear about the purpose of classroom talk when you plan it, it’s more likely to be effective. Do you want pupils to recall some existing knowledge, like what capacity and volume mean? In this case, you might ask pupils to test each other. Or do you want pupils to connect new content to existing knowledge? An example here might be asking pupils to look at where rainforest is on a map and share their predictions about its climate, drawing on their knowledge about the equator. Or do you want pupil to reveal their thinking steps so they can practice getting them right? In this case you might get one pupil to explain what they’re doing to another.

Once you’ve designed a classroom talk activity try testing it out quickly to see whether it requires pupils to think about what you want them to or not. Effective classroom talk should be matched to what pupils need to learn. There are a couple of other key questions that teachers can address at the planning stage:

  1. Do my pupils have the necessary knowledge with which to engage in this activity?
  2. Do they require any further support?

In order to increase the rigour and focus of classroom talk, pupils need to have something to talk about. They need to have some knowledge to draw on. They may also need some scaffolds to guide their talk and keep it on task. Talking frames and vocabulary banks can be a good way of improving the quality of classroom talk.

Once teachers have planned the classroom talk they need to set it up too. Teachers need to provide clear task instructions which include how they want pupils to behave. This might mean asking pupils to turn and face each other, identifying which person talks first and who will be responsible for feeding back to the class. Establishing good routines for classroom talk helps pupils to pay attention.

One important thing to bear in mind about classroom talk activities is that it can be difficult to get an accurate picture of what every pupil in the class is thinking. When teachers circulate and listen to pupils talk, they need to think carefully about what they hear before they make any decisions that are based on it. It might be totally obvious that the whole class has misunderstood the task, in which case it’ll be well worth stopping it and clarifying. But if you hear one or two pupils make a mistake, that won’t show you whether the whole class has made the same error or not. Instead, you want to choose a method of questioning that gives you a much bigger sample size before you decide on what to do next.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will watch an Ambition Institute coach model how to set up a group talk activity. As you watch pay particular attention to how they do the following:

  • Plans activities around what pupils need to think hard about
  • Provides scaffolds for pupil talk to increase the focus and rigour of dialogue

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

In this example, I’m going to model how we can support effective group talk. I want you to imagine I’m teaching a year six science lesson. They’d been learning how to identify and name the parts of the human circulatory system and know how blood is pumped around the body. I’ve designed this activity to give pupils the chance to recall different parts of the circulatory system and think about how they work. By circulating during the activity, monitoring pupils’ talk and using cold call at the end of the activity, it will allow me to gather data on the depth of pupils’ understanding and identify any remaining misconceptions pupils may have which I can then address. Pupils have worked in groups and pairs before, but it is still important for me to remind them of the expectations when working in a group.

“So we’re going to have five minutes in total for this discussion. I’d like you to consider which of the following statements is true and why?

A. If you stand on your head your feet won’t get any blood

B. If you stand on your head more blood will go to your head

C. If you stand on your head your heart will need to pump harder

D. If you stand on your head, it won’t make any difference to your heart or your blood circulation

I’m going to leave these statements up on the board, throughout your discussion. There are also some words I’d expect to hear as I’m listening to your discussion. And these are on the board as well. So we have heart, circulate, blood vessels, transport, oxygen, gravity, and pressure.

I’m going to model what I would like to see during your discussion using a slightly different statement. So the statement I’m considering is, if you raise your hand, your heart will need to pump harder. So Rubia, in the discussion, might say, “I agree with that statement” and she would give her reasons why. And Bethany might then say, well, “I disagree with that statement” and she would give her reasons why. And they would continue to discuss and come to an agreement on that statement.

I’d like us to remember our classroom rules for discussion as we go through this activity. Number one: all members of the group must contribute. Number two: every contribution is treated with respect. It’s listened to without interruption, and it’s allowed to finish. Number three: each group will come to an agreement about the statements. And that might mean that you need to resolve some differences. And number four: every suggestion a member makes must be justified. So say what you think and why.

Some of you will make mistakes and that’s normal. The purpose of this is to help me check what you know. So if you’ve forgotten something or you make an error, we can correct it. If your partner says something you think is wrong, you need to firstly listen and politely state what you think is wrong. You might say, “I disagree with that, and I think that’s wrong because”, and “I think the right way is”. And then you would politely state your point.

To begin with, I’m going to give you one minute independent thinking time. And then we will have four minutes on the main discussion. I’ll be circulating the room and your one minute thinking time starts now.”

I want to draw your attention to a few things in that model.  First, I planned the activity around what I want pupils to think hard about: the different features of the circulatory system and how they function. Pupils learnt this content earlier in the lesson, and this is a good opportunity to consolidate their understanding. The task is designed to match the thinking that I want to encourage. By asking pupils to come to an agreement, they are forced to justify their answers and draw upon existing knowledge and connect it to this concrete example.

I put appropriate scaffolds in place to improve the focus and the rigour of the dialogue. Pupils were given time to think on their own before they start talking. And I provided them with a vocabulary bank to improve the accuracy of that talk. I also modelled how they might engage in this discussion to demonstrate that they need to use the words from the vocabulary bank to explain their response.

The task instructions were specific and sequential, and I gave clear behavioural expectations: pupils should be treated with respect by allowing each person to finish their thought without interruption. All of this guidance helps to ensure that this talk activity will support pupils to think hard and learn.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we have considered the purpose of classroom talk and how to ensure that it’s effective. Before we finish, spend a few moments reading the key ideas. Which of these ideas do you feel that the example illustrates the best?

  • Plan classroom talk carefully around what you want pupils to think about
  • Provide appropriate support
  • Give clear task instructions that include behavioural expectations

Presenter summary

Pair and group talk activities can increase pupil success but to work together effectively pupils need guidance, support, and practice.

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Teaching challenge

Ms Crosby is increasingly pleased that her questioning is prompting classroom talk but she is unsure how best to structure it to ensure it is having the intended effect. How can she keep pupils talking ‘on-task’ and what groups are best for pupils to learn in? How can Ms Crosby best support talk and thinking that underpins pupil learning?

Key idea

Teachers can promote pupil learning by giving clear expectations and setting up routines for high-quality classroom talk in pairs and groups.

Evidence summary

Classroom talk supports pupil learning

When pupils have enough knowledge, high-quality talk can support them to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend vocabulary. Where pupils discuss concepts with peers, talk reduces individual cognitive load by distributing information across the group, making it more likely pupils will gain new insights into the discussed material (Kirschner et al., 2018).

Through talk, pupils refine their understanding of concepts they are learning about (Jay et al., 2017). It can also provide the opportunity for pupils to rehearse ideas and new vocabulary orally before committing them to paper. However, talk can only succeed where pupils have sufficient knowledge, skills and capabilities linked to a topic or problem, and where clear routines have been established. Talk tasks should not be introduced too early in an instructional sequence.

Facilitating high-quality classroom talk

Opportunities to introduce classroom talk might include:

  • When checking pupil understanding, first giving pupils the chance to talk (for example pair talk) before taking a variety of pupil responses.
  • Posing challenging questions which might require pupils to explain something to the teacher or to their partners, deepening their understanding of the material discussed.
  • Guided discussions, for example during the ‘We Do’ part of the lesson, with teacher prompts guiding pupils’ discussions so they elaborate on one another’s ideas (Mercer & Dawes, in EEF, 2017).

High-quality talk is underpinned by clear behavioural expectations. By reinforcing and practising these, Ms Crosby can build positive habits for how pupils engage with one another, reducing the risk of inappropriate behaviour (IES, 2008). In addition to clear behavioural expectations, Ms Crosby should ensure talk is:

  • Collective: Teacher and all pupils are involved in the dialogue.
  • Reciprocal: Participants listen carefully to each other.
  • Supportive: Contributions are valued and respected.
  • Cumulative: Talk builds on others’ contributions towards answering an open-ended question.
  • Purposeful: Building towards a meaningful learning goal (Alexander, 2018).

When pupils know the rules of engagement for classroom talk, for example how long they are to talk for and what each person should be doing, they are freed up to think about the material they are learning rather than behaviour.

Whole class, paired and group discussion

Ms Crosby may wish to start with whole class discussion so she can support pupils and embed her expectations. As a culture of effective talk develops, Ms Crosby may feel confident about setting up first pairs and then groups for pupils to discuss content together for increasing periods of time. Groupings can affect pupil behaviour and motivation (Tereshenko et al., 2018). Therefore, Ms Crosby should pre-plan groupings, but ensure that they are flexible, and monitor groups’ impacts on pupil learning and motivation, particularly for low attaining pupils.

Some rules for pair and group work that Ms Crosby might consider introducing are:

  • All group members must contribute: This helps to avoid some pupils relying on others to complete group tasks. Team members should encourage those who are saying less (with the caveat being that teachers should monitor groups, as pupils who are not speaking may be doing so because they lack the foundational knowledge needed to contribute and therefore require further explicit teaching).
  • Every contribution should be treated with respect: Partners should listen thoughtfully and allow the speaker to finish.
  • Each group must achieve consensus by the end of the activity: Teachers may need to resolve differences.
  • Every suggestion a member makes should be justified: Pupils should say both what they think and why they think it (Mercer et al., 2004, in EEF, 2018).

As with all expectations, Ms Crosby should circulate to monitor and reinforce these rules (IES, 2008). Crucially, the success of classroom talk is reliant on ensuring several things: that pupils have enough knowledge to engage meaningfully in discussions, that they have the guidance and support to undertake meaningful talk tasks, and that they have opportunities to practise.

Nuances and caveats

Pair and group work needs to be explicitly taught, scaffolded and practised like all effective learning (Rosenshine, 2012). Attempting to help pupils discover new ideas for themselves through talk without adequate support is likely to be ineffective (Coe et al., 2014).

Key takeaways

Ms Crosby can facilitate high quality classroom talk if she understands that:

  • Classroom talk can support pupil learning and is a form of ‘practising’ new ideas.
  • Teachers can develop successful pupil talk by establishing clear routines and expectations.
  • Teachers can establish effective whole class, pair and group talk through pre-planning and supporting pupil groups.

Further reading

Jay, T., Willis, B., Thomas, P., Taylor, R., Moore, N., Burnett, C., Merchant, G. & Stevens, A. (2017). Dialogic Teaching: Evaluation Report.


Alexander, R. (2018). Developing dialogic teaching: genesis, process, trial. Research Papers in Education, 33(5), 561-598.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK.

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018a). Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.

Jay, T., Willis, B., Thomas, P., Taylor, R., Moore, N., Burnett, C., Merchant, G. & Stevens, A. (2017). Dialogic Teaching: Evaluation Report.

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, J. (2018). From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. 13(2), 213-233.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Tereshchenko, A., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., Taylor, B. & Travers, M. C. (2018). Learners’ attitudes to mixed-attainment grouping: examining the views of students of high, middle and low attainment. Research Papers in Education, 1522, 1–20.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Crosby can facilitate high quality classroom talk if she understands that:

  • Classroom talk can support pupil learning and is a form of ‘practising’ new ideas.
  • Teachers can develop successful pupil talk by establishing clear routines and expectations.
  • Teachers can establish effective whole class, pair and group talk through pre-planning and supporting pupil groups.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?