This article is about classroom talk. The most fascinating aspect of English Language Teaching! We all do it, and we do it in different ways. Some for the good of our students, and, unfortunately, some to the detriment of our students’ learning. But that can be fixed.
What are the two most common things you hear in a classroom? Stop and think about this for a few moments before reading on.
No, this is not a riddle. The answer is quite simple. We hear talk, and we hear silence. The sound of silence in a classroom can signal many things. Perhaps it’s students working independently on an activity? Or students waiting for someone to answer a teacher’s question? Maybe students sitting together not knowing what to do next!
Equally, the sound of classroom talk can signal many things. Teacher giving students information. Teacher telling students what to do. Or perhaps it’s students exchanging information and opinions with each other? That all sounds quite sensible and unproblematic. But it’s not. Let’s step back a moment and reflect on why classroom talk is so important.
Significance of Classroom Talk
Classroom talk is by far the most used resource in classroom teaching. In the language classroom, it is both the content of the lesson as well as the mode of communication. As the linguist Michael Halliday famously wrote, language learning is about “learning language, learning through language, and learning about language” (2003, p. 308). Classroom talk is the primary source of learning something new. It brings together language, learning, thinking, and understanding. In a sense, classroom talk underpins the social environment of the classroom. And when we study an individual teacher’s classroom talk, we can delve into that teacher’s beliefs about and attitudes toward their students and how they should learn at any particular moment in a lesson. Let’s talk about that some more.
Have a think about the following statements. Have you found yourself thinking similar things? In what part of your lessons would you think one of these thoughts?
Each of these statements projects the kind of classroom talk that would occur once the teacher initiates whatever is to come next in the lesson. By systematically analyzing classroom language lessons, and the talk that goes on within them, it is possible to categorize the type of talk, and say things about the quality of learning and teaching that is going on (see, for example, Chappell, 2014). Teachers may be surprised to learn that their language classroom environments are rather different than they imagined! Let’s have a look at examples of each kind of classroom talk and then discuss their role in the language classroom.
Types of Classroom Talk (Chappell, 2016)
The first of these is Rote. The drilling of language items through sustained repetition. In the transcript below, the students are talking about a football match. The teacher decides to focus on the third conditional: If they’d taken their chances, they would have won the match.
What prompted this rote activity was a student struggling to say this in a small-group speaking activity. The teacher decided that he would teach it to the whole class, first having them read aloud the sentence from the board, and then repeat after him a couple of times. Rote, like product elicitation (see below), often involves the teacher providing what appears as mechanical praise, or “phatic praise” (Alexander, 2005), such as “OK. Very good.”
Teacher: Now, can everybody see that sentence? OK, now let’s say all this together. Let’s say all this together now.
Students: (~20): (All read aloud in discordance)
Teacher: OK. Very good. Now, we can also say: If they’d taken their chances, they would’ve, would’ve won the match. If they’d taken their chances, they would’ve won the match.
Let’s say that all together.
Students: If they’d taken their chances, they would’ve won the match. (in unison)
The second type of talk is Product Elicitation, the accumulation of knowledge and understanding through questions designed to test or stimulate recall of what has been previously learned (or not learned). This type of classroom talk is often like a game. The teacher’s questions are aimed at encouraging a particular answer, often a single lexical item, to be called out by a student. Once a student calls out the desired answer (the “product” that is being elicited), the teacher uses phatic praise to close off the topic.
Notice that there is an accumulation of knowledge (of the “ed” suffix) in this short exchange. The teacher first elicits the name for the “ed” participle. Then he elicits knowledge of how it is used to form an adjective from the verb observe. Notice also the phatic praise that is used three times.
Teacher: What is this “ed” called?
Teacher: Suffix. Very good. On a roll we are. Very good. Over observed? [What part of speech is over observed?]
Student 2: Adjective.
Teacher: How do you know? How do you know it’s an adjective?
Student 2: “ed”
Teacher: “ed” good.
What is “ed” called?
Student 2: Suffix.
Teacher: The suffix. Good.
The third type of talk is Instruction and Exposition. Telling the students what to do and/or imparting information, often about target language items. It is also the type of talk we use to instruct the students in what to do in a learning activity (e.g. Take a couple of minutes. In pairs. Talk about how you would react if this were you.)
The teacher chose Exposition as the preferred type of talk to teach the students the function of the timeless present tense (the simple present tense for general truths). Notice the absence of student talk here. Also notice the relatively long turn at talk the teacher has. One might imagine the teacher using product elicitation after this turn to test students’ understanding of the tense.
Teacher: And so we use the timeless present tense when we’re writing about something that just exists. We don’t expect it to change. The sun rises each morning is the timeless present because it happens every day, again and again and again and we don’t expect that to change. Uluru is red is the timeless present. It is red today, it was red a thousand years ago, and it will be red in a hundred years’ time. The timeless present tense looks like any other simple present tense, but it’s used only when we’re making statements about something that exists and we expect it to continue to exist into the future. So it has some future aspect to it too …
Next, we have Discussion: the exchange of ideas with a view to sharing information and/or solving problems. The first thing to notice here is that there is no talk from the teacher. These are three students working in a small group, designing a travel brochure to promote the popular Thai seaside resort, Phuket. The discussion has taken many turns, but in this short episode, the students are discussing what noun phrase to use to refer to places that offer entertainment. The problem that emerged during the activity—what to call these entertainment places—is solved by all three students contributing and working toward a successful resolution to the problem.
Student 1: Phuket Fantasea. The Phuket Fantasea. What is called Phuket Fantasea in general?
Student 2: This is most general.
Student 1: Phuket Fantasea general in in like I don’t know what you call it for Phuket Fantasea
Student 3: place for entertainment hmm entertainment [nods]
Student 2: [nodding] Hmm Hm. Hmm Hm. Hmm Hm.
Student 1: Fanta no is a fantastic entertainment place. You have to visit it too right?
Finally, there is Inquiry Dialogue: achieving common understanding through structured inquiry, wondering (playing with possibilities, reflecting, considering, exploring), and discussion that guide and prompt, build on each other’s contributions (cumulative talk), reduce choices, and expedite the handover of concepts and principles. Underlying much of Inquiry Dialogue is the idea that a student is imposing upon others to engage, wonder, and explore (Lindfors, 1999). This requires students to be aware of others’ thoughts and feelings. In a sense, to be of like mind and to be thinking together. This is a type of talk that directly supports the social brain by engaging the “mentalizing network,” which Lieberman explains is “a large-scale network in the brain that supports keeping track of other people and making sense of their mental lives in terms of motives, goals, thoughts, feelings, and dispositions” (2012, p. 5).
Again, this activity is notable for the absence of a teacher. It is a small-group learning activity where the students are using images of people, supplied by the teacher, to speculate over who the people are and what their lifestyles are like. Immediately before this, the teacher had done the same with the whole class, carefully modelling the kind of language to use to play with possibilities, reflect, consider, and explore ideas, and to build on each other’s contributions.
Notice how A nominates a topic for inquiry (Line 1), and then S accepts the nomination (Line 2). B quickly builds on what they both said in Line 3. S extends the wondering further in Line 4 with some critical thinking. B extends it further again (Line 5), and A takes it further still, by wondering about the person’s age and employment status in Line 6. Each contribution in those six short lines is wondering (playing with possibilities, reflecting, considering, exploring) and discussing that guide and prompt, and builds on each other’s contributions (cumulative talk). It continues further when the students talk about the next two images supplied by the teacher.
Line 1 Student 1: I think it could be about some wine.
Line 2 Student 2: uhu uhu wine
Line 3 Student 3: Yes and maybe he’s the owner wine shop.
Line 4 Student 2: No I think not the owner because he look he looks too young.
Line 5 Student 3: Er Ok employee, employee.
Line 6 Student 1: Yes he looks about 30 years old so maybe he’s full time working.
Line 7 Student 2: I think number A and number B is like teenager lifestyle and when they grow up they like maybe housewife and…
Line 8 Student 3: Housewife? (all three laugh)
Line 9 Student 1: Yes housewife
Line 10 Student 3: Yes
Line 11 Student 2: And C is like professor in university.
Line 12 Student 1: Yes, and I wonder if he enjoy life more now.
Line 13 Student 2: Yes I think so because look at him smile right now.
Line 14 Student 3: Hm. I want to know why smile, smiling.
Role of Classroom Talk
My research into classroom talk over the past few years has revealed one striking thing. Rote and product elicitation are the most widely used types of talk in the language lessons I’ve observed. Instruction and exposition are also used widely. Discussion and inquiry dialogue are rarely used. Often a discussion activity is no more than a brief exchange of ideas, such as the example below.
Student 1: And what was the topic about?
Student 2: I think, I think it sounds like it make a lot of people, er people thought that the earth was being invade.
Student 1: invaded
Student 2: invaded by aliens
Student 1: Uhu
Student 2: What do you think?
Student 1: I think it’s two reasons one because of the broadcast because of the sound of the broadcast it seemed real.
Student 2: (nodding head) hm hm
Student 1: The story the drama that was played was very short.
Student 2: Uhu
Student 1: …and the second, at the time world politic the Europeans was starting to join World War 2 … so the people seems insecurity.
Student 2: (nodding head) Hm. Hmm.
Teacher: OK. Let’s have some answers. Uuh. D. What …?
In this discussion activity, the students are working in pairs. They are listening to an audio recording about H. G Wells’ War of the Worlds. After listening, they discuss what they think it is about. The discussion is notable for a lack of collective thinking, the stalling rather than driving forward of the conversation. There is an absence of genuine, constructive responses to each other’s contributions.
So, what are the problems here? Is it a problem that a classroom contains lots of rote, recitation and instructional talk? And also transactional discussions, like above? Isn’t that what language lessons are supposed to sound like?
Well, it depends on what a language teacher wants a language lesson to achieve. The situation is all okay if the teacher prefers control over freedom of students to contribute to the life of the classroom. If the teacher prefers to do the thinking for their students rather than encouraging them to think critically, independently, and collaboratively with their peers. If the teacher wants to take control of their students’ learning rather than helping the students take control of their own learning.
The situation needs to change if you are not this kind of language teacher. Perhaps you already are the kind of language teacher who encourages your students to engage in longer stretches of discourse structured in a manner that promotes common understanding and inquiry (Chappell, 2014). This is the role of Inquiry Dialogue. It also encourages wondering about new and alternative viewpoints and meanings, playing with possibilities, and building on one another’s contributions in order to develop knowledge and mutual understanding. The main purpose of inquiry dialogue is to engage others in one’s attempt to understand an issue. It involves inquiring together, using critical thinking, and thinking outside the box.
It's all about Balance
Inquiry Dialogue is different to other more common forms of spoken exchanges involving information. Inquiry dialogue can be an essential part of integrated skills lessons, such as those common in many English language courses. It can be used to build content and background knowledge before a listening task. It can also be used to develop shared knowledge and mutual understanding during a writing preparation task. Or perhaps by expanding understandings after a focused reading task. It can occur as whole-class talk, or in small groups or pairs. Inquiry dialogue is important for extending the opportunities for students to engage meaningfully with each other, developing their knowledge and understandings as well as their oral/aural language abilities.
So, the key to all of this is to think carefully about the types of talk that go on in your language lessons, and to get the right balance. Rote, recitation, instructional talk, and exposition all have their roles in the language classroom. But they need to be balanced alongside a good dose of rich discussion and inquiry dialogue.
Incorporating Discussion and Inquiry Dialogue into the language classroom is a powerful way to support the Social Brain. They allow our students to “explore and master the social world using the mentalizing network” (Lieberman, 2012, p. 5). Lieberman shows us that the mentalizing network aids memory. Students engaged in interactive language lessons using their minds in the ways that Inquiry Dialogue promotes will learn more! Language, mind, and brain are embodied and interwoven (Linell, 2009) to work together in the language learning classroom, especially when fed the right balance of classroom talk.
Alexander, R. (2005). Culture, dialogue and learning: Notes on an emerging pedagogy [Paper presentation]. Education, Culture and Cognition: Intervening for Growth; International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology (IACEP) 10th International Conference, Durham, UK.
Chappell, P. J. (2014). Teacher and learner roles in the interactive second language classroom. In P. Chappell (Ed.), Group work in the English language curriculum: Sociocultural and ecological perspectives on second language classroom learning (pp. 43-60). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Chappell, P. J. (2016). Creativity through Inquiry Dialogue. In R. H. Jones, & J. C. Richards (Eds.) Creativity in Language Teaching: Perspectives from Research and Practice (pp. 130-149). London, UK: Routledge: 130.
Halliday, M. A. K. (2004). The language of early childhood. London. UK: Continuum.
Lieberman, M. D. (2012). Education and the social brain. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1, 3-9.
Lindfors, J. W. (1999). Children’s inquiry: Using language to make sense of the world. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Linell, P. (2009). Rethinking language, mind, and world dialogically: Interactional and contextual theories of human sense-making. Charlotte, NC: IAP.
Phil Chappell is a language teacher educator and leader in learning and teaching in the Linguistics Department at Macquarie University, Australia. His research interests are in classroom talk, sociocultural approaches to teacher cognition, dialogic pedagogy, and out-of-class language learning. He loves nothing more than to engage in Inquiry Dialogue about teaching.