Talk in the classroom

Author: Stuart Scott
Published: 05/08/2019

Speech 'supports and propels writing forward'

"Schools do not always seem to understand the importance of pupils’ talk in developing both reading and writing. Myhill and Fisher quote research which argues that ‘spoken language forms a constraint, a ceiling not only on the ability to comprehend but also on the ability to write, beyond which literacy cannot progress’. Too many teachers appear to have forgotten that speech ‘supports and propels writing forward’. Pupils do not improve writing solely by doing more of it; good quality writing benefits from focused discussion that gives pupils a chance to talk through ideas before writing and to respond to friends’ suggestions.” (Ofsted 2005)

You will find that this quote features again and again in blogs and INSET, and is part of a constant lament that there is still not enough quality talk in our classrooms. In the last ten years, progress in neuroscience has confirmed our earlier guesses that exploratory talk creates synapses and fuels brain development, which of course makes you more intelligent. Developing quality talk in the classroom is therefore essential. 

Exploratory and presentational talk 

Cambridge's Emeritus Professor of Education, Neil Mercer, offers a definition of exploratory and presentational talk which provides a very useful launching point for increasing talk in classrooms. Exploratory talk is tentative, fragmentary, often ungrammatical, but precedes and underpins presentational talk, which is closer to writing. The transformations that take place somewhere between students talking through ideas together and then presenting them to others are empowering but need to be scaffolded frequently.

Using ‘character cards’ is one strategy that nurtures this process and is easy to imitate. It is best delivered in small doses in every subject, for every topic you can think of, and works for even the youngest students. The accompanying resource uses Oliver Twist as a model but could easily be adapted to work for any subject –  the cards are merely a prompt to enable students to work in role to find partners and introduce themselves to other students. Students could 'become' geographical key words, scientific elements or historical events for example. The emphasis here is on developing students' confidence in speaking and listening in the context of your subject. 

Download Stuart Scott's Talk for learning resource, designed for English classrooms, but easily adapted to support the learning of key words in any subject. 

(This article was first published on 4/1/16 as a newsletter.) 

Stuart Scott

Stuart Scott is an independent consultant and director of the Collaborative Learning Project, and a former headteacher and OfSTED inspector.