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David Maytham

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Let’s talk it over...

Talk in the classroom is a crucial part of the learning process for all children. Sadly, it is one which is often either neglected or marginalised. It is my view that high quality talk supports children in their attempts to internalise the patterns, structures and methods necessary to succeed in all curriculum subjects. Additionally, placing an emphasis on the development of high quality talk develops higher order thinking skills.

A moment’s thought shows us the instinctive importance of talk in our lives. Most adults, as well as children, share an intuitive view that talking things through helps us to make up our minds: in essence, talking helps us understand what we actually think. I would also argue that talking through our thoughts often changes and reshapes them. I use the phrase “Talk is Thought” to describe its impact on all areas of the curriculum – a principle I share with teachers across the UK.

A great deal of research has been done in recent years that identifies talk as a crucial part of the learning process. For example, Debra Myhill’s work highlights the central influence of talk in developing children’s learning. Work by Resnik and Delvin has also identified talk as an essential part of successful learning in maths. Moreover, despite the great current debate among teachers with regard to the new National Curriculum, it appears that even this document recognises the importance of talk: “The National Curriculum for English reflects the importance of spoken language in pupils’ development across the whole curriculum – cognitively, socially and linguistically. Spoken language underpins the development of reading and writing. The quality and variety of language that pupils hear and speak are vital for developing their vocabulary and grammar and their understanding for reading and writing.”

If you’re interested in creating a better climate for talk in your classroom, the following six principles below will show you how.

Principle 1: Talk for Learning should be collaborative

Place a great emphasis in your classroom on using collaboration and discussion to move learning forward – children should support each other as learners and borrow ideas from each other and from you. If all your children are always willing to share, and you no longer need to rely on strategies such as ‘hands up’ when asking questions, you have successfully created a collaborative climate.

Principle 2: Value every idea, model using the best

As teachers, we know that we learn by making mistakes. However, we cannot get away from the fact that we now teach in a data driven, non-negotiable educational climate. I increasingly visit schools and find teachers living in a bubble of stress and anxiety, with a fixed view that child X needs to move from A to Z within a limited period of time. It is obviously our responsibility as teachers to ensure that our children do make progress. However, to achieve this we must remember that we came into teaching to inspire children, not to undermine them – every idea has value and it is vital that all children feel they are able to contribute in a meaningful way. We need classrooms where children take risks, make mistakes and then learn from them. Therefore, when doing shared writing or discussing ways in which to solve a maths problem, allow children to contribute any idea and ensure that it is the class that makes the decision as to which idea is the best. Worst case scenario, they’re wrong and they find this out through problem solving.

Principle 3: Experience is everything

No matter what the subject, a rich, meaningful experience to which children can relate will not only deepen their understanding, but ultimately help them to internalise the subject. Once they’ve had the experience, children need opportunities to discuss it, explore it, participate in it and live it. If they experience it, they will be able to discuss it. If they can discuss it, they will begin to apply it. If they can apply it, they will have learnt it. And, crucially, they will have enjoyed the process.

Principle 4: Orally rehearse to internalise patterns and structures

Oral rehearsal of stories, maths problems, science investigations and real-life events can help children not only internalise patterns and structures, but also develop their thinking and understanding. In literacy, encourage children to learn stories orally. Once children can say the story and have internalised the patterns, begin to encourage them to innovate and invent. In maths, put your core mathematical language into a story involving a mathematical problem. Again, once children can speak the language, make up their own maths stories using the same language. At this stage, they are not only able to make up their own problems, they are able to apply the knowledge and understanding of mathematical language and concepts that they have internalised to solve new problems.

Principle 5: Share learning experiences with your class

This is absolutely vital. We all know how important high quality modelling is in any subject. Yet, when modelling, we are often faced with a dilemma – how do you ensure that all 30 children in your class are engaged, active and learning? The answer is that you cannot. If you’re simply showing the children what to do, a fair proportion of the class is likely to become disengaged. And the more complex the procedure you are demonstrating (the ones where you really need their 100 per cent focus), the more likely they are to switch off. So don’t model. Share. Show the children a problem or introduce the writing topic and ask them for their ideas. Direct the flow of the conversation, possibly offer an idea or two of your own if they get stuck, but ensure the impetus comes from them. They need to understand that you are a learner too and that their ideas are just as valid as yours. It may seem contrived, but sometimes it’s useful to even make a little error or come up with a bland idea, just to give them the opportunity to impress you with how much better their thoughts are. Pupil-led discussion has led to some of the best writing I have ever seen and some of the most interesting scientific discussions. It’s all right for them to find out that you don’t know everything and that your ideas aren’t always the best. In fact, it’s fantastic! They will be much more open to sharing their ideas and offering their own suggestions if they discover that you aren’t omniscient.

Principle 6: Technology talks

When working with a reception teacher at the start of this term, I noticed the majority of children came straight in and attempted to use the traditional computer monitors like touch screens. These children have grown up around iPads, tablets and smart phones and, as teachers, we need to recognise this when planning interactive, talk-led activities. For instance, we might use technology to offer children an alternative way to present their ideas. Either way, it needs to be embedded in our teaching, just as it is embedded in our lives. In summary, Talk for Learning is not a new methodology – it is based on principles that have been around for years. Giving children the opportunity to experience and discuss their work helps them to see how it relates to their lives and to internalise the concepts. Placing an emphasis on the validity and value of children’s ideas encourages them to be creative and enterprising. Seeing their teacher learning alongside them motivates them to question and engage with their task. Applying the principles of Talk for Learning will help us to show children that they are valued, capable, creative individuals whose education is not an ordeal to be struggled through in silence, but an experience in which they can and should, be vociferous, imaginative and thoughtful participants.

Monkey business


A class mascot can be used in any subject to inspire, excite and foster high quality talk. For me, it all started with Monkey. Back when I was an NQT, I introduced Monkey as a class mascot for my year 4 class. I used to choose one child each week to take Monkey home over the weekend and return on Monday with a diary entry about their experience with him. Every child always wanted Monkey, and when it was eventually their turn, they would always come back with outstanding writing to share. The reason is simple: the stimulus was exiting and they had a clear audience and purpose. Over the years, Monkey has had many adventures. He has been to various supermarkets, parks, and play areas and to some more exotic locations such as Lapland.

Probably my favourite ever example came from a year 2 teacher who I trained recently. She introduced a bear to her class, who they named Bubbles. On the third week of term, the girl chosen to take Bubbles home decided that she didn’t like his name, so she dragged her parents to the registry office and came back on Monday with photos of Bubbles outside the registry office and a new name certificate stapled into the diary. Isn’t it amazing that such a simple idea can provoke such a reaction? The challenge is to replicate this reaction and find similar ways to inspire and excite our children.

I also introduced a Maths Monster, who would go home with a different child each week. The aim was for the child to find as many real-life opportunities as possible to do maths with the monster over the weekend. On the Monday, the child would bring back his/her Monster Maths journal full of the problems they had solved together. The journal would include photos and workings. It acted as an amazing stimulus for high quality talk and discussion when back in class. Examples included using Dad’s electricity bill to forecast next month’s payments, calculating the cost of a shopping trip, measuring out cake ingredients and working out if there was enough space in a room for a new bed of a particular length.