The educational value of dialogic talk in the classroom

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №5 - 2013

Author: Yezhitskaya Svetlana, Kazakh-American Free University, Kazakhstan

We live in a rapidly changing world adapting up-to date socio-economic structures, establishing new priorities and developing a successful business with good reputation. Our society creates a demand for qualified, pragmatic, and sociable people who are able to get and impart information, effectively express their opinions, come up with constructive ideas and find solutions to different problems. A great emphasis in different spheres of life is placed on the importance of communication. Therefore, contemporary education should meet the societal requirements and aim at raising a well-rounded, communicative generation.

According to the Ministry of Education of Kazakhstan, the main goal of teaching a foreign language nowadays is to develop students' communicative competence, that is, the ability to express thoughts and reasonably prove their opinions in a variety of everyday situations. Communicative approach in teaching can be realized through ‘Dialogic teaching’ which is under consideration by a great number of educators and methodologists nowadays.

Research evidence suggests that dialogue occupies a crucial position in the classroom in relation to students and learning. Mercer and Littleton have shown that classroom dialogue can contribute to learners’ intellectual development and their educational attainment. Research suggests that both interaction with peers or adults can provide opportunities for students’ learning and for their cognitive development (6).

Vygotsky describes a student as an apprentice for whom cognitive development occurs within social interactions, in which he/she is guided into increasingly mature ways of thinking by communicating with more capable people and through interactions with the surrounding culture and environment. Vygotsky also asserts that cognitive development is enhanced when a student works in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD defines student’s abilities and skills that are in the process of development, as well as those tasks that the student can not accomplish independently.(7) To perform such tasks and learn new things, students need the help of more competent people, for example, their peers, teachers or guests. Such activity involves communication process in which language is considered to be the main vehicle for learning.

Speaking activities have some characteristic features:

- speaking is always motivated. People speak because they have some inner cause, or a motive;

- speaking is always purposeful as any statement with intended purpose;

- speaking is always an active process; it shows the speaker's attitude to reality. That activity provides a proactive verbal behavior of the interlocutor, which is so important to achieve the goal of communication;

- speaking “serves” all other human activities. The process of speaking is closely linked to the activity of thinking. Speech activity is often called the thought process. The expression of a thought verbally is a cognitive task;

- speaking is always characterized by a certain rate, which should be acceptable in communication standards. However, in speaking process the main role is played not by its absolute rate, but also by the number of syllables (or words), spoken at a time, and syntagmatizm, that is syntagms dividing statements. Required rate remains largely within a syntagm.

All of the above features contribute to the achievement of functional literacy proficiency in communication process.

Vygotsky’s model of learning suggests that knowledge is constructed as a result of a student’s participation in the conversation and his/her engagement in dialogue with others. Therefore, the teacher’s role in providing and facilitating social engagement in communication process is determinant for developing effective learning.

The Vygotskian view of the centrality of language in learning has been supported by empirism. Empirical researcher Barnes established that the way in which language is used in the classrooms has a great influence on students’ learning. Barnes proved that students have the potential to learn not only by listening passively to the teacher, but by verbalizing, talking, discussing and arguing, and thus developing their dialogic speech (2).

Dialogic speech is a form of speech, in which there is a direct exchange of statements between two or more people. The conditions in which dialogic speech takes place include a number of features: shortness of speech, widespread use of non-verbal means of communication (body language, gestures), the use of intonation patterns, a variety of special sentences, free from the strict book rules and language syntax statements, and the prevalence of simple sentences. The unit of learning dialogue speech is dialogic unity, realized through the use of microdialogues, which include several replicas relating to the content and form. Dialogue speech is characterized by the use of replicas, repeating phrases and words, questions, additions, clarifications, hints, understandable only to the speakers, a variety of auxiliary words and interjections. E.N. Solovova distinguishes the major characteristics of the dialogue. They are reactivity, and situationism.

Reactivity is the feature of the dialogue speech that causes real difficulties of mastering this form of communication in a foreign language for students. At the heart of these challenges are the following reasons:

- the reaction of the communication partner may be quite unpredictable, for example, he can suddenly turn the conversation in another direction. It is very difficult to cope with the situation in which there is no response at all;

- the lack of students’ necessary social skills which they need in dialogic communication not only in foreign, but also in their own language;

- in the dialogue we always depend on a partner. In addition, dialogue requires the ability to listen. In this case a new group of objective difficulties come into force due to the individual characteristics of the speaker's speech.

Situationism as one of the characteristics of dialogue assumes that the success of dialogic communication in the classroom depends on the given situation and understanding of the problems that the students face in the process of verbal communication. Otherwise, no supports will help to successfully perform the task. Situationism is the essence which determines the logic of communication. It is one of the main features of dialogue speech. At the moment, there has been an increased interest in the issues relating to the development of unprepared speaking in teaching a foreign language. (9, p.121)

Moreover, according to E.I. Passov, for the development of students’ verbal skills and enhancing the use of the dialogic talk in the classroom, it is necessary to meet the following conditions:

- the presence of speech;

- the presence of a natural motivation;

- the presence of a natural situation as an incentive;

- personal individualization;

- a free variation, the novelty of the situation;

- independence of a speaker (8, p. 173).

More recent research by Mercer and Hodgkinson, carried out for establishing the centrality of dialogue in the learning process, showed considerable evidence that getting students to talk together in class has a number of benefits because it:

- allows students interpret ideas and articulate their understanding of the topic;

- helps them to understand that other people may have different ideas and points of view;

- enables students to reason through their ideas;

- helps the teacher to understand ‘where the students are’ in their learning (5).

Nevertheless, a characteristic of classroom talk is the extent of the teacher’s conversational control over the topic, the relevance and correctness of what the students say and how much they may speak.

Research suggests that the common pattern of the classroom talk, where the teacher controls the discourse, asks important questions, repeats students’ answers and offers praise, does not seem likely to improve students’ thinking or develop their talking skills.

Moreover, most of the questions will form the first part of an exchange between a teacher and pupil known as an initiation-response-feedback (IRF) exchange. 1 These IRF exchanges give classroom talk its distinctive and familiar form.

Alexander says that “talk in learning is not a one-way linear communication but a reciprocal process in which ideas are bounced back and forth and on that basis take the learning forward” (1).

Research in many countries has shown that in whole-class sessions teachers tend to talk much more than their pupils. Students in many classrooms have few conversational rights. However, the balance and nature of students’ and teacher’s contributions to the conversation vary considerably, both between countries and between classrooms. One of the reasons for this variation is that in some classrooms a teacher's questions (or other prompts) elicit only brief responses from pupils, while in others they often generate much more extended and reflective talk.

The concept of 'dialogic talk' emerged from these observations as a way of describing a particularly effective type of classroom interaction. 'Dialogic talk' is that in which both teachers and students make substantial and significant contributions and through which students' thinking on a given idea or theme is helped to move forward. It may be used when teachers are interacting with groups or with whole classes.

Dialogic talk requires:

- interactions which encourage students to think in different ways;

- questions which require 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 challenge rather than unquestioningly accept;

- professional engagement with subject matter which liberates classroom discourse from the safe and conventional;

- classroom organization, climate and relationships which make all this possible.

In dialogue, participants (students and their teachers) are equal partners striving to reach an agreed outcome and trying out and developing what Mercer has described as the joint enquiry and construction of knowledge or becoming involved in a process of ‘underthinking’.

According to him, there are three main types of dialogic talk:

1) Disputional talk, in which:

- there is a lot of disagreement and everyone makes their own decisions;

- there are few attempts to pool resources;

- there are often a lot of interactions of the ‘Yes it is!’-‘No it isn’t!’ type;

- the atmosphere is competitive rather than cooperative.

2) Cumulative talk, in which:

- everyone simply accepts and agrees with what other people say;

- talk is used to share knowledge, but the participants in the discussion are uncritical of the contributions of others;

- ideas are repeated and elaborated but are not necessarily carefully evaluated.

3) Exploratory talk, in which:

- everyone offers relevant information;

- everyone’s ideas are treated as worthwhile, but they are critically evaluated;

- people ask each other questions;

- people ask for, and give, a reason for what is said – so, reasoning is ‘visible’ in the talk;

- members of the group try to reach agreement (though of course they may not – it’s trying to find agreement that’s important) (4).

Most discussions are usually a mixture of these types of talk. Mercer and Barnes assert that the most productive discussions, in terms of building a collective understanding and learning, tend to be those where there are high levels of exploratory talk. Therefore, it is the type of the talk that teachers should aim to develop. When learners engage in exploratory talk, wherein they will be sharing a problem and constructing meaning together; exchanging ideas and opinions, considering and evaluating each other’s ideas, building up shared knowledge and understanding. In such communication students are thinking together, and trying to support each other with the aim of accomplishing their mutual goal. They are listening to each other and considering their response. When learners work collaboratively their reasoning becomes apparent through their talk. However, this talk does not come naturally to them; they need to be guided by their teachers to understand the value of cooperative work.

The problem is that the students didn’t get used to expressing ideas openly. They unwillingly speak out, and in most cases they just agree with the teacher’s statement without giving any comments.

A frequent pattern of questioning observed within the classrooms has been found to take the form of Initiation-Response-Follow-up (IRF), in which the teacher asks a question, a student gives a short answer, the teacher commends the student. This model is typical of many classrooms where it is the teacher who is the initiator and who controls the talk. (3) Such classrooms do not offer opportunities for the type of dialogic talk which promotes learning.

Questioning is a critical skill in the sense that, done successfully, it becomes a powerful tool for teaching by supporting, enhancing, and extending students’ learning. It is considered that there are two main types of questions that teachers can use to elicit students’ understanding: lower-order and higher-order questions. The first group of questions is also called ‘closed’ or ‘literal’ questions. They do not go beyond simple recall and answers are either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Higher-order questions require students to apply, reorganize, extend, evaluate and analyze information. Both types of questions are valued and have their place in an effective pedagogy. It goes without saying questions need to be formulated to match children’s learning needs.

In the classroom, teachers' questions can have a range of different communicative functions. For example, they can be used to test pupils' factual knowledge or understanding ('Can anyone tell me the capital city of Argentina?'), to manage classroom activity ('Are you all ready now to put your pencils down and listen?') and to find out more about what pupils are doing ('Why did you decide to have just three characters in your play?').

Different questioning techniques can be used in order to support learning more thoroughly, such as prompting, probing and redirecting. Prompting questions may be necessary to elicit an initial answer to support a student in correcting his or her response, for example simplifying the framing of the question, taking them back to known material, giving hints or a clue, accepting what is right and prompting for a more complete answer.

Probing questions are designed to help students give fuller answers, to clarify their thinking, to direct problem-solving activities, for instance, “Could you give us an example?”

Redirecting questions to other students, for example, “Can anyone else help?” are also effective in sparking off the students’ desire to speak out.

Asking questions to encourage students to talk constructively and on task, the teacher may also find advantages. He/she can:

- Signalize a genuine interest in the ideas and feelings of children;

- Develop curiosity and encourage research;

- Help students to externalize and verbalize knowledge;

- Develop students’ creative thinking;

- Stimulate students to think critically;

- Allow students teach each other and learn from each other

- Teach them to respect and evaluate each other’s contributions.

- Diagnose specific difficulties and misunderstanding that could hinder learning.

We may resume further what dialogic talk offers, from an educational point of view. One of the prime goals of education is to enable students to become more adept at using language, to express their thoughts and to engage with others in joint intellectual activity (their communication skills). A second important goal is to advance student’s individual capacity for productive, rational and reflective thinking (their thinking skills). Dialogic talk can help achieve both these goals.

For learners to become more able in using language as a tool for both personal and collective thinking, they need involvement in thoughtful and reasoned dialogue, in which conversational partners 'model' useful language strategies and in which they can practise using language to reason, reflect, enquire and explain their thinking to others. By using questions to draw out students’ reasons for their views or actions, teachers can help them not only to reflect on their reasoning but also to see how and why to seek reasons from others. By comparing different points of view, a teacher can help those views to be shared and help students see how to use language to compare, debate and perhaps reconcile different perspectives. Providing only brief factual answers to IRF exchanges will not give students suitable opportunities for practice, whereas being drawn into more extended explanations and discussions of problems or topics will. This is the valuable kind of educational experience that dialogic talk can offer.

So, dialogic talk stimulates and extends students’ thinking and advances their learning and understanding. 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. Due to the development of dialogic talk in the classroom the students are found to possess strong, capacious, and argumentative mind which is highly appreciated in our life.


1. Alexander, R. Towards dialogic teaching: rethinking classroom talk. Cambridge: Dialogos UK. 2004.

2. Barnes, D. Language and Learning in the classroom. Journal of Curriculum Studies. 1971.

3. Mercer, N. The guided construction of knowledge: talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. 1995.

4. Mercer, N. Words and Minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge. 2000.

5. Mercer, N., Hodgkinson, S. Exploring talk in school: inspired by the work of Douglas, Barnes. London: Sage. 2008.

6. Mercer N., Littleton, K. Dialogue and the development of thinking. A sociocultural approach. NY: Routledge, 2007.

7. Vygotsky, L.S. Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1978.

8. Пассов Е.И., Царьков В.Б. Концепции коммуникативного обучения. - М.: «Просвещение», 1993. – 223 с.

9. Соловова Е.Н. Методика обучения иностранным языкам: базовый курс лекций. - М.: «Просвещение», 2002. - 239 с.

10. http:// New Perspectives on Spoken English in the Classroom. QCA, 2003.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №5 - 2013

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