Reflecting on … Teacher Talk: quality not quantity.


In this week’s guest blog, Oonagh Fairgrieve reflects on what she learned when given her disaggregated INSET time to focus on a research project that interested her.  She picked ‘talk-less teaching’ as her starting point but ended up thinking about teaching as a much more integrated whole.


“Never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise. View teaching as a continuous learning experience.” Denis Waitley.


One of the things about reflective practice is that you begin to reflect on your own reflections. As a Social Science teacher, I feel sometimes that I overanalyse my behaviour in a classroom too much, reflecting on what I should have said at a certain moment in time, what I could have phrased differently; the list goes on.


As part of my own continuous professional development I chose to look at the concept of “talk-less” teaching. It made sense to me to think that the more time we spend talking, the more time students are passive, the less learning happens in our classroom. In my initial research on talk-less teaching, I found similar results in interviewing and observing teachers and students; that too much time was taken up with explanation and a “talk and chalk” approach and students felt that more individual guidance and collaborative learning made an engaging and stimulating learning environment.


However, my research suggested that there was an important difference between reducing the amount of teacher talk and changing the quality of teacher talk. This change, needs to start with the teacher themselves; but may be guided by continuous professional development, or by mentoring from another reflective practitioner.   As Nunan (1996) states: understanding “has to begin with the teachers themselves, considering the ways in which the processes of instruction are illuminated by the voices of the teachers.” By focusing on whether teacher talk matches our intentions at any given stage of a lesson, rather than the time it takes, I hoped to enable learners to achieve more in a lesson and for learning to be more impactful…in theory, at least.


Walsh (2005) argues that for teachers and learners to work effectively together, both the teacher and learner need to acquire competence in language communication; making use of a range of appropriate interactional resources in order to promote active and engaged learning. By putting interaction firmly at the centre of teaching and learning and by reflecting on their quality of teacher talk, teachers will immediately improve learning and opportunities for learning.  This fit with my focus and I spent a few weeks reflecting on what I needed to say and when I needed to say it.


I found it helpful to use the principle of modes (developed from Walsh’s framework).  Although designed for use in a MFL or EAL classroom, I was able to apply this to a Social Science/Humanities lesson:

  • Skills and Systems: I used DIRT at the start of the lesson to give feedback or check previous knowledge and understanding.
  • Managerial: I thought carefully about when and how to give an instruction or explain a new concept to the whole classroom.
  • Classroom Context: I used questioning rather than talk to capture opinion, check knowledge and spark discussion


By reflecting on what I wanted to say before I said it, I began to create a reflective running dialogue, almost like a verbal lesson plan.   To break out of my normal habits, I used tools such as Google docs to provide iterative feedback and trialed interventions such as muted lessons.  Being open about what I was trying meant that capturing student response to this was straightforward, and colleagues also supported me to reflect on the importance of and nature of talk in a lesson.  My results interestingly found little impact on progress, but a definite impact on student attitude towards the subject and to the learning itself.  It is possible that with longer-term development there will be more impact on student progress.


But crucially for me was my which led me to my key reflection; the importance of the quality of teacher talk.


But interestingly, reflecting on teacher talk and what I wanted to say and what I wanted students to learn led to reflecting on independent learning. This is because through the use of effective teacher talk, we create an environment where words are like gold and are meaningful. We create an environment where students begin to understand the importance of collaborative work. This in turn linked to students’ mindset and attitude because by doing this, I could, in turn, instil confidence and esteem thus encouraging a growth mindset; where students feel confident to reflect on their own abilities through the use of talk.


To summarise, this project showed me the power of effective talk but also how focusing on one part of my teaching leads to almost a “web” of continuous professional development that is interconnected. By starting with what we say, who knows where we will end up?

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