Reflecting on … Why Students Need to Talk and How to Help Them Achieve This.

Over the years I have met students who dislike all sorts of different lesson activities: those who hate writing, or don’t want to appear in photo stories, those who don’t wish to read aloud or act in role plays, those who hate homework or sitting down for 60 full minutes.  Most of us have things that we enjoy, others that  we will try under certain circumstances and other things that push us so far beyond our comfort zone we will resist them at all costs, so it is easy to sympathise with these feelings.

The dilemma we face as teachers is how far to ‘push’ students to develop skills that may, at first, fall outside their comfort zone.  Then, if we decide it is important, how do we scaffold support so that they can achieve the goal and expand their comfort zone along the way.  Talking in class seems to hold a particular place in people’s fears.  However this does not mean that it is good for students to ‘opt out’.

Why is Contributing in the Classroom Important?

Some of the activities  above are not vital for learning.  If a student doesn’t want to appear in front of camera (certainly in my subject) it is not fundamental to the learning and I have other strategies to allow them to access the learning in a different way.  It doesn’t really matter; the aim to is tell the story of an historic event in a narrative framework.  If all group members contribute to the planning and creation of an end product that does this, all will learn and develop as historians.

For other activities, this is not the case.  Writing is vital for success in history.  Students need to take notes, understand how to structure written pieces, present their answers in a written format and much more.  Of course some students may have extreme needs that need alternative provision in either the short-term (the broken arm) or the long-term (transcriber in the exam) but this is rare.

Verbal contributions fall into the same bracket.   The Bullock Report  suggested that language competence grows ‘in the course of using it’ (DES: 1975), and through the interaction of writing, talk, reading and experience.  Whether in small groups or to the whole class, research shows that discussion is a ‘powerful arena for learning’ (Fountain: 1994).  Outside of the specific subject arena students’  ability to communicate verbally to different audiences in varying forums will be a vital tool to most, if not all, of our students.  If we encourage anxiety, promote withdrawal from discussion and allow students to retreat there is a risk.  There is a risk that we will disempower them in life, perpetuating their anxieties that their contributions are less than others, their views less valuable, their voice not worth hearing.

Of course, some people are quieter than others.  Some want more time to think or feel less need to be immediately heard.  But this does not mean that they cannot and do not make incredibly valuable contributions at the time of their choosing.  However, if anyone has ever sat in a meeting or lecture unsure about raising their hand, wanting to ask a question but being too nervous to put themselves forward, worrying about what others will think then they will understand what our students are feeling.  They will understand why they are anxious and wish to retreat from the situation.  They will also surely want to help them break out of that pattern if at all possible.  Wilkinson (1965) argued that  “oracy is not a subject but a condition of learning … it is not a “frill” but a state of being in which the whole school must operate”.  I fully agree.

How Do We Help Them to Achieve This?

Any ‘talk’ is not equally valuable, although if trying to overcome anxiety and encourage participation our goal may need to take that into account.  However the most useful for our lessons is normally what Mercer (2000) called “exploratory talk” where pupils share their ideas, give reasons for these, listen to each other and explore the domain knowledge together.  It is this kind of discourse on which social constructionist theories of learning are predicated and it is, naturally enough, the hardest to achieve.  Some strategies that I have found helpful include:

  • Consider the format of talking tasks – Sutherland (2006) found that students, especially in secondary school, felt a lot more comfortable with small group discussion tasks than whole class. They can feel excluded from and frustrated with the latter.  Throwing students into whole class discussion or debates is often unhelpful, allowing some to hide and some who would participate to be excluded.  I find it better to scaffold towards this with small group discussion which can, sometimes, lead to whole class discussion or, at others, be sufficient in and of itself.
  • Managing groups – for students it matters a lot with whom they are being asked to talk. (As it does for adults.)  In group tasks, the ‘behaviour’ seating plan where students are sat with peers they are uncomfortable with to promote good behaviour is unlikely to work well.  Their discomfort will translate into their discussions.  In most cases I would advocate letting them work with those with whom they are most comfortable and describe my thinking behind that in this blog:
  • Plan discussion tasks carefully – sometimes it is tempting to think that having presenting students with ideas, texts or resources they will then be able to ‘discuss’ effectively. However, this is rarely the case unless students are highly skilled.  As with any task, a clear model helps.  The purpose of the activity needs to be clear and prompts and extensions points planned into the activity.
  • Managing “I don’t know” – ‘I don’t knows’ can be valuable feedback, suggesting that my lesson is going too fast or that I have not given sufficient thinking time. However, it can also be a strategy to avoid contributing.  From early on I try to break away from this as a habit.  I encourage students to problem-solve if they don’t know the answer, as for a written activity.  Seek help from a peer and feed the answer back to me.  Often  ‘chairing’ a sub-discussion and filtering the contributions back can be as valuable a way of contributing as putting forward an answer of their own.
  • Scaffolding to active participation – for some verbal contributions and discussions are beyond their skills at first. Like any other vital skill, I may need to differentiate for individuals or for a whole class to help them learn the strategies that become verbal contributions.  Silent debates, mini-whiteboards or (long advocated by @JMS_Computing) all help students to respond to ideas, thinking of their own answers and share them with reduced anxiety.  And, in the case of Socrative, anonymously.  This allows me to model the classroom culture, my enthusiasm at their participation, my tools for developing or giving feedback on their answers in a way that celebrates their strengths and responding to others’ ideas and questions.  Obviously these tools do not yet mean that the students are making verbal contributions, but I have found them to act as invaluable stepping stones towards that goal.

Questions I have reflected on regarding students’ verbal contributions:

  1. How important is it that students contribute verbally in the classroom? How and why would the learning be different if they did not?
  2. What in this class / activity / topic is making it hard for students to contribute effectively? How can I help them to overcome that?  What obstacles can I remove to build their confidence?


Most of the quotes and references in this blog come from Valerie Coultas whose article below I found particularly helpful and thought-provoking:

Coultas, Valerie. (2015). Revisiting Debates on Oracy: Classroom Talk–Moving towards a Democratic Pedagogy? Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education,22(1), 72-86.

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