In 1976, James Britton wrote the now famous quote, “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” Six years later, after extensive research on talk in the classroom, Douglas Barnes broadened the notion with the idea that “learning floats on a sea of talk.” Through his research, Barnes noted two types of classroom talk, namely presentational and exploratory. While acknowledging that both types of talk are important to learning, Barnes postulated that exploratory talk contributed more to understanding, allowing for the construction and consolidation of ideas and meaning. Presentational talk, he countered, was more for “display and evaluation” having its own structures, features, codes and conventions according to genre. Presentational talk such as a speech or lecture is rehearsed and presents a final draft with language and register tailored to meet the needs of the audience. It discourages exploration since the focus is more on trying to provide the correct information or the “right answer” in the appropriate form. The tentative, uncertain and incomplete nature of exploratory talk is what allows students to work through their own thought process and negotiate meaning with others. “When young people are trying out ideas and modifying them as they speak, it is to be expected that their delivery will be hesitant, broken, and full of dead-ends and changes of direction. This makes their learning talk very different from a well-shaped presentation . . .”

Source: Barnes, D. “Exploratory talk for learning,” in N. Mercer and S. Hodgkinson (Eds.), Exploring talk in school: Inspired by the work of Douglas Barnes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, (2008).

Rich Talk with Dr. Diane Vetter

Watch an excerpt about rich talk from our interview with Dr. Diane Vetter.


Rich Talk is relevant to the interests and positions of speakers and listeners. It is meaningful to their experience and understanding. Rich Talk is undertaken with a clear purpose that reaches beyond meeting a curriculum expectation. It is authentic talk, not contrived or scripted in any way. Rich Talk is collaborative; therefore, all voices are respected and heard. It engages participants in the subject matter, immerses them in the learning experience and facilitates the acquisition of knowledge and the Discourses (Gee, 2008) of learning. Rich Talk is founded in prior knowledge and experience while inquiring into new avenues of thought and learning. It is critical talk that questions, analyses and evaluates to make meaning, construct new understandings and facilitate metacognitive awareness and higher-level thinking. Rich Talk stimulates and is stimulated by thought. It is the means by which thought comes into existence (Vygotsky, 1934/1986).

In short, Rich Talk is relevant, meaningful, purposeful, authentic, collaborative, engaging, critical and stimulating. It facilitates connections to prior knowledge and experience, meaning making, knowledge acquisition, inquiry, construction of new understandings, acquisition of discourses (Gee, 2007), meta-cognitive awareness and higher-level thinking.

Source: Vetter, Diane. The Impact of the Implementation of Rich Talk Curriculum on the Cross-curricular Learning of Grade 3 Students, York University Libraries, 2009.


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