Literacy Today Logo

The Role of Talk in Learning

Reading and writing float on a sea of talk. James Britton, 1983



Talk that Supports Learning

We know that students’ learning is enhanced when they have many opportunities to elaborate on ideas through talk. However, it takes time to create a classroom environment where students are respected and their ideas are valued. This requires a climate of trust and risk-taking. As well, students need to develop the skills and strategies that will lead to deeper and more productive discussions.

Planning for Talk Contexts
Provide daily opportunities for students to practice using talk in a variety of forms For example:
  • talking with a partner
  • working in small groups
  • participating in whole class discussions
  • engaging in conferences with peers or teacher
Include routines and learning contexts that encourage talk For example:
Establish guidelines for conversations and discussions Behaviours that contribute to good discussions may include:
  • sit so that everyone can see and hear each other
  • respect all contributions
  • listen to what others are saying
  • encourage others to participate
  • disagree politely
  • build on each other’s ideas, comments, etc.
  • clarify own contributions
  • ask for clarification from others

Adapted from: Queensland School Curriculum Council.

Encourage active listening Active listening is a multi-step process that involves:
  • making supportive comments
  • asking appropriate questions
  • paraphrasing and summarizing to verify what you understand
Ask, and teach students to ask, the kinds of questions that foster dialogue Types of questions include:
  • Factual questions that have one correct answer. These questions can make some of the best inquiry-based projects, as long as they have some depth and room for exploration.
  • Interpretive questions that have more than just one correct answer but must be supported with evidence. E.g.Why did Ahab chase Moby Dick? Is Goldilocks a good person? Interpretive questions can generate engaging discussions, and may lead to good inquiry-based learning projects. For example, the question Should There Be Zoos? may lead to an interesting inquiry.
  • Evaluative questions that ask for some kind of opinion, belief or point of view. They have no wrong answers but do require students to call on prior knowledge and experience. These kinds of questions can lead to good discussions.
Encourage students to engage in deeper more thought-provoking discussions For example:
  • require justifications
  • recognize and challenge misconceptions
  • ask for evidence from the text
  • build on the ideas of others
  • ask for clarification
Provide time for reflection on talk abilities either as a class or individually In a whole group debriefing at the end of a group activity or discussion students can reflect on what they did well, and what they need to work on. For example:
  • Did we give good reasons for our opinions?
  • Did we stay on track?
  • Did we listen to each other?
  • Did everyone participate?

Students can reflect on their individual progress, e.g. in learning logs, using checklists, etc. For example:

  • I contribute to the discussion
  • I listen carefully
  • I ask for clarification
  • I am able to build on other’s ideas
  • I give good reasons for my opinions
  • I disagree politely


Back to top

Additional Resources

Accountable Talk Sourcebook: For Classroom Conversations That Work is an excellent document put out by the Institute of Learning at the University of Pittsburg (2010).

Accountable Talk: Instructional dialogue that builds the mind

YouthLearn: Programs that tap young people’s creativity and elevzte inquiry as a tool of empowerment. 

Barnes, D. (1993) Exploring the potential of talk in learning, Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT

Cazden, C.B. (2001) Classroom Discourse: the Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

English Teaching: Practice and Critique. September, 2010, Volume 9, Number 2, pp.1-6.