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Teaching challenge

Ms Crosby is increasingly pleased that her questioning is prompting classroom talk but she is unsure how best to structure it to ensure it is having the intended effect. How can she keep pupils talking ‘on-task’ and what groups are best for pupils to learn in? How can Ms Crosby best support talk and thinking that underpins pupil learning?

Key idea

Teachers can promote pupil learning by giving clear expectations and setting up routines for high-quality classroom talk in pairs and groups.

Evidence summary

Classroom talk supports pupil learning

When pupils have enough knowledge, high-quality talk can support them to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend vocabulary. Where pupils discuss concepts with peers, talk reduces individual cognitive load by distributing information across the group, making it more likely pupils will gain new insights into the discussed material (Kirschner et al., 2018).

Through talk, pupils refine their understanding of concepts they are learning about (Jay et al., 2017). It can also provide the opportunity for pupils to rehearse ideas and new vocabulary orally before committing them to paper. However, talk can only succeed where pupils have sufficient knowledge, skills and capabilities linked to a topic or problem, and where clear routines have been established. Talk tasks should not be introduced too early in an instructional sequence.

Facilitating high-quality classroom talk

Opportunities to introduce classroom talk might include:

  • When checking pupil understanding, first giving pupils the chance to talk (for example pair talk) before taking a variety of pupil responses.
  • Posing challenging questions which might require pupils to explain something to the teacher or to their partners, deepening their understanding of the material discussed.
  • Guided discussions, for example during the ‘We Do’ part of the lesson, with teacher prompts guiding pupils’ discussions so they elaborate on one another’s ideas (Mercer & Dawes, in EEF, 2017).

High-quality talk is underpinned by clear behavioural expectations. By reinforcing and practising these, Ms Crosby can build positive habits for how pupils engage with one another, reducing the risk of inappropriate behaviour (IES, 2008). In addition to clear behavioural expectations, Ms Crosby should ensure talk is:

  • Collective: Teacher and all pupils are involved in the dialogue.
  • Reciprocal: Participants listen carefully to each other.
  • Supportive: Contributions are valued and respected.
  • Cumulative: Talk builds on others’ contributions towards answering an open-ended question.
  • Purposeful: Building towards a meaningful learning goal (Alexander, 2018).

When pupils know the rules of engagement for classroom talk, for example how long they are to talk for and what each person should be doing, they are freed up to think about the material they are learning rather than behaviour.

Whole class, paired and group discussion

Ms Crosby may wish to start with whole class discussion so she can support pupils and embed her expectations. As a culture of effective talk develops, Ms Crosby may feel confident about setting up first pairs and then groups for pupils to discuss content together for increasing periods of time. Groupings can affect pupil behaviour and motivation (Tereshenko et al., 2018). Therefore, Ms Crosby should pre-plan groupings, but ensure that they are flexible, and monitor groups’ impacts on pupil learning and motivation, particularly for low attaining pupils.

Some rules for pair and group work that Ms Crosby might consider introducing are:

  • All group members must contribute: This helps to avoid some pupils relying on others to complete group tasks. Team members should encourage those who are saying less (with the caveat being that teachers should monitor groups, as pupils who are not speaking may be doing so because they lack the foundational knowledge needed to contribute and therefore require further explicit teaching).
  • Every contribution should be treated with respect: Partners should listen thoughtfully and allow the speaker to finish.
  • Each group must achieve consensus by the end of the activity: Teachers may need to resolve differences.
  • Every suggestion a member makes should be justified: Pupils should say both what they think and why they think it (Mercer et al., 2004, in EEF, 2018).

As with all expectations, Ms Crosby should circulate to monitor and reinforce these rules (IES, 2008). Crucially, the success of classroom talk is reliant on ensuring several things: that pupils have enough knowledge to engage meaningfully in discussions, that they have the guidance and support to undertake meaningful talk tasks, and that they have opportunities to practise.

Nuances and caveats

Pair and group work needs to be explicitly taught, scaffolded and practised like all effective learning (Rosenshine, 2012). Attempting to help pupils discover new ideas for themselves through talk without adequate support is likely to be ineffective (Coe et al., 2014).

Key takeaways

Ms Crosby can facilitate high quality classroom talk if she understands that:

  • classroom talk can support pupil learning and is a form of ‘practising’ new ideas
  • teachers can develop successful pupil talk by establishing clear routines and expectations
  • teachers can establish effective whole class, pair and group talk through pre-planning and supporting pupil groups

Further reading

Jay, T., Willis, B., Thomas, P., Taylor, R., Moore, N., Burnett, C., Merchant, G. & Stevens, A. (2017). Dialogic Teaching: Evaluation Report.


Alexander, R. (2018). Developing dialogic teaching: genesis, process, trial. Research Papers in Education, 33(5), 561-598.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK.

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning Guidance Report.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018a). Improving Secondary Science Guidance Report.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School

Jay, T., Willis, B., Thomas, P., Taylor, R., Moore, N., Burnett, C., Merchant, G. & Stevens, A. (2017). Dialogic Teaching: Evaluation Report.

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, J. (2018). From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. 13(2), 213-233.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Tereshchenko, A., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., Taylor, B. & Travers, M. C. (2018). Learners’ attitudes to mixed-attainment grouping: examining the views of students of high, middle and low attainment. Research Papers in Education, 1522, 1–20.