Talk is central to learning in any classroom. At Sandringham, we have articulated how teachers and students can best used their voices to enhance and enrich learning. The image on the right summarises what we mean by High Quality Teacher Talk and High Quality Students Talk. In what follows, each dimension is explored more fully.

High Quality Talk

High Quality Teacher Talk

Talking is central to what teachers do in the classroom to help students learn.  When it comes to learning, the three most powerful things we do when we talk in the classroom are to provide explanations, to model processes and our own thinking and to question our students.

 Effective explanations

All teachers explain new content and ideas to students and the best presentations are concise, appropriate and engaging explanations: neither too short nor too long; neither too complex nor too simple. According to the research evidence, the following features of explanations are your best bets for helping students to understand and learn new ideas.

  • Explanations that are linked to what we already know. Learning depends on the connections that learners make between new ideas and what they already know. Prior knowledge is structured in schemas so when explaining a new idea, teachers will activate that prior knowledge and connect new ideas to it so that new knowledge is accommodated into and extend existing schemas. In linking new ideas to old ones, teachers may compare, contrast and categorise to help students’ understanding.
  • Explanations that include models, analogies, representations and examples help explain and convey hard ideas.  Teachers commonly use analogies in their explanations to compare a new idea to one that is already known by students. Models and representations help learners visualise abstract concepts and help make them concrete. These devices are effective only if teachers elaborate on them, and direct student attention to the crucial similarities and differences between the analogies, models and representations and what is to be learned. Examples are helpful to use in any explanation and equally helpful are non-examples and borderline cases: the exceptions and hard cases that define the boundaries of a rule or definition. Even with the best explanation, some students still may not get it and so teachers need to have more than one way of explaining or presenting the idea, and multiple examples so that they can keep going until the student does get it.
  • Explanations address common misconceptions and sticking points that students should be aware of. For experienced teachers, student misconceptions can be predictable and inevitable. In their explanations, teachers will anticipate and address these misconceptions directly and explicitly, both by exposing and challenging the misconception and by presenting the correct conception clearly and directly.
  • Explanations are carefully paced. Understanding new ideas can be impeded if students are confronted with too much information at once. In presenting material, teachers should pay attention to the issue of ‘cognitive load’ by limiting the number and complexity of new elements, breaking complex ideas or procedures into smaller steps, helping students to assimilate concepts into and extend existing schemas and minimising extraneous, irrelevant or distracting input, from either content or environment.


Modeling our expert thinking to students

As teachers we are the experts in the room.  However, we may suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’ forgetting what it’s like to be a novice.  This is why modeling workings out, methods and processes step-by-step to students is effective as it helps them to build their knowledge and skills from novice to expert. Narrating our thinking as we do this reveals the thoughts of an expert, which can help students to internalise similar thoughts and processes. According to the research evidence, the following features of modelling are your best bets for helping students to understand and learn new ideas.

  • Include worked examples. A worked example is a step-by-step demonstration of how to perform a task or solve a problem.  Step-by-step guidance provided through worked examples gives students a type of scaffolding.  Over time, such thinking should become habitual – acting as ‘internal scaffolding’ that will support future learning. Modeling through worked examples also provides teachers with a good opportunity to highlight the pitfalls that exist, or common mistakes and misconceptions and how students can avoid them.  Depending on the subject, too few worked examples may increase the cognitive load for students, leaving them unsure of the processes and how to apply them. We often see the modelling of a task or process as live, with a teacher working through from the beginning. However, models can be prepared in advance, shared with students and ‘unpicked’ through a teacher’s explanation.
  • Fade out worked examples over time. Modelling should help students develop their own ‘internal scaffolding’. Therefore teachers’ step-by-step modelling can be gradually removed in subsequent problems or tasks so that students are required to complete more steps independently. Initially, scaffolding such as direct modelling is necessary, but as guided practice moves to independent practice, teacher’s direct modelling will change to monitoring and intervening only when necessary.
  • Think aloud. Thinking aloud involves a teacher narrating their thought process – the decisions and choices teachers make as they are talking through a worked example.  When modeling, teachers will inevitably be describing what they are doing to their students.  By thinking aloud, or narrating, teachers are giving insights into the how and the why also.  In doing this, they are making the implicit explicit, revealing the reflections of an effective learner. Teachers are also able to highlight the parts that are likely to be difficult or when mistakes can arise and how to avoid or resolve them.


Questioning with purpose and participation in mind

Questioning is one of the commonest things teachers do and apparently teachers ask around 400 questions a day! The key to quality of course is not the number of questions but the type and how they are used. Questions should be planned with a specific purpose and, when posing questions, teachers should have participation at the forefront of their minds. According to the research evidence, the following approaches to questioning are your best bets for helping students learn.

  • Being clear on the purpose of questions. Teachers use questioning for two main and quite distinct purposes: to promote students’ thinking, and to assess it. To promote students’ thinking questions are likely to be more probing and require expansion. Teachers will prompt students to give explanations and justifications for their answers, to elaborate, to improve an initial response, to describe their thinking processes, and to make connections with other ideas and prior knowledge. It is argued that learning happens when students have to think hard, and as such, these types of questions are key to students’ understanding of new topics. Questions are also commonly used to assess students’ understanding.  They focus on recall and checking knowledge and understanding. Asking questions in this way provide clear insight into whether students have grasped the required knowledge and understanding. Well crafted questions discriminate between those students who know and those who don’t yet. They can also reveal mistakes and misconceptions and determine whether ideas need to be revisited or can be developed.
  • Maximising participation. Ideally, every time a teacher asks a question, all students attempt an answer in their minds. However, it is easy for just a few students to provide answers in the classroom and before long, some students can opt out of thinking about questions posed in the hope they will be left alone. This has obvious negative effects on learning. When a teacher is asking questions to assess students’ understanding, it’s important to have a high participation ratio. Only when we assess all students simultaneously can we be confident that it’s time to move on. Collecting and interpreting answers from every student is hard to do well, but important to aim for. When teachers question students to probe and to stimulate thinking, answers are inevitably longer and so participation from all students from each question is much harder to do.  Nonetheless, being aware of participation and ensuring all students are asked more probing questions over the course of a lesson or a series of lessons is important.  Less confident students and those from lower socio economic backgrounds may be more likely to avoid answering questions and thus may be at risk of opting out of the important thinking that questioning should cause. Establishing a classroom culture where all students regularly answer questions and their responses are valued, is an important job of the teacher.

High Quality Student Talk

Talking is central to helping students think, learn and articulate themselves. Having opportunities to talk in lessons helps students refine their spoken skills, essential for life at school but perhaps more so, for life beyond school. When it comes to what high quality talk looks like for students, three powerful opportunities we can provide our students are to help them to talk like experts, to talk with others and to talk confidently.

Talking like experts

Supporting students to use academic and subject specific vocabulary when they speak has the potential to help them to make significant progress. There is strong evidence about the interdependent relationship between talking, thinking and writing. A student’s spoken language is related to the level at which they can think and process new ideas and concepts.  Furthermore, a student’s spoken language contributes to their ability to write about it.  Simply put, if you can say it you can write it. Conversely, if you can’t think in academic language this can create a challenge when writing. Therefore, paying attention to how we provide opportunities for talk, and for students to use academic and subject specific language, can lead to learning gains in terms of thinking and writing.

From a social justice perspective, improving a students’ vocabulary will go some way to address the wide disparity of vocabulary students possess when starting school. Without specific attention, this vocabulary gap is commonly found to widen, described as the ‘Matthew Effect’. Students with a broad vocabulary are likely to be more confident and happy to talk and read, both of which can expand their vocabulary further, even exponentially, over their time in school. Whereas those students coming to school with a limited vocabulary may be more likely to struggle in conversations, or in formal talking environments, as well as in reading. They may begin to avoid taking part, not only limiting their vocabulary growth, but potentially even reducing it.

Helping students to talk like experts is challenging but can be helped by the following ideas. Teachers play a role in modelling the use of academic and subject specific vocabulary and repetition of key words can help. Furthermore a teachers’ explanation of new words, their meaning in relation to related concepts and their use in other contexts is helpful. More effective is to create opportunities for students to use new language for themselves. Using ‘speaking stems’ or other devices can help students to structure their spoken language, turning their unformed ideas into a more academic style. As with other aspects of learning, practise is key.  Apparently, we need to encounter a word ten times before we are likely to reproduce it naturally in our speech or writing. 

Talking with others

Students can learn a lot from talking in groups. Studies have suggested that when discussing in groups, students can successfully make meaning in relation to what’s being taught.  In contrast to their relationship with their teacher, peer relationships tend to be less formal and so students may feel more confident to talk; testing out their ideas with their peers.

As will be familiar to most teachers, developing a culture of collaborative talk in the classroom can be difficult and students are likely to need help developing these skills. Different groupings of students, from pairs to larger groups can be helpful.  Perhaps more critical though is the role of each child in the group, or a structure to support each child to take part. Sentence frames along the lines of “I agree with X and here is another example..” or “I saw it differently from X..” can foster not only opportunities for each student to speak but it can reinforce the importance of listening. Students may not listen in class due to being distracted or commonly, they are mentally rehearsing what they are going to say and therefore stop listening to how the discussion is progressing. Supporting students to respond to others is a key part to talking with others.  Another common challenge of managing how students talk with one another relates to how some voices can dominate, and it is easy to picture any classroom where this is the case. In instances such as these, managing turns can mean that all students are given an equal opportunity to talk.

Talking confidently

An underpinning assumption of helping students to talk in a more expert fashion or to talk in a more fruitful way with others is their confidence to talk in the first place. Some students will find talking challenging. Research suggests that a teacher’s role is critical here as they facilitate opportunities to talk through prompting or inviting students to talk and encouragement from a teacher goes a long way too. For example, making deliberate attempts to read over the shoulder of reluctant speakers in class, praising aspects of their work, and inviting them to contribute to subsequent class discussions can provide them with confidence that they have something meaningful to say.

When students build the confidence to speak, how can they do this well and in a self-assured manner? Students should consider their voice including their pace, tone, pronunciation and projection.  With respect to body language, confident speakers may use gestures, consider their posture and facial expressions as well as use eye contact.

Bibliography: High Quality Teacher Talk 

A Dialogic Teaching Companion, Robin Alexander 

Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review: 

Improving Education: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience’, Professor Rob Coe: 

Make Every Lesson Count, Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby 

MARGE: A whole brain learning approach for students and teachers, Arthur Shimamura: 

Metacognition and self-regulation guidance report EEF:

 Rosenshine’s Principles in Action, Tom Sherrington

 Teach like a champion 2.0, Doug Lemov

 The Science of Learning:

Why students don’t like school? Daniel Willingham

Bibliography: High Quality Student Talk

A Generation Adrift – The case for speech, language and communication to take a central role in schools’ policy and practice, The Communication Trust: 

Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan

Deepening knowledge through vocabulary learning – Effective vocabulary instruction: The underlying reasoning and research, Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown: 

Informing Practice in English: A review of recent research in literacy and the teaching of English, Debra Myhill and Ros Fisher: 

Oral Language Interventions, EEF:

Speaking Frankly: The case for oracy in the curriculum, The English Speaking Union: 

Talk for Writing across the Curriculum, Pie Corbett and Julia Strong

The Matthew Effect: How advantage begets further advantage, David Rigney

The Oracy Framework, Voice 21: 

The Secret Literacy: Making the implicit explicit, David Didau

The State of Speaking on our Schools, Will Millard and Loic Menzies: 

What does this look like in the classroom? Bridging the gap between research and practice, Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson