Scaffolding talk for learning

#15MinForum – 9/2/16

15 minute forum 9-2-16This week’s 15 Minute Forum, delivered by Emily Johnson (our Teacher i/c KS3 English), focussed on a lovely little strategy for scaffolding discussion. Emily shared an approach that she has been using with her sixth-form English Literature students, but it is easy to see how this might be (or perhaps ‘should be’, given the importance of talk for learning)  successfully used across key stages 3-5 in a range of subject areas…

Why should we care about the quality of student talk?

Emily and I have talked and shared some interesting reading recently about the importance of developing oracy and placing value on the process of talk, and Emily gave a short summary of this to set the context to the session. In part, this is about recognising the critical role of ‘talk’ in the relationship between language, learning, thinking and understanding, and in part it is about helping to bridge the gap (or, for some students, the chasm) between thinking and writing by forcing students to articulate, organise and develop their thoughts coherently in verbal expression before committing them to paper.

Abstract speaker silhouette with bubbles

Photo Credit: cfdtfep via Compfight cc

These points are hugely important for students across the spectrum – from those whose written work is routinely disordered or underdeveloped through to the most literate and able students (some of whose writing can be unnecessarily overwrought, pretentious or perhaps just plain waffly – forcing them to first discuss their ideas (using a framework that supports but doesn’t restrict) can often be helpful in forcing them to frame their ideas in a more succinct format).

Moreover, the way we structure, manage and model talk, dialogue and discussion should strive to ensure that students not only reap the benefits of talking themselves, but also that they listen, really think about and engage with the things they hear, and support others with their thinking (inluding a respect for alternative positions).

How do talk cards work?

The cards themselves each contain a  statement/ instruction/ assessment criterion taken, in this case, from the marking scheme or assessment objectives of the specification. For example, the English Literature cards that Emily shared included statements like ‘support your statement with a quote’, ‘suggest an alternative interpretation’, ‘make a link to the typical features of the genre’ etc.

Talk cards

When writing the cards, it would seem desirable to emphasise more than just brief factual recall, focussing instead on the narrating, explaining, analysing, speculating, imagining, exploring, evaluating, discussing, arguing, justifying and questioning that Robin Alexander refers to as the repertoire of ‘learning talk’ in his work on dialogic teaching.

Running the activity:

  • A question is posed to the whole class (for example ‘How does a Hardy present Tess and Angel’s relationship?’), and students are given thinking time (5-10 minutes) during which they individually start pulling-together various sources of information from previous lessons/ homework tasks (having already spent time reading articles and completing close analysis work)
  • Students distribute the cards in their groups (4-5 students). If you have colour-coded the cards to indicate the level of challenge associated with each one, students might be asked to ensure an even spread to each member of the group, or alternatively you might differentiate them yourself by distributing the cards yourself while the students are still pulling together their sources of information, giving some students more of the high challenge cards.
  • Students start playing their cards! As a student plays their card, they make their contribution to the discussion, agreeing with,  buildling upon, or challenging the previous contribution, or taking the discussion off in a new direction.

The process could continue indefinitely with card replenishment, or it becomes a simple competition: the first student to get rid of all their cards is the winner! Encouraging competition encourages students to self-regulate: if they, collectively, think someone has played a card and not actually contributed a suitably pertinent or robust point, they reject it. This in itself encourages students to engage thoughtfully with other people’s ideas.


A little more reading (about talking)…

In this short article from Robin Alexander on the essentials of Dialogic Teaching, he summarises key features of scaffolded dialogue, amongst which he includes:

  • interactions which encourage children to think, and to think in different ways
  • questions which require much more than simple recall
  • answers which are followed up and built on rather than merely received
  • feedback which informs and leads thinking forward as well as encourages
  • contributions which are extended rather than fragmented
  • exchanges which chain together into coherent and deepening lines of enquiry
  • classroom organisation, climate and relationships which make all this possible

There isn’t much in this list that the talk cards won’t help us to start exploring and embedding. He goes on to suggest that…

These forms and dynamics of talk contribute to:

  • uptake (one person responding to and taking forward the ideas of another)
  • scaffolding (providing the child with an appropriate linguistic and/or conceptual tool to bridge the gap between present and intended understanding)
  • handover (successful transfer of what is to be learned and assimilation of new learning to existing knowledge and understanding)

It strikes me that this activity, and others like it (which we can hopefully explore moving forwards), could go a long way towards embedding some of these features and ideals!

For a more detailed overview of Dialogic Teaching than the short pdf linked above, I would thoroughly recommend Robin Alexander’s book (well, more of a pamphlet really) Towards Dialogic Teaching: rethinking classroom talk. An insightful and very accessible entry into thinking critically about student and teacher talk in classrooms…