Essay: Dialogic talk in education

Vygotsky’s work has become the foundation of research around cognitive development. He was one of the first theorists to understand and acknowledge the importance of talk and dialogic talk in the processes of learning. According to his sociocultural theory, social interaction is essential to cognitive development and will impact the understanding that the student gains. The role of talk in classroom learning and dialogic talk is being implemented into lessons more than it used to be, and the amount it is used is beginning to increase even more. Mercer (2003) states that dialogic talk is where both teacher and pupils all make contributions on a idea so that the pupils thinking of it is improved and is moved forward. Dialogic talk is implemented into the lessons through things such as IRF, ZPD and scaffolding. All of these are highly significant in aiding the development, understanding and growing of the students in the classroom.
According to Hardman (2008) a major goal of education is to give students the chance to become more skilled and efficient in using spoken language in order that they can “express their thoughts and engage with others in joint intellectual activity and to advance their individual capacity for productive, rational and reflective thinking.” Dialogic talk supports this major goal of education and is central to the teaching of any subject.
The ideas of learning through communication and verbal conversations works successfully in language lessons and English lessons, however there is little evidence of this working in lessons such as History, Geography, Art, etc. This research paper aims to come to a conclusion of how well dialogic talk and learning through conversation works in a History lesson for A-level students and to see whether things such as IRF, ZPD and scaffolding are present. Its aim is to review and use literature surrounding classroom discourse, language use and the different components of dialogic talk (IRF, the F move, ZPD and scaffolding), to evaluate how well they are used in the context of the recording as well as debate how effective these are in comparison to what the literature says.
Literature Review
The IRF exchange is central to the interaction to the teacher and their pupils in dialogic talk. The teaching exchange has three parts to it; an initiation, usually the teacher asking a question, the response, the answer from the student and a follow up, the feedback to the students response from the teacher. Cullen (2002) explains how most of the initiation moves comes from the teacher and states that the follow up move is a required feature of teacher initiated classroom exchanges. The follow up part of the exchange is the most important part and has the most significant effect to the students, therefore it is required that the teacher makes good use of it. According to Cullen, there are two roles to following-up; the evaluative role, which provides feedback to the individual student and the discoursal role which picks up what a student has said and incorporate it to the rest of the class to ‘sustain and develop a dialogue between the teacher and the class’. Cullen states that there are five effective features of discoursal follow up; reformulation, elaboration, comment, repetition and responsiveness. The F move plays a crucial role in clarifying the points made to the rest of the students and building upon their points to ensure that the students are understanding what is being said.
The Zone of Proximal Development is one of the components of dialogic talk which is used regularly in the learning classroom. Vygotsky (1962) states that what a student may learn from their ‘inter-mental’ experiences moulds their ‘intra-mental’ activity. Intra-mental experiences is the communication between the students minds through interaction with one another and inter-mental activity is the way the students think as individuals. The idea of the moulding of the two is known as Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He states that “what a child can do today in co-operation, tomorrow he will be able to do on his own.” Vygotsky suggests that talk in learning does not only allow students to communicate with one another, it also allows them to develop new ways of thinking. It enables them to gather more developed and more constructive ideas and gives them the opportunity to go forward with more higher level thinking. Alexander (2008) supports this idea as he states that dialogic pedagogy is crucial as it promotes higher level thinking. Bruner (1986) states that “I have come increasingly to recognise that most learning in most settings is a communal activity, a sharing of the culture.” Social interaction is seen as being central to facilitating a students’ learning, students will get more out of working on a task together with other students than they would by working on it on their own.
Wood, Bruner and Ross (1976) introduced the term ‘scaffolding’ into the educational context. Scaffolding is used regularly in the classroom context and is highly important in the relationship between teachers and their pupils. The term scaffolding is a metaphor for the way in which teachers provide students with support and help in order to help them to increase their understanding of a topic and to help increase their abilities, until they grasp it and are able to understand it alone. This is in the same way, according to Hammond and Gibbons (2001) that scaffolding supports a building, until it is steady enough to do so alone. Mercer (1994) explains that teachers are able to extend the students’ abilities and extend their knowledge by using the scaffolding technique when teaching the students. The theory of scaffolding is significant in the classroom in improving a student’s ability.
The data which will be analysed for this study is from an A-level class in the North East of England. The level of education is A-level is to see if dialogic talk is as effective at that level, opposed to primary school or secondary school students where it is shown in literature that it is guaranteed to work. The subject is taught by an experienced male teacher in his forties, who has fifteen years experience at this school. He knows how to implement dialogic talk into his lessons and how to communicate in his lessons in order to aid the students learning and understanding of the topic better. The lesson being analysed is a history lesson with approximately eighteen students. As majority of literature on dialogic talk is based on English lessons, history was chosen because there is no literature on dialogic talk in this subject.
The data was recorded by the teacher of the lesson. He informed all students before the recording that he would be voice recording the lesson and asked any students if they did not want to be involved, but all agreed and consented to being a part of the recording. After, he began to record the lesson and made sure that the device was placed somewhere where all students could be heard as well as him. He recorded the first twenty minutes of his lesson, five minutes of the recording has been transcribed in order that it can be evaluated and how well dialogic talk and the different aspects of dialogic talk can be assessed as to how well they work in the context which it is in.
Data Analysis
The five minutes of the recording which was transcribed was towards the start of the lesson. The teacher set the students a ten minute task to work on in groups and collate as much information on a specific topic as they could. After this, the students discussed what their groups had put together on the topic in which they had so they could pass the information around to other students and receive the feedback and advice on what they have said from the teacher and other students.
The teacher is the ‘more knowledgeable other’ (MKO). The MKO refers to someone who has a better and more sound understanding or who has a higher level of ability than the person who is learning in relation to the topic or concept which is being taught. This could refer to a parent, lecturer, coach, etc, but in this context, it is the teacher who is teaching the students whom holds the role of the MKO. It is the teacher who holds all the correct information about the Terror, who is using their knowledge and skills to teach others about what they know on that specific topic.
The teacher makes majority of the initiations throughout the recording opposed to the students. They constantly ask the questions in order to get a response from the students in order to increase their knowledge as well as increase the knowledge of other students in their class. According to Hardman (2008) the initiation part of the teaching exchange usually consists of the teacher asking the student questions to start the process of understanding of that topic and so that the students can start to contribute what they think about the question which has been asked.
In relation to Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) Analysis of Discourse, the teacher constantly uses nominations to signal to the students who they want responses from to check that it is not just the same people who are answering questions. It also means that the knowledge of a variety of students are being checked to make sure that they are grasping what is being said. The teacher uses clues to help students reach the conclusion which they are expecting the student to come to so that they can make sure that the student is going along the right lines with the information which they have. The teacher constantly uses acknowledgements to show what the student has said has been understood and to show what they have said is correct and has been taken in by the teacher. The teacher repeatedly uses comments to build upon what the student has said. This gives the student who has answered, as well as the rest of the students in the class, a justification of what the student has said. Below is a table of examples where each of the terms has been used by the teacher from Sinclair and Coulthard’s Analysis of Discourse.
Term used Example
Informative “He banned all political parties, so therefore that sorted it out”
Clue “What had Lenin done when he had first came into power”
Nomination “Jacob, do you want to start us of?”
Acknowledgement “Right, so ultimate fear, thank you”
Reply “So you can say that there is no worry whatsoever because of the terror”
Comment “You can have a lot die, then arrest a lot more and they will do the same work”
Accept ” Yes exactly. It’ going back to Zoe’s point”

The transcription follows the initiation-response-feedback/follow-up (IRF) teaching exchange throughout, the teacher is the main initiator. The initiations throughout the transcription are all questions which require an answer or explanation from the student as the response section. According to Cullen (2002), it is the follow-up/feedback section which is the most important part of the exchange. It is where most of the knowledge of the particular comment will come from or where it will be justified. Most of the initiation moves and the response moves are the same, however there is a variety of different follow-up moves which occur.
I T: Okay, we’re going to start with the feedback on the impact of the terror. So what impact did it have politically? Can we go with this group please? Jacob, do you want to start us off?
R Jacob: Er, nobody in the party would dare challenge him
F T: Nobody in the party would challenge him. Why Jacob?
The teacher nominates a student in the initiation section of the exchange, the initiation is started by the teacher asking a question about what their group has said about this particular topic. The student then completes the response section of the exchange by answering what the teacher asked. In the follow up section, the teacher responds using one of the features of effective feedback adapted from Cullen (2002), they use a discoursal repetition follow up. This echoes and confirms what the student has said in order that the point and the learning which has occurred from that point has been consolidated to that student and to the rest of the class. The teacher then goes on to ask the student another question in order that they can build upon and expand their point in order to develop their learning.
I T: No, why would you say no?
R Ryan: Because they were scared
F T: Because they were scared? What has Lenin done when he had first came into power, Haley, that meant that political opposition from other parties would basically not exist?
In this initiation, the teacher is getting the student to expand on the point that they have made so that they can develop their understanding of the previous point. The student responds to the question which the teacher asked in the initiation part. In the follow-up move the teacher replies, in relation to Cullen’s (2002) features of effective feedback, with discoursal elaboration. This is the adding and extending of the point made by the student to further their knowledge and the knowledge of the rest of the class.
I T: Would Stalin have removed any of those threats over the thirty year period he was in charge?
R Zoe: He didn’t
F T: He did, he removed them, what about towards the end politically, when Stalin was in charge politically
In this initiation, the teacher asks a student a question so that they can check the student’s understanding. In the response section, the student replies to the question which has been asked by the teacher. The teacher then replies in the follow up section, again in reference to Cullen’s (2002) features of effective feedback, with an evaluative modify point. This illustrates to the student why their point is incorrect and gives a correct answer or helps the student to come to a correct answer.
The examples from the transcription shows that the IRF teaching exchange works well in dialogic talk in the context of the recording and works significantly well for A-level students. The teacher is making the most of most important part of the exchange, the follow-up section, in order to give the students the best feedback which will help aid their learning and to improve their understanding of the topic through the different ways in which the teacher can respond to what the student has said.

According to Sousa (1995) 90% of students learn by teaching each other, this is what Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) aids. In this transcription, ZPD does not appear a lot, nor did it through the entire recording. However, the few times it did appear, it was seen to be working successfully and doing as Vygotsky said it should be.
Zoe: Could you not say that if you’re shooting your workers it’s not going to want to make people work
Andrew: But he’s in charge, he can do what he wants, when he wants and make people do as he pleases…
This example shows two students combining their ideas of what the teacher has asked them through talk (inter-mental experience), to come to an individual conclusion of an answer (intra-mental activity). The students are speaking about what the teacher has asked them in order that they can put both of their ideas together to come to a better understanding of what has been said. This example of ZPD shows that this is significant in learning through talk in the classroom setting, even for A-level history students as it requires them to come to an understanding of events which may have occurred, together.

Scaffolding is used throughout the transcription. The teacher is the MKO and is aiding the students in their learning, helping them develop their understanding of the topic which they are learning about. The transcription supports the point Mercer (1994) made about scaffolding and how it enables teachers to extend the students’ abilities and extend their knowledge by using the scaffolding technique when teaching students.
Haley: Didn’t he ban them?
T: He banned all political parties, so therefore that sorted it out.
The teacher uses rote to scaffold the students learning. Rote is the drilling of facts and ideas through repetition from the teacher to the rest of the class. This ensures that the students have understood that the point that has been made is correct and is a significant point. It makes sure that the students have understood the point.
T: So if I need workers and I kill seven million of them, what does that do for me? I need workers, I kill seven million of them
In this example of scaffolding, the teacher is using recitation to scaffold the students’ learning. This is the accumulation of knowledge through questions which aim to test or recall what has been said or to get students to work out the answer from clues given in the questions. The teacher is giving clues within the question which they are asking to the student in hope that one of the students click on in order to tell the rest of the class, which they do, which shows that this form of scaffolding is successful.
These examples from the transcription shows that scaffolding is successful and significant in the role of talk in classroom learning, even in an A-level history lesson, and dialogic talk is just as significant in this context as it is in any other. It supports the literature on scaffolding from Mercer (1994) and proves that scaffolding does as Wood, Bruner & Ross (1976) intended it to do.
Dialogic talk is highly important and significant in the classroom. It increases the level of learning and impacts how the students learn. It encourages students to talk more and participate in classroom discussions. It allows students opportunities to develop their learning and build their confidence. Dialogic talk enables students to work alongside each other and help with the understanding of a topic, it helps them build upon their own and each other’s ideas to come to several understandings of the topic which they may not have thought about on their own or without their teacher helping move their learning forward.
Although, many issues of dialogic talk have arisen. A lot of the time, there is issues with the teacher always talking in the classroom discussions or the same students contributing and no-one else volunteering to have their say. However, this can be overcome by teachers using things such as nomination of students to answer a question and then using recitation or clues to help move their learning along if they are not sure. Another issue of dialogic talk is that you cannot guarantee that students are taking everything in and are making the best use of the classroom discussions as possible. This can be overcome by recording lessons for older students, or giving students a summary of notes of what has been said in order that it aids the notes which they have made.
If dialogic talk is not implemented, the level of learning that the student reaches will be affected and won’t improve. Dialogic talk allows students to increase knowledge through the interaction with other students and the teacher. The main way of increasing their knowledge is through dialogic talk is through IRF, ZPD and scaffolding. Without these the children will stick at the level of education which they are already at and will not be able to combine ideas of theirs, the other students and their teacher to come to a more elaborate answer. Dialogic talk promotes a higher level of thinking.

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