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Teaching tips - Learning to talk and talking to learn

As busy teachers it is easy to get stuck in a rut. Our Teaching Tips articles are aimed at those of you who are teaching or training and are looking for some new ideas or activities to use in your classes. We hope that these articles will inspire you to try something new with your students.
If you have any teaching tips or ideas that you would like to share with us, or questions please send them to Georgina at Georgina.Ma@wits.ac.za

Learning to Talk and Talking to learn

Anne-Louise De Wit

As English teachers, we have the double task of teaching the language, but then also using that same language as a vehicle to teach other skills. Halliday (1980) stated that language learners have to learn English, learn through English and learn about English at the same time.  Language must not be seen as an end result, but rather a process through which we learn about the world around us and how it develops our creative and critical thinking skills. It is the means through which we acquire information and this article will highlight some strategies on how to use language, specifically speaking, as a learning tool in the classroom.


There are a number of learning theories from Behaviorism, Cognitivism, Constructivism and Transformative learning that describe how information is absorbed, processed, and retained during learning.  According to the Learning Pyramid students retain at least 50-75% of content if they get the opportunity to discuss and practice it. The first four levels involve passive learning, but as soon as the learning becomes active the difference in retention shows that more cognitive processes are involved. Learning activities should be designed to help students build understanding, practice thinking, explore ideas and provide opportunities to express concepts. Teachers must model and explicitly teach strategies for reasoning, enquiry and negotiation during these activities. In order to create a more holistic form of education, Bloom created a taxonomy that refers to a classification of the different learning objectives that teachers set for students (remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate and create). The goal was to focus on all the different skills, Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor that are involved in education. 

Learning to talk

When teaching someone to speak in a new language they have to learn new sounds and symbols, new intonation patterns, lexis, non-verbal signs, social structures and cultural information. Apart from the basics, students later also have to learn to narrate, explain, analyse, speculate, imagine, explore, evaluate, discuss, argue, justify and ask questions in the target language. Teachers have to prepare their students in order for them to know how to interact, ask questions, give answers or feedback, make contributions and how to exchange information appropriately. When teaching talking, teachers are used to using rote, drilling, recitation, instruction and exposition, but there must be a shift to incorporate more discussions and dialogue to empower the learners both cognitively and socially. 

Talking to Learn

Meddings and Thornbury (2009) argue that conversation is language at work. Some researchers are of the opinion that conversation is not so much evidence of grammatical acquisition, but a pre-requisite for it. Input is not sufficient in itself; student should also get the opportunity to produce comprehensible output in order to learn. Students have to learn to listen, think about what they hear, give others time to think and respect alternative viewpoints.  Interactional modifications, such as confirmations and comprehension checks and clarification requests are regarded as requisite to the development of language learners. Talking facilitates: risk taking, clarifying, questioning, deducing, negotiating, hyphothesising, critically analyzing, constructing deconstructing and reconstructing. 

There are a number of strategies that teachers can use to use talking as a tool for learning such as: interaction, questioning strategies, wait-time, dialogic teaching, activities, revoicing and building a supportive environment.


Learning should be collective, reciprocal, supportive, cumulative and purposeful. Teachers and students both make substantial and significant contributions through which students’ thinking on particular ideas and or themes is moved forward. The involvement of the teacher is a vital component to increase interaction. Students are guided through the learning process by carefully crafted interactions, rather than left to discover. The students can interact with the teacher and students during the learning process. Teacher/Student interaction includes: questioning, eliciting, dialogic teaching, modeling, negotiating meaning and demonstrate understanding. Student/Student interaction include: using pair and group work, collaborative learning, task-based learning, bridging and schema building. Teachers must try to reduce their own talking time to create more opportunities for the students to engage in talk that extends for more than a few seconds.

Questioning strategies

Teachers should be aware of the type of questions that they ask. Quite often teachers only dwell on lower-level questions such as remembering and understanding type questions and not extending the students’ thinking skills. According to Bloom’s taxonomy, students should be asked to analyse, apply, evaluate and create as well. By doing that students will think more for themselves and it reduces teacher talk time. By verbalising their understanding it also indicates to the teacher how much they have learnt.


Another important aspect of teacher questioning strategy involves extended wait-time. Teachers should allow students time for preparation and rehearsal prior to completing a task. This will allow students to familiarize themselves with the task and it will probably also result in better formulated responses.  

Dialogic teaching

This method was developed by Robin Alexander in the early 2000s. Alexander (2005) suggests that teachers should strategically use discussion and scaffolded dialogue in addition to the familiar kinds of teaching talk such as recitation (using short test questions for students to recall and recite what is known), and exposition (imparting information and explaining things). It helps the teacher more precisely to diagnose students’ needs, frame their learning tasks and assess their progress. Dialogic methods include: open-ended Inquiry, reciprocity (when teachers open themselves to the possibility of learning something from dialogue with students), structured dialogue (it helps students understand the significance of facts rather than simply learn facts by rote) and repeated exposure. Dialogic teaching creates more interactivity, greater student engagement by content they have created themselves, scaffolded conversations, language and grammar emerge from the learning process and the student’s voice is given recognition. It engages the students in the learning and teachers can: explain ideas, clarify the point and purpose of activities, 'model' scientific ways of using language, help students grasp new, scientific ways of describing phenomena.


Classroom activities and group discussions play a central role in Communicative language teaching and they depend on the students’ use of language in order to complete the tasks successfully. Some students might be reluctant to speak and that causes fewer opportunities for them to learn from speaking than the more oral students. Teachers can use pair and group work to ensure that reluctant speakers are grouped with more experienced others to help develop key mental tools. Activities such as enquiry and elimination, information gap, rank ordering, collaborate problem solving, sorting and classifying, sequencing, matching, labeling and describing can be used to encourage more interaction in the classroom. Activities should be interesting, relevant, appropriate and purposeful to ensure that students have a reason for talking and interacting.


One specific strategic move that involves uptake is revoicing (O’Connor and Michaels, 1993) in which the teacher reformulates students’ contribution and incorporates it in the subsequent question. Through revoicing, the teacher lends power and authority to the students’ weak voice and at the same time allows them to retain some ownership over the reformulation. It may animate students into roles and relationship (for example each defending a differing point of view) and involve them in the on-going co-construction of knowledge and reflective inquiry (ibid.).

Supportive environment

Teachers can be highly influential in shaping classroom talk so that it aids student learning. Teachers have to create a learning environment where students are encouraged to participate and have the freedom to use language, even if it is not 100% accurate. Teachers can encourage peer support, be sensitive when assigning students into groups and tolerate the use of L1 when appropriate. Teachers can reduce the level of task difficulty to give students more time to do tasks, bring the tasks within students’ experience, allow students to collaboratively solve communicative tasks (Nation, 2000), provide students with task guidance, attend to individual students’ needs and ability, promote positive attitudes among students, change students’ negative beliefs and attitudes towards mistakes, boost students’ self-confidence and lower students’ anxiety in the classroom.


Alexander, R.J. (2005) ʻTalking to learn: oracy revisitedʼ, in Conner, C. (ed) Teaching Texts, Nottingham: National College for School Leadership, pp 75-93.
Halliday, M.A.K. (1980). Three aspects of children’s language development: Learning language, Learning through language, learning about language. In Y. Goodman, M.H. Haussler, & D. Strickland (Eds.), Oral and written language development research (pp. 7-19). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Meddings, L & Thornbury,S (2009). Teaching Unplugged. Delta Teacher Development Series
National Training Laboratories. (2007). Learning Pyramid. Bethel, Maine. 
Nation, I.S.P. (2000). Creating, adapting and using language teaching techniques. English Language Institute Occasional Publication No. 20. Victoria University of Wellington.
O’Connor, M. C., & Michaels, S. (1993). Aligning academic task and participation status
through revoicing: analysis of a classroom discourse strategy.
Anthropology & Education
Quarterly, 24(4), 318-335.
Scott, C. (2009) Talking to learn: Dialogue in the classroom. The Digest, NSWIT, 2009 (2).
Retrieved from http://www.nswteachers.nsw.edu.au