Talking Our Way Into Comprehension

           Particular patterns of interaction between teachers and students have dominated traditional classroom instruction. One pattern of interaction that involves traditional roles for teachers and students, and particular ways of talking and responding, has been referred to as the Initiate – Respond – Evaluate (IRE) or Recitation Script (Cazden, 2001; Gutierrez, 1994). In this interaction pattern, the teacher initiatesdiscussion, generally by posing a question, students respond to the teacher’s prompt, and the teacher closes the interaction by evaluating what the student has offered.
            The IRE or Recitation Script generally involves the use of “pseudo” or display questions, in other words questions with predetermined answers used to ensure students can recall a specific bit of information from a text. Through numerous studies, display questions have been demonstrated to dominate literacy instruction (Alexander, 2006; Myhill, Jones, & Hopper, 2006; Nystrand, 1997). In traditional classrooms teachers pose a majority of questions, most of these questions involving literal recall of textual elements. The use of these display or pseudo questions relegates students to verbally “filling-in-the-blanks,” diminishing their active involvement in lessons and discussions.
            Various educators have referred to the traditional IRE pattern as a “monologic” (single-voiced), or authoritarian, discourse. This pattern of interacting with students has dominated classroom discussions and has become viewed as a “natural” way of talking with children. It has a very strong influence on teaching and teachers, yet it is rarely openly discussed and critiqued in professional development experiences and coursework for preparing teachers. This monologic interaction pattern is what Cazden calls a “default setting.” In other words, if teachers don’t pay conscious attention to the language they use during instruction and discussions they will constantly revert back to this traditional way of talking.
            In contrast to the monologic discourse pattern, educators have also described and proposed a “dialogic” (multi-voiced) discourse pattern. Robin Alexander has suggested that dialogic teaching is:
1)    Collective – teachers and students address questions together
2)    Reciprocal – teachers and students listen to each other and share ideas
3)    Supportive – students offer ideas without fear of reprisal
4)    Cumulative – teachers and students build on one another’s ideas
5)    Purposeful – teachers keep educational goals in mind
 Dialogic teaching is not simply a way of asking new questions to get students responding, instead it is a different way of talking with, and responding to, students. Dialogic teaching sets new expectations for student involvement in discussions, requires students to pose as well as answer questions, and supports understanding and interpretation of what is read, rather than narrowly viewing comprehension as the ability to recall textual elements.
To make the shift from monologic to dialogic teaching requires teachers to ask interpretive (higher order) questions that provide a wider range of acceptable answers, view the text as a “point of departure” during discussions, understand that discussion is an instructional support for helping students explore the potential meanings of a text, and encourage students  to move beyond literal meanings and expand their interpretive repertoires.
There are several instructional techniques for supporting the development of students’ interpretive repertoires. Let me briefly describe several of these instructional techniques here.
Set New Expectations for Discussion – students have become socialized into answering literal questions as much as teachers have become trained to ask them. We need to clearly articulate new expectations for literary discussions and be sure that students understand that our goal is to explore written texts and visual images in order to generate, articulate, and negotiate meanings in our community of readers.
Change the Physical Arrangements for Discussions – when students sit in rows the focus of their attention is on the teacher. When students are asked to sit facing each other, their attention shifts to their fellow classmates. We want students to learn to address one another as well as the teacher during our literary discussions. In this new arrangement, we may begin to suggest that students not raise hands, but listen attentively to one another in order to join the discussion.
Sensitive Listening and Uptake – teachers need to really listen to what students are saying and extend their ideas and responses by “taking up” from what has been said to clarify, extend and support students’ interpretations. We do this by naming specific student contributions, generalizing from their responses, having a deep understanding of the literature we are reading, and challenging students to “go deeper” with their thinking. We cannot respond effectively if we don’t listen, nor can we extend what students offer if we don’t address their comments and provide opportunities for students to consider other interpretations.
Become Aware of Dialogue Blockers – there are specific things that occur during a literary discussion that may block us from conducting effective discussions. Dominating voices, passive participants, lack of time, focusing on “winning” discussions, constantly seeking consensus and agreement, defensive attitudes, attacking other students and their ideas, and not listening to one another can diminish the effectiveness of discussions. The more we become aware of these potential dialogue blockers, the more we can effectively contain and possibly eliminate their effects.
            James Britton has reminded us that “talk is the ocean on which all learning floats.” If we don’t pay close attention to our patterns of interactions in the classroom, the traditional discussion patterns we have relied on for years may hinder students’ interpretive abilities. 

Alexander, R. (2006). Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Dialogos.
Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. London: Penguin Press.
Cazden, C. B. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Gutierrez, K. (1994). How talk, context, and script, shape contexts for learning: A cross-case comparison of journal sharing. Linguistics and Education, 5, 335-365.
Myhill, D., Jones, S., & Hopper, R. (2006). Talking, listening, learning: Effective talk in the primary classroom. Berkshire, England: Open University Press.
Nystrand, M. (1997). Opening dialogue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.


  1. Which is why the language we use as teachers is so important to facilitate dialogue and expand learning. I love Peter Johnston's books 'Choice Words' and 'Opening Minds' where he cites numerous examples of how a change in even one word can affect how children think about themselves as learners. The word 'yet' is an okay scrabble word if you land on a triple word score, but is a guaranteed winner when you use it in the classroom. I remember when I trained as a Reading Recovery teacher consciously starting to listen to what I was saying to children e.g. 'I notice you...' rather than 'I like...' If I saw a reading behaviour which was successful and therefore I wanted the child to repeat I would point it out to them. 'I notice you went back to fix that because it didn't make sense... I notice you looked at the picture to help you with that word... I notice you checked the first sound with the picture... that's what good readers do.' A successful reading process is something that works and is generative, it builds the 'self-extending system' Clay talks about; it's not about whether I like something or not, right?!
    Carol Dweck's work on fixed v dynamic theories of intelligence is powerful stuff if anyone wants to read about the effect of process v person feedback.

    Sometimes the hardest thing for teachers to do is to keep our mouths shut and use our words wisely!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Wolf In Snow Review

PBD: Chalk and Fossil

Instructional Trajectory