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Substantive conversations--the importance of oracy in the classroom.

Without a regular dialogue, how can we determine students' knowledge and understanding? It is essential that constructive oracy in the classroom is continually employed if students are to develop critical thinking skills. While literacy has been a major focus in education, Alexander (2006) argues that, 'Children ... need to talk, and to experience a rich diet of spoken language, in order to think and to learn. Reading, writing and number may be the acknowledged curriculum "basics" but talk is arguably the true foundation of learning' (p. 5). Constructive conversation can only improve reading and writing skills. This has become more evident to me as I strive to engage my students in a less formalised and more dialogic classroom.

My school has been much focused on improving classroom practice in our English program. Given this, one of our leading teachers has been providing a reading PD fortnightly to help develop and implement different strategies to build students' literacy. We have also been working as a whole school in our professional learning teams, on the embedding of relevant vocabulary into our daily teaching practice across all learning areas. I have found my teaching has changed greatly as a result of these two foci and I now spend much more time creating substantive conversations to engage students in greater depth.

The importance of discussion is beyond argument, but such discourse can be very difficult to generate. One of the main problems I encounter in my senior English classes is the reticence of students. Many are either not confident enough in themselves to contribute to class discussion, or simply do not feel they have the vocabulary to communicate their ideas clearly. As Harrison (2006) says, 'it is a brave learner who attempts to think aloud and make public that they cannot engage with the shared meaning that is evolving in the dialogue' (p. 71). My junior classes are more likely to participate in discussion because they are less likely to be concerned about their language choices or ability to communicate effectively. I have found that unless I regularly provide opportunity for students to talk about the information we are concentrating on, it is doubtful they make sense of it.

There is a range of different tools I now use in both my English and music classrooms to engage students actively in discussion. None of these are new ideas, many have come from the reading PD, and while specific to an English curriculum, are adaptable to any; I have simply tried to incorporate a more productive and purposeful discussion into each of the activities.


Open and closed, thick and thin questions are essential to creating dialogue in a classroom--the difficulty here is to limit the 'closed' questions or else this becomes teacher-dominated rather than student-involved. This is a part of my practice that I have had to work on, especially in the first few years of my teaching career. My main issue was 'preaching' and using 'thin' questions rather than posing 'thicker' ones--I routinely found myself on the end of some very long silences as a result of this. There are times when we pose 'targeted' questions and end up with no responses at all. At other times we can fall into the habit of not giving students enough time to think of a response, accepting the first answer and moving on, or only getting responses from the brighter students in the class. This then 'cheapens' the process and does not allow for us, as teachers, to measure students' understanding of the questions and concepts. It can also lead to those students who aren't first off the mark believing that their contribution is not wanted or valued--a belief that it is essential we don't unintentionally encourage.

Making connections and predictions

I now approach the introduction of new texts to English students in a completely different manner by asking students to predict through means of conversation rather than the written word further actively engages their thinking processes. We recently studied the movie Skin as part of the VCE Creating and Presenting area of study, exploring Identity and Belonging. Originally I would have just had the students watch the movie first and then we would study it, but after the session in our reading PD I decided on a different approach. I asked the students to make connections to any and all words or ideas that they associated with skin. This turned out to be a very interesting starting point for conversation as nearly every single student came up with at least one connection that others hadn't. The discussion that was generated went far beyond my initial thoughts about racial identification as students brought up things such as body image, tribal markings and clothing. The diverse meanings of skin to the students then allowed them to explore in even greater depth issues of identity and belonging. It also gave them an insight into themselves and their own perceptions and understanding through conversing with their peers. The next part of the exercise involved them making a prediction from their 'skin discussion' regarding what the movie might be about. From there I showed them a picture of the movie poster and asked them to discuss whether this had changed their prediction or strengthened it. By showing the movie in stages I was able to continue with the prediction process, continually asking students to discuss where they thought this was going and why. From this structured, regular discussion and class interaction, students were more involved both emotionally and academically with the study, and were also able to verbalise concepts of identity and belonging with greater confidence.


I most recently worked with my students on drawing inferences--using their prior knowledge and textual clues to make meaning and connections within a text. This was quite challenging for them as most of the class found it a problem verbalising such connections. The idea that they actually possess knowledge that has a bearing on their comprehension of a text is tough for them to acknowledge. This particular focus has been extremely useful in language analysis. Many students, unless heavily teacher led, find it difficult to 'read between the lines'. With the support of a colleague, I went about looking for the easiest way to introduce this concept to students. What evolved from this collaboration was the idea of taking a sentence at a time from a piece of text and drawing inference at that sentence level rather than a complete textual level. I found that asking students to define the individual words in that sentence and then getting them to discuss what those words meant to them enabled students to infer the authorial intended effect. Being able to verbalise the emotional purpose was especially challenging for some of my students, but this process allowed them to accomplish it without taxing their comfort zone too much. The importance of the conversation that took place during this process was intrinsic to their ability to make meaning from text.

Think aloud

Modelling the think aloud process has had an important impact on student comprehension. By verbalising my own thoughts as I introduced texts to students, I could show them the importance of vocalisation in the thinking process--in other words, how a dialogue with one's own thought processes can help further their metacognition. Using Bruce Dawe's Homecoming as my first model I showed students the basic strategy--lifting a line at a time and talking about what it made me think of. In this way I could show them how to use basic questioning skills, make connections with prior knowledge, and developing new knowledge as their verbalising of thinking triggered responses and subsequent discussion with their fellow classmates. Many of the students found that this particular method helped them realise just how much wider their basic knowledge was and how their immediate world connected with the global. Through my modelling of the activity, students were also given the confidence to do the same.

Peer teaching

One of the most rewarding sessions I have in terms of oracy takes place in my senior English classes. After we've been through a process a few times, be it working through the structure of an essay or breaking down a prompt for analysis, I often ask the students to take on the role of teacher. Initially, the majority of students struggle with this as it really does place them in a position they find uncomfortable--it demands that they converse with their class from a position of authority and many believe this implies they must have greater knowledge. Generally this point of view does not tend to last long as students find the encounter a positive one. The students then 'chalk and talk' the process themselves, pushing each other, and in some cases, demanding responses even more emphatically than I do myself. They end up enjoying the challenge of this process as it provides them with ownership of the learning, develops their own confidence, and they learn how to utilise their vocabulary to suit the learning intention.

Other occasions where I encourage peer teaching is in music classes. I'll be the first to admit that while my knowledge of music theory is solid, the traditional way of teaching it in the classroom is unrealistic for the student demographic within the class. These students learn through modelling and discussion, not through reading and writing, no matter how much we wish it were different. An ideal example of this recently occurred when I had a class of Year 7 students elect to take music for a double period. To add context I must explain that I teach singing and piano, my knowledge of guitar playing, drumming or anything to do with teaching any other instrument is non-existent. Rather than have these students sit and do written theory or just sing for an hour-and-a-half, I decided to bring in some of my senior VET Music students who possessed the skills I lacked to help me with the class. My aim was twofold--firstly get the Year 7s all actively engaged in making music and secondly, employ my senior students in a peer teaching activity. The conversations that took place between junior and senior students while this teaching and learning occurred was wonderful, questions were regularly asked and answered, debates ensued about the best way to tune a guitar, the best music to study to, the most practical way to transition between chords. When asked later to comment on the experience, the senior students believed they had learnt just as much from the juniors as vice versa. The exposure to new ideas was a very positive outcome for all of these students in this particular case.


Talking for the sake of talk in the classroom is redundant unless it is used in a way that inspires learning. Largely, oracy is a hitherto under-used component of many classrooms--teachers talk too much and don't facilitate substantive conversations it must have a place in the fundamental learning intention for it to be an effective tool. With that in mind we should be consistently promoting a dialogic classroom as unless conversation is taking place, development of critical thinking skills will be limited.


Alexander, R. (2006). Towards dialogic talking; rethinking classroom talk. Cambridge: Dialogos.

Alexander, R. (2010). Speaking but not listening? Accountable talk in an unaccountable context. Literacy, 44 (3), 103-111.

Harrison, C. (2006). Banishing the quiet classroom. Education Review, 19 (2), 67-77.

Nikki is currently employed at Swan Hill College in Victoria's north and has been teaching there for the past four years. She teaches a range of subjects including VET/VCE Music, Instrumental Voice and VCE English. Nikki, along with several other teachers, has been working on developing a broader performing arts program in her school. In her spare time she is involved in music and theatre in the wider community and frequently supports the arts.
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Author:Arnott, Nikki
Publication:Practically Primary
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2014
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