Dialogic Teaching: A classroom guide for better thinking and talking

Paul Main

Dialogic Teaching: A classroom guide for better thinking and talking across your school.

What is dialogic teaching?

In this blog post we explore the popular topic of dialogic teaching and how it can be used to improve learning outcomes. Oracy has been well researched in recent years and the implications of this area are becoming clear for primary schools around the country. The Education Endowment Foundation along with the University of York have both uncovered the potential that this classroom strategy has, particularly in light of the recent lockdown. There are significant implications for children on free school meals (a measure used in England to determine the level of disadvantage). 

A dialogic approach focuses on “building understanding and deepening insight through questioning and dialogue”. This critical and important process is known as inter-personal learning (IPL) in child development. The teacher should facilitate inter-personal learning for children in a conversational style. The teacher can be an active listener who listens to and respects the children's ideas, while encouraging an open and lively debate. Students are advised to communicate their questions in a friendly manner in order to learn from one another. Using a conversational style of communication encourages students to question the teacher and other classmates as they work through their shared experiences. It also helps them develop self awareness by reflecting upon what they say and how it affects others. The benefits of IPL include:

• Developing social skills such as empathy, respect, tolerance, cooperation and collaboration;

• Improving language skills including vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and listening comprehension;

• Increasing academic achievement;

• Enhancing creativity and imagination;

Deeper classroom thinking

• Promoting positive attitudes towards schoolwork and teachers; 

What are the origins of dialogic teaching?

The term was first developed by Robin Alexander throughout the early 2000s, however the concept of dialogic talk can be traced back to Socrates. Socrates suggested that education practice should be centered on notions of dialogue and that question should elicit new thinking and not probe for set answers. A teacher and student participated in a question that neither of them knew the answer to, suggesting that the process is more important than the outcome.

Before Alexander began his research, Vygotsky was driven by a concern for language. He suggests that development has a social process because children learn through social interaction by communicating and interacting with more knowledgeable and more able people. They gain a better understanding of prior knowledge. This is better known as cognitive scaffolding. Vygotsky linked better language with better thinking or a stronger ability to express what they mean. Children need rich learning environments. In these settings, there needs to be opportunities for children to engage in meaningful conversations about topics which interest them.

These discussions help build relationships between peers and adults. In addition to building relationships, conversation allows children to share information and opinions. Through discussion, children become aware of themselves and each other. As well as developing friendships, children begin to understand the world around them. Conversation provides a safe environment where children feel comfortable sharing personal thoughts and feelings

To exchange and experiment with meanings, Alexander explored Vygotsky’s theory further finding that this form of learning is vital in the development of communicative skills. Dialogic talk is a theory that has become increasingly popular in recent years as the discussion continues to grow. The theory discusses the value of talk in the classroom and how it helps develop learner autonomy. It is a teaching method where the teacher encourages and facilitates discussion in order to develop understanding.

Developing the theory derived from Socratic methods, it was thought that lecturing alone was not sufficient in encouraging the development of learners and that questioning should be used to extend thinking rather than assess it. Dialogic talk is seen as a vehicle for increasing people’s engagement at a deep level. However, it is an aspect of teaching that must be thoroughly planned for otherwise the discussion can lose focus.

How to use dialogic pedagogy

The teacher has to establish an atmosphere where the students feel free to engage in discussion. They can ask questions to the students and get answers back. By calling on students to speak, they should be able to have some sense of ownership of the subject they are discussing.When students are involved in the dialog, the learning process can become more meaningful. The students have to have an active role in developing their knowledge. The teacher should direct the students to some point or specific information. If there is some relevant information that has been already been read out by the teacher, students can talk about it as they go along.

Children engaged in dialogic pedagogy
Children engaged in dialogic pedagogy

What are the five key principles of dialogic talk?

Collective - where students come together in joint learning and inquiry.

Reciprocal - where students listen, share and consider the view of others.

Supportive - students are able to express themselves clearly and safely.

Cumulative - build on their own and others’ contributions and chain them into a coherent line of thinking.

Purpose - The discussion must be structured with specific learning views or outcomes.

develop clear dialogic learning guidelines
develop clear dialogic learning guidelines


If these key principles are adhered to in the classroom, students will be able to increase understanding of their prior knowledge. Another key theorist from discussing dialogic talk of Jerome Bruner, he suggests that there is culture not biology that shapes human life and the human mind. He builds on Vygotsky's notion stating that most learning in most settings is a communal activity. On the sharing of culture, his research suggests that educators have underestimated children's innate predispositions for particular kinds of interaction. In other words, teachers need to understand what kind of interactions children like to do so that they can encourage this type of behavior. In addition, if we want our students to learn something new, then we need to make sure that they know why they are doing it first. This means that we need to teach them through stories, images, metaphors, analogies etc. We also need to provide opportunities for them to practice using language appropriately.

Children talking about their ideas - dialogic teaching
Children talking about their ideas - dialogic teaching


What are the benefits of dialogic teaching?

The benefits of dialogic pedagogy can be seen in its other uses. In business, it enhances employee and customer communication, and in politics it builds constituency. As the science behind dialogic pedagogy has come to light, many schools and organisations have adopted it. We recommend that schools use it to further develop their students. Tata Power Group developed a school in Mumbai where dialogic pedagogy has been integrated into the curriculum. They observe a daily 20 minute break and allow students to discuss in a group. What impact does dialogic pedagogy have on attainment?

The education endowment foundation (EEF),conducted a trial researching into the impact the cognitively challenging classroom talk can lead to gains for pupils. For English, Maths and Science, they found a positive impact in English for all children in year 5. It concluded the dialogic teaching made two additional months progress in English and science. In another study conducted by EEF, they looked at how much time was spent talking about topics such as history, geography, maths and science. They compared three groups: one which had no formal instruction; one who received traditional teacher-led lessons; and one who received an interactive lesson plan. They found that those who were taught via the interactive method achieved higher levels than both the control group and the traditional group.

Students engaged in dialogic teaching
Students engaged in dialogic pedagogy

How should I implement Dialogic Teaching?

There are several ways you could introduce dialogic pedagogy into your class room. The best way would be to start with small steps. You may wish to try out some of the activities suggested below and use them as the basis of starting your own dialogic teaching project.

1) Start off by asking questions. Ask open ended questions. These help build up conversation. When you ask a question, wait for someone else to answer before moving onto the next topic.

2) Use visual aids. Visual aids can include pictures or diagrams.

3) Provide multiple choice options.

4) Allow students to take turns speaking.

5) Have students write down key points from each person’s contribution.

6) Encourage students to share opinions and experiences.

7) Give feedback after every turn.

8) Make sure there is enough silence between speakers.

9) Don't interrupt when people speak.

10) Be prepared to listen carefully.

11) Let everyone finish speaking. 

Embracing a dialogic learning environment

There are numerous guidelines relating to this pedagogical approach but they shouldn't be seen as straitjackets. Provide teaching staff with the principles and some underlying resources such as a dialogic teaching framework. Afford teachers the opportunity to take educational theory and use it in their own classroom practice. If the concept becomes a tick box exercise implemented by a well-meaning management team then the classroom teacher can easily become demotivated.

Maintaining professional integrity in the teaching profession requires us to trust the classroom practitioner to make decisions about their own scaffolding approach. They may facilitate collaborative learning differently from you or me. As long as the concept has been embraced and the learning process has been enhanced particularly for low-achieving students, we should trust classroom teachers to make their own decisions. Dialogic discourse comes in all sorts of form, if it is announcing student interaction and critical thinking then it's probably working.

We have been trying to systematically increase levels of thinking by increasing the complexity of student thinking. Using the Universal Thinking Framework, we can carefully guide dialogic discourse along with the critical thinking that accompanies it. By carefully taking a student through a certain cognitive route we can positively effect their discourse about the content. The collaborative learning that entails has a positive impact on both the classroom talk and the cognitive development of the student. This dialogic learning gets to the very essence of what Vygotsky theorised. Scaffolding approaches like this means that we can support the learning process for all of our students.

Creating dialogic teaching guidelines

The following principles outline what makes up an effective dialogue between teachers and students. They have been developed from research into successful schools where there was a high degree of student participation in learning activities. The principles also reflect the views of many practitioners working with young people today.

1) Students' voices matter - they must be heard by everyone involved in the lesson. This means not only listening to them but actively engaging with their ideas and opinions. Teachers need to make it clear that they value this input. The levels of engagement need to be strong even among self-declared introverts. 

2) Everyone's voice counts - if we want our learners to feel valued then we must ensure that everyone gets a chance to contribute. We cannot assume that just because somebody speaks first that they will get more airtime. If we do so, we risk creating hierarchies within classrooms based upon power rather than ability.

3) All contributions count equally - even though some might seem less important than others, all contributions still add something valuable to the discussion. This type of democratic engagement builds the foundations of a truly dialogic classroom.

4) Every idea has its place - don't let anyone dominate the debate. There needs to be space for different perspectives on any given issue. Classroom interactions can harvest some new and interesting perspectives. 

5) No one knows everything - nobody has all the answers. Instead, we should encourage pupils to think critically about issues and challenge assumptions. This will help raise the quality of classroom talk and raise the levels of thinking. 

Coming to a conclusion about dialogic pedagogy

Before we move on to criticisms of dialogic talk, let's briefly touch on how you can assess a structured classroom discussion as it may be difficult to grasp exactly what the students understand from the questions. The first way to assess understanding is through active participation. If a student is participating more than others, you can assume they have a better understanding although this is not always the case. Let's move on to the criticisms of dialogic talk.

Another problem with the theory is that the teachers voice is the guiding source in the lesson however, many teachers lack the tools necessary for planning effective whole class dialogues. Dialogic talk must be structured and implemented effectively to have an impact. It requires time and effort which are often lacking in teacher education programs. In addition, it takes practice and experience to become proficient at using these techniques. Finally, it is very easy to fall back onto old habits when teaching. As such, I would suggest that teachers who wish to use dialogic methods should start small and work towards implementing larger scale lessons.                     

To conclude, when students are given the opportunity to form their own opinions and share their thoughts about a topic, they will have a better understanding of the subject. The power of classroom talk also extends to the development of good language skills as they engage in spoken and written discussion. By developing vocabulary and engaging in effective conversations, students will become more able to use their minds to comprehend and recall information. 


Further Reading about dialogic teaching

Robin Alexander is Fellow of Wolfson College at the University of Cambridge and Professor of Education Emeritus at the University of Warwick. He has published widely including books , articles and chapters in edited volumes. His research interests include critical pedagogy, social justice issues in schools, literacy and writing instruction, and curriculum design

Philosophy for Children (p4c) is a wonderful way of bringing teachers and children together to discuss things that matter. It has many benefits for both groups. He has published widely including books, articles and chapters in edited volumes. For example, it helps develop empathy by encouraging participants to consider other people’s points of view. It encourages children to express themselves freely without fear of being judged or ridiculed. And finally, it provides opportunities for children to learn new words and phrases. 

A new classroom tool for classroom talk

At structural learning, we have developed a new collaborative pedagogy that helps children talk and think about their learning. Using specially designed building blocks, children can construct sentences, timelines along with all types of curriculum content. The key to the pedagogy is children articulating their ideas to one another. As groups of learners build with the blocks, they nearly always justify and reason verbally. This natural way of problem-solving promotes deeper thinking and better conversations. You can find out more about this pedagogy on our block building page.