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Learning Conversations and Classroom Talk

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First we learn to speak, then we learn to listen, then talk.Finally, we learn what our voice means.                                                  ~David Booth 

 I’m on a quest for instructional strategies that will support teachers who are trying to increase and improve the types of student talk happening in their classrooms.  At least one Avon Maitland Secondary School inquiry group (an English department) will be experimenting with learning conversations.  That’s what we’re calling talking for learning.

There are a growing number of resources that outline the importance of classroom talk and the different types of classroom talk.  The information below was extracted from David Booth’s work with Me Read, No Way and with the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat.  To improve and increase learning conversations in our classrooms:

Monitor the ratio of teacher talk versus student talk to ensure as much of the latter as possible.

  • Traditionally, the teacher talks for 95% of classroom time.  Try timing teacher talk versus organized, purposeful, student talk. Booth recommends that we pay attention to who talks and when.

Model and encourage the use of purposeful and accountable talk. 

  • David Booth notes that the teacher is modelling talk right from the beginning.  We learn the culture of the classroom through demonstration.  The teacher might ask: What did you notice about the way I talked? Or the question I asked?  Think back to the best question you heard everybody.
  • Booth also explains that accountable talk is ‘on task’ talk. The teacher will need to redirect often.  No voice dominates. No voice is omitted. No voice bullies. The talk is accountable to the learning community and accountable to rigorous thinking.

Explore different modes of talk with students.  Here are a few to consider:

  • Social talk (in the halls and at the beginning of class)
  • Interactive/dialogic talk
  • Accountable talk (there is a right to talk, listen and disagree)
  • Role talk (voice is stronger because it isn’t you)
  • Digital talk (texting, chatting, etc)

Now What?

What do classroom learning conversations look like at the most granular level?  In the classroom? As part of a lesson?  What are the foundational skills students need?  What are the barriers we face? Who are the experts among us when it comes to accountable talk? That is where the experimentation begins.

For our teachers, the emphasis is on the classroom as a learning lab where we experiment with instruction, because we can’t possibly know all of the pieces that need to be in place until we try.  All we have is theory and research, until we try.  We need to learn it for ourselves. We need to learn by doing.  And when we do, I’ll share our learning with you.  Please share your learning with us.

More Resources on Classroom Talk

Me Read And How: Ontario Teachers Report on How to Improve Boys’ Literacy Skills
Discovering Voice (Video)
Grand Conversations in the Junior Classroom
Let’s Talk About Listening
Year 7 Speaking and Listening Bank (England)

Photo by Wader 

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