New Year, New start, New talk culture

Written by Leah Crawford

As long as I have worked in education, I have never really lived by the rhythm of the Julian calendar.  The new year, with all its intimations of new horizons and fresh starts always feels like it starts for me in September, never January.  Yet however positive one’s outlook, most teachers acknowledge feelings of enthusiasm mixed with trepidation about the shared learning journeys that lie ahead with new classes.

Each classroom is such a complex social organism.  Students’ personal and learning histories and cultures, their language capacities, their self-concept, their propensity to contribute or withdraw is all simmering away in the melting pot that becomes the culture of your new September classroom.

And if you teach Cognitive Acceleration, with its roots in Vygotskian notions of socialised intelligence, then this diverse and complex social context for learning more than matters: an interconnected social group is the answer, not the problem.

Harnessing the potential energy of a diverse group of students to think harder because they are together is a key challenge and joy for the CA teacher.  The quality of dialogue and relationships – let’s call it the discourse culture of the classroom – is the very foundation we use to develop cognition.  Let’s be honest.  Students don’t think better and do better in school just because they sit and talk in groups.  The effort and strategy needed to realise this potential is rooted in teachers’ belief in the power of social construction and – crucially for the subject of this blog – the belief and skills that teachers build with their classes that connecting with others and building ideas together helps us to develop new ways of thinking.

Some ‘norms’ in a classroom discourse culture are established quickly: norms like ‘Don’t speak without first raising your hand’ or ‘Don’t talk while someone else is talking,’ are common and often overtly shared and insisted upon, particularly with new classes.  If you were to walk around your school for a day, what other talk norms would you observe?

  • Teachers asking a question and taking answers from the same few children who first raise their hands.
  • Children working in a group in which one child dominates and others are passive or disgruntled.
  • Children who, when asked to contribute say ‘I don’t know’ and so another child is cued in to rescue the moment.
  • Children who remain silent in all classroom talk and yet their written or other outcomes reveal fascinating insights.

In many of the classrooms we as tutors have visited over the years, norms like these have been allowed to develop that are not conducive to the development of positive social, emotional and educational outcomes.  Indeed, learners are likely to enter your class with different propensities to contribute, disrupt, talk at length or have confidence in their ideas: yet all of these psycho-social behaviours are, like intelligence itself, malleable and open to change given the right context and intervention.

In my own teaching and tutoring of Let’s Think in English, I have found it helpful to think about these three approaches to shifting the existing discourse culture inertia:

  1. Making some very tangible, structural and physical changes in class to signal a cultural shift: a different way of working together
  2. Adopting some key teacher-talk behaviours conducive to equitable, inclusive and exploratory talk
  3. Engaging in some overt negotiation and evaluation of goals for small group talk alongside learners


Let’s explore those first two territories a little before we focus mainly on the third.  These first two are the strands most commonly explored in CA Professional Development and so less of a focus here.

  1. Signal a tangible cultural shift

By this, we mean:

  • the arrangement of pupils, of furniture and the sharing of resources to facilitate small group to whole group talk
  • the careful construction of small groups, mindful of diversity, current attainment and additional needs.
  • The initial signalling of basic guidelines for how small groups will think well together e.g.
    • include everyone,
    • listen well,
    • try to arrive at and share a group answer.
    • You will be cued in by name to share your group answer


  1. Teacher modelling of talk behaviours

As teacher, the tone and tenor of your talk moves are perhaps the most powerful intervention tool in the classroom to reset the discourse culture.  Our key tenet in the CA classroom is to encourage pupils to share their initial thoughts however uncertain, unhampered by needing to compete or be ‘right’.  Talk that signals modality in thought and mood powerfully resets the purpose of talk to explore not assert:


‘Take time to explore this question with your group…’

‘Karim – what has your group been thinking?’

‘Are there other possible ideas in the room?’

‘Let’s pause for a moment: what ideas do we have so far?’


Crucially in CA, teacher talk moves need to encourage pupils to elaborate, explore and deepen, moving from thinking to reasoning as described by Patricia Alexander.  The most powerful feedback response to a pupil’s answer, is not to evaluate it but for our feedback to prompt further thinking.  The 4 types of prompt below correlate strongly with improved pupil efficacy, improved quality of responses, and improved academic outcomes over time in studies by Noreen Webb, Mercer and Howe and Michaels and O’Connor


  • Prompts to clarify e.g. ‘What do you mean by…?’
  • Prompts to elaborate e.g. ‘Could you say more about…?’
  • Prompts to explain/evidence e.g. ‘What led your group to think…?’
  • Prompts that encourage pupils to respond to each other’s thinking e.g. ‘What do you think of what Karim’s group have just shared?’


  1. Pupils negotiating their own goals for group talk

 From Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Inside the Black Box’ and more specifically, Neil Mercer’s work on Exploratory Talk and Michaels and O’Connor’s Accountable Talk, we have evidence of the deep benefits of clarifying and negotiating learning behaviours and intentions with learners.

If we believe that we are designed to learn better together, we can go even further together if pupils are conscious of, talk about and reflect on productive group talk behaviours in order to improve them. Yet balancing talking about talk and talking about the unfolding subject of a lesson can be difficult.

The cycle in the graphic below is offered as a helpful guide to introducing and maintaining cycles of metacognitive reflection about talk with teaching groups.  It is not intended to be used every lesson: this would not only be a distraction from the time and space to think, but also learners need time to embed new behaviours until they begin to become more of a norm.


Tool 1: Group Guidelines for Exploratory Talk


The setting of ground rules emerged as a key tenet of Mercer and Dawes’ original Thinking Together project which has grown into the wider work of Oracy Cambridge at Hughes Hall – a key collaborator with the education consultancy and charity Voice 21.  Starting with a prewritten list of rules, like the one below, is a fruitful starting point.


To improve our thinking together in class we…


  • make sure everyone contributes
  • listen actively
  • respect each other’s ideas
  • explain our ideas
  • try to come to a shared agreement


What is vital is that pupils explore the why and the how and feel able to adapt and adjust these guidelines over time.

 Does the group agree that these are useful guidelines?

Which of these if any are secure already in the group – and which do we most need to improve on? 

There is easily enough matter here to provide a year’s worth of development for any group, if these goals are really explored and broken down into tangible behaviours.  Equitable contributions alone can take time and a concerted strategy to develop.  One Year 7 group I worked with were asked why this was important:


  • It’s only fair that we all get a turn
  • We can have more ideas together
  • We could miss a brilliant idea from someone


The steps they agreed to achieve this goal were:

  • Take turns to speak first in the group
  • Cue in quieter group members with ‘What do you think?’
  • Take turns to feed back the group’s idea


It is well worth searching the web for the Voice 21 Listening Ladder for another example of the way that manageable, granular steps can be set over time.


Tool 2 Progression in talk taxonomies

These tools can be used either beyond or instead of initial group guidelines, depending on your confidence as a teacher and the abilities and reflective capacity of your teaching group.  They are perhaps more aligned to the educational purpose of Let’s Think in that interpersonal skills are only a starting point – with improved socialised intelligence as the core goal.

Learning behaviours for thinking: Where are we?  Where next?

  • Which step 1-4 best describes the current behaviours of our group?
  • Which behaviours are we best at?
  • Which behaviours need developing?
  • How will we meet these goals? What will we see happening?


 4 dimensions of dialogue: talk that improves thinking

This tool was devised from a research paper by Hoffman and Ruthven (2018) which reviewed existing literature on dialogic talk norms and filtered them into four dimensions which move in a similar way from the interpersonal foundations of thinking together to the ways that authentic exchange can give rise to new levels of understanding.


Some teachers have found it useful to reveal the dimensions in stages to render goal setting manageable.  The green dimensions form the interpersonal foundations for socially situated thinking and the purple move into behaviours needed for ideational exchange and development.


If questions or professional development needs arise as a result of reading this blog, do feel free to get in touch.  Bringing the power of Vygotskian theory alive with new classes in September is no easy feat – but setting sail with your eyes on the horizon, a well-held tiller and crucially – your pupils as co-pilots – is a great way to start.


Leah Crawford

Education Consultant and Let’s Think in English Tutor

[email protected]