Dialogic teaching and EAL – Part 1

In this series of blog posts, I intend to focus on the notion of dialogic teaching as not only a strategy for teaching in our classrooms (mainstream or not), but one of the guiding principles behind how teachers run their classrooms and approach interacting with their students. We’re not looking here at approaches and strategies specific to EAL learners; rather, we’re thinking of language as important for all learners, and teaching in classrooms with English as an Additional Language learners.

So what is understood by dialogic teaching? Whilst the term “conversation” and “dialogue” are frequently taken to mean the same, Robin Alexander (2005) draws a distinction between the two. Please see below, adapted from his paper given at the University of Durham.

conversvsdialogAlexander refers to Bakhtin (1986) here, who says that it is the questioning that differentiates dialogue from conversation. Unfortunately, in English schools, speaking does not have the primacy – the ‘basics’ repeatedly refer to reading and writing, and perhaps calculation, with speaking – or oracy – being something of an afterthought. The most recent Department for Education’s National Curriculum for KS1 and 2 consists of actually 132 words on talk, compared to enormous amounts of detailed lists of phonemes, graphemes and grammar that needs to be taught. It’s a case in point.

Alexander and Mercer (1995), amongst many other, speak of the stubborn dominance of a closed I-R-F exchange (initiation – response – feedback) in many British classrooms. In other words, students are asked a question in a lesson, they respond, and they are informed whether their response was acceptable or not. Dylan William does say we need to get away from I-R-F (he uses I-R-E, in fact, the E being Evaluation; feedback = evaluation). He proposes the pose-pause-pounce-bounce approach to questioning as one alternative. No hands-up, but rather:

pppb strategy

[embedyt]https://www.youtube.com/[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=029fSeOaGio[/embedyt]

Whilst William talks about cognitive development issues, and children needing to be challenged in order to progress, we’re going to look closer at values and how they might place talk – and in particular, dialogue – on a lower rung of the ladder. Alexander talks about different versions of human relations and then relates these to the versions of teaching. Please see the image below:


These different conceptions of how people relate to one another and what is deemed of vital importance in life in general will affect the status afforded to talk in a teacher’s classrooms. An individualistic teacher might wish to push their pupils into more I-R-F type of exchanges as it will be the most important to verify if the student got it right, not how their learning might be affected by others or if they can learn from others. Those collective responsibilities feature more obviously in the communitarian and collectivistic type of teachers – meaning pupils’ dependence not only on the teacher, but also on other pupils.

These notions, then, can feed into the types of teaching that practitioners will ascribe to. Alexander provides a list of 6 different approaches to teaching:


These values could also be categorised into whether they are maturationist, behaviourist, constructivist, social-constructivist and ecological. Of course, very few, if any, teachers would fall neatly into just one of these boxes – most teach and approach pupils in ways that is an amalgamation of these approaches. However, as Thomas (2013) writes, teachers have been observed (corroborating my own observations) to prefer one style of teaching or one approach to education. If educationalists on Twitter are anything to go by, they do seem to take quite opposing “camps” sometimes.

Maturationist refers to setting up educational environments in accordance with perceived children’s developing stages and then playing a relatively passive role. Ecology theorists focus on understanding the contexts in which children live (community, family) and this driving the decisions about curriculum and instruction (Daniels and Shumow, 2002).

There is an issue with a lot of teachers’ beliefs, however; it’s what has been termed as “folk pedagogy” (Bruner, 1996). Branching out from the condescending term “folk psychology” – intuitive set of beliefs about how mind works, omnipresent, but not grounded in any theory – similarly, folk pedagogies are intuitive sets of beliefs about “what will help them learn”, not necessarily grounded in any research or teaching and learning theories, with those who profess them not able to verbalise the reasons for stating them. If you are a teacher and stop for a while to think, you will know you are surrounded by these every day. Some are impossibly persistent – for instance, some schools still believe in learning styles as originally proposed by Alistair Smith in a (now) widely discredited, criticised (and to a large extent denounced by Smith himself) as scientifically unsound; in part because of his asking his readers to take the construction of his visual-auditory-kinaesthetic instruments entirely on trust (Sharp et al., 2008).

Bruner, whilst talking about these folk pedagogies does mention that anyone hoping to effect a change in education – such as, in our case, improving talk in our classrooms – will need to take on the same folk pedagogies such as the fact that many questions in teachers’ classrooms can be answered in one or two words or even with a “yes” or “no”.

Now, why do we even talk about the theories, folk pedagogies, constructivism and all the rest and do not just get on with talking about how to incorporate dialogic teaching in our classrooms? Well, before we even consider what to do, we might want to think why teachers might want to do it. If you are believe in education as transmission of facts – which authors such as E.D. Hirsch and Daisy Christodoulou largely do – then you might potentially want to be more in control of your classroom and not negotiate knowledge in your classroom the way John Dewey proposed. If, on the other hand, you are an ecology type of teacher, you are possibly more likely to take steps to address inequality if you heard from a student in your mathematics class what Lisa Delpitt (the video below, start at 9:20) cites:


The point I wish to make here is this: take a moment (a good one) to think what kind of teacher you are – or discuss with a colleague you want to convince what kind of a teacher they are – before embarking on creating a dialogic class. Challenging your own assumptions, your own folk pedagogies – and I think we all carry them with us – is a first great step towards this approach.

Alexander rightly talks about how children continue to wish to identify the ‘correct’ answers in British schools, engaging in little speculative talk, being asked predominantly closed questions. An easy link can be made between this practice and beliefs about teaching held by large numbers of teachers. I hold that this is because many have not properly examined why they hold the beliefs they hold. In addition, the outcomes-based / evidence-based system does not easily allow for it to be any other way. I will go back to Lisa Delpitt’s talk in the video above. She cites an exchange with a teacher she has had (14.08):


More importantly, how’s that working for the kids? I follow Alexander’s line of thinking, who argues:

  • Pedagogy is not simply about culturally-dry teaching techniques. Any attempt to develop a human being carries with it deep cultural, societal and historical values. Pedagogy is about acting together, working together with ideas, values and histories that accompany it,
  • Like Alexander, I consider talk to be the most powerful tool we have at our disposal. Had we wanted to put in writing everything we wish to communicate to our learners, we’d never see our own families and kids at home again. “Language,” says Alexander (p.2), “not only manifests thinking, but also structures it.”
  • If so, then it is of vital importance that we, as teachers, create opportunities for talk that allow for this mediation to happen.
  • Despite the fact that most people broadly agree with these notions, I-R-F still predominates. If the lack of dialogic talk is allowed to persist in our classrooms:
    • children might not learn as quickly as we’d like
    • they might not properly develop their skills of explanation, narration and persuasion
    • teachers might have insufficient understanding of what children’s understandings are.

Alexander argues that having a pedagogical repertoire is a must for any teacher. I think it would be hard to find a teacher that would disagree – teaching is far too complex an animal to rely or one or two strategies; a multitude of approaches is necessary. Alexander divides the pedagogical repertoire – around talk – into 3 broad categories you see in the images below.




  • rote is constant repetition
  • recitation: the growth of knowledge through questions designed to test and encourage recall
  • instruction/exposition: telling the student what to do, giving him/her information or explaining procedures
  • discussion: sharing ideas with the view to solve problems
  • dialogue: achieving shared understanding through structured questioning and discussion which hints by minimising the number of choices and speed up the transfer of concepts

It is vital to mention that, according to Alexander, the last two – discussion and dialogue – are far less used than the first three.




The ‘why use’ of dialogic teaching

It is argued that dialogic teaching – as opposed to the trasmissive type – stands the best chance for children to develop a wider talk repertoire, which in turn will enhance their understanding and diverse (and divergent) types of thinking. This kind of teaching needs to meet the five criteria:

  1. collective – teacher and children work together on tasks
  2. reciprocal – teacher and children listen to each other, share ideas, and consider different points of view
  3. supportive – children do not fear to articulate their ideas; there is no fear of embarrassment of giving answers considered ‘wrong’
  4. cumulative – teachers and children build on ideas of their own and those of others, and use this knowledge to build up a knowledge picture
  5. purposeful – talk in the classroom is pre-planned and teachers steer it towards pre-determined educational goals

Now, we see from this how this viewpoint stands in opposition to the notion that teacher is an expert. Parsons (2015), for instance, worries that the role of a teacher as an expert has been undermined of late, and teachers have “the power and opportunity to transmit this subject ‘vitality’ into the hearts and minds of pupils.” (note the words transmit and power). He fears that teacher as facilitator might lead to children learning a lot about very little as they will only talk about what they are interested in. In his view, teachers are the strongest (he uses the word “powerful”) when they “keep the pack together” as he puts, lead them in the same direction, addressing individual needs on the way.

The trouble with “keeping the pack together” is that it stands in the way of dialogic teaching. Either you are grabbing everyone along the way onto your preconceived unalterable path, thus making differences feel unwelcome (differences becoming a problem as in the phrase “to address a problem / issue” – thus becoming deficiencies in this view) or you are truly a teacher who will listen to children (as per the reciprocal criterion above). If you meet the criteria of supportive, and children’s answers are not considered “wrong”, this is clearly a different approach to the one wishing children to not stray away from a teacher’s chosen path. Yes, dialogic teaching does stipulate that you should pre-plan talk, but there is a difference between pre-planning topics to be discussed and steering it towards educational goals and ensuring that no one strays away from the ‘vitality’.

With EAL children, we have to listen to them. Try as you might, however expertly you are about your subject, I do not believe that a human being exists that will have a working knowledge of the cultures of Somalia, India, Russia, Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Wales and Japan, all of which you might have represented at your school or, in cases of schools in “superdiverse” areas such as Wembley or Bradford, you might simply have more EAL/bilingual children in your class than those monolingual ones. You need to seek out children’s input. Everything from the cultural significance of colours through your gestures to the significance of a particular tone of voice might, for all you know, be perceived differently by the children you teach because of their non-British or non-European upbringing and a variety of experience. For secondary school teachers, insisting that their expertly knowledge is superior to how they perceive the world through their familial, country and socio-linguistic lens is ignorant at best, but otherwise likely alienating to the children as it might undermines their identities. As we have seen from Lisa Delpitt’s talk, maths is as much susceptible to such issues as teaching English literature might be. Anita Bright writes in The Problem with Story Problems about the classist concepts sneaked through in word problems in Maths (textbooks) in the American context – promoting consumerism (as an American [fundamental?] values and the ability to consume normalised. Consider this:



Now, this could alienate many EAL learners as much as, quite simply, learners from poorer families. Learners have lives outside of schools we are quite simply not privy to, and we need to invite those understandings into our classrooms.

In the next instalment, I will consider collaborative learning as one of the ways to organise dialogic teaching. We’ll consider how collaborative learning differs from group work, how it can work for EAL learners whilst benefiting all learners in your classroom and what teaching talk and learning talk repertoire needs to both present and fostered through and around such activities. The hope is to add to the voices calling for more dialogic teaching in our classrooms, and to show practical strategies of how to implement these in our multilingual environments.



Alexander, R. (2005) Culture, Dialogue and Learning: Notes on an Emerging Pedagogy. Available at: http://lpuae.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/47478116/Dialogic%20teaching.pdf. Accessed 15 January 2017

Bakhtin, M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press

Bright, A. (2016) ‘The Problem with Story Problems’. In: Rethinking Schools. Vol.30(4), pp. 14-19

Bruner, J. (1997) The Culture of Education. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

Daniels, D.H. and Shumow, L. (2002) ‘Child development and classroom teaching: a review of the literature and implications for educating teachers.’ In: Applied Developmental Psychology. Vol.23, pp. 495-526

Mercer, N. (1995) The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk Amongst Teachers and Learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Parsons, C. (2015) Remodelling the ideal teacher: Sage 2.0. Available at: https://steppingbackalittle.wordpress.com/2015/05/10/remodelling-the-ideal-teacher-sage-2-0/ . Accessed 15 January 2017

Sharp, J., Byrne, J. and Bowker, R. (2008) ‘The trouble with VAK’. In: EducationalfuturesVol.1(1). pp. 89-97

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2 Replies to “Dialogic teaching and EAL – Part 1

    1. Uh… I wondered when someone would ask about this… it’s [VERY] long overdue! 🙂 I am working on it in January 2018 – have been feeling guilty about it for a very long time!
      Thanks for the reminder!

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