Understanding Classroom Dialogue

What do we mean when we talk about dialogue for teaching and learning?

Talk is used for many purposes, both in educational and in wider social settings. Dialogue can be thought of as particular type of talk that enables learning through the exchange of ideas. In this section we look at the meaning of dialogue and consider its value for learning in whole class and group settings.


In a dialogue, language is used as a tool to enable people to come to an understanding of one another’s knowledge and perspectives. Importantly, dialogue enables ‘interthinking’ and the co-construction of new knowledge, at least for those taking part in the dialogue. Dialogue is therefore talk with a very distinct character and purpose; its use in the classroom is central to the development of learning with understanding.

Core Activities and Readings

Dialogue is a generally under-represented type of talk in classrooms. In these two readings, ideas about dialogue are examined in relation to the use of talk for different purposes in the classroom. In reading them, start to consider your own practice and the extent to which dialogue is already a part of teaching and learning in your classroom.

Reading 1: Classroom talk and teaching

Reading 2: Neil Mercer on dialogue

Below are three brief activities to get you thinking about your own practice. It may be a good idea to write down your immediate responses.

  1. Consider an example of useful talk that you have heard recently in your classroom.
  2. Consider a student that you feel does not benefit from group work; who finds working with others difficult; with your ideas about why this is the case, and what impact this has on their learning.
  3. Consider your ideas about what you believe needs to be put into place to support talk for learning in the classroom.

Additional resources

You may wish to go further in an initial exploration of your role in promoting dialogue in your classroom. Try carrying out the ‘Talk Audit’ below to see which strategies you commonly use in your teaching (simply colour the blocks from 1 to 5 to show the frequency with which you engage in practices with your class). Any surprises?

Activity 1: Talk and teaching audit


Teachers use talk in the classroom for many purposes. These include such things as providing information, checking understanding, maintaining control and setting up future activities. All of these functions of talk are important. However, in terms of developing teaching to promote learning, there are some uses of talk by the teacher that can be thought of as being dialogic. Modelling and encouraging dialogic interactions in the classroom is the main way in which a teacher can develop a ‘dialogic classroom culture’; this is the focus of the materials presented below.

Core Activities and Readings

Teachers can help students to think dialogically in many ways: by linking present activities to past experience, so that students can see that their existing knowledge can be used in addressing a new problem; by relating students’ existing ideas to new educational frames of meaning in subject or topic learning; and by modelling ways of using language so that students can see how talk can be employed to share and develop knowledge.

This reading examines what dialogic teaching might look like with a whole class. It considers what strategies we might adopted in developing a ‘dialogic culture’ in our classrooms:

Reading: Dialogic Teaching – orchestrating effective dialogue in whole-class sessions

One way to develop our practice is to examine what we do already. If you haven’t already, try carrying out the ‘Talk Audit’ below to see which strategies you commonly use in your teaching (simply colour the blocks from 1 to 5 to show the frequency with which you engage in practices with your class). Any surprises?

Activity 1: Talk and teaching audit

The TERC Project examined how a teacher’s ‘talk moves’ could model and encourage dialogue in their classrooms. Using this resource, consider how you might use the idea of goals and talk moves to develop your dialogic interactions with your students. What do you already do regularly? What do you need to develop?

Activity 2: Talk goals and moves

In focusing on talk with our students, it is sensible to start by getting them to consider what they think about the purpose of talk in different contexts. This resource suggests ways in which you might stimulate discussion the ways in which talk is used differently in different contexts.

Activity 3: Talk about talk

Additional resources

This video presents a brief introduction to the work of Robin Alexander, an academic whose work has led to an understanding of dialogue and pedagogy across cultures. Consider how some of the ideas that appear here provide a supporting rationale for the work that you have done in this section.

Activity 1: Robin Alexander


A teacher can model the interactions expected between students when they work in groups. Though group work is sometimes derided as ineffectual, this is only the case where children do not understand what is required to make their group work productive for learning. For it to be more effective it needs to include such dialogic features as reasoning, justifying ideas, acknowledging and repeating the ideas of others, asking focused questions, working towards agreement and elaborating on ideas.

This doesn’t come naturally to children. To develop dialogue between students the teacher needs to both model dialogue in their own interactions with the class, and actively teach students to use exploratory talk in their group activities. This section considers how to do this by embedding ground rules for talk into group interactions.

Core Activities and Readings

Talk comes in many forms. The resources below provide readings and activities that will support your work with students in helping them to understand the nature of talk for learning. It is useful to work through them in the sequence that is presented here.

Neil Mercer characterises group talk into three broad types – disputational, cumulative and exploratory.

Activity 1: Three kinds of talk

You may also wish to consider why it is important to think about the character of talk in students groups.

Reading 1: Classroom talk in groups

To make your students aware that talk for learning might not be the same as ‘just talk’, try the following activities:

Activity 2:

Activity 2a: Preparing students for exploratory talk

Activity 2b: Finding out by talking together

Talking points are an excellent way of getting students to share their ideas. Try these with your students.

Activity 3: Talking points about talk

Once students have considered the different purposes of talk to suit different contexts, it is important that they consider in detail how they might talk together in groups in ways that will develop their learning. The best way to do this is to get them to devise a set of ground rules for talk.

Reading 2: About ground rules for talk

Activity 4:

Activity 4a: Ground rules for talking and thinking together

Activity 4b: Student ground rules for exploratory talk

Additional resources

Reading 1: Group work – ensuring that all students collaborate in educationally effective group work

There are many ways for students to practice the ground rules for talk. One idea is the use of ‘magic number squares’.

Activity 5: Magic number squares€“

Additional ‘Thinking Together’ materials can be found at


Essentially, we are trying to get the students to do the following things when working together:

  • Invite elaboration or reasoning
    (Key words like “why?”, “how?”, “what caused?” or speculation/prediction would/could/might happen if….?)
  • Make reasoning explicit; justify
    (Key words like “because”, “so”, “therefore”, “thus”, “imagine if”)
  • Build on ideas: Make a relevant contribution to the dialogue by building on, adding to, reformulating or clarifying one’s own or other’s contributions
  • Connect: Make explicit links to ideas / positions / arguments / artefacts / prior contributions or knowledge beyond the immediate dialogue

In all activities, where appropriate, we should be encouraging them to do these things; a focus on the ground rules for talk helps here.

In addition it may be useful to set a specific dialogic intention for the Talkwall task. This means devising tasks that use Talkwall specifically to build on ideas; provide reasons/elaborate/justify; or connect.


Below is a repertoire of how Talkwall can be used in whole class and group settings to create dialogue around ideas. Consider this a ladder, where simple uses of Talkwall are at the top, and more advanced uses of Talkwall follow.

The organiser's screen displaying the feed of contributions.

Whole class dialogue

Invite elaboration or reasoning

The teacher invites contributions to Talkwall from individuals/small groups; these can then be used as a basis for whole class dialogue.

Students may use any device to contribute, including their smartphone.

How to:

Group dialogue

Build on ideas

The students engage in dialogue around an activity, using Talkwall to accumulate ideas. Students can modify their own ideas, and use, edit and comment on other students´ contributions. This feature would need to be carefully managed by the teacher – e.g. the teacher may assign contributions to be commented on by other students.

If they use another student’s contribution as the basis for their idea it is important that they make it clear how their contribution builds on what has gone before – this is a key feature of exploratory talk.

How to:

A participant's screen with the feed of contributions.

The organiser's screen displaying the organiser's wall. The feed panel is closed, and the contributions are enlarged using the zoom in the right corner.

Whole class dialogue

Make ideas explicit, ask for reformulations or clarifications

Contributions in the feed can be pinned by the teacher for further work at the wall.

All messages, whether posted by teachers or students, can be moved and arranged on the participants’ walls.

How to:

Group dialogue

Make reasoning explicit, identify #ideas

Students can use hashtags to highlight keywords and phrases. Hashtags can also be added to previously posted messages.

When discussed, the class can be asked to interrogate the relevance of hashtags to the contribution, for example by the teacher asking ‘why do you think that this idea goes here?’ ‘why do these ideas go together?’ ‘why would we not put this idea here?’

The important point is that students have to make their reasoning behind their decisions clear as they group the hashtags.

How to:

A participant's screen displaying the feed and the editor.

The organiser's screen displaying the feed to the left, the organiser's wall in the background and the filter to the right.

Whole class dialogue

Make explicit links to #ideas

The teacher can filter students’ contributions both in the message feed and on the wall. This is an effective way to review a large number of contributions. The teacher may ask the students to use specific hashtags, such as #pro, #contra, #fact, #opinion, #reason, etc. and use the filter to quickly get an overview of the group work.

How to:

Group dialogue

Make links between ideas, identify key ideas

Students can organize their ideas by dragging their contributions on their own wall.

Once ideas have been placed on the wall, a focus on one idea can be achieved by highlighting the contribution. Here, the point is to get the students to examine the statements in more depth, either as a class or in groups.

How to:

A participant's screen displaying the feed and the participant's wall. One contribution is highlighted.

The organiser's screen displaying all the participant's walls in the panel to the left. The selected wall is displayed instead of the organiser's wall.

Whole class dialogue

Ask groups to explain their links to ideas

If students have been asked to create individual or groups walls, the teacher can select and display students’ walls.

This is helpful if the teacher wants to show different participants’ ideas and participants’ organization of these ideas.

How to: