Course 3: Talk and Engagement


“Talk is the foundation stone of all learning.”

Debra Myhill

  • Talk is the foundation of literacy.
  • Talk is important for the development of thinking and understanding.
  • Learners need to be active in their learning and talk helps in developing agency for learning.
  • All learners need opportunities to practise new language.

  • Week 1: Understand the theoretical constructs that underpin the importance of talk for learning.
  • Week 2: Employ a range of strategies that maximize talk in the classroom. Develop routines and tools for speaking practice in the classroom: ‘tools for talk’.
  • Week 3: Design learning experiences that move students language along a continuum from spoken to written language.

Work through the materials under the tabs first. Then use the flipboard magazine to delve deeper and support your own inquiries.

Week 1: What the research says about talk and learning

Content Area Conversations


Explore the Talk and Engagement Flipboard magazine.

“Communication is about the creation of meaning with others.” (Wells, 1986)

Neil Mercer, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge is an advocate for talk in education and has done extensive research on its importance. Talk in education does not seem to get as much attention as other modes of literacy (Pauline Gibbons, 2015), but the development of spoken forms are essential for language learners as a bridge to the more academic language associated with learning in school, and with the development of literacy.

The following is quite a long talk about talk and learning, but useful to watch to get a deep understanding of the theoretical constructs that support talk for learning. As you listen, you will see talk for learning shares the same theory that underpins Social Constructivism. You may also want to read Developing Dialogues by Neil Mercer.



As children acquire their first language, they spend tens of thousands of hours first listening, and then speaking. We are immersed in language, long before we are asked to read or write. Obviously, emergent bilingual learners do not have that amount of time. Nor is this necessary when learning a new language, because learners bring with them a wealth of knowledge about how language works that can easily be transferred to a new language. However, the principle of the sequence- listening and speaking before reading and writing- can be applied to literacy and content learning in a new language. This does not mean that students must learn to speak English before they learn to read and write, but it suggests that:

oral language is the building block for reading and writing. It allows students to develop their understanding of concepts and academic language.

As the talk by Neil Mercer illustrates, it is through social interaction that learning occurs. According to this view, as children engage in dialogue with others, they develop not only understanding, but thinking skills as well. As they talk about the best way to solve a Maths problem, they are engaged in both solving the problem and thinking about the process of solving the problem. As they talk about a story, they arrive at an understanding about the meaning, at the same time as they participate in a process for constructing meaning. They are practising and applying strategies for learning even as they are learning (Rothenburger and Fisher, 2007).

As emergent bilingual students engage in academic conversations, they learn concepts, develop strategies for learning, and improve their skills in English at the same time. These conversations require them to use language that is understandable to others in their group. They receive immediate feedback as they communicate their ideas, perhaps having to restate or clarify a statement in order to make themselves understood. This negotiation of meaning extends their linguistic abilities and pushes them to the next level of proficiency.

A focus on talk and engagement in the classroom is therefore important for learners at every stage of language learning.


As is clear from Neil Mercer’s lecture, spoken language enables us to do much more than share information – it enables us to think together. But as teachers, do we always use it to best advantage? And do we give enough attention to enabling children to use language as a tool for learning and problem-solving?

On his website he explains how years of practical, classroom-based research in several countries and with learners of all ages has provided useful answers to these questions. The Thinking Together Project is:

  • A dialogue-based approach to the development of children’s thinking and learning
  • It promotes children’s awareness and use of talk as a tool for thinking – they learn to not merely interact but to interthink
  • It connects the development of children’s ‘thinking skills’ to the development of their communication skills and curriculum learning
  • It emphasises the importance of both teacher–pupil and pupil–pupil talk.

He also provides some downloadable material for researchers and teachers, with links to useful books, research projects and other websites.

Promoting student’s awareness of talk and how it contributes to learning is important. Develop and blog about a learning engagement for students that focuses on the importance of talk and engagement. This worksheet (developed by Neil Mercer) can be used as the initial basis for an activity in which students consider together how to make their talk in groups most effective. This is another idea of a teacher getting students to reflect on their use of oral language to improve language learning outcomes.

Explore other resources on the Thinking Together website. Adapt for your own subject area and blog about a learning engagement you developed for your learners.

It is clear from the research that there is a symbiotic relationship between listening, speaking, reading and writing. As Britton (1993) puts it, “telling does not equate to learning”. Oral language requires focused attention on planning. Altering the ratio of teacher to student talk, doesn’t just happen. Rather, it occurs through both believing in the importance of student talk and planning with a clear purpose and expectations. Blog about the ratio of talk in your classroom and how you developed an engagement with a clear purpose of improving talk for learning.


In his talk, Neil Mercer mentions that becoming educated means becoming inducted into new communities of discourse, each with their distinctive ways of thinking, new ways of making sense of the world and new dialogues. This is also referred to as ‘register’. Blog about the ‘community of discourse’ or ‘register’ in your subject area. 

What are others blogging about? Don’t forget to tweet your blogpost using #speltac. See what others have shared by searching #speltac.

Week 2: Maximizing talk in the classroom

Three Strategies for Enriching the Quantity and Quality of Classroom Talk

A selection of talk and engagement strategies including video from the Teacher Toolkit.


What is Comprehensible Input?

Questioning Techniques (includes an animated slideshow)

Explore the resources on Jeff Zwiers’ page

How much time do we as teachers spend time talking? How much time do our students spend talking? When we talk, what is the type of talk we engage in?

Teacher-talk supportive of language development

Go through this presentation about talk in the classroom. The first part is about teacher-student talk. Try to formulate the type of teacher talk that is supportive of language development.



Comprehensible Input

Comprehensible input  (Krashen, 1982) is the term used for the idea that for language acquisition to occur, learners need to be able to comprehend what is being said. This does not mean simplified input. There are many ways to make language comprehensible:

  • use of the mother tongue
  • visuals, pictures, diagrams, graphic outlines
  • drawing on previous experiences or learning
  • practical demonstrations and experiences
  • gestures and mime
  • symbols
  • interactive multi-media texts
  • expressing ideas in more than one way

What this means is that as teachers, we should use authentic subject-specific language but make it accessible to learners, rather than relying on simplification of language.

Making teacher talk a learning-rich experience

Pauline Gibbons (2009) summarizes some key points to think about in your own interactions with language learners:

  • Slow down (not simplify!) the discourse: provide thinking time by extending wait time, allowing students to think through their answers before responding to your question.
  • Listen to what students are saying (not only for ‘prescripted’ answers) and respond accordingly.
  • Treat learners as successful conversational partners.
  • Allow time and opportunity for thinking processes to be made explicit through talk.
  • Ensure that all students are given opportunities and support to speak.


Explore this resource to learn more about the role of questioning in the classroom and its effect on student learning.


“When students are required to produce language, they process it at a deeper level than when they merely listen.” (Swain, 1995)


Vygotsky (1986) used the terms ‘inner speech’ and ‘outer speech’, to explain how important verbal interaction is for learning. Inner speech can be explained as the use of mental talk one does self to self. Outer speech is the external interactions one has with other people. This external interaction allows one to continue to explore and problem solve in order to clarify ideas or concepts with self (inner talk). For example, as a teacher you might talk with a colleague about how best to deliver a unit of work. As you talk (which involves listening to the other person), you will possibly clarify the pedagogical approach you will use as well as the content to be covered. This is also referred to as ‘exploratory talk’.

Explore the second part of the slideshow, about student talk in the classroom.

Watch this example of students engaging in ‘exploratory talk’.

Using the home language for ‘exploratory talk’

Classroom talk is important for the development of thinking and language. This is why, where possible, the use of the home language for ‘exploratory talk’ is a good strategy. It will help students access their ‘inner speech’ and work through ideas, as well as later on make the connections between the content and ideas in English.

Speaking activities that work

Communicative activities are important for all learners to acquire new ways of thinking and talking. They are based on the idea that language is acquired through use. The emphasis should initially be on approximation rather than accuracy to encourage confidence and risk-taking and to develop understanding of a concept. If we provide students with opportunities to engage in problem-solving and the negotiation of meaning through extended and sustained conversations, students will extend and stretch their language.  When selecting speaking tasks, consider the following (Hertzberg, 2015)

  • Is talking necessary?
  • Is there an information gap (see below)?
  • Is interaction necessary? Are all children involved, either in speaking or listening?
  • Will the experience involve the students in natural, meaningful conversation?
  • Are models of language available for students who need support?
  • Are relevant ‘chunks’ or stretches of language being reinforced?
  • Is there sufficient visual and contextual support to enable emergent bilinguals to interpret meaning?


Tasks that bring thinking to the surface and encourage extended conversation

Visual Thinking Routines are a good example of these kinds of tasks, but they can  be tasks that:

  • Provide a structure and purpose for students to solve problems together
  • Help students make their own ideas explicit
  • Provide an opportunity to engage in meaningful subject-related language. Pauline Gibbons (2009)

Information gap activities

Battleship and Guess Who are examples of commercial information gap activities, in which students do not all have the same information. Every student must talk and exchange differing information to complete the task. They need to negotiate to ensure they receive accurate information. Here are some examples:

  • Students work in large groups or as a whole class. Each student has a picture
    Information gap for a unit on art

    Information gap for a unit on art

    that explains an order or a process. The students must circulate to work out the order or the process. Here is an example of an information gap activity for a unit on rice production.

  • Fill in the chart (or jigsaw): Students work in partners. The students are both given tables with information missing. What is missing in one partner’s table is there on the other partner’s table and vice versa. Students must ask each other questions to discover what is missing in each of their tables. This activity can be done as a jigsaw reading.
  • Back-to-back viewing: Students sit in two lines, back-to-back to view and listen to media (film, documentary etc.). One person records what they hear on a matrix and the other writes down what they see. In pairs they share their information. They swap positions and view the next section.

Here is a list of communicative activities appropriate for beginner English language learners.

Text reconstructions

Getting students to reconstruct texts is a good way to allow students to practise negotiating language choice and to familiarize themselves with subject-related vocabulary. Dictogloss is such an activity.

Teaching students about successful talk

Evaluating discussions with the Fish Bowl strategy

Evaluating discussions with the Fish Bowl strategy

In our international school context, students come from various educational backgrounds. The interpersonal dimensions of language are not always focused on in the classroom and our learners come to us with different experiences of a teaching and learning culture (think for example, of a child who is only used to the teacher talking). Collaborative work might therefore be a new challenge and children may be unsure of expectations. As Mercer (2000) points out, sometimes students don’t always know what successful talk looks like, so merely telling students to get into a group and talk is often counter-productive.

Interpersonal skills of working in a group need to be taught explicitly. Mercer developed a series of lessons designed to learn about talk and how to use it effectively with others. This worksheet (developed by Neil Mercer) can be used as the initial basis for an activity in which students consider together how to make their talk in groups most effective. This is another idea of a teacher getting students to reflect on their use of oral language to improve language learning outcomes.

Explore other resources on Neil Mercer’s Thinking Together website.

Here are some ways other SPELTAC participants have used talk in their classrooms:

The Spider Web Discussion by Simon Underhill

Talk and Engagement: Focusing on Quality Discussions in Grade 5

As a learner, how is your understanding changed when you are provided time to talk with peers as opposed to merely listening?

Effective talk and group work doesn’t just happen. Blog about strategies you use to promote effective group work.

Try out a strategy that maximizes talk in the classroom. Video students and embed this on your blog. Here is a good example.

Develop an information gap activity. Record student talk and reflect on how students had to stretch their language.

What are others blogging about? Don’t forget to tweet your blogpost using #speltac. See what others have shared by searching #speltac.

Week 3: Extending language from spoken to written

View this video explaining BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills) and CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency).


The following is a good example of the different types of language used in a lesson sequence. Notice how the language changes from context embedded (you need things there to explain) to context-reduced (you can only rely on language itself to make clear what you mean).



There are many ways we can extend student language from spoken to written, or from BICS to CALP. We can do it through student-teacher scaffolding (recasting what the student says), such as the example below:



Lesson design

As was mentioned in course 2, lesson design is also an important way to extend student language. Read the chapter in Pauline Gibbon’s book Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning for an example of how through a series of classroom activities, students’ language is extended along the mode continuum. Here is another example of a SPELTAC post documenting how to do this.



In order to move students language across the continuum from BICS to CALP or from spoken to more written like language, we need to:


  • identify the target language, i.e. the language we want students to be able to use.
  • provide students with opportunities to use ‘exploratory talk’, so they can turn their ‘inner speech’ to ‘outer speech’, build on each other’s ideas and extend their thinking and language.
  • give students opportunities to practise the new language through communicative activities.
  • allow students to practise using the newly acquired language by ‘sounding like an expert’. Below is an example of students ‘souding like an expert’ for a unit of inquiry on energy:


Develop a series of activities that move your students language along the mode continuum. Document this on your blog. Include short videos of students using ‘exploratory talk’ and more academic language as they move along.

Record an example of teacher-student talk, showing how you recast what a student says in order to support academic language development.  Embed this in your blog.

What are others blogging about? Don’t forget to tweet your blogpost using #speltac. See what others have shared by searching #speltac.

Self- assessment tools

SPELTAC blogging rubric

Are you a SPELTAC practitioner?

References and resources

Embedding video into your post, by Matthew Dolmont

Gibbons, P. (2009) English Learners, Academic Literacy and Thinking

Ron Ritchard’s site  (Visible Thinking, Cultures of Thinking, Intellectual Character)

Visual Thinking Website

Recommended reading (If talk and engagement is part of your inquiry, consider purchasing these books)

Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings

Moving from Spoken to Written Language with ELLs

  • Write a minimum of two blog posts, using the SPELTAC approach. Use the blog ideas or create your own based on the course’s big ideas and your own classroom inquiries.
  • Give feedback on at least four other blog posts.
  • Tweet your posts using #speltac. You are encouraged to document, notice and name examples of  SPELTAC practice in the school and tweet these.

Staff-led PD Day: expectations

The SPELTAC approach to learning

Learn and plan

Follow online courses. Plan for language learning and literacy based on new ideas, alone or with a co-teacher. Establish language objectives and develop learning experiences that stretch language for all learners.

Make learning visible

Make language learning visible, using a variety of tools for formative assessment.


Document learning experiences on the SPELTAC blog; reflect, relate and curate. Make connections with previous learning and student work. Use screenshots, pictures, video and audio of student learning.

Share and connect

Online, share blog posts with other educators, read and learn from other blogs. Connect, and get new ideas and understandings about language learning. Offline, join inquiry groups. Discuss, create, plan and lead.
Bilingualism in International Schools
Linguistically Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Education: Helping Immigrant Children Realize Their Bilingual Potential
Second Language Students in English-Medium Classrooms: A Guide for Teachers in International Schools
Equal Rights to the Curriculum: Many Languages, One Message
Translanguaging with Multilingual Students: Learning from Classroom Moments
Educating Emergent Bilinguals: Policies, Programs, and Practices for English Language Learners
A Grammar Companion - for Primary Teachers
Teaching Language in Context
Language Assessment In Primary Classrooms
Mastering Digital Literacy
Leading the New Literacies
Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World
Mastering Media Literacy
Mastering Global Literacy
Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
Third Culture Kids - The Children of Educators in International Schools
Building Academic Language: Meeting Common Core Standards Across Disciplines, Grades 5-12
Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom
English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone
Bridging Discourses in the ESL Classroom: Students, Teachers and Researchers

SPELTAC's favorite books »

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