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High quality classroom talk raises educational standards

Posted on 6 July 2017

Training teachers to improve and monitor the quality of classroom talk has a positive impact on pupils’ test scores in English, mathematics and science, a report for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) on a project based at the University of York reveals.

In a randomised control trial of Dialogic Teaching - a distinctive approach pioneered by Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University - teachers from schools in Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds worked to maximise the power of classroom talk to increase pupils’ engagement, learning and attainment.

The trial, a joint project of Cambridge Primary Review Trust and the University of York, took place in 76 primary schools with higher than average proportions of disadvantaged pupils.

Typically, dialogic teaching features:

  • Interactions that encourage pupils to think for themselves; questions that invite more than recall; answers that are justified, followed up and built upon rather than merely received
  • Feedback that encourages but also informs, diagnoses and thereby propels pupils’ thinking forward; exchanges that chain together into deepening lines of understanding and enquiry; discussion that probes and challenges rather than unquestioningly accepts
  • A teaching ethos in which pupils feel secure in speaking, sharing ideas and even making mistakes because they accept that this is how they learn.

For many teachers - and pupils - dialogic teaching requires a transformation in classroom culture, but it was one that teachers and pupils in this project came to accept.

Two months progress

Using standardised tests, the independent evaluation by researchers at Sheffield Hallam University found that after just 20 weeks, the 2,493 Year 5 pupils (nine and 10 year olds) who received the intervention made, on average, two months’ more progress in English and science than a similar group of pupils who did not receive the intervention.

The intervention also boosted mathematics results by two months for pupils qualifying for free school meals (a standard poverty measure) and one month overall.

Through measures including in-service professional training, structured print materials, mentoring and video-based peer review, participating teachers were highly supportive of the approach while acknowledging its challenges.

Talk-intensive intervention

Professor Alexander said: “We have known for many years that talk is necessary for the development of children’s thinking, learning and understanding, as well as for their capacity to communicate. This is demonstrated by this independent trial, which after a talk-intensive intervention programme of only 20 weeks found pupils making test score gains of two months over their control group peers.

“These results chime with similar projects in the UK and USA and must finally force sceptics to accept that oracy is vital not only in its own right but also for learning and attainment across the entire curriculum. No longer can talk be regarded as incidental, still less as something that gets in the way of reading and writing, though we stress that what matters is not the quantity of talk but its qualities of reciprocity and cognitive challenge.

“The fact that children on free school meals did so well underlines its particular importance in contexts of social disadvantage. The results also confirm that good teaching really does make a difference and that evidence-informed professional development raises standards.”

The project was directed by Professor Alexander, who has an honorary chair at York, and Professor Frank Hardman, formerly Director of Research in the Institute for Effective Education. The project team also included Dr Jan Hardman of the Department of Education, Dr Taha Rajab and Mark Longmore. 

Further information:

-          The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is a grant-making charity set up in 2011 by the Sutton Trust as lead foundation in partnership with Impetus Trust (now part of Impetus–The Private Equity Foundation), with a £125m founding grant from the Department for Education. The EEF is dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement. Since its launch the EEF has awarded £87 million to test the impact of 142 projects reaching more than 960,000 children and young people in over 9,200 schools, nurseries and colleges across England. The EEF and Sutton Trust are, together, the government-designated What Works Centre for Education.

-          Cambridge Primary Review Trust was set up in 2013 to extend and build upon the work of the Cambridge Primary Review , which published its final report and recommendations in 2009 and was the UK’s most comprehensive enquiry into the condition and future of primary education since the 1960s. Having completed its follow-up work, the Trust was wound up in 2017. Its considerable legacy of evidence, reports and briefings now forms part of the online knowledge platform of the Chartered College of Teaching.

-          The Institute for Effective Education , which for most of this project was part of the University of York, is now an independent charity committed to improving and evaluating teaching and learning. For its final, post-trial year the project is based in the Department of Education.

-          Read the EEF evaluation report on the randomised control trial here .

-          Read the York project’s interim evaluation of the intervention’s impact on classroom talk here .

-          Find out more about Robin Alexander’s work on dialogic teaching here.

-          The project team also included Dr Jan Hardman of the Department of Education, Dr Taha Rajab and Mark Longmore.

-          Full accounts of the project’s findings will be made available during the coming months, and materials for schools based on the project’s professional development programme will be published by Routledge. Enquiries to

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