Teacher talk: the missing link

Back in 2008 I was told by an Ofsted inspector that I talked too much. I had always prided myself on being considered an outstanding teacher, and was devastated to be told my lesson was “satisfactory to good”. My attempts to probe this judgement got little further; he offered no criticism of what I’d said or how I’d said it, just that I’d spoken for too long.

This came as huge blow to my self-confidence and I spent the next few years reinventing myself as a trendy, progressive teacher. Out with modelling and whole class instruction; in with group work, problem solving and PLTS. It worked. Lesson observations were given the thumbs up, the kids were having a great time and results were going up. Smiles all round.

When I started writing this blog back in July 2011 I was very much into experimenting with saying less and less, and making the kids discover more and more for themselves. In fact, in one of my earliest posts, I explained how the very title of the blog came from a technique of getting students to act as teachers in order to leave me free to ‘observe’ learning. Occasionally, some of the more academic students complained that they wanted me to ‘just tell them stuff’ but I dismissed that as the product of too much spoon-feeding from other, less exciting teachers.

Signing up to Twitter gradually made a difference. The process of engaging in debate with other teachers who had actually bothered to learn about education came as a real eye opener. I was confounded the first time I ran up against Andrew Old embarking on one of his trade mark Direction Instruction diatribes. Could thinking, rational teachers still actually believe this? Clearly they could, and I wanted to know why. I started to read. First Hattie’s Visible Learning, and then others, including Willingham, Hirsch and Engelmann. OK, I conceded: there is a place for this kind of teaching. What’s needed is balance.

I started writing about integrating right and left wing teaching in such posts as What’s deep learning and How do you do it? and Why aren’t we supposed to teach anymore? I stated to wonder whether my love affair with teaching skills was all It was cracked up to be and started asking Should we be teaching knowledge or skills? and Is it better to be told, or to discover a fact? On the way I encountered problems such as The Learning Pyramid but still felt the need to justify Why group work works for me.

Now, I’m not completely recanting – I still believe students need to be given opportunities to work collaboratively – but I’m definitely a lot clearer on why I might want them to do it. My beliefs have shifted quite a lot. I am now firmly convinced of the need to teach students a curriculum which is predicated on expanding their horizons and giving them knowledge of the world beyond the sometimes narrow confines of their lives and have become increasingly passionate about grammar. I’m even beginning to doubt the primacy of AfL!

But perhaps the biggest shift in my thinking is on the troublesome topic of teacher talk. You see, when that inspector told me I talked too much he was basing that judgement on a body of thinking which had identified that much of what teachers were saying was guff. Teachers had had carte blanche to bang on in whatever tedious manner they decided was appropriate for far too long. It was right and proper that this view should be challenged. But, predictably, as soon as it became acceptable to critique teachers’ talk, ill-informed idiots began to interpret this as a preference for teachers not talking at all. Sort of reminds my about all the wrong-headed nonsense that’s been spouted in the name of progress

This is something that had become increasing apparent to me over the past year or so, but it wasn’t until hearing about the fabulous work Lee Donaghy is engaged in at Park View School in Birmingham that it all clicked into place. Teachers absolutely must talk if students are actually going to learn anything worthwhile; the trick is to make that talk as efficient and instructive as possible. I’ve spent the past few months experimenting with the teaching & learning cycle Lee describes and have come to the (possibly unoriginal) conclusion that its success is dependent on the quality of teacher talk. You see students’ ability to write well depends on their ability to speak well. As teacher we are modelling speech all the time. We don’t really get a choice about this – we’re either doing it badly or well. This cycle provides a model for ensuring that our talk makes the strongest possible impact on students’ ability to write, speak and think in academic register.

Genre pedagogy - T&L cycle

Genre pedagogy – T&L cycle

Stage 1 is dependent on the teacher being able to explain clearly and coherently. Alex Quigley has suggested some top tips for doing this effectively, and every teacher should give time to telling compelling stories, making analogies which shed new light on a topic and introducing academic language into their explanations. This type of teacher talk is essential if we value students being able to express abstract and unfamiliar concepts in anything other than broken, inarticulate approximations. Understanding requires knowledge of language: if you don’t have the words for a thing then you can’t think about it usefully.

Stage 2 requires teachers to model their thinking. We need to be able to show how our thoughts become writing. When students speak they rarely consider the structure of what they’re saying. Often it isn’t in sentences, and they are, quite literally, unable to organise it into anything coherent enough to remember, let alone write down. I use what I call Thought Stems to force students to focus on how not just what they’re saying.

download (2)

So instead of the insipid, unfocused open questions, and pointlessly meandering, conversational verbiage into which teacher lead discussion often descends, students are required to express their thoughts using academic language. They are forced to turn the unformed maelstrom of ideas into something that has structure and, crucially, which they can remember well enough to write down. This stage also depends on discussion.

While not all discussion has to be teacher lead, student lead discussions are only successful when teachers have modelled what a good discussion looks like. Classroom discussions need to involve every students and the outworn dialogic structure of Initiation – Response – Evaluation will not achieve this.

IRE goes a little like this:

Teacher: What is the chemical symbol for Oxygen?

Student: O

Teacher: Well done.

While this kind of ‘guess what’s in the teacher’s head’ questioning has its place in assessing what a student has memorised, it’s not at all useful for getting them to think. Instead, we need questioning that ‘requires students to think, not just to report someone else’s thinking.’ (Martin Nystrand) To that end, questions should have clear and specific purposes such as to clarify (what did you mean by that?), probe (can you tell me more about that?) and recommend (which answer do you think is best?).

Another problem with IRE is that once the teacher has selected a victim, everyone else in the room can relax: they’re safe from further interrogation until the teacher has evaluated (well done) their stooge’s response. If instead students are expected to evaluate their classmate’s responses by bouncing questions around the class expectations for participation are that much higher. Rather than wasting time with the confusion that is Bloom’s Taxonomy, I recommend 3 question stems to encourage students to evaluate each other’s responses:


So questioning could look like this:

Teacher: With your partner, discuss what you know about Oxygen. (suitable pause) Dan, what do you know about Oxygen?

Dan: O is the chemical symbol for Oxygen.

Teacher: Emma, is he right?

Emma: Er… yes?

Teacher: What else do you know about Oxygen?

Emma: You breathe it.

Teacher: Sam, which of those answers do you think is the most interesting?

Now, at this point students are often very good at snookering us with the classic, ‘I don’t know’ gambit. The appropriate riposte to this is to say something along the lines of, “I know you don’t know – I’m asking what you think.” We need to stand firm and make sure that they do think. You could hover over them and stress them out, or you could give them some discussion time. Either way,  as long as you’re clear why you’re asking the questions and let go of the need for ‘right’ answers, all will be well.

Stage 3 is where group work comes in. In order to avoid cognitive overload, students need to transfer what they’ve learned from working to long term memory. As any fool knows, the best way to do this is use what you’ve learned. Ideally, students will be forced to recall this learning multiple times until it’s second nature. This is particularly important when we’re encouraging students to shift ideas from thought, to speech, to writing. They will revert very quickly to using everyday language and we need to be on hand to gently coax them back to the unfamiliar academic register required to master the subject you are responsible for teaching.

Some ideas for organising joint construction include:


  • Getting students to work together to design their own thought stems using mark schemes to find key command words
  • Student led feedback – make students lead feedback and discussions. Some students are naturally very good at this but the less confident could lead sessions in pairs or use prompt sheets
  • Paired writing – encourage students to discuss language and sentence choices at the point of writing
  • Listening triads – to help students focus on how they speak not just what they say, get 2 students to discuss a question and the third to record their conversation – this can result in some surprising revelations
  • Value listening by asking students to feedback what they’ve heard rather than what they’ve said in a discussion.

But the teacher is still required to talk, if not to engage in whole class instruction. Our job is to help students organise ideas so that they can be used independently. One of my favourite methods for doing this is to use Question Formulation TechniqueJohn Sayer’s Deeper Questioning Grid is a useful tool to help students refine their questions:

Screen Shot 2013-07-22 at 07.05.04

Stage 4 is where they are able to work independently and at this point you should, if you’ve talked effectively, be able to finally zip it. This is true independent work, where students are confidently able to transcribe their thoughts without having to speak because of all the high quality talk to which they’ve been exposed. This is in sharp contrast to the chaotic shambles, which often gets passed off for the kind of ‘independent learning’ which many of us have been guilty of perpetrating on our undeserving charges in the name of witlessly reducing teacher talk.

The pogrom against teacher talk conducted by Ofsted and SLTs up and down the land has had almost as toxic an effect on teaching as the insanity that was ‘showing progress every 20 minutes’. Students’ ability to use academic language articulately and well requires effective modelling, and this is impossible if teachers are afraid to say anything. So, in the name of all that is holy please, please, stop telling teachers not to talk. Instead train them in how to improve the quality of their talk.

It was refreshing to hear Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that Ofsted had no preferred methodology and that didactic lessons could be outstanding, but Old Andrew’s research into the sad reality of Ofsted inspections means that being allowed to talk in lessons is the new ideological battleground between ordinary working teachers and the feckless bampots who hold us to account.

And on that note, I’ll shut up.

Further reading

Learning to Write, Reading to Learn – genre, knowledge and pedagogy in the Sydney School Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: Teaching Second Language Learners in the Mainstream Classroom

42 Responses to Teacher talk: the missing link

  1. Kaye Noone says:

    Oh my goodness I feel like you’re writing for me! I had that ofsted feedback last week after 5 mins modelling, which ’caused the pace to drop’. Unable to get over this, I have turned to pedagogical research, and am learning. There has to be a balance though – I’m incredibly frustrated by the meaningless hoops that constitute apparently ‘outstanding’ teaching. Thank you for a great article.

  2. […] Teacher talk: the missing link Paul Simon Last week the inimitable Kristian Still challenged the good people of Twitter to amass 50 different ways to introduce learning objectives. Well, after much cajoling and exhortation from Mr Still we managed it! […]

  3. Tom Sherrington says:

    This is so interesting.. I like the account of the journey you’ve been on. The robotic application of notions like ‘too much teacher talk’ is a big issue. I saw a Y11 Chemistry lesson last week on a drop-in; the teacher was talking the whole time I was there; It was brilliant. Our HoD in English did a 45 min exposition of Darwin in Literature..a masterclass; students enthralled. On the other hand I’ve been in lots of lessons where I wanted to get up and say..’I really think you’ve gone on long enough…’ with students (and me) desperate for the monologue to end. It is the quality and the content.. not merely the length! Craziness. A lot of the best lessons I see have your Stage 4. Ultimately all roads should lead to a Stage 4. Great post!

  4. @ChemistryPoet says:

    Interesting blog. I am curious about the development of professional ‘intuition’ with respect to ‘knowing’ what approach is needed at which point in a lesson; partly based on knowledge of the class and on where that class is actually ‘at’ at any particular point in a lesson? I assume that a very experienced teacher (especially when said teacher has been open to continual improvement) would become very adept at adopting elements to maintain lesson flow, pace and learning and flexible in implementing such elements? Maybe this is only possible when the teacher has confidence in their own ability and is driven by wanting to do the best they can? ‘Authoritative’ talk about approaches, and proscribed methods work against such development?

  5. Alex Quigley says:

    A great post David. I agree with your call for balance. Without going all New Labour and speaking of a ‘third way’, I see much of your focus on direct instruction AND more collaborative methods as essential. I am tired of the polarisation of the supposedly ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’. We are not arguing from a political stump – we can have nuanced views on pedagogy. As my student groups are revising there is a great deal of DI and a fistful of retrieval tasks, but at other times the balance shifts. Tom Sherrington’s point about a ‘balanced diet’ of pedagogy has stuck in my mind and I think it is more fruitful (excuse the pun!) than our EITHER/OR debate.

    The OFSTED ‘limited teacher talk’ is a corrosive and dumb message that is currently spewing its way through schools and classrooms everywhere. The business of ‘what OFSTED wants’ blows in the wind and distorts what we do. Perhaps a Royal College of Teaching could help establish a more permanent notion of best practice and we can set our own agenda, based on evidence and expertise.

    I am very glad to be included in the post.i also look forward to your AfL challenge!


  6. learningspy says:

    Thanks Tom – yes: stage 4 is the goal for any given topic and then it’s back to building the field & setting context. As with so much else in life it’s all about quality and nothing at all to do with quantity.

    And Alex, agreed: balance in all things.

    Thank both for commenting

  7. learningspy says:

    ChemistryPoet (cool moniker btw!)

    Yes, I’m all about developing that professional intuition. I’m all lot more intuitive about my teaching these days. Confidence is key – the role of school leaders is to grow this confidence in all their teachers, not to crush with meaningless, petty ‘targets’.

    Cheers, David

  8. Sue Cowley says:

    This is very interesting, thanks.

    I guess essentially what teachers do through high quality talk, is to make their own thinking visible for the students, and help the students to model that in their own learning.

    As you identify, therein lies the problem with ever doing anything in the classroom just because we think Ofsted would want us to. That way madness lies. Teachers need to figure out what they believe in, then stick with it regardless of what some external ‘authority’ says, whilst at the same time being open to new ideas or new ways of thinking. We somehow seem to have lost all confidence in ourselves as a profession, it’s such a shame. ‘Everything must be measured and everything is open to measurement’ has a lot to answer for.

  9. Dave Peck says:

    Great blog David – thanks. We have a long history of polarisation in education. Teacher talk v zipping it; knowledge v skills. The right answer is never one pole or the other but, as you say, a nuanced balance, using professional judgement, of the two…… and the right balance depends on circumstances.
    Your message needs to be broadcast widely. There has been far too little attention given to quality teacher talk and the development of oracy …. such a key to literacy.
    One answer to ‘I don’t know’ which I really like and which works surprisingly often is ‘But what would you say if you did know?’
    On the issue of embedding learning by giving students multiple opportunities to recall it, I’d add opportunities to manipulate or apply it so that deeper thinking is required, leading to deeper learning.
    Btw a couple of typos: ‘are learning’ when you meant ‘our’ early in Stage 2 and teacher / student ‘lead’ when you meant ‘led’.

  10. […] Teacher talk: the missing link. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:Like Loading… Bookmark the permalink. […]

  11. […] Unable to get over this, I have turned to pedagogical research, and am learning. There has to be a balance though – I'm incredibly frustrated by the meaningless hoops that constitute apparently 'outstanding' teaching.  […]

  12. […] < sheath6316 Get flash to fully experience Pearltrees Teacher talk: the missing link Back in 2008 I was told by an Ofsted inspector that I talked too much. I had always prided myself […]

  13. Heather F says:

    I was chatting to a head of history at a prep school (7-13 years) and he was talking about how popular the school history club was with all ages. I asked what the format was and he said he and the other history teacher took turns to give half hour talks – the last was on the history of the long bow! I assume he and his colleague have an engaging manner and good material but Kids can have such a thirst to find out interesting stuff and don’t always want to discover it themselves anymore than I want to look up a pile of stuff when I could watch an interesting documentary.
    On another point I think the limited teacher talk goal is most corrosive at primary level. In reception teachers are meant to spend most time facilitating learning activities but for children from backgrounds with very limited speech exposure that is a heck of a lot of time ‘doing’ when the one thing they need to do most to make progress is more listening. I agree they need to learn to play too but given what we know about the importance of speech for development the current obsession with cutting whole class teacher talk means kids often hear very little, at the right level, in a day. Englemann is very interesting on this as he designs curricular which use whole class interaction to teach the sorts of words that are essental building blocks for academic progress.

  14. […] Didau dangles a little nugget on Assessment for Learning in his post on Teacher Talk where he says, “I’m even beginning to doubt the primacy of AfL!” AfL has been gnawing away […]

  15. Debaser says:

    Great post.

    I’ve been using this kind of structure in my lessons recently:

    1. Discussion-based starter

    2. Modelling

    3. Independent group/pair activity

    4. Independent individual activity

    5. Plenary

    I’m interested in the idea of ‘paired writing’ and ‘listening triads’. Could you do a follow up post to explain how you approach these activities?

  16. […] Out with modelling and whole class instruction; in with group work, problem solving and PLTS. … Understanding requires knowledge of language: if you don't have the words for a thing then you can't think about it usefully.  […]

  17. […] "Teachers absolutely must talk if students are actually going to learn anything worthwhile; the trick is to make that talk as efficient and instructive as possible."  […]

  18. Jo Hetherington says:

    Another thought provoking blog David so thank you for giving up your time to share with others. I think the crux of the issue is not really about too much or too little teacher talk it’s about what’s appropriate at the time and the quality of the talk, both from the teacher and the students. Many of the respondents have said something similar and whilst I agree that there needs to be a greater freedom for teachers to use their professional intuition, they need to be supported to develop this through more effective models of professional development. Whilst people like yourself are at the forefront of pedagogical thinking there are an awful lot of teachers and also Heads for that matter, who are lagging a long way behind, especially in primary schools. I still visit too many schools where the teacher spends too much time explaining what they want children to do and then almost running out of time for them to be actively engaged in anything that will deepen their understanding of a topic. I’m not an Ofsted inspector by the way so what I tend to see is what many primary aged children experience on a daily basis and not showcase lessons.

  19. […] v chalk and talk. Do we really need to talk less? This brilliant blog by David Didau @learningspy Teacher Talk: The missing link has all the answers and has given me much food for thought! There are also links to other great […]

  20. Ali Booth says:

    Wow!! Extremely thought provoking article. There is lean towards minimising teacher talk here in NZ and it would be a shame to think that many teachers just simply begin to omit talking altogether. Chidren at our school very much rely on our teachers to model correct grammar and sentence structure. Whilst I agree that most teachers talk too much and often about the wrong things we must provide a balance and consider the quality of our talk and the impact it is having on illiciting learning. Careful thought of what and how we say things will see us providing the good role models and allowing children to discover answers and make conclusions for themselves.

  21. Shanie says:

    Hi, thank you for sharing this. I can certainly to relate to the contect and have picked up some great tips for my own practice and to share with others. Thank you!

  22. Phil H says:

    Really inspiring stuff, thank you for writing.

    I read once about an exercise during teacher training where trainees were asked to write in their lesson plan every single word that they would say during the class, and then stick to it (presumably with some flexibility on the number of times you used disciplinary phrases). Is that exercise still done? Does it work? The importance of quality seems obvious, but how does one become a better speaker?

  23. […] Back in 2008 I was told by an Ofsted inspector that I talked too much. I had always prided myself on being considered an outstanding teacher, and was devastated to be told my lesson was “satisfactory to good”.  […]

  24. Fran says:

    Thank you, thank you. Why is there so little discussion on line about classroom discourse/dialogue/teacher talk. I curate “Dialogue and Learning” on Scoopit, and finding good links is really difficult. Maybe there are 2 or 3 for every 100 suggestions.

  25. Sarah Findlater says:

    Thanks for sharing David. It is so important that our students are fed a balanced diet in the classroom. We need to mix up the teaching and learning approach we adopt in outer classrooms to enable all to come along with us. Good quality teacher talk is essential but we need to be mindful of the fact that, for a significant number of our students, this is not something they are able to retain. We need to regularly check that our students are keeping up and on board in the lesson, not straggling behind in the wake of our good ship Teacher Talk. There is a time and a place for all styles and approaches in the classroom. What we like is not always what is needed. Teachers need to know when to talk and know when to shut up.

    Let us all remember that they are the star of the show, not us.

  26. […] In future, I’ll also post links to specific blog entries of interest from around the web, such as Tom Sherrington’s thoughtful post on what it takes to get a ‘great teacher’ reputation or David Didau’s brilliant discussion of the evolving role of ‘Teacher Talk’ in his l…  […]

  27. learningspy says:

    Sarah, you say “we need to be mindful of the fact that, for a significant number of our students, [teacher talk] is not something they are able to retain.” This sounds suspiciously like Learning Styles TM.

    It may well be that there is NOT a time and a place for all styles and approaches – classroom time may be too precious to waste. This is certainly something to consider next time we’re planning a card sort.

    You say “What we like is not always what is needed.” And this is precisely the point; regardless of our preferences, if we’re not modelling & scaffolding through effective explanation, we’re not teaching.

  28. […] Edssential article from @learningspy : […]

  29. […] Didau dangles a little nugget on Assessment for Learning in his post on Teacher Talk where he says, “I’m even beginning to doubt the primacy of AfL!” AfL has been gnawing away […]

  30. […] and oral feedback ‘our bread and butter’ Alex Quigley Inclusive questioning Alex Quigley Teacher Talk- The missing link David Didau How effective learning hinges on good questioning David Didau Question time and asking […]

  31. […] too much. Now I’m much less sure about this and think that the conversation should be about improving teacher talk rather than minimising […]

  32. […] Back in 2008 I was told by an Ofsted inspector that I talked too much. I had always prided myself on being considered an outstanding teacher, and was devastated to be told my lesson was “satisfactory to good”. My attempts to probe this judgement got little further; he offered no criticism of what I’d said or how I’d  […]

  33. […] Teacher Talk: The missing link  Developing oracy: it’s talkin’ time A simple theory about writing […]

  34. […] Teacher talk: the missing link Independence vs independent learning Listen up: improving the quality of classroom discussions […]

  35. […] Teacher Talk: the missing link The shocking mediation of Ofsted criteria by ‘rogue’ inspectors Still grading lessons? The triumph of experience over hope […]

  36. […] It’s no longer anathema for teachers to talk. The misconceived nonsense that compelled teachers to stop speaking after a maximum of 5 minutes is […]

  37. […] If most teacher talk is crap, let’s stop teachers talking (I’ve written about this here.) Instead we should say, when teachers give clear, relevant, memorable explanations it really helps […]

  38. Rufus says:

    Hello, the first part of this blog seems to be very similar to the journey I am taking (I’m not an English teacher, so the rest is less important for me.)

    Would you say that this blog is still where you stand? Or have you recanted completely now?

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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