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My Top Five Tips for Encouraging Talk



Encouraging Talk in the Classroom

I was delighted to be contacted by the National Literacy Trust asking me if they could re-publish an article that I wrote over five years ago about encouraging talk in the classroom. Since then, the new curriculum has been introduced – minus Speaking and Listening as a 20% component. Nevertheless, it is still an important element to English teaching, and we must never forget the importance of getting students to explore ideas through talk.

Tip 1: Designing tasks that encourage talk

The nature of pre-prepared PowerPoints can lead to too much teacher-led delivery. The students retain more information if allowed to research these areas themselves. Therefore, to encourage independence and collaborative group work, I will often start a new topic with a research, retrieval, presentation model. (See Tip 5: activities that engage and hook learners) This maximises the amount of research on a topic, which is shared, not just marked by the teacher. Group presentations encourage accountability; once key students engage, this encourages the rest. You can target and encourage the students who feel least comfortable by providing tips and assurances. All students need to be prepared to answer questions on their research topic, including key questions modelled by the teacher. Select what has worked well from their presentation and ask them to explain their ideas, approach, sources, and images.

Tip 2: Building confidence in a safe and respectful environment

For any activity where students need to communicate with the teacher, and with each other, there must be an atmosphere that encourages confidence. To explore their ideas about the texts and about the world, students need to feel secure; they need assurance that all contributions are valid and appreciated, within the expectations of the environment and the class.
I always emphasise that the need to empathise and to listen is as important as the assessment of their own spoken contributions. As part of any talk, I am always modelling this behaviour, both in how to speak and talk to each other, as well as how to listen and respond; I share my own experiences and viewpoint and encourage them to develop their own. The aim is to use their own experiences as an initial stage to encourage them to share their viewpoints. This approach highlights the importance of truly caring about what you are saying, and nurturing an environment where students feel confident and safe to share their ideas without fear of ridicule.

Tip 3: Scaffolding tasks and skills

We often overload students with information about new topics. We must never forget that these ideas and approaches are new to them! I will often bullet point a clear outline of the area they are expected to research. This helps them to select appropriate and key material and helps them maintain a focus on their task. Within the bullet points I will direct more able students towards the challenging element of the task and support them to lead and direct the group. I am then available to support and direct the weaker students, or I will pair them will someone who is supportive. The majority of students are competent at designing impressive slides for PowerPoints. The expectation is a polished and professional presentation.
Students work individually, or in pairs using ICT to organise their ideas and images. They develop an insight into how to present fact and opinion; how to use presentational devices for effect; in the final stages they are expected to discuss and collate their findings as a group.
The aim is that their thorough preparation gives them the confidence to speak to the class and to share their ideas. They are then prepared to challenge each other and to explain and justify their decisions, as well as being able to expand on their ideas.

Tip 4: Creating speaker roles and listener roles

Teachers need to create activities that truly encourage collaborative work and a purpose for listening. All students need to be aware of the task expectations. Allow for an element of choice of role, but be prepared to intervene and reassure if students have not negotiated well, or feel unhappy in their role as speaker.
I ensure I have carefully organised and balanced groups according to gender/ability/confidence. Students are given clear guidelines about the expectation of contributions – they all contribute to the research, they all have to prepare some slides on a PowerPoint, they will all have to talk in the final presentation/discussion. (See activities 3 and 5 for how the role allocations ensure all are involved in the discussion).
For students who have good organisational skills, the role of presenter/director is a good fit. They can invite discussion and questions where other students have not contributed as much as they should, they can also prevent others from dominating.

Tip 5: Engaging and hooking pupils through purposeful and up-to-date tasks

You cannot expect a student to complete a task that you would not enjoy yourself. You must put yourselves in the role of students and think about what they would enjoy and what they talk passionately about. I use current events in the news, culture, dilemmas to encourage debate and talk in the classroom. I take their learning outside the classroom.

Here are some examples of how this can be done…

1. The Culture of Celebrity – making it relevant to them!

See “Activity 1 – Group Debate: Curley’s Wife”
Love it or loath it, all students can relate to the current obsession with celebrity culture, most notably the Kardashians. Consequently, the American Dream of Curley’s Wife in ‘Of Mice and Men’ is a perfect way of reminding students that this is not a new phenomenon, and it acts as a warning that very few people have any real chance of success in this industry.
Students adopt roles, because if they rely on their own opinions it becomes too personalised. It is much more effective if they have to adopt the views of others. The gossip magazine, the plastic surgeon, the psychologist are all areas where they can claim some celebrity knowledge through the popular programmes on television. Let them negotiate their roles according to their own confidence in these areas.
It is an excellent way of highlighting the cultural and social dilemmas of women, both in 1930’s America, as well as today, but it is within a format that can engage all students at all levels. Such a task also provides an opportunity for humour. This creates a more inviting and forgiving atmosphere and produces far better results.

2. Theatre trips – developing a personal experience to draw on!

See “Activity 2 – Theatre visit and talk tasks: An Inspector Calls”
Visits and trips can act as a stimulus to discussion. We took Year 11 students to see ‘An Inspector Calls’ at the theatre. This provided us all with excellent personal knowledge that students explored through a series of Speaking and Listening tasks related to the performance. Some of the most reluctant speakers performed brilliantly because they had the cultural and personal experience to draw on. They were engaged and felt confident in expressing their own ideas related to the performance. It undoubtedly enhanced their understanding of the play. In role, the students participated in group discussions about the play, role-played a character of their choice and ‘spoke’ the thoughts of the character at a particular point in the play, and wrote reviews of the play to be published in the school newspaper. Such activities can be adapted to any theatre visit as a way of encouraging reflection of a performance.

3. Earthquake – using the media

See “Activity 3 – Group presentation using the media: “The Mexican Earthquake September 2017”
One example of using the media uses the earthquake in Mexico as a trigger for a series of language activities to prepare the students for their GCSE English Language examination. As a research and retrieval exercise to maximise their interest, I set different areas of research for different groups linked to ecology, geography, earthquake procedures, media representation, and political links. The focus on non-fiction and eye-witness accounts prepares them for a whole host of different genres, but when the content is similar, they can focus on the style of the piece, not just the content. The students use lesson time to research and plan, then they collate and order their information. The skill of selecting appropriate and relevant information from the internet is also a key skill. The activity allows for differentiation and such varied presentation of engaging information. Each research group then sent one person to form new groups to report back on their findings. (Jigsaw activity)

4. The unknown or the unseen

See “Activity 4 – Poetry presentation”
In preparation for the unseen poem section of their exam, in groups the students prepared the background to the poet and an analysis of a poem from their anthology cluster. I first teach one of the poems as a model for what I expect from them.
This approach allows for a quick introduction to the class of all the major poems. The students are often creative in their readings and through the examples they find on YouTube. I allocate the poems according to ability, gender and groupings of students. It encourages a fresh reading and interpretation of the poem for everyone (including me!) It acts as a quick introduction to the poets and the themes and it quickly becomes clear how the poems link and overlap. It gives them a clear sense of ownership of the topic and of their particular poem.

5. Whole class activity to prepare for a Group Debate – rehearsing speech in role

See “Activity 5 – : Homelessness”
In addition, to build their confidence we might complete whole class activity in preparation for a group debate. I get them to formulate their ideas by organising the students into an inner circle and outer circle. In role, a student from the inner circle faces a student from the outer circle, so they form a pair. Next, the inner students tell their story about why they are homeless to the opposite person and then they swap stories, before both circles rotate three places to form a new partnership and swap stories again. This enables students to be all on task at once, all engaged; no one is outside. The task is differentiated and they find it less imposing than standing at the front in front of everyone at one time. Once they are secure in their ideas, we explore the ideas in a group debate.


As an added incentive I always remind the students that in the current climate there is an expectation that candidates prepare PowerPoint presentations for interviews and in the workplace, and this is an excellent life skill to develop as young adults. I believe, more importantly, it gives students the confidence to formulate and debate their ideas in a formal setting and this is an important life skill in preparation for a whole hosts of situations in life.

Christine Thomas
Everything English Education Consultancy