University of Sussex
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Developing exploratory talk and thinking in secondary English lessons: theoretical and pedagogical implications

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posted on 2023-06-07, 15:42 authored by Julia C Sutherland
This is a year-long, action-research project investigating how to develop pupils' exploratory talk and higher-cognitive thinking in secondary English classes. Four teachers, their Year 8 classes (110 pupils) in Sussex and an ITE educator collaborated to investigate whether the quality of pupils' exploratory talk could be improved by a structured, pedagogical approach, and to explore contextual factors and other conditions for its development. The approach included making the skills of this formal, oral discourse explicit to pupils, using pupils' ground-rules, teacher modelling and structured tasks; regular practice and critical reflection on talk. It also involved cross-school collaboration, for example, classes evaluated each other?s developing talk on video; and teachers met throughout the project to reflect on individual and collective issues and to review data and emerging findings. The data include qualitative analysis of pupil discourse taken from throughout the project, supported by associated observations and interviews with teachers and pupils. The study concludes that a rich, apprenticeship model inducting students in how to use exploratory, dialogic talk, including student critical reflection on this, contributes to the development both of this discourse and its associated higher-cognitive processes, especially in relation to the reading of texts. However, these appear to be necessary, but insufficient conditions for such development. The transformation in students? discourse depends on a more significant transformation in their identities, which is contingent on a similar shift in the range of teacher identities being performed. Practising exploratory talk gives students experience of a wider range of identities, especially for those who are unconfident, low-achieving and/or from low socioeconomic backgrounds, in particular boys, but also girls, enabling them to gain a 'voice' in school precluded by the discourses and identities generally adopted. This, thus, enables students to develop ways of talking and thinking essential for achievement across the curriculum, moving from silence at the margins to speech at the centre. Teachers need to appreciate the extent to which discourse exceeds language structures, encoding ways of behaving, valuing and 'being' and therefore being related to both the relationships and teacher/pupil identities generated in the classroom. Furthermore, the study concludes that there is a highly significant relationship between pupils practising dialogic, exploratory talk in groups and developing sophisticated reading comprehension skills: critical literacy, a key aim for all English teachers. The study defines a particular type of exploratory discourse that emerges in English lessons, when pupils are reading and collaborating in groups: 'tentative talk about text'. This is characterised by its speculative, tentative and analytical nature; its openness to plural interpretations of texts and its coconstruction of meanings.


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