10 strategies for ‘talk-better’ teaching

Tharby-teacher-talkFINAL (2)

Image: @jasonramasami

Teacher talk gets a bad press. In recent years there has been a powerful movement promoting ‘talk-less’ teaching. Even though there is a modicum of truth in the observation that some teacher talk is poorly planned and unfocused with a tendency to overrun, a carefully crafted explanation is simply the clearest and quickest way to convey new ideas. During my career, talk-based pedagogic principles like ‘explanation’ and ‘modelling’ have played second fiddle to other generic strategies such as ‘questioning’ and ‘feedback’ as the focus for CPD. Of course, how we explain is mostly bound up in the content we are teaching and our knowledge of the topic; nevertheless, I believe there are some generic strategies that helpfully aid and supplement high-quality teacher-talk.

For me, there are three features found in the best teacher talk:

• New knowledge is linked to existing knowledge;
• Ideas are introduced in clear steps;
• Explanations make abstract ideas simple and concrete in the listener’s mind.

Here are ten simple strategies that I find very useful.

1. Do the work first. While strong knowledge of the content you are preparing to teach is a crucial starting point, it is not always enough. By trialling tasks before the students tackle them, you will be able to guide them past any hidden icebergs that could obstruct understanding. Granted, there is no need or time to do this with every task, so the best approach is to  pinpoint the harder tasks and problems. It is an especially useful strategy for the first time you teach a new topic, but it also helps you to hone and master your explanation of those you are already familiar with. I have found that this approach leads to focussed and thorough explanations (and questioning), and is a far more effective use of planning time than creating  slide show presentations.

2. Develop the strands. My best explanations are those that are sharply focused on the sweet spot between what students already know and what they need to know. Before explaining a new concept, start by ascertaining the class’ prior knowledge. You can do this by asking them to list what they already know,  conducting a round of whole-class questioning or completing a short list of questions or problems based on the content from previous lessons. Be sure to then pool all this knowledge. You can then mould your explanations around these shared ideas. Begin by filling gaps and clearing up the misconceptions the class already hold and then build in the new learning by taking up and extending upon the strands the students have introduced.

“Now that we all know that Sherlock Holmes was a Victorian private detective with very particular personal habits, let’s consider why Conan-Doyle’s character would have appealed to a Victorian audience…”

3. Tell stories. Daniel Willingham has written that stories are ‘psychologically privileged’. They are such wonderful resources because, as a species, we are hard-wired to attend to and remember narrative, perhaps more than any other form of imput. Stories also make for a linguistically and emotionally rich classroom. Many teachers are highly skilled at reconfiguring abstract concepts as narratives and stories for students to remember. Another useful way to use storytelling is through personal anecdotes closely linked to your learning point. I have found that my students champ at the bit for any autobiographical tidbit I send their way, even if I sometimes employ a little artistic licence in the name of education! Another strategy is to tell stories of your past students and how they overcame difficulties or how they made avoidable mistakes. Such stories offer salutary lessons from the past for your present charges.

4. Use analogies. I have written about the humble analogy before – here. Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick,  provide an excellent example of why analogy is so effective. Consider the two ways we could describe a pomelo to someone. We could say that a pomelo has sweet white flesh, is up to 25 cm in diameter and is the largest of the citrus fruits. Or we could say that it looks like a large grapefruit. The second description, the analogy, is easier to imagine because it builds upon what our listener already knows. This simple, easily-imagined description provides a concrete platform upon which more abstract details can be constructed later. Find the best analogies and cherish them – they are wonderful resources.

5. Bring the room to life. Many explanations are created in the moment in response to the unforeseen difficulties and questions that arise in any lesson. Making associative links to your immediate environment can really help with improvisation. Classroom objects, the students themselves and shared school experiences are so useful because they are a common currency, understood by all.

Let’s say you are teaching a new word: conscience. You start by sharing the dictionary definition: conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. Quickly, you realise by the nonplussed looks on your students’ faces that you have talked yourself into a cul-de-sac… so you improvise a little scenario:

“Let’s imagine that I am very hungry; I have missed breakfast this morning. I am walking past Dexter’s desk when I notice a Mars Bar has fallen out of his bag. Dexter’s back is turned; he’ll never realise it was me. I go to pick it up and at the last moment I stop myself. My conscience has stepped in…”*

6. Frontload your sentences. When introducing a new idea, avoid starting your sentences with dependent clauses such as ‘in spite of the fact’ or ‘contrary to popular opinion.’ Instead, frontload your sentences with the main item you wish to be learnt:

“An adverb is…”

“Photosynthesis is the process by which…”

“Approximately 10 million people died in…”

The use of simple sentences creates extra clarity and concision. Nevertheless, you will need to model academic spoken language too, so once your class have a secure understanding of the topic you will need to gradually increase the linguistic complexity of your delivery.

7. Model live. Show students how to solve problems and complete tasks by modelling them. Talk them through the key procedures in incremental steps and, just as importantly, talk them through your decision-making processes as an expert. Allow students to participate in the process gradually so that you can begin to guide their thinking before they have a go independently later on. In particular, live modelling is an underused but highly effective means of teaching writing. It can feel messy, slow and frustrating, and puts you under a good deal of pressure. The security blanket of using pre-written exemplars might be removed, but to put the writing process under the spotlight can have a  huge effect on those students who struggle to take on the thinking processes of a competent writer.

8. Use triple exemplars. Okay, so this is not technically a ‘teacher talk’ strategy, but it is so effective that it justifies inclusion. Show students three examples of excellent  – but very different – responses to the same task. It might be three opening paragraphs to crime stories, three pieces of artwork or three exam answers. Get students to consider why each is successful in its own right, but also the qualities common to all three. It is particularly effective in helping students to understand that quality tends to have both convergent and divergent elements.

9. Use the board. The best explanations are often responsive, interactive and peppered with questions. Over-detailed slide-shows zealously adhered to regardless of whether the students are keeping up or not can be deeply damaging. Keep slide-shows simple and make sure you have board-space to write on. Your notes, squiggles, arrows and diagrams are an open, incremental narrative. They have been produced bit by bit and so not only do they model your thinking processes, but they also allow students to look back at previous steps if they lose track, zone out for a moment or two, forget something or cannot hold everything at once in their working memories.

10. Try again. If your students do not understand the first time, what do you do? Do you blame them for lack of comprehension or do you start again, this time trying a slightly different tack? Tenacity and relentlessness are absolutely key, as is having a range of alternative strategies up your sleeve at any one time. Sometimes your explanation will not get through to your students. That’s normal. However, rather than giving up and blaming the student for lack of understanding, I have found that by going away and mulling it over, or seeking out a colleague’s advice, there is almost always a solution out there. Somewhere.

The best explainers never give up.

*

These strategies are just the tip of the iceberg – and what a great iceberg it is! Teacher talk is an exciting and inventive area of pedagogy.

Let’s not talk less, but talk better.

*This incident really happened in a lesson a couple of weeks ago. In a subsequent lesson, a student set up a trap for me by tying a Mars Bar wrapper to his bag and leaving it in a prominent position in the hope I would take the bait! Obviously, he had little faith in the strength of my moral compass!
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20 thoughts on “10 strategies for ‘talk-better’ teaching

  1. It’s a fascinating area, isn’t it?

    Other strategies I give to teachers are to think through what they are going to say before they say it (similar to your ‘try the task first’). Often, you get a lot of umming and ahhing when you introduce a subject for the first time but in order for students to grasp your verbal explanation it’s better if it’s very coherent and fluent. (This is particularly important when you’re giving instructions.)

    Another good idea is to think about emphasis, tone and pacing of words, so that you hit on and draw out those technical terms that students really need to remember. Also I’ve found it works brilliantly to use props (aka resources) to help you get from the abstract to the concrete.

    I wonder if the idea that teachers talk too much has come a bit from the fact that often we take longer to explain things than we need to? It’s actually really hard to be crisp and concise in our explanations, and to be sure that everyone ‘gets’ what we are saying first time around. I think it’s something that we really benefit from thinking through ahead of time, so we avoid getting all waffly when we come to do it for real.

  2. Some great strategies here; with my SENCo hat on no 9 and 10 are so important and you have them spot on. Your last point is crucial when teaching pupils with SEN , particularly those with ASD who may struggle with idiom, metaphor and/or analogy as described in the earlier points.

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  4. Great post, Andy – lots of useful ideas here. I’m doing some work with training teachers in the summer and would like to use this for discussion if you’re happy for me to do that. Properly referenced/credited, of course.

    Thinking back to when I was a beginning English teacher, I think I probably did talk too much, and it wasn’t of high enough quality, because I used to fill silences (which made me uncomfortable) rather than using different, more imaginative ways of encouraging student contributions. It’s also easy to ramble on when you’re nervous. I did get better as I grew more experienced and more confident.

    (And think you perhaps meant to type ‘hard-wired’ in section 3?)

    Thanks again.

  5. This is a great article. I think sometimes teachers over explain concepts because the thought of silence makes them nervous. I don’t know that silent pauses have been valued highly enough. Sometimes everyone just needs a moment to think before continuing the conversation.

  6. After 24 years at lecturing I still feel like a novice. But one thing I’ve learned — students of all ages appreciate being given a chance to be the expert in the room from time to time. And it seems to enhance learning for all. Using this fact well requires flexibility, good observation & ad lib skills and deliberation.

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  12. Hello Andy – great post and I wanted to comment on and hopefully add value to Point 9 – Use the Board.

    Many moons ago I taught English to a bottom set GCSE group. As a History teacher and SENCO I was a willing if apprehensive apprentice to Val Hill , my inspirational HoD, who basically taught me before I then went to teach the students. It was an exciting time and one small part of our work together saw us exploring the use of the Board…

    Val and I had responsibility for supporting X-Curricular literacy. One approach Val and I recommended to all our colleagues was to capture the class thinking on the board, pointing out that all human beings have limited capacity to hold information in the short term memory. In some classrooms it didn’t happen overnight. In a few not at all. Where it did happen some colleagues did the writing up themselves, in other classrooms students were selected or ‘volunteered’ for the job. As teacher explanation / class discussion progressed teachers might say “good point – but that’s going to take ages to write up…how can we capture that in a few words so that when we come back to this we’ll remember what we were talking about”. I realise this is a bit different to solely capturing the key points of teacher explanation but bear with me. The main point was that the board took on the role of the class Short Term Memory System (STMS)… And an interesting range of application of this technique emerged which I’ve attempted to capture and summarise below.

    Imagine a discussion around the following questions.
    “How did Lady Macbeth’s character change between Act 1 and Act 3?”
    Or
    “Account for the changes in Lady Macbeth’s character…”
    The first question requires students to demonstrate declarative knowledge, make comparisons and demonstrate procedural knowledge (sequence).
    The second requires students to add an understanding of causality to their skills set.

    Based on this time teaching English, and working with Val to support X/C Literacy and subsequent work I’m going to assert the following.
    Where teachers do not capture their explanations and class talk prior to moving to independent writing (or other) tasks they are at least more likely to experience greater instances of off task behaviour and / or students raising their hands to ask for reminders. And fewer students will succeed with subsequent tasks than if the ideas had been captured.

    Where teachers capture talk but do not spend time exploring the relationships between the thoughts that have been captured some but not all students will succeed in subsequently organising the ideas into their writing.
    ASIDE: A student once asked me “how is he doing that?” — he was referring to the fact that a peer was succeeding writing up his answer and he didn’t know how…

    Where teachers capture initial discussions and pause after to say something along the lines of “great work everyone — loads of ideas here. How can we now organise these ideas to make more sense to help us with our answers” and then either spent time working with students in organising them or (perhaps once students are more skilled at the act of organising ideas) put students into pairs to organise and then share their ideas — maybe with another pair and/or with the class a greater percentage of students will succeed with their writing.

    Finally I’m going to suggest that where teachers use a range of graphic organisers (also known as Visual Tools) to model the processes involved in organising ideas* and then teach students specifically how to do it for themselves there is far less likelihood of any any student being left behind.

    I know that you have referred to how using the board allows teachers to model their thinking so please see this post as an attempt to add value to your post and put some meat on the bones of the modelling process.

    I realise there are most probably holes in my argument, where colleagues can identify “yes but…you haven’t thought about…” type responses but having now had the privilege to work directly with 10s of 000s of teachers I am convinced that there is undeniable benefits to be had in first, using the white board as a virtual STMS to connect to and build on prior knowledge and second in using Graphic Organisers (and I’m talking about Mind Maps here!) to specifically teach students how to organise their thoughts. There is a big difference between simply capturing ideas (which in itself is of course a very good thing to do) and directly teaching students how to organise them. Some students of course do, very naturally, organise their thoughts. In many instances very well. The problem here being that when they eventually come across something they do not understand they have no access to the mechanics of how to do it — how many of us have witnessed ‘gifted’ students throw the baby out of the pram when eventually they come across something that they cannot do. Many students do not organise their thoughts particularly well and somewhat worryingly do not know what it is they aren’t doing. Modelling is an essential part of the answer; but graphic organisers reveal the structures behind the modelling. Organising thoughts is not peripheral to learning. Arguably it is what learning is.

    *Clustering is great for capturing ideas but further tools are needed for subsequent organisation
    Model Maps for declarative knowledge
    Venn Diagrams or (better) Double Bubbles for comparisons
    Flow charts and Flow Bubbles are great for sequencing
    Input / Output diagrams and Fishbones for causality.

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