Theme(s): Speaking and listening

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Theme(s): Speaking and listening

How classroom talk supports reading comprehension

Wolf, M. K., Crosson, A. C., & Resnick, L. B., University of Pittsburgh


Reading Psychology, 26, 2005, pp. 27-53

[Original title: Classroom Talk for Rigorous Reading Comprehension Instruction]

How does classroom talk support reading comprehension?

Researchers in this study built on previous research which found that the use of collaborative talk during reading lessons was positively associated with student gains in comprehension and knowledge building. The researchers believed that classroom talk, in which teachers support students, can play an important part in helping students between the ages of six and fourteen, to deepen their understanding of text. They also suggested that as students develop into independent readers they begin to take increasing responsibility for leading the conversations that surround a text.

This study examined the quality of teachers’ and students’ talk in ten different schools. It found that effective classroom talk was linked to a high level of student’s thinking and active use of knowledge. Discussion based activities, in combination with academically challenging tasks, were positively related to students’ development of literacy skills. These activities were found to have a positive impact on student achievement when teachers:

  • initiated discussion by using an open ended query, e.g. ‘What’s going on here?’, and extend the discussion by asking a follow up query. ‘that is what the author said, but what did the author mean?’; and
  • used a significant number of describing and explaining questions, e.g. tell me how you solved the problem.


USA, Primary schools, Secondary schools, Literacy, Reading, Collaboration, Speaking and Listening, Questionning, Teaching and Learning


How did classroom talk affect students’ learning? Page 2

What role did teachers’ talk play in student discussion? Page 3

How was the study designed? Page 4

How was talk assessed? Page 5

What are the implications Page 6

Where can I find out more? Page 7
Page 2

How did classroom talk affect students’ learning?
The researchers found that high levels of students’ thinking and active use of knowledge (e.g. analysing and interpreting the text), were linked to:

  • students ability to participate in whole group discussions that promoted learning;

  • students ability to provide knowledge and engage in rigorous thinking; and

  • classroom talk in which students and teachers listened to each other and questioned each other’s knowledge.

The researchers concluded that discussion was an effective method for promoting learning, and that high level tasks required:
  • high level quality talk, from both students and teachers e.g. supporting their contributions with evidence; and

  • effective prompting and questioning from teachers.

In the observed lessons students were working at a level where they were not only able to understand the storyline of the text but they were beginning to analyse and interpret the text.

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What role did teachers’ talk play in student discussion?
The researchers identified talk that was effective at encouraging meaningful student participation and enhancing students’ comprehension by these characteristics:

  • teachers reformulated and summarised what students had said which provided an opportunity for other students to build on these ideas;

  • teachers used a scaffolding strategy that encouraged students to put the main idea in their own words;

  • teachers pressed the students for elaboration of their ideas, e.g. How did you know that?; and

  • teachers supported rigorous thinking by asking ‘why’.

They found that effectively linking people’s ideas together created an environment that invited more interaction and ensured that all participants understood the main concepts covered in a particular lesson. Explicit linking of the student’s ideas involved providing opportunities for students to build on each other’s ideas (e.g. ‘Do you want to add anything?’, and reformulating what the student had said (‘So what I hear you saying is…’).

Example of Effective Talk (effectively linking people’s ideas together)

S1: I talked about Larry Brown. I said that I made text to text connection with Larry Dunn and Rufus because he felt like he wanted to cry but was thought – Rufus was too. And because he [Rufus] doesn’t have money to buy sandwiches, Rufus’s best friend was laughing at him.

T: So what I hear you saying is that you’re making a character trait connection. Both characters have that trait of pride they don’t want to show their true feelings that they’re hurt and I agree with you. Someone on the other side of the room want to share with me? Do you want to add something new?

S2: I’d like to add to David because they both have ripped clothes, and pride. Now they’re both getting beat up. Larry and Rufus are alike.

T: So they both shared similar experiences.

Talk that was ineffective was categorised by the following characteristics:

  • teachers explicitly asked students a question but didn’t follow up the question or link their answers to the text;

  • teachers merely checked students’ comprehension of what happened in the story, often limited to yes-no answers, and left little room for students to make sense of the text and select appropriate evidence from the text to back up their thoughts; and

  • teachers overscaffolded by providing too much information and framed the question in such a way that the student only had to complete the teachers’ incomplete sentence.

This study also found that a failure to reformulate ideas or press students to elaborate on their ideas, resulted in exchanges that tended to be brief and did not contribute to students’ substantial understanding of text.

Example of Ineffective Talk

T: Did he travel the whole world over?

S: No. He just went around the yard of his house.

T: And he went to the barn. Is that travelling the whole world over?

Ss: No.

T: so we have a problem already, right?

Ss: Yeah.

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How was the study designed?
The study set out to examine teacher student interactions in order to identify the characteristics of the teachers’ talk that facilitated rigorous discussion, and reinforced students’ understanding. It involved observing twenty one teachers and 441 students from ten schools, between the ages of six and fourteen. The students were from diverse ethnic backgrounds and twenty percent were considered to be English language learners.

Each lesson observed lasted 45-50 minutes and included:

  • reading text aloud to, with or by the students;

  • teacher led whole group discussion for about 20 minutes; and

  • teacher assigned group work or individual tasks for small group or independent work.

The lessons were analysed against the following two criteria:

  • how well the talk encouraged meaningful student participation; and

  • how well the talk helped to deepen understanding of the lesson.

Page 5

How was talk assessed?

To assess how well the talk encouraged meaningful student participation the researchers looked at:

  • the degree to which teachers and students made consistent efforts to ensure that all participants understood ideas and positions shared during the whole-group discussion;

  • the degree to which teachers and students ensured that participants provided accurate knowledge as evidence to back up their contributions; and

  • the degree to which speakers were asked to explain their thinking by using rational strategies to present arguments and by drawing logical conclusions.

How well the talk helped to deepen understanding of the lesson was assessed against:

  • the degree to which students engaged in challenging, content-specific tasks in which they had to explain and justify their thinking; and

  • the degree to which students engaged in high-level tasks such as interpreting and analysing the underlying meaning.

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What are the implications?

In completing this digest its authors began to ask the following questions about implications for practitioners:

  • the study highlighted the importance of promoting a learning environment that engages students in rigorous thinking. What strategies do you already use to help students to develop their confidence and skills and encourage them to engage in exploring their own and others’ ideas? What strategies could you develop to extend this behaviour in the classroom?

  • It’s difficult to know exactly how talk is working when you are at the centre of it. Would recording talk by video or just as a sound recording help you think about how you’d like to develop your pupils’ talk further?

  • Could you work together with your colleagues to observe each other’s lessons or explain recordings together to identify where teachers could make more effective inputs to student talk?

In completing this digest its authors began to ask the following questions about implications for school leaders:

  • students’ responses often relied on the type of questions that the teacher asked. What support do you already offer to help teachers to develop their questioning techniques? Do teachers have opportunities to work together to assess the types of questions they use and reflect on the way in which they and their students use particular questioning strategies? What CPD could you offer to staff to help develop their questioning techniques?

Page 7

Where can I find out more?
Palincsar, A. s. & Brown, A. L. (2003) Collaborative approaches to comprehension instruction. In: Sweet, A. P. & Snow, A. E. (eds.) Rethinking reading comprehension. New York: the Guilford Press

Chinn, C. A. & Anderson, R. C. (1998) The structure of discussion that promote reasoning, Teachers college Record, 100, 315-368.

An article in the TES considering the use of dialogic learning in the classroom: Alexander, R. (2004) Talking to learn. TES, 30 January [Online].  Available at: (Accessed: 7 September 2005).
The Technology assisting literacy knowledge (TALK) website offers teachers access to literacy-based activities to use with their students.  Available at: (Accessed: 7 September 2005).
Another digest focused on teaching children to reason collaboratively is:

Widening access to educational opportunities through teaching children how to reason together, [Online.] Available at: (Accessed 7 September 2005).

For a more detailed summary of research into the role of social interaction as a means of constructing learning with related teacher case study examples:

Social interaction as a means of constructing learning: the impact of Lev Vygotsky’s ideas on teaching and learning, [Online.] Available at: (Accessed 7 September 2005).

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