Teaching talk

Classroom strategies for the explicit teaching of spoken expression


When we think about how to develop pupils’ talk in the classroom, it is natural to focus on the ‘opportunities’ we’re providing for pupils to practise speaking. We also know that developing vocabulary and subject knowledge, the raw material for talk, is key. These are essential, of course. But just as we actively and deliberately teach pupils how to write, we can and should also be teaching pupils explicitly how to be effective talkers – not just letting that develop.

And talk is complicated. This excellent schematic from Voice 21 sets out very clearly the multiple dimensions of talk – the physical, linguistic, cognitive, and social and emotional – and the various elements within these.


Below are some suggested principles for the explicit teaching of talk and spoken expression, in any subject. Importantly, these approaches can mostly be woven into or made part of existing practice. They are not about extra activities, or extra curriculum: they are about good subject teaching.

Model talk

The modelling of talk – incidentally and in a more didactic ‘listen to how I’m speaking’ way – is essential. This is especially (although not only) important for the development of more academic register and expression.

But it is important also to make explicit what it is we are modelling, and to engage pupils in thinking about this, by explaining and getting them to identify what we are doing.

What did you notice about the language I used, when…?

How would you describe the sentence I just…?

What did I just do there?

How have I just explained…?

Prepare for talk

We talk a lot about planning writing, preparing to write, and “being ready” to write, but we tend to do so less with spoken work. Reflecting explicitly on what will make talk successful, and asking pupils to plan and prepare for spoken tasks just as they would for written work, is important for raising the quality of talk, and can make pupils more aware of how they are speaking. Even just a few seconds of preparation can make a considerable difference.

Before we talk about this, let’s just remember a few things about how to…

Remember, I am going to need convincing that you understand the… so think about how you can…

Before starting, have a think about the sort of words which…

Before you start your discussions, think carefully about how you might persuade…

You’ll be doing a lot of talking in this activity, so let’s just think about the sorts of things you might need to say, and how…

How will you make sure that you are keeping your audience listening when you…?

Scaffold talk

Just as we teach writing by providing (and then taking away) appropriate scaffolding, we can do the same with talk. Sometimes, it is helpful to provide sentence stems, to require the use of particular vocabulary, or to provide ‘routes’ through.

Before you answer, choose one of the sentence starters…

I want to you to start with the word ‘Although…’

Now carry on your discussion, and see if you can use any of those terms to…

Teach talk through feedback

Pupils expect written work to be fed back on; we think less about how to feed back on their speech. This can be formal – a written comment in an exercise book, for example. But mostly it is immediate – in the moment – as the best feedback tends to be.

I liked the way you expressed…

Thanks – you put that well, although…

Interesting way of putting it.

I’m not really clear on…

Reflect back to pupils how they are talking

It is easy and takes very little time to reflect back to pupils what they have done when they make an oral contribution, and this is a powerful way to focus attention on spoken expression.

Thanks. You developed… and you went on to…

You used the term… Then you…

You told me… but you also…

You avoided saying…

Discuss with pupils how they are talking

As with writing, there needs to be a culture in the classroom of open and shared critique, so that pupils are aware of what they are doing as speakers and of how to improve.

However, it is essential that this is supportive and that the starting point for such reflection is enquiry rather than criticism, so that talk is encouraged rather than shut down.

How could you have said that with more precision?

How did ____ refer to…?

What made that answer particularly…?

How could that have been expressed more formally?

How successfully has ______ persuaded you that…? How could she have been more convincing in the way she spoke?

Use technology

Occasionally, technology such as webcams, phones, video cameras, tablets can be used to capture pupil talk, for analysis and feedback.

Now watch your own presentations back, and plan ways to make them more…

Let’s listen to some of this group’s discussion, and think about how they…

Use peer feedback

It can sometimes be powerful to set up structured opportunities for pupils to feed back on each other’s talk.

One person in each group will just listen, and will be noticing how the others…

This pair are going to start their presentation; everyone else – be ready to say at least two things about…

Use follow-up questioning

Another form of feedback, and one of the main ways in which we teach talk, is the use of follow-up questions to require expansion, elaboration, justification, clarification and so on. Follow-up questioning is often a way of taking pupils along thought-pathways which, once trodden, are more easily followed again – more easily articulated.

Why do you think…?

Can you say more about…?

But how could…?

So what does that suggest about…?

What does that show about…?

Edit talk

We take it for granted that pupils have opportunities to edit what they are writing or have written, making improvements and sometimes completely redrafting. This is a powerful engine of improvement, and it’s the same with talk. We need to think about how pupils can ‘edit’ and ‘redraft’ speech, as they might writing.

Opportunities to ‘say again’ can be structured into activities (for example, by pupils moving into new pairs to repeat a discussion), but they can also be an expected part of general classroom talk.

Can you have another go at…?

I’m not persuaded by that. Try again, and convince me that…

Now try saying that more formally, so that…

Right, start your presentation again, bearing in mind all of that advice about…

You’re going to start your discussions over again in a minute, having reflected on…

Foreground choice and control

Emphasising that speech is always about making choices with language, we can and should be celebrating with pupils the control this gives us. There is a pleasure in finding the most exact, or most academic-sounding, or most economical, or most imaginative way of expressing something.

Is that the best word to use?

That’s better – yes!

Hmm… I wonder if we can do better with…

Can we try a different expression for that?

What other words could describe the way…?

Can you be more adventurous with…?

I love the way that’s now much more…

Teach about register

We modulate the register or formality of our talk from situation to situation and from moment to moment, using different kinds of language. The more explicit we are about this, the more control pupils will develop.

What’s a more formal word for…?

That’s a more formal way of saying…

How could I have put that more formally?

That’s fine informally, but…

Model ‘academic talk’ by translating in the moment

One way we can teach academic language is by converting pupils’ ‘spontaneous’ terms into more formal synonyms.

‘It’s harder to see through.’  ‘Yes, it’s more opaque. Its opacity has increased.’

‘It’s going faster.’  ‘Yes, its velocity has increased.’

‘It’s crossed the edge.’  ‘The boundary – yes.’

Relate talk to writing

Connected to this, it is important that the differences between speech and writing are kept foregrounded. We do not talk as we write. Using the structures of speech is not ‘non-academic’ or an inferior use of language.

However, talk is a powerful way to rehearse written expression. If we can speak something, we can write it.

How would you write that?

Try saying that again, as you might write it?

That puts it very well, although in a written answer…

Before writing that, ‘speak’ it in your head.

Write to talk

Just as we get pupils to rehearse writing through talk, we can rehearse talk through writing. This is useful for developing precision, coherence and a more formal register in spoken expression.

Now cover up what you’ve written and talk to each other about…

Without looking at your sentence, I want you to tell me…

Before we discuss… just write down…

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