| by Lyn Dawes |

It’s difficult when you don’t know something that you feel you should, or if you find yourself unable to remember what you thought you knew yesterday. It’s hard to be obviously confused or muddled in your thinking, or uncertain about what you remember. For a child, such problems are almost inevitable given the range of unrelated topics that may be covered in a school day and the intensity of the input they receive in their classroom. Yet this is the very place where they may feel most vulnerable and in the spotlight, amongst friends and others that they are less certain about, and with the constant likelihood of being asked to state what they know, or don’t know.

Image: Pixabay

Children in pairs or groups can help one another as listeners. In parallel with the crucial skill of attentive listening, we can enhance their conversations by teaching children how to elaborate. By this I mean that we can directly teach children how and why to add detail to what they have said and to explain their ideas further – and to ask questions which will encourage others to do the same.

As a first step, we can talk about elaboration, and give examples. We can display, model in practice, and explain some talk tools which encourage others to elaborate:

Elaborate – Talk Tools

  • Can you say more about….
  • Say that word again please…tell me a bit more about it…
  • Do you remember anything else about…
  • Could you explain again…
  • What do you mean by….
  • Can you help me by drawing/describing that idea…
  • What other words could we use…
  • How do you know about…
  • What you said about [-] was interesting – can you add some details…
  • I don’t remember about [-], do you?
  • What came next/what happened before that
  • Does this remind you of anything else you know?

Children taught to ask one another, ‘Can you say more about…?’ are being given a straightforward way in to each other’s thinking. They are also being provided with a way of questioning their own thoughts; saying to themselves, ‘Can I say more about….?’, gives them a useful chance to recall, think laterally, link ideas, or simply reflect for a little longer.

Image: Pixabay

The transfer of knowledge and understanding from one day to the next is a fragile thing. If we are to ensure that every child is able to make sense of the day’s activities, to assimilate ideas, and to be able to put their new learning to use, we must help them by providing the talk skills they require to share what they recall, and to embroider new thinking into a meaningful pattern. Elaborating is a life skill, very necessary for effective group work. As group talk expert Douglas Barnes pointed out:

‘If it can be shown that groups can learn to elaborate, this would be an important educational finding’ (Barnes 1992).

Individual children can certainly learn to elaborate. Jerome Bruner (1960) says that ‘any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development’. Knowing our children, we can teach them to elaborate. Elaboration is not really a complicated feature of talk, but it is unusual for a child to do so, or to ask another to do so. It can be a terrific thing to hear a pair or group of children asking one another to say a bit more, explain, or keep talking about what they were trying to think about together.

We can carry out a thought experiment to evaluate if children really do benefit both from being taught how to elaborate, and being given the opportunity to do so. Imagine that you are attending a lecture at which some of the audience are your friends, and some are strangers. The lecture is on a topic quite unfamiliar to you, let’s say, ‘The problem of quantum mechanics applied to everyday objects’. Immediately after the lecture, the audience disperses. You go home to your usual busy evening. The next day you all reassemble and the lecturer asks you personally a direct, closed question about the topic: ‘What is quantum superposition?’ You must answer. Everyone is waiting. How confident would you feel to respond (even if you did know)?

Image: Pixabay

Now imagine that before this terrible question session, you are given a little time to ask your neighbour in the lecture theatre two questions ‘Could you explain…?’ And, ‘Do you remember anything about….?’. They must ask you the same questions. How do you imagine that this opportunity would influence your confidence? Would it work to discuss understanding as well as knowledge?

Of course, if your neighbour refused to help you think, you would be dismayed. Unless children become familiar with such requests, and the reasons for them, they may well refuse too; they may not wish to share their ideas. They may not know how, and why. But in a talk-focused classroom where children are aware that their thoughts are a very valuable resource for one another, there is a willingness to think aloud, and pride in doing so. Elaboration is a great way in, and children enjoy using the word to provoke one another to think a bit more deeply, or to just keep on talking to them in an interesting way.


Bruner J. (1960) The Processes of Education. Cambridge: MA.

Barnes, D & Todd, F (1995) Communication and Learning Revisited: Making Meaning Through Talk. Portsmouth, NH; Heinemann.

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