“Disturbingly different”: 5 great dialogic talk moves

by Alan Howe

‘We define dialogue as interaction where participants: position themselves in relation to others, recognising diverse voices, beliefs, and perspectives; pose open questions, critique and build on others’ ideas, reason and think together.’ (Hennessey & Davies, 2019)

Achieving this is a challenge because in typical classroom exchanges between teachers and students, there is often a set of ‘implicit ground rules’ which govern how the exchanges proceed, such as:

  • Listen to the teacher, often for long periods of time.
  • Bid for the right to speak when the teacher stops talking and asks a question.
  • Avoid being noticed if you are unsure of the correct answer.
  • Only put your hand up if you think you know what the teacher wants to hear.
  • Expect that your answers will be judged as correct, relevant or useful by the teacher.
  • Try to find clues to what the answer might be in from the way the teacher asks questions, offers prompts or hints, and evaluates responses.
  • Always direct your answer or response to the teacher.
  • It doesn’t matter if you can’t or don’t hear what another student says, as the teacher will always repeat it for the whole class.
  • If you play your cards right, the teacher might answer the question for you.

A caricature? Maybe, but there is probably more than a grain of truth in this description. It’s an odd but true observation that it is really only in schools that those who know ask the questions and those who don’t are expected to answer them (Dillon 1988). It’s not my intention to be critical of teachers for slipping into these kinds of talk situations, and there are many teachers who avoid the worst excesses of doing so, and have found better, less stilted ways of talking with students. But – and it’s a big but – the prevalence of this kind of classroom discourse seems still to be an enduring feature of many students’ experience of talk in school.

When I’ve shared these kinds of descriptions with groups of teachers there is usually an uncomfortable but knowing set of glances across the room. We all recognise the deep grooves down which so much classroom talk tends to travel. And most of us are aware that we are complicit!

Altering this pattern so that whole-class talk can be productive both in terms of academic learning, and as a context where students’ oracy skills are fostered and extended, is a real challenge. This is because so much of what happens when we engage students in talk is beyond the level of our conscious control. It’s an almost instinctive act. In busy, lively classrooms with so much to attend to, it’s not surprising that the choices we make in the way we operate in Q&A contexts is often on auto-pilot.

The educational literature is full of analyses of typical teacher-student exchanges – so much so that there is a short-hand way of describing these as a set of three ‘talk moves’: IRF (Initiation by the teacher; Response by a student of students; Feedback from the teacher). Research also indicates that there is often a gap of less than a second between the student response and the teacher’s next move, which is usually to comment in a judgemental way on what the student has just said. However, there are fewer guides that offer practical support for doing things differently. This is especially challenging as embedding a different set of similarly instinctive ‘talk moves’ involves:

  • making what’s happening more ‘visible’, so that we become more aware of what we say and do and its effect;
  • selecting from a repertoire of choices that change the nature of the exchanges; and then
  • bedding these back into auto-pilot mode.

Through working with different groups of teachers over many years, I’ve come to see that a handful of highly productive ‘dialogic talk moves’, when used together in combination, are impactful – not just on students’ learning, but also on the teacher’s classroom pedagogy. Each move (I’m using the word deliberately as in making a ‘move’ in, for example, a board game) is, in a sense, a way of disturbing the norm, the expected, so that very quickly alternative patterns of communication (Douglas Barnes’ phrase from way back in 1969) begin to emerge.

I’m also conscious of the irony of writing about how to change a deep-seated pattern of teacher and student behaviour, as I’m doing here, when I don’t think that much will change at all from just reading about it.  To alter such deep-seated, habitual classroom behaviour requires engaging in the kind of professional learning that involves a powerful mix of evidence-based theory with time to explore and trial approaches, doing so in the company of others who can co-coach through joint planning, observation and reflection.

Perhaps, though, the following five ‘talk moves’ are accessible and ‘doable’ enough, to either remind you of strategies you once used but may have neglected, or to confirm and sharpen approaches that are already partly in your teaching repertoire, as well as prompt you to try out something new. Coupled with opportunities to ‘observe yourself teaching’ so that you can talk about it with others, the required disturbance can lead to a productive difference. There is a range of other talk moves that are also extremely useful and can become part of our wider repertoire; these five, however, have the advantage of being simple and easy enough to weave into lessons, and offer an inviting doorway into a different quality of dialogue.

Five ‘dialogic moves’ that disturb the habitual patterns

1. Wait

Teacher:  “Who thinks they can explain what’s happening here? No hands up. (3 second pause. The teachers scans the class, engaging in eye contact). Now talk with your partner. Find out what each of you thinks. (After students have spoken together) Paul – would you like to tell us what the two of you thought? (‘Cold calling’: another Talk Move)

What’s going on here?

Simply waiting, giving thinking time, denying students the opportunity to bid for attention, then requiring some swift pair talk has an immediate impact. More students are ready to contribute. Their responses are typically longer, more elaborate. They sometimes listen more carefully to each other. And the teacher also has time to think – here she decides to call on Paul because she noticed how animated he was in the pair-sharing and has also observed over time that he is one of the quieter, shyer students, who seldom puts his hand up straight away.

Why does this talk move work?

Pausing for a moment of silence breaks or disturbs the usual routine, one that students are also habituated to expect. It can feel a bit awkward: ‘normal’ conversations are not usually punctuated by one of the participants saying ‘wait’. It feels like a fracture that needs repairing. I’d argue that students experience this feeling and are often keen to fix it, so that when asked to talk in a pair the tension can be released.

There’s also a very explicit requirement that students ‘think’ rather than search for the right answer. Some of the competitiveness inherent in a ‘hands up if you know the answer’ classroom is dissipated.  It’s worth considering two kinds of ‘wait time’. The first occurs immediately after you’ve asked a question. The second is a pause once a student has contributed before either you or another student makes the next (the 3rd) move. Research indicates that this pause is more likely to result in other students contributing without needing to be nominated by the teacher.

2. Invite more

Teacher:  Does anyone have any idea why the water level rose. What might have caused it?

Lynne: I think it was the weight of the ice.

Teacher: That’s an interesting idea. Can you say more? (3 second pause).

Lynne: Because it’s heavier than the water and it pushed the water up?

What’s going on here?

The teacher indicates that she is interested in the student’s ideas, rather than checking for right answers. Lynne’s response, ‘I think…’ shows that she realises this so she is prepared to offer a tentative response. The teacher’s request for Lynne to add to her initial idea results in some of her reasoning (and her misconceptions) being exposed. The usual IRF sequence is broken by the request for Lynne to extend what she first said rather than her contribution being judged and another student invited to offer an idea. So we can see the beginning of a slightly extended ‘chain’ exchange, one comment being linked through reasons to the earlier one.

Why does this talk move work?

Students can often assume that their brief first response is understood by everyone else. Simply asking for more, staying with the same student, shows an expectation that they do have more of their thinking to share. It can reveal misconceptions or an unusual idea to take further. As it becomes part of a different routine, students will expect to be asked to extend or elaborate on their thinking. You can experiment with a variety of ways of eliciting more: ‘Can you tell me more about that?’; ‘Can you give an example…?’; ‘Who has something they’d like to add to what Lynne said?’

3. Pass on

Teacher: Who thinks that they understood what James is saying…? Can someone put what he just said in their own words?

What’s going on here?

This is a useful talk move to choose if you want to make sure that other students have been listening carefully to each other as it sends a signal that they should be! It also requires that students exercise the important oracy skill of attentive listening, then rephrasing or summarising what someone else has said.

Why does this talk move work?

It sets the expectation that the ideas or contributions from the students are worthwhile and worth considering in depth. All too often in whole class discussion, students  mentally sit back and wait to be called on to give their individual idea or answer, rather than engage with another’s thinking. It shifts attention from individual ideas to a collective sense of a communal enquiry.

To work well, it may be that you need to explain in advance that you will be using this move, and that you sometimes (not always) comment on the quality of the rephrasing or repeating what another student said so that your expectation is clear.

4. Stay neutral

Neil: Just as Ayesha was saying, I don’t reckon he was a good king because, look at all the terrible things he did to his enemies.

Teacher: Thanks Neil. Anyone else?

Wendy: I don’t agree! A good king has to be a strong king and he was only protecting all of his citizens so he was a good king to them and the people he had killed, well he wasn’t their King anyway was he?

Teacher: Hmmm…

Ayesha: Yes, but he was cruel: look at how he got people to confess by torturing them. How can you call him good when he does that?

Wendy: I’m not saying he was nice…but he did it for the good of his country. That’s his job isn’t it?’

Teacher: Interesting. Anyone else?

What’s going on here?

This is another significant disturbance of the usual expectations and patterns we often see, especially when students such as these 13 year-olds have lots to say. It’s a matter of what the teacher doesn’t do – which is to offer any kind of judgement, especially praise.

Notice how the minimalistic teacher responses seem to send a strong signal to the students here that they can take the lead in moving the discussion/debate forwards. The teacher’s hand is still on the tiller, but students are willing to steer things forward themselves.

Used appropriately as part of our repertoire, staying relatively neutral can lead to students making contributions that indicate they are working for each other rather than slotting their responses into the teacher’s intentions.

Why does this talk move work?

I would argue that providing neither praise nor blame is another secret door into productive dialogue between students. Neutral, non-committal but still warm responses will help to keep the flow going. Overuse of praise when a student makes a useful contribution is counterproductive.

As teachers, we often feel the urge to offer praise as part of a natural desire to reward positive behaviour and signal that we value what a student has said, but this can lead to some unintended consequences:

  • Students can seek praise if it’s freely offered, but it can skew their contributions towards saying what they think the teacher wants to hear rather than exploring their thinking. Students can become approval junkies needing extrinsic rewards rather knowing that their ideas are valued for what they are and how others respond to them.
  • Punctuating a lively discussion with feedback that shows our approval or otherwise of what students say alters the dynamic of the talk so that it quickly reverts to the IRF pattern. The naturalistic flow of the conversation is stemmed. Imagine if a discussion at a workplace meeting was regularly interrupted by comments such as ‘Great idea!’; ‘ Awesome!’; ‘Fantastic!’ from the chair.
  • What happens if students are routinely praised for doing what they should be doing anyway?

Tip: save your praise and positive comments until later on, as a way of providing specific feedback on what went well and why.

5. Include yourself

Extracts from a number of dialogic episodes in lessons:

Teacher: ‘How can we draw some conclusions from this?’; ‘I think you are saying…’; ‘I’m wondering if there’s another way of saying the same thing…’; ‘Am I right in thinking that you mean…?’; ‘I’m hearing some different ideas here. Is there a way we can pull them together?’

What’s going on here?

This is not so much a talk move as a ‘stance’ we can adopt when engaging  students in dialogue. There’s a distinct shift from the teacher focusing attention on the students (‘you’) as the ones having to do all the work, or to come up with ideas, and onto the dialogue as a collective enterprise. I mentioned this in my previous blog (Improv your teaching) and described it as a move from students seeing a lesson as something that happens to them, towards a context where both students and teacher are actively engaged together.

Why does this talk move work?

The subtle shift from the teacher toward including herself in the matter under consideration as a semi-participant (‘semi’ because we always remain ultimately in charge but can play with the nature of our role within a lesson’s parameters), enables students to see the dialogue as a kind of marketplace of ideas. It allows the teacher to recruit student participation towards a common goal, to sense that their ideas have been taken seriously, and that there isn’t necessarily a pre-determined outcome. Placing ourselves within the dialogue, rather than outside it, alters the power or status relations for a brief period of time, encouraging a more exploratory feel to the direction of the thinking.


These talk moves are not hugely difficult to enact, although doing so probably takes a more conscious effort based on our professional judgement of what’s needed or useful at any particular time. Practice leads to their being internalised so that they can quite quickly become habitual.

In combination they can have a multiplier effect on the range and quality of student contributions. More students will be prepared to say something, to say more, to listen to each other and to feel personally and collectively more responsible for the way that a discussion unfolds.

Robin Alexander writes that dialogic talk moves such as these have ‘a particular kind of potency’ because students make greater learning gains when teachers use ‘…revoicing, rephrasing of student contributions, seeking evidence of students’ reasoning, challenging students’ responses and inviting students to justify them.’ There’s more though. Yes, students taught in these ways are learning more, and learning better. But they are also more likely to become competent and confident in a wider repertoire of talk ‘…explanation, analysis, argumentation, challenge and justification.’

I’ll leave the last words to Douglas Barnes, although I might wish to change the very last word from ‘dilemmas’ to ‘voices’.

‘One of the challenges that faces all teachers is how to help their students to try out new ways of thinking that may be disturbingly different from what they are used to and at the same time to give more responsibility to those learners to explore their own dilemmas.’  Douglas Barnes in Norman (1992)

References and further reading

Alexander, R. (2020) A Dialogic Teaching Companion. Routledge.

Dillon, J.T. (1988) Questioning and teaching: a manual of practice. London, Croom Helm.

Hennessey, S. and Davies, M. ‘Teacher Professional Development to Support Classroom Dialogue: Challenges and promises.’ in Mercer, N. Wegerif, R. Major, L. ed. (2019) The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Dialogic Education. Routledge.

Michaels, S. and O’Connor, S. (2012) Talk Science Primer. TERC, Cambridge, MA.

Norman K. ed. (1992) Thinking Voices, Hodder and Stoughton.

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