Talk is for learning

by Lyn Dawes

Out with a group of children looking at a local pond, one of them was watching rooks who had made nests and were evidently incubating eggs – a noisy process. He said that that they didn’t come down very often to breathe. When asked to explain, he said that he knew that there was less air as you got higher, and the trees were very high; he knew whales could go for an hour or so without coming up to breathe, so maybe rooks could go for an hour up in the trees without coming down to breathe. The creativity and imagination involved in this idea was a little breathtaking in itself; and it was only the chance to talk that allowed the child to make his thoughts clear to himself, and the rest of us.

Each child holds an individual conception of the world around them; the child’s imagination has worked on the raw material of experience and helped them to make sense of things. Children can generate informal explanations for what they notice without ever putting such concepts into words, because usually it isn’t necessary. The sun – or at least the daylight – appears in the morning and disappears at night; a ball rolling on grass will stop eventually, in the same way that they themselves stop when they run out of energy; caterpillars are a kind of worm, and butterflies a kind of fly.

A child may never have considered that there are other points of view or other explanations. We may only gain insight into creative thinking – or misconceptions – when a child tells you that a rainbow is a ribbon, or describes how waves bring the tide up the shore, or says that ducks have four legs; and it seems wrong to challenge such charming explanations. But the history of human endeavour in science has led us to a set of increasingly robust explanations of how things work, and it is our responsibility to help children to see this more scientific point of view (and it’s reassuring to remember that it remains perfectly possible to hold on to the idea that rainbows are ribbons even when you have learned about the spectrum of visible light.)

Most learning is social, and classroom activities can offer the chance to talk about a range of ideas with classmates. Talk fosters curiosity and prepares a child to open their mind to new information and evidence. Talking about marking the day’s succession of shadows in the playground, coupled with discussing simulations of the earth in space, can help the child’s thinking and understanding to develop. Talking about, looking at, and trying to touch rainbows made by crystal sun-catchers helps the child to see that they are light and to say what they notice. The authoritative scientific idea is really no less wonderful than what they imagined.

Both the opportunity to talk, and the type of talk, influence learning. A child playing alone with a wet sand and dry sand will have an important sensory experience. A group of children talking about types of sand, their textures, behaviour and uses, will extend their vocabulary and hear new ideas to think about. A group of children talking with a teacher who is modelling the use of exploratory questions, and adding in some helpful vocabulary, have more to think about when they are left to play alone.  Children need all of these experiences. A session where children play with sand and argue over who is next with the sieve is another sort of learning altogether.  In classrooms, planning talk for learning and teaching both oracy skills and curriculum knowledge can ensure the sort of conversations that keep moving children’s thinking on.

Children talking sometimes don’t know what they are going to say until they’ve said it. What children think they know is what they try to say.  There is no other way that this thinking will become so clearly apparent to you, or to them.  The language they use and what they know are almost the same thing, and are precipitated by talk with their classmates. Talk with and between children allows them to see where their understanding stops and raise questions that they are interested in answering. But we know that a child may feel they are tight-rope walking socially if they admit that they don’t understand or if they offer a tentative idea. A collaborative classroom ethos with explicit talk rules can provide a secure safety net, enabling the child to express ideas with no fear of judgement. Learning by interthinking becomes possible if every child feels that they have a voice.

One advantage of learning how to explain ideas and negotiate them with others is that the child is gaining experience which prepares them for future team work  – and future life generally. But the need to learn the most powerful genres of talk is really pressing for the child as they go through their everyday life. They need an oracy education for the here and now. Children directly taught how to talk to others are better able to access the education on offer in class, and better able to listen to and shape their own thoughts. Knowing some simple talk tools: What do you think? Why do you think that? I agree, because – I disagree, because – Can you explain please? Can you say a bit more about that? Can you repeat that? What do you mean? – knowing what ‘listen’ really means, and knowing that others are prepared to listen to you as you do to them – this education in oracy is essential for every moment of the child’s present. Communication is what children thrive on. And deferring or avoiding the teaching of talk skills limits a child to a smaller and much less comprehensible world.

The idea that birds in tall trees must come down to breathe is poetry really. The child dreams up such ideas when they notice things that their curious minds want to explain. Ideas that we teach as science have become currency through conversations over time and space, to enable us all to understand the world. Exploratory talk is integral to science. Teaching science through talk and vice versa is what the child of today deserves.


Loxley, P. Dawes, L. Nicholls, L. and Dore, B. (2017) 3rd Edition. Teaching Primary Science: Promoting Enjoyment and Developing Understanding. London: Routledge.

Dawes, L & Sams, C. (2017) 2nd Edition. Talk Box: Activities for Teaching Oracy with Children Aged 4–8. London: Routledge.

Dawes, L & Foster, J. (2016) Jumpstart! Talk for Learning: Games and Activities for Ages 7-12. London: Routledge/David Foster.

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