Out of the mouths of babes: Critical kids and classroom talk

by Topsy Page

‘You get more educated if you talk or ask about things’

When I think about the importance of developing oracy in schools, what keeps coming back to me are the words of children.  It’s these which get directly to the heart of things – education as they experience it.

I have other reasons to believe that oracy is a high priority, of course.  I’m lucky enough to have had time to digest the literature on pedagogy, dialogic teaching, classroom talk and so on.  This body of work, enhanced by my own observations of numerous lessons, undoubtedly influences and motivates me.

But some of the things I’ve heard children say are even more compelling.  For example, the excitement of a Sheffield five-year-old.  We were discussing classroom talk and I asked him and some of his peers what they thought of the idea of changing talk partners.  He suddenly became animated.  “I LIKE THAT!” he said.  “I like talking to different people!  Once I had someone who just sat there for a whole term…”

Then there are the words of a ten-year-old in Manchester who told me, “When it’s hands up they pick the smart children.”  These words haunt me… The terrible realisation that this child feels excluded – that so much of education is not for her.  That she has no reason to put her hand up to participate… that she feels she is not one of ‘the smart children’.

Also memorable, the eleven-year-olds in Salford who brought home to me the social as well as cognitive benefits of classroom talk.  They told me that it would be good to have different partners sometimes because then they’d get to know their classmates better.  They spoke about ‘Maria’ and told me that she’s probably quite nice, but at playtime you just play with your usual friends, so despite being in the same class as her for several years they’d never actually talked to her.  They spoke in such a mature, caring manner.  They didn’t want to be unfriendly to their peers, but there were simply no opportunities in class to talk to them.

These weren’t just isolated comments.  Over the past five years I’ve interviewed over 250 primary-age pupils about their thoughts on classroom talk.  And, interestingly, whether they’re in a leafy green suburb or a deprived urban setting, and whatever the type of school, they keep saying the same things:

  1. They want to talk more as part of learning.
  2. They want opportunities to talk with a partner, and to change partners regularly.
  3. They want fairer ways to choose who speaks.

These are some of the things children have said to me about oracy issues during Talk Audits since 2016[1]:

1: Desire to talk more as part of learning

  • I think the children should do more talking because if we talk more we could solve our mysteries and we would say the ideas in our heads. (Age 6)
  • I feel like the children should speak more so they can ask important questions. (Age 7)
  • They talk a lot. When they’ve stopped talking we get to talk to a partner for 30 seconds then the teachers get to talk again!  (Age 7)
  • I think we should talk longer. We only get 10 seconds to answer a question then they move onto the next person.  (Age 7)
  • My teacher definitely goes on a bit. He even says, ‘I know I’m yacking on’ but then he just keeps talking and we’re thinking, ‘Can we please get on with our work!’.  (Age 8)  
  • They talk too much! Usually they take ages to send us to our seats to start working.  I’m always thinking, can they be shorter and quicker?  (Age 8)
  • The teachers! They’re always talking – we don’t really get much time to talk to our partners!  (Age 8)
  • I think if we can discuss more we are learning more, instead of them telling us. (Age 9)    
  • Pupils should get more time to talk about their ideas. (Age 10)
  • Teachers talk about 90%. They talk all day!  They talk way too much.  (Age 10)  
  • We need more time to talk so we can explain properly. (Age 10)
  • I think the children should do more talking so the teacher knows if we understand. (Age 11)
  • Too much! Sometimes they repeat things.  That’s annoying – we’ve heard it already.  (Age 11)  
  • I think children should get more chances to talk because if they get to explain more it could help others. (Age 10)
  • The teacher repeats if we can’t hear someone … if the teacher keeps repeating it gets repetitive, boring and confusing.  (Age 11)   
  • Pupils could talk more to share their ideas. You might want to know what other people think.  (Age 11)

2: Desire for opportunities to talk with a partner, and to change partners regularly

  • I think it’s good because your partner shares ideas and it means you learn more. (Age 5)
  • Talk partners help us help each other. (Age 7)
  • If you swap partners you’ll get more ideas that they’re thinking and it’ll be easier to get description. (Age 8)
  • I agree because we always know what’s coming from that same partner. If we could mix we wouldn’t know what’s coming out of them.  (Age 9)
  • You need to use other people’s brains. They talk, you talk and you try to link it together.  (Age 10)
  • They can teach you different things. If you stay with one person it’s just their mindset.  (Age 10)
  • It can change your perspective about things. You might change your mind.  If you’re with the same person it will be the same idea.  (Age 11)

3: Desire for fairer ways to choose who speaks

  • I don’t think I get picked enough because I get most of the answers wrong. But I get some right.  (Age 7)
  • Sometimes the cleverest people always know what to say then the others don’t have a chance. (Age 8)
  • I like random selection because you get to know everyone’s answer. You hear other opinions.  Hands up is for sensible people only.  (Age 8)  
  • Hands up is mostly about smart people. (Age 9)
  • With hands up, if the same people are picked others feel unwanted. With random selection you would have a good balance.  (Age 9)
  • I like random selection because for questions with more than one answer it’s good to hear lots of ideas… If the same people get picked other people start to feel their answers are not good.  (Age 9)
  • Lolly sticks are a good thing. Everyone has to have a go and try to say something.  Because you get more educated if you talk or ask about things.  (Age 9)
  • I prefer lolly sticks because hands up is quite tiring. Your arm starts to ache.  (Age 10)
  • I don’t mind if I don’t get picked because I like listening to others’ opinions – I might learn something. (Age 10)
  • It’s mainly the same people who put their hands up. (Age 10)
  • When it’s hands up they pick the smart children. I think the other children should get more of a go.  (Age 10)
  • Some people might be too shy or unconfident to put their hand up. (Age 11)
  • Random selection can boost confidence for people who don’t usually answer. It means there will be a good mix of all children answering the questions.  (Age 11)
  • I don’t get picked much. She looks at me but then she looks away and picks someone else.  (Age 11)

Much has been written about the power of pupil voice to both develop young people as active citizens, and for it to be a catalyst for change.  It’s twofold: they themselves become empowered through the process, and their words can trigger schools to review and rethink their systems and processes, including their pedagogical approaches (see e.g. Rowe 2021, Demetriou 2019, Robinson 2014, Ruddock 2004).

For me, using pupil voice in the journey to develop oracy in a school is an opportunity not to be missed.  What better way to start off thinking about classroom talk than to invite student opinion?

Pupil voice isn’t a magic bullet, and it does need care, for example: avoidance of leading questions, ensuring a cross-section of children, managing their expectations etc.

But all in all it is a free, easy, accessible resource, and a powerful one, which can enhance reflection and action on oracy.  We have a direct line to children’s experience – let’s make use of it.

Some material previously published at www.topsypage.com/pupilvoice

Pupil voice quotes submitted in evidence to the Oracy APPG (2021) (https://oracy.inparliament.uk/speak-for-change-inquiry).


Rowe, G. (2021) Pupil voice: Collaboration with pupils can no longer be optional. https://www.sec-ed.co.uk/blog/pupil-voice-collaboration-with-pupils-can-no-longer-be-optional/

Demetriou, H. (2019) More Reasons to Listen: Learning Lessons from Pupil Voice for Psychology and Education, International Journal of Student Voice. https://ijsv.psu.edu/?article=more-reasons-to-listen-learning-lessons-from-pupil-voice-for-psychology-and-education

Robinson. C (2014) CHILDREN, THEIR VOICES AND THEIR EXPERIENCES OF SCHOOL: WHAT DOES THE EVIDENCE TELL US? Cambridge Primary Review Trust 2014  https://cprtrust.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/FINAL-VERSION-Carol-Robinson-Children-their-Voices-and-their-Experiences-of-School.pdf

Ruddock. J. (2004) Pupil voice is here to stay! http://www.edugains.ca/resourcesSV/StudentVoiceResearch/PupilVoiceisHeretoStay.pdf

(all accessed 14.12.2021)

[1] I’ve tried to include a fair representation of comments.  There have occasionally been pupils who gave an opposite view, but the vast majority of comments are similar to those shown here.

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