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Teacher–student dialogue: Why it matters for student outcomes

Christine Howe

For at least two millennia, the dialogue that occurs during teaching has been spotlighted as critical for student outcomes, with many scholars proposing needs for: open questions; elaboration of previous contributions; reasoned discussion of viewpoints; linkage and reasoned resolution; meta-cognitive engagement; and high levels of student participation (see Resnick et al, 2015). Yet while benefits from some of these features have been demonstrated in contexts of small-group interaction among students, their relevance to teacher–student dialogue remains unclear (Howe and Abedin, 2013). The consequence, in the UK at least, has been dramatic and continuing shifts of policy: documents issued under New Labour promoting those features received health warnings under the Coalition government.

Recognising the urgent need for evidence, the ESRC recently funded a large-scale project that relates teacher–student dialogue to diverse student outcomes (the team: myself, Sara Hennessy, Neil Mercer, Maria Vrikki and Lisa Wheatley). The project revolves around 72 year-6 classrooms (with students aged 10–11) that are situated in London, the home counties, East Anglia, the Midlands and Yorkshire, encompass urban and rural locations, and are socio-economically and ethnically diverse (with 0–100 per cent of students eligible for free school meals, and 0–96 per cent from minority ethnic backgrounds). Lessons (each c.60 minutes) were video-recorded, with analyses based on two lessons per classroom (covering any pair of literacy, mathematics or science). Using a coding scheme adapted from Hennessy et al (2016), all teacher talk was analysed for use of supposedly productive features, as was student talk during interaction with teachers.

Scores on national tests (SATs) in mathematics and spelling-and-grammar proved to be strongly associated with the following.

  1. Elaborated dialogue, where building on, or evaluation or clarification of, previous contributions was invited or provided.
  2. Querying, where previous contributions were doubted, challenged or rejected.
  3. Student participation, where students engaged with each other’s ideas, rather than merely responding to their teachers.

‘When student participation was high, high levels of elaborated dialogue and querying were positively associated with SAT scores, even with start-of-year attainment considered.’

In particular, when student participation was high, high levels of elaborated dialogue and querying were positively associated with SAT scores, even with start-of-year attainment considered. When participation was low, the frequencies of elaborated dialogue and querying were irrelevant. When elaborated dialogue and querying were infrequent, there was no positive effect of participation. Elaborated dialogue was also associated with scores on an attitude questionnaire: with start-of-year attitudes considered, high levels of elaborated dialogue meant relatively positive attitudes to schooling and self-as-learner.

In other words, a small cluster of features makes a big difference. Hopefully, this message will not simply put an end to repeated, confusing, and arbitrary shifts in educational policy – it will also provide teachers with focussed and manageable strategies towards future practice.


Hennessy S, Rojas-Drummond S, Higham R, Márquez A M, Maine F, Ríos R M, García-Carrión R, Torreblanca O and Barrera M J (2016) ‘Developing a coding scheme for analysing classroom dialogue across educational contexts’, Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 9: 16–44

Howe C and Abedin M (2013) ‘Classroom dialogue: A systematic review across four decades of research’, Cambridge Journal of Education 43(3): 325–356

Resnick L, Asterhan C and Clarke S (eds) (2015) Socializing intelligence: Through academic talk and dialogue, Washington, D.C: American Educational Research Association

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