Talking about text – How can it help in subject-specialised secondary classrooms?

Issue: Volume 97, Number 6

Posted: 5 April 2018
Reference #: 1H9iDt

A New Zealand research project aimed at improving students’ literacy and achievement in subject areas by improving the way students and teachers talk about written text in the lessons has shown that patterns of ‘talk about text’ can be changed in positive ways.

International research suggests that changing patterns of talk about text (TaT) can build deep subject knowledge and literacy. Being able to read and talk about valued disciplinary texts empowers students to join those disciplinary communities and to be powerful members of them. However, the literature also suggests that it is very difficult for students and teachers to break away from traditional classroom patterns where teachers dominate talk. A research project in Aotearoa New Zealand has shown that patterns of TaT can be changed in positive ways when teachers and students are active partners in research rather than passive subjects.

Dr Aaron Wilson and Jacinta Oldehaver worked with a team of teachers to design research to investigate and improve patterns of talk in subject-specialised classrooms in Aotearoa New Zealand. The research partners were teachers and students of biology, chemistry, English, health, and physical education at Years 12 and 13 at two Auckland high schools, one decile 1 and one decile 2.

 “The project was about operationalising really high expectation outcomes for all students. We want all students to have opportunities to really engage in reading complex text and having rich discussions about them,” Aaron says.

Aorere College and Tamaki College were natural partners for this research because Aaron has a long-standing relationship with both of them, and because the teachers and leaders have a real commitment to achieving more equitable outcomes for students in their communities.

Aaron and Jacinta aimed to develop and test approaches that would improve patterns of TaT in the classrooms.

“The project had two angles to it, the talk part and the text part. It was aimed at improving students’ literacy in subject areas and their achievement in those subjects in general by improving the way students and teachers would talk about written text in the lessons.”

The research began with a profiling phase, the first of four sets of observed sessions over two years to find out about the existing patterns of TaT in the subject area classrooms. Aaron and Jacinta analysed the observations for the balance of talk between teachers and students, the kind of questions teachers were asking, whether the students gave short unelaborated responses, or whether they really picked up and engaged with the talk. Teachers received transcripts of their own discussions and copies of the analyses, which they used to set their own professional learning goals. Aaron and Jacinta also interviewed teachers and students to find out their beliefs about TaT and what barriers and enablers they perceived.

The teachers said the analysis of the profiling phase was the most powerful part of the project for them. It showed that teachers dominated classroom TaT. The average teacher utterance was 34 words, whereas the average student utterance had five words. Nearly half (46%) of teacher questions needed only one or two word answers, and only nine per cent of teacher utterances asked students to refer to text.

“We showed them the data showing the pattern that teachers dominated the talk. They were asking questions of students then they were doing most of the talking themselves. Each teacher got their own data and they got a transcript that we talked about,” says Aaron.

One of the teachers said, “When you look at the data it’s confronting but in a good way.” Another said, “It gave me the shock of my life to listen and to read … I don’t think I would have felt that way if I hadn’t seen the graph that showed this many open questions and that many closed.” 

Students described themselves as shy and unconfident in speaking in whole class discussions, and said this held them back from contributing. They saw classroom talk as an opportunity to showcase knowledge rather than build it, which again inhibited participation. Students said it was easier to talk in small groups: “In a smaller group I feel like I am more of a speaker… I speak more confidently.” 

Working in partnership with the teachers, the researchers designed a small-group teacher-facilitated format and framed talk around text sets rather than single texts. Students were invited to suggest class protocols and ‘talk moves’ for students and teachers.

As the research progressed, teachers analysed their own transcripts. At later stages, they led some of the interviews with the students of their colleagues.

“Rather than a normal research paradigm when you might gather and analyse a whole lot of data and go back and tell the teachers the results two years later or at the end of the project, we were feeding what we were finding out straight away.”

By the end of the project, the length of student and teacher utterances was closer together, although teachers still dominated. Teachers were much more likely to prompt another student to build on the previous student’s contribution, and much more likely to prompt the students to refer directly to the text. Student responses were more likely to refer explicitly to text.

The teachers changed their practice in response to the project. One said, “I’ve increased the number of talk moves and I’ve increased the number of texts.” For another it meant “getting away from PowerPoints and teacher blah blah at the front of the room.” One teacher described feeling “they [students] were starting to create their own understanding without me having to do that for them.”

Students noticed the change too: “She has been telling us to talk more and get ideas of what else someone is saying. She has been telling us to do that a lot.”

There were positive shifts in NCEA associated with TaT. In all the classes, achievement rates for the students were higher than they had been for previous cohorts. In the case of English and biology (where a comparison between 2016 TaT and non-TaT classes was possible), achievement was higher than that of non-TaT classes in the same year. Also of interest was the markedly higher rate of attendance and completion of externally assessed standards for TaT compared to non-TaT students.

Aaron is careful to note the limitations of the study when it comes to looking at results.

“It was a small scale and it was a case study. The results certainly looked promising in terms of the NCEA results. It’s not a design where we can make categorical claims about the effectiveness of it.”

What was clear was the benefit of the partnership approach that enabled teachers to analyse and reflect on their own practice, and students to give their insights about how they experienced talk about text.

“Talking about text: Changing patterns of discourse in low-decile secondary classrooms” was funded by the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI). The project was a partnership between Dr Aaron Wilson, principal investigator; Jacinta Oldehaver from the Woolf Fisher Research Centre – University of Auckland; and six secondary teachers from Tamaki and Aorere Colleges. The TLRI allocates up to $1.5 million annually to projects that enhance the links between educational research and teaching practices. 

Find out more about the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI)(external link)


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:14 pm, 5 April 2018

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