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Learning conversations: Teacher researchers evaluating dialogic strategies in early years settings

Written by: Peter Boyd
9 min read
This article is based on an original research article published in the International Journal of Early Years Education (Boyd, 2014a). The full article can be found here.

This paper presents findings from a project completed within a collaborative practitioner research partnership between a nursery school and a primary school, and a university-based educational researcher. The purpose of the project, commissioned by the schools, was to build practitioner research capacity within the early years teaching team in both schools through the completion of a collaborative research project. The two schools are located close together near the centre of Liverpool. It is important to note that it is an inner city area with child poverty levels at two and a half times the national average. The focus of the research was to investigate teacher strategies for developing dialogue in everyday interactions with young children, of three to five years in age, in order to develop speech and language skills and sustained shared thinking (Tizard and Hughes, 1984) (Siraj-Blatchford, 2003).

Learning conversations

The importance of talking for children’s learning as well as for their development of speech and language is a well-established principle (Tizard and Hughes 1984) (DSCF, 2008). Closely interrelated with speech and language development there has been a considerable body of research and development work in the UK focused on ‘sustained shared thinking’ in adult–child conversations, meaning that they work together in an intellectual way to solve a problem (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2003). Professional guidance and support on talking for teachers has identified a range of teacher strategies to help develop dialogue in interactions with children (Alexander, 2004) (DCSF, 2009), including: building on the child’s interests; recasting; extending; questioning; allowing thinking time; making connections; introducing new vocabulary; and aiming to achieve a balanced dialogue.

Teacher learning

Teachers’ professional learning may be usefully viewed as an ‘interplay’ between practical wisdom and public (published) knowledge (Boyd and Bloxham, 2014) (Boyd, 2014b). Practical wisdom foregrounds ‘ways of working’ in particular classrooms and educational workplaces. Public knowledge is hierarchically organised through review and publication processes and foregrounds learning theory, research evidence, professional guidance and policy. The metaphor of ‘interplay’ helps to capture the power relations within the engagement of teachers with these two dimensions of knowledge (Boyd and Bloxham, 2014; Boyd, 2014b).


Analysis of teacher–child dialogue is at the heart of this study. The project adopted a collaborative practitioner research approach with teachers using small unobtrusive cameras to capture video clips of their conversations with children. The teachers then collaborated in analysis of their own conversational practice and that of their colleagues.

The immediate research team included seven teachers, a headteacher, a school governor with a background as an educational adviser and two academics from the university. The project unfolded over a two-year period in a series of small-scale action research cycles and the research design, including the analytical framework, developed in an iterative way as the initial data were collected and analysis began. Teachers collected footage and collaborated with the researchers in the analysis of data during face-to-face workshops which took place at intervals of six to eight weeks, and they responded to the developing analysis and findings.


The video clips were analysed under three closely linked analytical frameworks: teacher conversational strategies; interaction analysis and metaphors for learning; and assessment of speech and language development based on national guidance for early years.

Teacher conversational strategies

A set of teacher strategies were drawn from the research evidence on developing sustained shared thinking and formed our initial analytical framework for understanding the video clips of conversations with children. The strategies include: ‘building on the child’s interests’, by listening and building on the topic of conversation initiated by a child; ‘power-reciprocity’ whereby the teacher ‘allows’ the child to make decisions; ‘asking questions’ to stimulate thinking; giving ‘thinking time’, and the strategy of ‘extension’, which involves extending the thinking of the child, such as by summarising the idea expressed by the child and then adding a new idea to it. The collaborative coding of the video clip transcripts using the teacher strategies helped to reveal the complexity and contested nature of teacher conversational strategies.

Interaction analysis and metaphors for learning

Frameworks for analysis of teacher–child conversations have been developed through research in modern languages classrooms that are aiming for spontaneous talk in the target language (Crichton, 2013). These frameworks may particularly lend themselves to early years settings where speech and language development is also a high priority. Crichton argues convincingly for the potential of Goffman’s (Goffman, 1981) ‘production’ format and Wadensjo’s (Wadensjo, 1998) ‘reception’ format as frameworks to analyse classroom dialogue that is more conversational.

In integrating the Goffman and Wadjensco frameworks there appeared to be a lack of emphasis on learning, so we introduced the use of metaphors for learning. Metaphors of ‘acquisition’, ‘participation’ and ‘contribution’ help to capture a progression in learning as teachers use formative assessment and ‘in the moment’ strategies to guide conversations.

Merging the formats of Goffman and Wadensjo in combination with these three metaphors for learning produces a potential framework for the analysis of child-teacher conversation in a fast moving, collaborative and play-focused early years setting, where teachers are pursuing sustained shared thinking but realistically will often have only limited one-to-one time with individual children (see Table 1). The acronym for this framework ‘Repeats, Edits, Authors, Leads’ (REAL) is helpful for teachers to bear in mind because ‘REAL’ helps to promote empathy with the child’s agenda.

Table 1 is titled "The 'real' framework for analysis of classroom discussion" and shows a table with four columns and four lines. The columns are labelled "Progress", "Metaphore for learning", "Speech role of the child or adult", and "Criteria". The lines are as follows: "1 - Acquisition - Repeats - Repeat the utterance", "2 - Participation - Edits - Reconstructs form and content", "3 - Contribution - Authors - Introduces new content", and "4 - Framing - Leads - Set a new focus for discussion".

The REAL framework was used to pursue the analysis. When applying REAL in the analysis of the video clips, ‘Repeats’ means that the previous contribution is simply regurgitated with little or no further elaboration. ‘Edits’ is used to code contributions where some reconstruction of the form and content, offered by the previous speaker, is made:

Transcript: Owl Story Book

Teacher 4: Badgers live in ‘sets’ but what do owls live in?

Child 12: Um, trees

Teacher 4: They live in trees but what do they live in, in the tree? [teacher cups her hand] What would we call that?

Child 12: A nest

Teacher 4: A nest

Child 12: [points to the page] That’s the big hole where they go out and in

Teacher 4: So they’re nice and safe, they’re in a hole, in the tree, in their nest.

Both teacher and child demonstrate ‘Edits’ within this quote.

Within the REAL framework, ‘authors’ is taken to mean introduction of new content:

Transcript: Water Play

Teacher 2: What’s happening down here? (pause) What’s happening down here Leon?

Child 5: [points to the ground] It’s blocked again.

Teacher 2: [Teacher kneeling beside one of the containers] What? Umm, why is it blocked?

Child 5: There’s a froggy inside

In this quote, the child, in response to teacher questioning, introduces the issue of the drain of the pool being blocked and makes a contribution, and so ‘authors’ by introducing the new idea of a frog. Authoring contributions were mainly found to be responses to the teacher’s questions rather than more spontaneous new contributions.

These interactions capture the ‘teacherly’ approach of the adults and link to the final element of REAL which is ‘Leads’ in relation to the interaction. The use of metaphors for learning seems helpful in understanding this issue and the linking of acquisition to Repeats, participation to Edits, contribution to Authors and then finally framing to Leads helps to link the analysis of interaction more firmly back to the learning that may be taking place. Framing is a useful metaphor to help understand the way the context of the early years setting helps to influence the conversations that take place within it.

Assessment of speech and language development

The third framework we considered was the formal national curriculum guidance on speech and language development. At the beginning of the project this framework was foregrounded by the teacher researchers because of the pressure they feel, reinforced by inspection and school performance accountability, to cover or deliver the curriculum.


This is a small-scale collaborative research project and clearly has considerable limitations in terms of generalisability. The REAL classroom interaction framework developed during the project provided an analytical tool for teachers by linking conversations to learning. In the majority of cases, sustained shared thinking is a one to one adult–child conversation, and the project found that this can be difficult to achieve given the other demands on adult time in nursery and Reception classes. Ironically, this is made more difficult by the considerable workplace pressures on teachers to be ‘teacherly’ and to focus on curriculum and assessment. The project made a contribution to the range of strategies for developing sustained shared thinking in relation to the identity of a ‘teacher’. For example, to counter the pressure to steer conversations towards ‘delivery’ or ‘coverage’ of the formal curriculum we found instances where teachers adopted alternative identities during their interactions with children and we labelled these as ‘transportable identity’:

Transcript: Wiggly Worms

Teacher 3: You’re doing another one? Oh, can you teach me how to do a wiggly worm?

Child 9: Yes [Child 9 moves over towards Teacher 3]

Teacher 3: What do you have to do?

Child 9: You have to rub it in, look, see

Teacher 3: Ah, there, so roll it with your fingers

Child 9: Yes, and then it makes a snake like this [Child 9 holds up the wiggly worm]

Teacher 3: Oh, ‘M’ [child’s name] look I’m making one. I’m rolling, rolling, rolling (pause) ‘M’ what do you think of mine?

In this quote the teacher appears to adopt the identity of a playmate when she asks ‘can you teach me how to do a wriggly worm?’, encouraging reciprocity in the conversation. To some extent this seems like common sense and we all do this kind of switch in identity when playing with children. The reason why it seemed more significant and useful as a finding within the context of the study was because the teachers are at work when they are ‘playing’ with the children.

The research project supports previous work in showing that collective analysis of video clips of their own practice is a powerful approach in efforts to engage teachers with practice (Osipova et al., 2011). In this project however, the teachers went beyond reflection on their practical wisdom and became critically engaged with a body of established research evidence. The teacher strategies gathered from the research evidence base were made much more meaningful by the process of analysing the video clips. The analytical framework of REAL (Repeat – Edit – Author – Lead) proved to be useful in evaluating and refining the more concrete ‘good practice’ type guidelines provided by the research evidence-based teacher strategies. This paper has argued that teacher learning requires critical engagement with bodies of public knowledge, but it also demonstrates that teacher researchers are able to contribute to co-construction of public knowledge on classroom practice.


Alexander R (2004) Towards  Dialogic  Teaching:  Rethinking  Classroom  Talk. Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Boyd P (2014a) Learning  conversations:  Teacher  researchers  evaluating  dialogic  strategies  in  early  years  settings. International  Journal  of  Early  Years  Education 22(4): 441–456.
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