This case study is the third of three, shared as part of the bitesize CPD unit on developing cultural literacy through dialogue. We recommend that you read the introductory section of this unit before engaging with the case studies.
Libby Meyer, Key Stage 1 teacher, primary school in Cambridge
We are a village primary located on the outskirts of Cambridge. We are in the unusual position of being one and a half form entry, meaning that we have several mixed year-group classes. Although the DIALLS materials were introduced and used across the whole of the lower phase, we also used DIALLS as a small group intervention for six children from a mixed year 1/2 class.
We felt that, following years of disrupted schooling, focusing on communication, tolerance and mutual understanding was important for the children – especially as online and blended learning offers few opportunities for this.
We began the DIALLS project by introducing the whole class to the DIALLS ethos. We used the wordless films and discussion prompts twice a week to begin embedding dialogic processes for the class before beginning the intervention. These were short sessions, which would typically focus on one specific dialogic skill, such as ‘we can listen carefully to each other’ and would share some key features of good listening before getting started. We also explicitly shared the values and purpose of the DIALLS project with the children and explained that children all around the world were using the same films and books as us – they were very excited about this!
The intervention was based on a shared reading of wordless picture books in small groups. Although we had a mixed year 1/2 class, we chose to use books that were pitched for KS1 so that we could focus more on the core skills of dialogue. Our group was mostly made up of ‘reluctant talkers’– children that often shared less in a whole class setting. A number also had special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or used English as an additional language (EAL). These factors combined meant that we felt it was important to choose books that were easily accessible for the group. They absolutely loved the materials – in particular, Owl Bat, Bat Owl, about a family of owls who are disturbed when a family of bats come to share the other side of their tree branch, has become a firm favourite for many in the group!
Impact on children
There were a number of benefits to the teaching. The children were always thoughtful and kind citizens of the school, but it has been wonderful to see their compassion and curiosity flourish as they are more able to express these ideas. By focusing the discussions around ideas of tolerance and empathy, DIALLS has helped to raise the profile of citizenship in the group.
We also noticed an impact on the children’s confidence in class, particularly during class discussions. They are unafraid to wonder aloud and will pose questions to the class teacher or their peers. The quality of their dialogic talk has improved across the whole curriculum.
It was interesting to see how the group bonded throughout the process of intervention – this had never been a specific goal of the project but was lovely to see, especially in some of the children that struggled more with friendships.
Throughout the project, the children have become more invested in reading – they describe their relationship to reading in more positive terms and have been observed choosing to read more frequently than before, or for longer periods. The DIALLS books are absolutely beautiful and the children found them very engaging and fun, which in turns has helped to give them more positive experiences of reading.
Impact on professional practice
My involvement with DIALLS has been a fantastic experience. It has helped to shape my understanding of dialogic sessions and the importance of co-constructing meaning in any learning space. The children have shown a remarkable ability to navigate discussions with a clarity and sensitivity that has really impressed me. They are naturally inquisitive and DIALLS has been a protected space in which they are able to explore and express important themes as equals. It has also made me more aware of my own practice – particularly how I structure dialogue. It is easy to fall into the trap of IRF (initiation-response-feedback) question styles but dedicating the time to learning a dialogic skillset through the DIALLS programme has helped to shape my teaching across the whole curriculum. As a result of this, now that the building blocks of dialogue are more embedded, often the children are more independent in navigating complex discussions. Whole class, we have seen examples of children applying these skills across the curriculum, addressing their own misconceptions and talking peer to peer in a way that is thoughtful and considered. In the future, I am keen to extend the DIALLS programme so that it will include Key Stage 2 and Early Years too.
Co-constructing meaning took time in the intervention group, and required a lot of teacher modelling, reiteration and support at the beginning. Finding a quiet space was a challenge as it is in many primary schools, but when working with shyer or more distractible pupils this was really important.
At the start of the intervention, some of the children were keen to flick through the book as quickly as possible, so I found that focusing their attention by sharing a key question first was important. Being flexible and not being afraid of deviating slightly from the given plan was key. For instance, when reading ‘Owl Bat, Bat Owl’ the children wanted to focus on an area of the book that I had not anticipated. In this case, we chose to dedicate a second session to it, but read it using a different ‘lens’. As the project went on, the group learned how to respond and relate to each other – myself included! And this allowed for a greater depth of conversation.
Practical advice for implementing the DIALLS resources
- Spend time familiarising yourself with all the DIALLS materials first. The videos and blog on the website are really helpful in understanding the aims and practicalities of the project.
- Dedicating time to establishing dialogic ground rules with the group is an important first step in getting the most out of the sessions. You could create a mini-charter to refer to at the beginning of each session.
- Ultimately, you will know the children best, so find ways to adapt the materials to suit your group. With my group, I modelled a lot of talk and utilised stem sentences to help focus the dialogue. I found it helpful to spend time linking the books to the children’s own experiences. For instance, ‘Where’s the Elephant?’ follows an elephant in a rapidly diminishing jungle, and the children were keen to compare this to the removal of some trees from the school playground. We thought about what the trees meant to us, and what they meant to the animals in the jungle.
- We also gave children the opportunity to share the books at home with families once the sessions were finished. This worked really well – it gave the children a sense of ownership of their learning. Not many adults are familiar with wordless books, so it put the child in the position of authority- they were teaching their families how to read, rather than being read to, and also helped to foster a connection between home and school.