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Enacting cultural literacy as a dialogic social practice: The role of provisional language in classroom talk

Written By: Victoria Cook
4 min read

This article summarises the following research article:

Cook V, Maine F and Čermáková A (2022) Enacting cultural literacy as a dialogic social practice: the role of provisional language in classroom talk. London Review of Education  20(1) DOI: 10.4324/LRE.20.1.02.



Provisional language, such as might/maybe/could/perhaps, is vague language that can be used to encourage open mindedness and speculation. 

Traditional views of cultural literacy, which focus on the essential cultural knowledge that is needed to function in society, represent a static, one-way transmission of knowledge. In contrast, the authors argue that cultural literacy may be reconceptualised as a dialogic social practice. According to this idea, culture and heritage are continually co-created through interaction between people. Such a view of cultural literacy celebrates different perspectives. 

The aim of this research project was to explore how children from different European contexts engage in discussions about cultural themes.


The research underpinning this summary

This paper focuses on classroom discussions recorded in 18 UK schools (10 primary and 8 secondary schools). The lessons took place as part of a larger research project called DIALLS which focuses on teaching children dialogue and argumentation skills to engage with each other using tolerant, empathetic and inclusive behaviour and developing their cultural literacy. Students watched Baboon on the Moon (Duriez, 2002) as a basis to discuss home and belonging. The film features a baboon who goes about his business on the moon before he takes out a trumpet and plays a song while looking at planet Earth, a tear running down his cheek. Students were encouraged to explore the themes in reference to the text (i.e. action in the film), through personal connections and in an abstract way (i.e. taking into account people more widely). They explored the questions: ‘Is home where you live?’, ‘Where do you belong?’ and ‘What is home?’. 

Two lessons from different schools, School A (13-14 year-olds) and School B (9-10 year-olds), were selected for in-depth qualitative analysis. These lessons were selected because they were rich in provisional language and included discussions that were rich in perspectives. Both schools are co-educational state schools in rural towns in southern England, with predominantly first-language English speakers.

The results of this study highlight that provisional language can be used in classroom dialogue to encourage a positive, open and flexible attitude towards uncertainty as students learn to tolerate ambiguity in dialogue. Such language helps to create a safe dialogic space, where ideas are open to negotiation and collective meaning making can be achieved. 

The teacher’s role in promoting and modelling provisional language is key. The use of dual objectives helps to promote such language, where one objective is focused on dialogue learning and the second is focused on the cultural topic under discussion. In the extract from School A below, the teacher is introducing the dialogue objective for the lesson: 

So today we’re focusing ON LISTENING to what others have said and respecting their ideas, and empathising with different viewpoints.

Here we can also see how the teacher’s choice of language, specifically the use of ‘we’re’, helps to emphasise the collective nature of the task

In the extract from School B below, provisional language is both actively encouraged and modelled by the teacher during a whole class discussion: 


So WHY do you think the baboon’s there, and you could also think about how that might have happened. And the second thing to think about IS how the baboon is feeling through that film and then being able to justify that with these from what we’ve watched to support that, OK? Can we think about using some of that language we’ve talked about when you’re possibility thinking? So the ‘perhaps’, the ‘maybe’, the ‘might’, playing around with different ideas and trying to come to some kind of agreement together, negotiating meaning that way, OK? Off you go.


The results also suggest that provisional language has an important social element, enabling students to suspend judgement, respectfully engage with each other’s ideas, and engage with uncertainty in a positive and constructive manner. This is particularly important where students are learning to engage in discussions in which individuals may have differing perspectives. 

Whilst provisional language may be used to explore ideas, such language may not be appropriate when seeking agreement. Furthermore, to ensure that students’ voices are both heard and heeded, a democratic classroom ethos that values every voice is vital. To ensure that ideas are not dismissed or ignored, it is also important that students are held accountable to standards of reasoning in dialogue.  


Impact on practice

This paper shows that consistent and explicit teacher modelling of provisional language is key to opening safe and supportive spaces for dialogue. It is also important to promote the use of provisional language by using dual objectives. Resources on the DIALLS website provide further ideas and information about the project.


Want to know more?

Visit the DIALLS website.

Duriez C. (Dir.). Baboon on the Moon. The Arts Institute at Bournemouth. Bournemouth: 2002.


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