This article summaries the following research article:

Maine F and Čermáková A (2021) Using linguistic ethnography as a tool to analyse dialogic teaching in upper primary classrooms. Learning, Culture and Social Interaction 29: 100500. 



The features and benefits of dialogic teaching are well researched and recognised. Yet we know relatively little about the nuanced actions that teachers use to enable and support dialogue in the classroom. This study therefore looked at how different teachers put the research on dialogic teaching into action in their contexts. 


The research underpinning this summary

The research project presented here is part of a larger project that aimed to foster tolerance, empathy and inclusion through dialogue in the classroom (DIALLS – Dialogue and Argumentation for Cultural Literacy Learning). This project involved the explicit teaching of dialogic skills so children could learn how to engage critically and inclusively with each other around the themes of social responsibility, living together and ‘being European’ in the 21st century.

As part of this project, all participating teachers were provided with professional development, resources and lesson plans that supported them in applying principles of dialogic teaching in their contexts. Three teachers were selected for this smaller study and one lesson per teacher was analysed.

The researchers used an approach called ‘linguistic ethnography’ to study teachers’ behaviour in the classroom. Linguistic ethnography unpacks the complexity of classroom talk by analysing communicative acts, their linguistic make-up, turns and the sequencing of these within their situational contexts. 

Even though teachers used a mix between small-group and whole-class teaching, the main focus of this study was whole-class teaching. The lessons were only the third of ten in the programme, so teachers were just starting out on the dialogic teaching programme. Classes were of average size (24-30 students). The research team analysed the macro-level of the ethos of the dialogic classroom and the micro level of the dialogic interactions. At the macro-level, the number of words uttered by teachers and students and lesson segmentation into whole-glass and small-group interactions were analysed. Furthermore, the research team analysed teachers’ use of first names as a way to capture involvement. 

For the micro-level, initiations and extensions of ideas were analysed. The coding scheme covered: invitation (INV), reasoning (RS), elaborations/clarifications (EC), stating an idea or opinion (O), positioning (P), linking to earlier ideas in or beyond the lesson (L), reflecting on the talk or other metalevel comments (RF), guiding the direction of the activity (G), and a new code which was added as part of this project (ACK) which describes instances where teachers agreement or reaction encourages discussion and elaboration.


The importance of rules

All three classrooms had clearly established rules and expectations as to how students should interact with each other. These rules manifested themselves in a range of ways. For example, one class used specific vocabulary and hand gestures to manage discussions whilst another used a more traditional approach of hand raising. The expectation that students were meant to build on what others said before them instead of just thinking about what they wanted to say was also established across all three contexts.


Differences in participation structures

Whilst all three classes started and ended with whole-class discussions, they all organised small group discussions differently. Two classes (B and C) split more evenly between small-group and whole-class discussions while the remaining class (A) used whole-class discussions for 81 per cent of the time. Even though this could indicate a more teacher-centred approach in class A, a closer analysis reveals that students spoke more during whole-class discussions in class A than in the other two classes. They also interacted more with other students than in the other two classes.


The use of names

Names were mainly used for two purposes; to invite someone else to speak and to refer back to what someone else said. In class A, names were mentioned 70 times and just 59 per cent by the teacher, which indicates that students also referred to each others’ contributions. In this class, the teacher ended the lesson by a plenary during which each student was invited to speak. In comparison, in classes B and C names were mentioned 36 and 44 times respectively. The whole-class discussion took a different shape in class B, where the teacher chose one representative per small group to report back, which naturally decreased the number of single-name mentions. In class C, the majority of name mentions came from the teacher and were invitations to speak. Only six instances linked back to what another student had said.

Overall, these results indicate that whole-class discussion time does not automatically mean teacher-centred discussions in which students do not interact with each other or get little time to speak. If the teacher functions as a node through which the discussion flows, such an approach can facilitate rich discussions.


Micro-level analysis

One of the main findings relates to the importance of brief, sometimes even nonverbal, teacher encouragement (i.e. the newly added ACK code). Simply by nodding or voicing encouragement briefly but without interrupting students’ contributions, they can encourage them to continue their elaborations. Another interesting observation is the fact that 11 per cent of children’s utterances in class A were invitations or questions to peers, whilst only one such instance was observed respectively for classes B and C. 


Impact on practice

This paper shows how differently the same research findings and classroom materials can be put into action across different contexts with each dialogic teacher bringing their own special flair to their teaching. It was clear that whole-class discussions can still be highly interactive and encourage dialogic interactions if the teacher takes a supportive rather than dominant role. An important concluding finding in the paper was that all the teachers had established a positive environment where their relationships with the students meant everyone felt they were working towards a common goal and could share their ideas together.


Want to know more?

Visit the DIALLS website


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