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'Now you're talking': The role of talk in thinking and learning in the middle years

Di Bills[1]
Department of Education, Training and Employment
South Australia

The Talking and Learning in the Middle Years project[2] differed from other Children's Literacy National Projects. It was conducted by a teacher seconded from a Department of Education rather than by a team of researchers and it was designed specifically to provide teacher professional development supported by relevant theoretical insights rather than to conduct research in its own right. While I refer in what follows mainly to my experiences as manager of the Talking and Learning in the Middle Years project, the views I present have been affected by my involvement in more recent educational research programs such as the Classroom Discourse in the Upper Primary and Early Secondary Years project (Cormack, 1998; see also article 5) and the Information Technology, Literacy and Educational Disadvantage project as well as by my work for a PhD thesis on the role of talk in classroom learning.

The project aimed to strengthen the role of talk in learning in the middle years of schooling through the production of visual and print resource materials designed to:

The video and complementary workshop materials produced under the title Now You're Talking aimed to promote a critical examination of: It was developed with the help of a team of teachers and has subsequently been used for professional development programs in South Australian schools.


The National Literacy and Numeracy Plan (DEETYA, 1998) maintains the national priority given to literacy education since the development of 'skills of English literacy' became one of the ten 'Common and Agreed National Goals for Schooling' in 1989. In the policy paper, Literacy for All: The Challenge for Australian Schools, literacy is described as 'intrinsically purposeful, flexible and dynamic and involv[ing] the integration of speaking, listening and critical thinking with reading and writing'. (DEETYA, 1998, page 7). However, the literacy goals and the key elements of the National Plan clearly focus on reading and writing as the essential aspects of literacy. By confining its interest to reading, writing and spelling the National Plan gives scant attention to speaking, listening, viewing and critical thinking.

The Talking and Learning in the Middle Years project was informed by a broader conception of literacy such as that expressed in the The Language of Australia: Discussion Paper on an Australian Literacy and Language Policy for the 1990s (DEET, 1990) which included speaking, listening, critical thinking and cultural knowledge. Views that literacy is complex and multi-modal make it possible for teachers to think of 'literacies' as sets of social practices (Gee, 1996; Luke, 1991) and to associate literate behaviour with multiple 'ways of talking, interacting, thinking, valuing and believing' (Gee, 1996, page 41). It also provides teachers with a framework in which to place new understandings of literate behaviours that go beyond the use of print-based language texts to the use and generation of mass media, multimedia and hypermedia texts (The New London Group, 1996).

Project teachers who collaborated with the development of Now You're Talking appreciated the legitimacy it loaned their efforts to promote purposeful talk in classrooms when many of their colleagues, administrators and school community members believed 'good' classrooms were 'quiet' classrooms. Participants in the Classroom Discourse in the Upper Primary and Early Secondary Years project (Cormack, 1998) also commented that it was difficult to encourage whole school collegial activity when developing new approaches to talk in the classroom. It is significant that the need expressed by teachers involved in the earlier Talk project was followed up purposefully and successfully in the Classroom Discourse project. Teachers actively take up their professional responsibility to implement priorities expressed in official policy documents. A major implication of these projects for the Plan is that while it may not be an intention to marginalise aspects of literacy other than reading and writing, if this is what is officially recognised and promulgated, the intensity and complexity of teachers' work is such that other aspects of literacy will again become peripheral concerns with consequences for effective literacy teaching. In particular, we run the risk of reducing literacy to a set of decontextualised and discrete decoding and encoding skills which do not reflect the diverse linguistic, social, cultural and technological contexts in which teachers work and in which learners' literacies are practised.

A second major implication for the Plan is the broader knowledge gained from studies that focus on talk and interaction in classrooms, for they give more than informed analyses of the part played by spoken language in literacy development. Talk is the medium through which the curriculum is enacted in classrooms and analysis of talk-in-interaction has given valuable pedagogical insights into the nature of school literacy practices and their role in the construction of knowledge. They have shown, for example:

What studies like these do, therefore, is assist teachers to understand how literacy learning is accomplished in the everyday social and discursive practices of the classroom and how changing those discursive practices might offer students new ways to participate in literacy learning and knowledge production (Gutierrez, Rymes & Larson,1995; Gutierrez, Stone & Larson, in press).


The Now You're Talking resource was designed to be multifunctional and to give many points of departure for professional developmental activity. Teachers in South Australian schools where the materials were used therefore took very different approaches to the resource, depending on their experiences and the needs of their students. They used the resource to provide a theoretical basis for their planning as well as practical strategies for encouraging talk in the curriculum. However, although the resource was used in different and locally specific ways, there were common features that suggest features of professional development programs that teachers will find useful.

Firstly, teachers reported that the resource enabled them to take a planned approach to developing talk at the whole school and classroom levels because they were introduced to new theoretical understandings and a discourse to help them construct and share their knowledge. Conflicting Discourses of literacy education make teachers the subjects of Discourses rather than the makers of them. For example, Discourses of declining literacy standards, often promoted by the media, construct deficit notions of teachers and public schooling (Comber, 1997). There are also academic and government Discourses in which much of what is said about literacy education in schools is said by literacy researchers and policy makers outside of schools. It is difficult for teachers to find a place 'in the Discourse' (Gee, 1996). 'Best practice' professional development should allow teachers to examine, develop and trial literacy teaching strategies from informed positions within local school contexts. Collaborative projects with teacher educators and researchers have much to offer in this regard.

Secondly, as a result of using Now You're Talking, teachers developed their own school policy documents and booklets of strategies and programs for talk, which they then shared with other teachers at conferences. It is easy to forget that teachers also have 'funds of knowledge' related to their social and work histories that can become resources for exchange (Moll, 1992). Professional development activities framed by approaches that suggest 'teachers should know' or 'teachers should be competent in' or 'teachers should be skilled at' ignore the understanding, commitment and expertise that teachers already possess. Professional development processes that assist them to accumulate knowledge through their own generative actions not only allow them to critically reflect on and share their funds of knowledge, but also offer a means of 'reinstating the teacher as a knowledgeable public figure' (Comber, 1997).


I have suggested that the work of literacy teachers is complicated not only by contested notions of what constitutes literacy but also by the need to make often difficult connections between academic discourses and practices and school discourses and practices. Honan et al. (1998) have suggested that similar gaps exist between school practices and real world practices when we consider the relationship between literacy and new technologies. Currently, teachers struggle to promote 'new' cultural, critical and technological literacy practices at the same time as they are required to teach more culturally and linguistically diverse populations of students. Research should assist teachers with this struggle.

As I have indicated above, there is much that teachers can learn from research into the practicalities of talk in everyday classroom contexts. Ethnomethodologically informed studies of talk in particular show how power and authority relations are locally constructed in everyday classroom talk (Baker, 1997). Observing and appreciating previously unnoticed features of talk-in-interaction gives teachers an understanding of issues of knowledge-production in schools, of what 'matters' to students, of what they demonstrate are categories of membership relevant for them (for example, class, racial, gender, rural/urban memberships) and of what they know and understand about schools and the social relations in them to talk the way they do (Baker, 1992; Hustler & Payne, 1985; Schegloff, 1992). Research should continue to make these insights available to teachers in ways that are relevant for classroom contexts.

In addition, studies of what happens when young adolescent students talk more often with their peers in the classroom and take greater interactive control in teacher-student discussions show that in these situations students decide what they need to know and they use their peers, communities and teachers to help them access and understand information (Bills, Lucas & Cormack, 1998). In the classroom of the future, successful students are more likely to be those who take control of their learning, who know when and how to access specialist knowledge and who engage in dynamic learning conversations both face-to-face and on-line. Research could therefore profitably examine how bringing classrooms alive with purposeful talk prepares students for what Lemke (1998) calls the 'interactive learning paradigm', in which new digital technologies are instrumental in mediating interactive learning.

While the Plan wisely considers early intervention strategies crucial for effective literacy development, acquisition of a repertoire of literacy behaviours is a life-long and dynamic learning process. As Lo Bianco & Freebody (1997) state ' early literacy education is not at all like a vaccination, offering protection against later problems'. Research involving longitudinal studies of students is needed to show how students' literacy behaviours develop and change across primary and secondary schooling as literacy demands increase in relation to the subject areas and changing economic and technological futures.


The National Plan represents a strategic approach to literacy education that has as its key elements the identification of literacy difficulties soon after children enter school, early intervention to address those difficulties, the establishment of benchmarks, progress towards national reporting and the professional development of teachers.

Within this framework, efforts should be made to:


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Baker, C.D. (1997). Ethnomethodological studies of talk in educational settings. In B. Davies & D. Corson (Eds), Encyclopedia of language and education: Vol. 3. Oral discourse and education. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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  1. Currently on leave from DETE, affiliated as a student and part-time working member of the Language and Literacy Research Centre, Division of Education, Arts and Social Sciences, University of South Australia.
  2. Department for Education and Children's Services. (1995). Now you're talking. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1995_talking.html
Author details: Di Bills,
PO Box 117,
Eudundah, SA, 5374.
Phone: 08 8581 1209 Fax: 08 8581 1767
Email: dfbills@camtech.net.au

Please cite as: Bills, D. (1999). 'Now you're talking': The role of talk in thinking and learning in the middle years. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 59-68. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/bills.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Jan 2005. Last revision: 1 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/bills.html