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Classroom discourse in the upper primary and early secondary years

Phil Cormack
Language and Literacy Research Centre
School of Education
University of South Australia

The full title for the Classroom Discourse project[1] was 'Classroom discourse in the upper primary and early secondary years: What kinds of school based activities allow students to demonstrate achievement of outcomes in talking and listening?'. The focus was on investigating teachers' and students' use of spoken language in learning processes in upper primary and early secondary years, specifically the use of spoken language (and related written language) as a means of making learning processes more effective. The project commenced with a literature review of research into classroom talk which informed the two subsequent strands of the research.

The first and major project strand involved collaborative research with teachers in South Australian middle years classrooms to design units of work to promote student learning in and through talk and to analyse and reflect on the value of that talk. Teachers videotaped segments of classroom talk and provided written reflections on what happened in their classrooms. The report of this strand (volume 2) draws together the insights from this classroom based research and provides additional analysis on the teachers' perspectives and on transcripts of classroom talk developed from the teachers' videos. The final volume of the report (volume 4) makes available to teacher educators and researchers selections from these transcripts with contextual information.

The second project strand, directed by Dr Peter Wignell at Northern Territory University, involved the examination of spoken language in the upper primary classroom with reference to how spoken language facilitates the development of students' writing and to the role of spoken language in literacy pedagogy. Patterns of talk over an extended series of lessons in a Northern Territory classroom were transcribed and analysed to consider talk that promotes literacy and science learning outcomes. In turn, this analysis of instances of classroom talk was considered in a broader context of curriculum and pedagogic cycles over extended periods of time.

The project report consists of four volumes:

Volume 1:Overview and summary
Volume 2:Classroom perspectives on talk: a report on collaborative research with teachers
Volume 3:Spoken language and literacy pedagogy in a science classroom
Volume 4:Selected transcripts of classroom interactions.


The agreed National Literacy and Numeracy Plan (DEETYA, 1998) has the effect of excluding talk as an aspect of children's literacy by defining literacy as being 'able to read, write and spell at an appropriate level'. The classroom discourse project demonstrated the significant role talk played in children's reading and writing practices. More broadly, talk seems to be a key aspect of children's experience of schooling playing a central role in the nature and quality of students' participation in learning across all subject areas. The findings of the project indicate that, by excluding talk, the national plan omits an element of children's learning that is at least as significant as reading, writing and spelling. Programs that support national literacy goals should specifically acknowledge the place of talk in children's literacy development and promote its use and assessment.

This exclusion of talk is reflected in the kinds of materials that are made available to support teachers' work such as curriculum guides. The teachers working in the Classroom Discourse Project found that the curriculum frameworks and guides they used tended not to focus on talk as a valued outcome or as a means of learning in subjects. While these materials did not preclude the use of talk, the current focus on literacy (as reading and writing) in schools meant that these guides were used to develop print-based activities and assessments, rather than to fully utilise the potential of talk. If the national plan is to 'provide support for teachers in their task of identifying children not achieving adequate literacy...', there is a clear need for curriculum frameworks and guides in all curriculum areas (not just English) to support teaching and learning activities which explicitly focus on talk as a valued learning outcome and as a tool for learning.

The National Plan targets the early years of schooling as vital in providing a foundation for student learning. The Classroom Discourse Project through its work with teachers in the middle years of school (Years 6-9), demonstrated that these years provide new sets of challenges for students' oral and written work that affect their learning outcomes. The language of subject areas, the need to work in new kinds of classroom environments in secondary schools, and the need to negotiate learning and literacy demands that vary from teacher to teacher, all provide potential sites for students to experience difficulties. This research suggests that the transitions inherent in the middle years of schooling should be targeted in any plan to promote literacy achievement by all students.

The research in this project has shown the very real challenges faced by teachers in schools serving diverse and disadvantaged communities in promoting equitable student learning outcomes. The research has also shown that with support that allows teachers to acknowledge their students' strengths, see their family, social, linguistic and cultural resources as starting points for learning, and establish classroom activities based on challenge, activity and trust, teachers can construct classrooms where students who traditionally do not succeed in school can operate as successful learners. There is a need to acknowledge the special resource and other needs associated with the schooling of students in diverse and disadvantaged communities as a core component of any program aiming to improve literacy outcomes.


The research project has demonstrated the benefits to teachers and schools that arise from their involvement in truly collaborative research. Professional development programs can be greatly strengthened by engaging teachers as researchers with support to critically reflect on the effects of their practice. Professional development programs should foster such involvement through clearly articulated research and professional development policies and practices that encourage and support such a linkage between research and professional development. For example, part of the success of the Classr oom Discourse Project was due to the effective support and liaison provided by the two school systems (the South Australian Department of Education, Training and Employment; and Catholic Education Office). Research tools for data generation (for example, teacher reflective writing, video and audio taping of classroom interactions) and analysis (for example, critical discourse analysis, systemic functional linguistics), have been shown to provide insights into classrooms that are useful for teachers. When teachers have training in their use, extended time to use them and a collegial environment in which to consider their implications, they can be used to improve practice.

Talk remains the principal medium of instruction and assessment in schooling and a crucial factor in student learning outcomes. Professional development programs should set a high priority on programs that focus on classroom talk. Volume 2 of the project report, based on collaborative research with teachers, provides a set of indicators for action within and beyond the classroom for promoting valued talk. They include indicators for:

These indicators provide a useful guide for teacher professional development in considering the kinds of practices that should be promoted and the broader institutional environments that support effective teaching of talk.

The collaborative teacher research strand of the project revealed many aspects of school and classroom life which serve to limit effective learning and teaching. Volume 1 of the project report provides a series of implications which potentially impact on school systems and indicate professional development needs. As noted in the report, significant aspects of these implications relate to promoting teaching and learning practices suited to students in the middle years. As the teachers developed their practices in this project, secondary teachers tended to move toward classroom organisation practices more familiar in a primary setting and primary teachers also modified their practices. There is a need for practices that bridge the large differences in organisational practices between primary and secondary settings. Professional development programs need to support the development of middle schooling classroom and institutional practices designed for young adolescents.

Project outcomes presented in the project report will have a minimal impact in schools where time for reading of research is minimal. Aspects of the project report could be developed as a professional development package of workshops for teachers and school support personnel. Such a series of workshops would ensure that the project outcomes were highlighted for school support personnel and key teachers in schools and would promote the use of the report in schools. Such work could be coordinated with other initiatives such as national conferences by professional associations and workshops offered by the National Schools Network allowing for a reduction in venue and advertising costs. An initiative of this kind could be conducted in collaboration with researchers from other Child Literacy Projects.


A major outcome from this project has been the demonstrated success of involving teachers as researchers and knowledge producers. Educational research can be designed to involve teachers as collaborating researchers and research outcomes can be produced in forms accessible to practitioners. Successful collaboration with teachers is dependent on educational researchers having a history of close ties with industry partners, experience in recruiting teachers and schools into research projects and strategies for negotiating meaningful involvement of busy teachers in research. Funding bodies should make research of this kind a high priority.

Many aspects of the Classroom Discourse project raised issues of the timelines provided for research into classroom talk. Three issues can be isolated:

These insights from the conduct of the project suggest that priority may need to be given to research projects funded over two to three years in order that the complexity of classroom language use and the challenges of involving teachers as co-researchers can be met.

The Classroom Discourse project has suggested that classroom talk is a key site for continuing research into language and literacy education. The project findings suggest at least three aspects of schooling and classroom practice that need further investigation in relation to classroom talk.

First, research needs to consider the ways that teachers and students are constituted in broader discourses of schooling, the community and in the media. For example, teachers' views of what it was possible to do with the students in their class were affected by their 'readings' of students' capabilities (and these views were influenced by discourses that constructed students through their home lives, cultural and linguistic resources, their gender and 'ability'). These discourses serve to shape what it is possible to do in classrooms as well as how student talk and behaviour is interpreted. Research is needed to explore the ways that such discourses impact on practice and ways that teachers and students can work with and against them. This is especially important for schools serving diverse and disadvantaged communities.

Second, the spoken language and literacy pedagogy strand of the project suggested that rather than focussing on particular teaching and learning strategies, it may be ensembles of strategies, employed differentially over a curriculum cycle, that will promote student achievement. Further research into classroom teaching over extended series of lessons is needed.

Third, the teachers in the project demonstrated that reform of classroom practices is possible, but it can only occur in contexts which address long-term issues of work practices, curriculum reform, collegial environments, and facilities and resources for learning. Future research into classroom talk, and other aspects of literacy, needs to focus on the institutional contexts within which teachers work as an important factor in the nature of the curriculum and teaching made available to students.


This position paper has emphasised the complexity of literacy (so that it includes consideration of talk) as well as the complexity of the classroom, institutional and broader contexts within which literacy teaching and learning occurs. The intention has been to promote a broad interpretation of the National Plan and the work which flows from it so that it includes consideration of these complexities. The Classroom Discourse project has demonstrated that so much of what occurs in classrooms involves issues far beyond narrow conceptions of literacy as reading, writing and spelling and of teaching as the application of easily identifiable or explained knowledge or activities. It has also demonstrated that there are positive and productive directions for research and professional development to follow in realising literacy pedagogies that promote success for all students.


DEETYA. (1998). Literacy for all: The challenge for Australian schools: Commonwealth literacy policies for Australian scho ols. Canberra, ACT: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. http://www.dest.gov.au/archive/schools/literacy&numeracy/publications/lit4all.htm


  1. Cormack, P. & Wignell, P. (1998). The classroom discourse project. Canberra: DEETYA. http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/cls/clearinghouse/content_1998_classroom.html
Author details: Phil Cormack, Deputy Director
Language and Literacy Research Centre,
School of Education
University of South Australia
Underdale, SA, 5032.
Email: phil.cormack@unisa.edu.au

Please cite as: Cormack, P. (1999). Classroom discourse in the upper primary and early secondary years. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 15(1), 51-57. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/cormack.html

[ Contents Vol 15, 1999 ] [ QJER Home ]
Created 1 Jan 2005. Last revision: 2 Jan 2005.
URL: http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer15/cormack.html