‘Reading: whole class or small groups?’: The problem with the question.
Tagged classroom organisation, comprehension, dialogic teaching, Douglas Barnes, exploratory talk, James Britton, Jerome Bruner, Martin Nystrand, Nancy Martin, National Oracy Project, Neil Mercer, reading, Robin Alexander, small groups
I know the title of this blog is a little provocative, deliberately so. One of the questions my colleagues and I are frequently asked about Just Imagine’s resource for teaching reading at KS1 and KS2, Take One Book, is whether it is intended for the whole class or groups. As we outlined in our recent webinar Small Group Work the question about whether we teach reading to the whole class or groups isn’t a helpful one. Take One Book is primarily written with a class in mind, but it advocates group work (independent and with the teacher) as well as whole class teaching. They are both essential if we are to develop the full repertoire that is needed for children’s learning in the 21st century. Learning is the paramount consideration and teachers have the option to use whole class and small group organisation to optimise the experience. To frame the question as a choice between one or the other is a false opposition. Most teachers make judgements about which methods support their purposes. Sometimes the decision is planned and sometimes it can be made ‘in the moment’. Expertise means exercising judgements that are rooted in experience, pedagogic and subject knowledge.
It may be that the question that is actually being posed is, ‘Is this book suitable for the whole class or should I be using it with a group?’. That’s a pertinent question and requires a fully fleshed answer, which I will return to in a forthcoming blog and I will also address the other thorny issue which crops us frequently, ‘Should I use whole texts or extracts?’
Why small groups are essential for reading
The focus for this blog is on small groups for teaching reading and why they are an essential part of reading pedagogy. There are many reasons that small groups could be the most effective choice. For example, in a forthcoming podcast #InTheReadingCorner Penny Slater, Herts for Learning’s Education Development Manager explains why a small group intervention to target reading fluency at the Upper end of KS2 is best undertaken in a small group run by a class teacher. And there will be times that guided groups might be most effective for teaching skills and strategies to identified groups of children. On the other hand, in defence of whole-class teaching, there is no point in wasting time with unnecessary organisation by repeating an identical lesson with six groups if the same learning can be covered effectively and efficiently by teaching once.
Here, I am specifically addressing the role of small group work for developing response and making meaning, and I am principally concerned with talk and its impact on reading. Most importantly I am making a distinction between performing surface ‘learning’ and the deep learning that will have long-lasting and transformational benefits for the learner.
Arriving at this point, I am personally indebted to my colleagues and co-authors, David Reedy, Wayne Tennent and Angela Hobsbaum with whom I worked on Guiding Readers: layers of meaning (2016) for sharpening my thinking through a rigorous dialogic exchange, providing alternative perspectives and drawing from different research disciplines, and for the consensus we achieved. In that book, we put dialogue at the centre of developing readers’ understanding – using case studies that featured both class and group talk.
I also want to give credit to the hundreds of teachers and thousands of children that I have worked with over the years for ensuring that my thinking is always rooted in the classroom. I would especially like to mention the teachers in Barking and Dagenham and in Bury, Manchester who took part in separate Teaching Through Dialogue projects; the London Borough of Richmond teachers who worked as teacher researchers for the London Schools Excellence funded project 4XR: developing excellence in reading and the teacher research group at Ebor Academy Trust in York. Also to the teachers on the Advanced Diploma at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge, who met regularly at a hotel in Stansted, Essex to read and discuss articles about dialogic teaching with me and David Reedy. They have all contributed to refinements in my thinking and the development of Just Imagine’s resources.
What I have to say isn’t new or revolutionary, it draws on an extensive and compelling body of theory and research which underpins Just Imagine’s ethos and the design of our teaching sequences. I will reflect briefly on what we have learned from the past 50 years of research into the role of talk in learning, drawing out main themes and ideas from key researchers in order to look at how we have arrived at our framework for teaching reading. I’ll pick up a few salient points and hope that readers will be enthused to revisit these writers, or perhaps discover them for the first time.
In the 1960s Vygotsky and Bruner’s theories of constructivism were instrumental in challenging behaviourism as a model of learning. Bruner argued that learning is an active process in which the learner draws on their previous experience and knowledge when encountering new ideas and through this exchange, new learning takes place. For Bruner, language was centrally important. Young learners need time, space and opportunity not only to build conceptual understanding but also to develop language. More recently research into reading comprehension has shown how activating prior knowledge helps children to draw on the cultural and linguistic resources that enable them to make sense of what they read at all levels (literal, inferential and critical). The implication for practice is that the provision of purposeful opportunities to talk about reading is essential.
Talk is the foundation for literacy
James Britton made a significant contribution to teachers’ understanding about the primacy of oral language. As he expressed it with characteristic eloquence ‘reading and writing floats on a sea of talk.’ (1972 p164) For Britton, reading literature was a powerful springboard for students to use their own language for imaginative response. His long time collaborator at the London Insititute of Education, Nancy Martin, threw the spotlight on children’s expressive talk. Characteristic of Britton and Martin’s writing is the extensive use of children’s talk transcripts which they used as the basis for theorising. Their observations showed how children build on each other’s thinking and how ideas are shaped by informal talk. Underpinning their work was a concern with big ideas ‘What is English for? What is education for?’ These are important questions to keep in mind when we make pedagogic choices.
The importance of student voice is now widely acknowledged in education as being vital not only for learning but for democratic engagement. Teachers often report to us the issue of social disadvantage manifesting in communication difficulties. Or increasingly, concerns that early involvement with technology is depriving children of opportunities for adult/child interaction. Opportunities for expressive talk afford agency, a way to engage the disaffected and close the equity gap.
Building on constructivist thinking, Douglas Barnes (1971, 1976, 2008, 2010) also focused attention on the benefits of small groups for learning. Barnes drew a distinction between presentational talk (applying not only to formal presentations but also question answering routines) and exploratory talk. Both forms of talk, he argued were important for learning. In his early work, the main focus was small groups in which children worked independently. Using transcripts, he illustrated how talk could be hesitant, sometimes disjointed and incomplete, but nevertheless show evidence of children working through ideas and making meaning.
From experience, I would argue that whole class interactive talk can be rich, purposeful, develop language and promote thinking. However, inevitably the opportunities for extended expressive talk for every pupil are reduced in whole-class interaction. The short bursts of paired talk to rehearse ideas that I frequently witness in classrooms have their uses, but they are not a replacement for genuine exploratory talk.
I don’t want to extol the virtues of small group organisation without acknowledging some of the pitfalls. Good group work needs careful planning and consideration needs to be given to how the group work feeds into the class discussion and dialogue so that learning does move forward. Group work that is left to run for too long can become circular and participants will be bored and perhaps unruly. Challenge is important too. Where tasks are routine and too simple they are likely to fail. Feedback that takes the form of ‘show and tell’ at its worst can lack purpose, eat valuable time and lead to restlessness. Barnes recognised the potential problems, ‘Group discussion should also never be seen as a laissez-faire option. Successful group work requires preparation, guidance and supervision and needs to be embedded in an extended sequence of work that includes other patterns of communication.’ (in Mercer and Hodgkinson 2008 p7) In 2010 Barnes wrote, ‘Problem-solving in small groups has the virtue of involving all the pupils in discussion, and encourages the kind of exploratory talk that some pupils are hesitant to embark on when all their peers are listening. Nevertheless, it is only likely to be effective when the pupils’ interest has already been engaged in the subject matter, so it is not always appropriate. ‘ (p9) Robin Alexander has also criticised group work where teachers try to manage too many groups at the same time or have too many activities on the go. (1992 p29)
The National Oracy Project
At this point, I want to acknowledge the energising work undertaken by the National Oracy Project between 1987 and 1993. When the project started, I was a young teacher and a follower of the project’s progress mainly through conference participation. Towards the end of the project, I took up my first lecturing post at a university and became involved in one of the LEA hubs, providing a link for student teachers to find out about work being carried out in schools. The National Oracy Project was a model of collegiate working and the grassroots action research created a buzz with teachers reflecting on their practice and building pedagogic knowledge. It took the baton from The Bullock Report (1975) in its orientation to the teacher’s role as one of planned intervention. Many of the projects focussed on group work and a range of strategies were developed and promoted through its useful updates and publications. While much of the excellent work wasn’t given the time to take root (these were the years of the introduction of a centralised National Curriculum) many of the strategies for organising group talk are still used in classrooms: jigsaw groups, twos to fours, diamond nine discussions. We continue to use them in our teaching sequences too.
Our thinking has also been greatly influenced by Neil Mercer and his colleagues, Lynn Dawes, Rupert Wegerif and Karen Littleton, particularly around the idea of interthinking, the notion that knowledge does not reside in the head of the individual but is built collaboratively in social contexts. Interthinking links the cognitive and social functions of group talk. This draws heavily on Vygotsky’s view of learning as a social process. On many occasions, I have observed in classrooms the potency of thinking together leading to outcomes that surpass what children can achieve when working individually. This applies as much to teachers as it does to children (and to teachers and children working together). Interthinking can take place in both group and class contexts, but as already mentioned, small groups allow individuals more time, space and opportunity for their ideas to percolate.
Mercer’s categorisation of three types of talk has also been useful, particularly with regards to developing Barnes work on exploratory talk to focus on accountability and reasoning. (Mercer and Wegerif 2004 p72)
Teaching through dialogue
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Martin Nystrand and Robin Alexander’s respective publications on teaching through dialogue shifted our thinking. Alexander’s challenge to the dominant form of IRE exchange in British classrooms by drawing attention to the features of dialogic teaching presented an opportunity for a fresh approach and changes to practice. A focus on sustained and developed chains of dialogue and argumentation which challenged children’s thinking was exciting. I was fortunate to work collaboratively with a group of reflective teachers in Barking and Dagenham to develop approaches that would sustain the gains made by Alexander’s project in the local authority. Great strides were made hand-in-hand with those teachers, and later with teachers in Bury.
I started this article by saying it’s not a question of whole class or groups. Neither is it a question of exploratory group work, or dialogic teaching, or IRE. It’s about repertoire. It’s not about replacing one monolithic practice with another. Alexander writes,
‘ no single pattern of classroom interaction can meet the needs of a modern curriculum. Rather, teachers’ instructional repertoire needs to be extended to encompass other kinds of talk; and pupils’ talk repertoire needs to be extended beyond recall or ‘guess what the teacher is thinking’ answers. Pupils need, both for learning and life, not only to be able to provide relevant and focused answers but also to learn how to pose their own questions and how to use talk to narrate, explain, speculate, imagine, hypothesise, explore, evaluate, discuss, argue, reason and justify.’ (2010 p4)
Theory and practice
If the discussion sounds theoretical, the application is very practical. The ideas have shaped the structuring of our school-based projects. For example, at the outset of the 4XR project, we conducted a series of lesson observations and interviews with teachers. This group of schools had recently looked at the principles of dialogic teaching which was evident in teaching styles and the organisation of the classroom to facilitate dialogue (children were seated so that they could see and speak to each other directly as well as the teachers). The pattern observed in classrooms was fast-paced, interactive teaching and teachers were using techniques for developing argumentation. However, one of the conclusions drawn from the initial observations was that the children had little opportunity for exploratory talk. In consequence, it seemed that the pitch of the lessons sometimes underestimated what children might already understand or be able to do. As Alexander points out, ‘beyond summative tests, talk is a powerful tool for formative assessment because of the way talk is embedded in teaching rather than separate from it. But it has to be the right kind of talk.’
One of the first suggestions we made was for teachers to build in more opportunity for thoughtfully structured exploratory talk and to use this as an opportunity to assess children’s existing levels of understanding, to encourage children to raise questions and to use teacher time to observe rather than intervene without a clear purpose. Intervention at the wrong time can lead children away from learning, whereas skilled observation is an opportunity to identify how to move thinking forward.
The project had many components, so isolating the success to one feature is difficult, as we acknowledged in the formal evaluation. However, the perception work carried out with teachers at the end of the project overwhelmingly pointed to exploratory talk as being one of the most significant contributors in their view. Typical comments ranged from ‘I didn’t know that they knew that.’, ‘I now use questions that arise from the exploratory work to structure the taught element of my lessons’ to ‘I am able to take the children much further forward in their learning because I start teaching at a higher level, rather than covering what the children can do by themselves.’
Take One Book
Take One Book, has developed from refinements to the 4XR model (excite, explore, expose, expand, review). We devised a framework in which high quality, cognitively challenging talk is central to the teaching of reading. And yes, it occurs in whole-class teaching and in groups too. It’s a flexible framework intended to avoid ritualised teaching while offering some support in terms of identifying stages (loose) that deepen understanding. What has become increasingly important to us are the transitions or connecting elements. For example, summarising exploratory talk in a way that makes thinking visible so that it leads to dialogue, or the excitement of a hook and clarity of exposition to set up vigorous and purposeful exploration.
So returning to last week’s webinar, we shared three approaches to exemplify some of these ideas. Working remotely with an audience of 500 online didn’t allow us to replicate the level of participation we would have if we were working with a class, but it gave a flavour of how this can be achieved.
For one illustrative example, we used a photograph, for immediate accessibility and therefore suited to the webinar format, but in the classroom, it could be a poem, a story, a picturebook or nonfiction. In this instance, the photograph was shown without explanation. Three questions were posed and participants were asked to write down their thoughts on sticky notes. One note for each new idea.
- What do you notice?
- What connections do you make? Does the photograph remind you of anything?
- What questions do you have?
Initial responses to ‘noticing’ included ”The white boat looks incongruous in the centre of the scene’, ‘I noticed the difference in clothing’, ‘It seems comic and tragic that both groups of people are looking at each other in astonishment and disbelief’, ‘It’s a depiction of white otherness’, ‘I notice the colours and the grey areas’.
Connections made included ‘It reminds me of travel in Venice’, ‘Looks like the floating villages in Vietnam.’, ‘Reminds me of going down the river in Thailand’, ‘Reminds me of the study of favelas in Brazil (without the water)’, ‘Makes me think about white people on safari’.
The image provoked the following questions: ‘Where is this?’, ‘What are the children thinking?’, ‘What are the spectators thinking about the boat?’, ‘Why did the photographer feel the need to take and share this image?’, ‘What are the relationships between the two groups of people?’, ‘Are the people in the white boat supporting or exploiting this community?’.
From this small sample of responses, ideas begin to form that a teacher might return to in an initial discussion with the class. It’s striking how many different international connections have been made and this could be an opportunity to share and broaden knowledge. Alternatively, some of the inferences might be unpacked, for instance, why do we think the people are astonished and disbelieving when we can’t see their faces?
We then asked further questions and asked participants to jot down new thoughts on their sticky notes:
- Who do you think might have taken this photograph?
- What reasons might they have had for taking the photograph?
- Where is the photographer standing?
- How would the photograph have been different if the photographer was in the boat?
We shared a simple group talk organiser, which can be laminated for repeated use in the classroom. The idea is that each group member adds their sticky notes to one of the allocated piles. The nominated group leader for the lesson (or turn) chooses one of the sticky notes and puts it into the centre. The child who wrote the idea then introduces it and the group discuss it for as long as the point interests them before moving on to another point. This helps to keep the talk focussed, supports the children in practising protocols like turn-taking and respectful listening. The talk at this point is exploratory helping them make connections with prior knowledge and understanding. They begin to construct an understanding together.
At this point, we provided some additional information. This could be presented verbally or as a text for groups to read.
The photograph was taken by a photojournalist called Jesco Denzel. The photograph is called ‘Lagos Waterfronts Under Threat’.
The photograph was taken in 2017 and shows a boat with expats from Lagos Marina being steered through the canals of Makoko community – an ancient fishing village that has grown into an enormous informal settlement – on the shores of Lagos Lagoon, Lagos, Nigeria. Makoko has a population of around 150,000 people, many of whose families have been there for generations. But Lagos is growing rapidly, and ground to build on is in high demand. Prime real estate along the lagoon waterfront is scarce, and there are moves to demolish communities such as Makoko and build apartment blocks: accommodation for the wealthy. Because the government considers the communities to be informal settlements, people may be evicted without provision of more housing. Displacement from the waterfront also deprives them of their livelihoods. The government denies that the settlements have been inhabited for generations and has given various reasons for evictions, including saying that the communities are hideouts for criminals. Court rulings against the government in 2017 declared the evictions unconstitutional and that residents should be compensated and rehoused, but the issue remains unresolved.
The photograph was submitted for the 2018 World Press Photography competition under the category of contemporary issues and was awarded the first prize.
Our next move was to ask participants to consider how this new information either changed or confirmed their thinking. And then as a group to think of a key question to put forward for class discussion.
A follow-on step would be the collection and compilation of a list of questions. The teacher would discuss with the children, and importantly guide them to consider which questions would generate the most fruitful enquiry, selecting one for discussion and dialogue. The teacher might want to select the question to support the learning intention and explain why that question was chosen. Potential questions could include:
- Will tourism inevitably lead to the destruction of local communities and a weakening of culture? (text to world discussion)
- Does the composition of the photograph give clues to the photographer’s intention? (close reading/visual literacy)
Our experience of working in a similar way with children of all ages is that they frequently come up with the questions that we might have posed. It’s infinitely more powerful when the questions arise from the children, and that they see you treat their ideas with the seriousness they deserve.
This is just one small example chosen to illustrate a move from small group exploratory talk to whole-class dialogue. The resources are a starting point, but ultimately it is the teacher who ensures the quality of the learning experience, by observing, listening, responding, challenging ideas, promoting reasoning, requiring evidence, asking follow-up questions and prompts to deepen the learning.
In the context of the Take One Book Framework, this is an example of a First Encounters lesson. More information about the Take One Book is available on the website takeonebook.org.
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- Alexander, R, (2019) A Dialogic Teaching Companion London: Routledge
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- Barnes, D. (2010) ‘Why talk is important’, in English Teaching. Hamilton: University of Waikato, Department of English, 9(2), p. 7.
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- Wegerif, R. et al. (2004) ‘Widening access to educational opportunities through teaching children how to reason together’, Westminster Studies in Education, 27(2