Interacting with others

Learning in English requires students to interact with others. Identifying and sharing ideas and new knowledge, as well as listening purposefully, should be supported through carefully considered strategies.

Whether working in pairs, in small groups, or as a class, knowledge about different types of talk allows students to be intentional in their interactions.

Likewise, teacher questioning has an important role to play in the English classroom, scaffolding different types of talk, (for example, disputational, cumulative and exploratory) and guiding students’ more sophisticated levels of thinking.

Literacy strategies that target speaking and listening promote effective verbal communication, encouraging students to engage and build knowledge associated with the texts of English.

In other words, oral language—the speaking and listening model - serves both educative and social functions:

  • speaking and listening connects students’ reading and writing
  • enables students to express their ideas and position themselves within their societies.

Book discussions and free voluntary reading (speaking and listening, reading and viewing)

The relationship between wide-reading and reading achievement is well established (Guthrie, 2007; Krashen, 1993; National Reading Panel, 2000). The amount of time reading for pleasure has been established as an important factor that distinguishes between high-performing and low-performing students, regardless of their gender (OECD, 2003).

In addition to reading set texts, learners should be provided with the opportunity to read for pleasure and to choose the content of their reading. Guthrie (2007) argues that students desire self-direction and control over their lives. Allowing them more freedom to choose the focus of their reading will produce a stronger commitment and improve motivation and appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of literary texts (Thomson, Hillman & DeBortoli, 2013).

Book discussions in practice

Teachers should provide time for students to talk to each other about the texts they read and provide time for students to write and reflect on their reading (Duke and Pearson, 2002). Teachers can achieve this through book discussions. To do so, teachers might: 

  • allocate regular time for students to speak about the books they have read
    • this could be as a class or in small groups based on literary genre preference
    • prompting questions (or sentence starters) could be supplied to support readers
      • Why did you choose that book to read? (I chose this book because …)
      • How did you feel about the main characters? (The main characters were …)
      • Did you expect the book to end the way it did? (The ending of the book …)
      • How did you feel about the themes that were raised in the book? (This book was about …, The main theme of this book was …)
      • When you read the book, did it make you think about anything happening in your life or the wider world? (When I read this book, it made me think about ...)
      • How did this book compare to other books that you’ve read?
  • encourage students to write book reviews and publish them in school newsletters or on a blog.

Teachers can also direct students to the following websites so that students can identify other books of interest to them:

  • Inside a Dog: a community hub run by the State Library Victoria where teenagers can share their love of reading and books
  • Premier’s Reading Challenge: a state-wide challenge that encourages students to record the books they have read throughout the year.

Promoting independent reading and enabling students to speak about the books they’ve read supports the Literature strand, particularly in Levels 7 and 8 (VCELT373, VCELT374, VCELT403, VCELT406, VCELT407).

Deconstructing speaking and listening skills (speaking and listening)

Purposeful listening is an active process. A process that focuses on teaching listening skills is active listening (Wegner, 2014). Active listening has three main foci:

  1. Behaviour: what do my face and body do?
    • Look at the speaker and make eye contact
    • Use facial expressions to convey understanding
    • Adopt an active listening stance
  2. Paraphrasing what the speaker has said and checking for understanding
  3. Asking questions to encourage the speaker to elaborate
    • Can you say more about that?
    • Is that the first time you’ve done that?

Explicitly teaching these skills when preparing students to present oral presentations is helpful as it both encourages them to engage the audience and to be active members of the audience. For example, teachers could require students to write down three points from a student’s oral presentation (questions and comments) that can be used to engage the speaker in a short question and answer session.

Teachers can also model how to deliver oral presentations to students. Like reading- and think-aloud, teachers can explicitly explain to students what and why they are moving their bodies in the way that they do, and why they are speaking in the way that they are.

Alternatively, teachers could present an oral presentation and jointly deconstruct it with students, emphasising the body movements and speech patterns of the speaker, and also helping students to paraphrase what the speaker has said.

Explicitly teaching speaking and listening skills should support the delivery of all content descriptions related to this mode. Given the interrelationship of all three modes, this strategy should also improve students reading and viewing, and writing, as it enables students to hear and explore a new language, sound out their ideas, and appreciate how language can be structured to emphasise meaning.

See examples of how speaking and listening in the English classroom supports the Writing Reading and Viewing modes.

Extending student responses with talk moves and exploratory talk (speaking and listening)

A common speaking pattern in the classroom is initiation, response, feedback (I.R.F.): the teacher initiates a question, the student responds, and then the teacher gives feedback.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this talk pattern, the feedback (or third move) often doesn’t sustain or extend student thinking. Mercer (2018), Littleton and Mercer (2015) and Edwards-Groves (2014) all emphasise and provide strategies on ways in which teachers can take deliberate and conscious efforts to allow students to take up more of the talk time.

The effect of such opportunities is that the third turn in the I.R.F pattern opens up communicative space for students to make ‘talk moves’ or ‘exploratory talk’, which extends their responses and allows them to develop and communicate their understanding.

Edwards-Groves (2014) suggests that teachers reformulate their feedback so that students are:

  • pressed to extend the thinking of others to add more
  • provide more depth and detail to tell more about an idea
  • present additional evidence to endorse the knowledge or facts being presented
  • to substantiate thoughts, claims and opinions
  • to clarify the responses of other students.

Literacy in Practice Video: English - Opinion Line Debate

In this video, the teacher uses sentence starters to prompt students to contemplate their opinion, decide on a point of view, and then articulate a justification for their belief based on the following statement: A picture is worth a thousand words.

Read the in-depth notes for this video

Talk moves and exploratory talk in practice

The following example demonstrates how a teacher might encourage these types of student responses in a Year 10 class that have just read Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (1920) (VCELT461, VCELT463, VCELT464, VCELY469).  

Teacher (Initiate): What do we know about the context of this particular poem?  

Student (Response): It was written during World War 1.  

Teacher (Feedback):   

  • What do you know about World War 1 that might help us understand the purpose of this poem? (pressed to extend the thinking of others to add more)
  • What is it about the nature of the conflict during World War 1 that the poet wants us to think about? (provide more depth and detail to tell more about an idea).
  • We know that World War 1 caused great destruction and dislocation.
  • Is there a specific event from that war that you see depicted in the poem? (present additional evidence to endorse the knowledge or facts being presented to add evidence)
  • Where can we find evidence in the poem of the events of World War 1? I (to substantiate thoughts, claims and opinions)

Similarly, the teacher could use these talk moves to press and extend student explanations about the literary devices employed by Owens in his poem. 

    Teacher (Initiate): Can anyone identify a metaphor or simile in this poem?  

    Student (Response): There’s one in the first line: “like old beggars”.  

    Teacher (Feedback):   

    • Is that a metaphor or a simile? (pressed to demonstrate their knowledge of literary devices)
    • Is that the entire simile (pressed to demonstrate their comprehension)
    • What does that image mean to you, “old beggars under sacks” (to provide a deeper reading of the simile)
    • Who is being described as old beggars? (pressed to provide more detail and demonstrate their comprehension of the text
    • What is the purpose of that simile?
    • Why has the poet likened the soldiers to “old beggars under sacks” (provide more depth and detail to tell more about an idea)
    • Are there other instances in the poem where imagery is related to age, poverty or begging? (present additional evidence from the poem to begin to develop a contention).

Talk strategies for group work (speaking and listening)

Using talk to discuss and justify evolving viewpoints about literary texts is an important part of the English classroom.

Productive talk during group work can be a challenge. Often students have not been shown how talk can be used constructively for group progress. One consequence of a lack of knowledge about talk options is that group work becomes unproductive due to a prevalence of disputational talk. Characteristics of disputational talk include:

  • a lot of disagreement
  • people making their own decisions
  • few attempts to pool resources, or to offer constructive criticism
  • a lot of interactions of the ‘Yes it is! - No it’s not!’ kind.
  • an atmosphere that is competitive rather than cooperative (Mercer, 2008).

In the first instance, teachers can model productive, or dialogic talk, by implementing Alexander’s (2008, pp. 112-113) five principles for dialogic teaching:

  • collectivity: the teacher and students learn together
  • reciprocity: the teacher and students share ideas
  • support: learning occurs in a safe environment where everybody can contribute freely without fear or embarrassment
  • cumulation: talk builds on the ideas already shared
  • purposefulness: classroom talk has a specific educational purpose.

To enact these goals, students and teachers must often engage with competing viewpoints and disagreement. Rather than punishing competing views, the ‘mutual challenge’ faced by students and teachers as they engage in dialogue (Alexander, 2010) can be supported so that students move away from compliance, and feel empowered to use language in meaningful, but productive, ways. This is a form of accountable talk as it relates to talking that moves to learn forward.

As Littleton and Mercer (2013) acknowledge, an emphasis on the agreement as the outcome of collaborative activity may discourage consideration of alternative perspectives and result in compliance or quick decision-making.

In culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms, disagreement may be more challenging because of differing linguistic skills and the disparate views and experiences students may have had. Therefore, students in these classrooms may initially need greater teacher support to establish accountable talk behaviours.

Students need to be supported to know and use language which will support using talk to develop richer understandings. Providing students with conversation stems can scaffold this work: it addresses cultural aspects of challenge and disagreement and specifically teaches students methods and protocols to respectfully disagree.

The conversation stems from the practice

Mills and Jennings (2011) offer sentence stem to encourage student responses to texts. In the example below, the sentence stems are applied to a Year 8 discussion of an extract of Zachary Penrith-Puchalski’s short story, found in Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (2018) edited by Anita Heiss.

“I am Koori – my tribe is Yorta Yorta.
I didn’t know I was black till I was seven years old. I didn’t know that people would eventually cross the street to avoid walking on the same path as me. I didn’t know that people would define me as ‘not looking that Aboriginal’, as if it were a compliment. I never foresaw that people would think they understood my story before they heard a word pass through my lips.
My mum and dad would tell me how I believed Mum was chocolate, Dad was vanilla and I was caramel. Me and my sister were half-Koori and half-Polish – black Poles, as my mum and dad lovingly referred to us.
A boy named Shawn told an Abo joke while we were in Italian class in primary school. I laughed along with the joke because I didn’t know what that word meant and I didn’t want to appear stupid. I had never heard that word before so I eventually asked my teacher what it meant and she became agitated; she scolded him and threatened him, but still I never knew what this word Abo meant.
I grew up in a very affluent area where there were white people with million-dollar houses. I grew up in the smallest house on my street. Commission houses with red bricks: everybody knew the red-brick houses meant you were a poor commission-housing kid. If our tiny house wasn’t obvious enough, the faded second-hand clothes made it clear.”
The question stems that show students the options available to them when they participate in group work
“I noticed...” I noticed that a lot of this passage was focused on nicknames
“I wondered...” I wondered what growing up is like for kids today with the same cultural heritage – is it the same today?
“I appreciated...” The line about ‘people think they understood my story before they heard a word pass through my lips’ and the feeling of being judged on appearances
“I felt...” Apologetic and I empathised with the feeling of embarrassment at school
“I made a connection...” To the part about laughing along with a joke, I didn’t get in primary school
“I learned...” About ‘commission housing kids’ – I hadn’t heard of that before
"I was surprised by....” The idea that he ‘didn’t know he was black’ until he was seven years old

Curriculum links for the above example: VCELT403, VCELT404, VCELT405, VCELT409, VCELT425. These sentence stems, much like the question stems used during Socratic dialogue, show students the options available to them when they participate in group work. 


Alexander, R. J. (2008). Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk, 4th edn. York: Dialogos.

Alexander, R. J. (2010). Speaking but not listening? Accountable talk in an unaccountable context. Literacy, 44(3), 103–111. 

Duke, N.K., & Pearson, P.D. (2002). Effective reading practices for developing comprehension. In A.E. Farstrup and S.J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction, (3rd Ed.), (pp. 205–242). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Edward-Groves, C. (2014). Talk moves: A repertoire of practices for productive classroom dialogue. PETAA Paper 195. Marrickville: Primary English Teachers Association Australia. 

Guthrie (2007). Engaging adolescents in reading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. 

Littleton, K., & Mercer, N. (2013). Interthinking: putting talk to work. Abingdon: Routledge.

Mercer, N., & Hodgkinson, S. (2008). (eds) Exploring Talk in school: Inspired by the work of Douglas Barnes. London: Sage.

Mercer, N. (2018). Thinking together. Resources for teachers.   

Mercer, N. (1995). The guided construction of knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners: Multilingual matters. Cleveland, OH: Multilingual Matters. 

Mills, H. & Jennings, L. (2011). Talking about the talk: Reclaiming the value and power of literature circles. The Reading Teacher, 64(8), 590–598.  

National Reading Panel (US). (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health. 

ECD. (2003). Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow.   

Thomson, S., Hillman, K., & De Bortoli, L. (2013). A teacher's guide to PISA reading literacy.

Wegner, H. (2014). The Relative Effectiveness of Active Listening in Initial Interactions. International Journal of Listening, 28(1), 13–31.