Teacher Talk and Its Effects on Literacy

Communicator June 2015, Volume 38, Issue 10

June 2015, Volume 38, Issue 10

Until recently, the way teachers interact with students and relate to information—informally called “teacher talk”—has been thought unmeasurable. It was just one of those intangible elements of teaching that we knew had an effect, but weren’t sure how much or what kind of talk was actually productive. Researchers from the Lynch School of Education at Boston College as well as the University of Maryland now think they’ve found a way to put numbers to words.

Patrick Proctor, Catherine Michener, and Rebecca Silverman used classroom observations and data analysis to isolate what works and what has a detrimental effect, particularly in improving student literacy. They recently presented their findings at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting. Their research shows in part the following.

Positivity Is Positive

It is commonly believed that teachers control classroom climate. If a teacher believes students are capable of something, good or bad, that prophecy will probably come true.

Given teachers’ influence, research shows that measured, positive feedback is the best way forward when talking with students about their work:

  • Don’t be too effusive—Students experiencing success might slow down if they get the idea from teachers that they are excelling. Celebrating achievements is fine, but do it in a way that shows the student there is still a lot of work to do.
  • Don’t be negative—Negativity regarding a student’s work is almost a guarantee that his or her determination will decrease. When you’re moving forward, you are always making positive progress. Looking backward in a nonconstructive way is a detriment.
  • Keep the goal in mind—Teachers should always be working toward a learning target or standard. The student needs to be aware of that goal, and any feedback given to students by the teacher needs to be in relation to that standard.

Strategic Questioning

The research also shows how strategic teachers need to be in their classroom questioning techniques. Those who built their lessons around standardized test questions and failed to generate classwide discussions had students who did not perform as well as their counterparts. Thus:

  • Don’t teach to the test—This is common sense, but it bears repeating. Teachers who teach based on test questions rather than standards are showing students that educational success begins and ends with a test. Not only that, but there is no guarantee that mastery of test questions in October will lead to success in the spring.
  • Open-ended is the way to go—Even in informal questioning, asking questions with a straight answer is another form of teaching to the test (because most questions on standardized assessments are not open-ended). Start using more questions that begin with “why” rather than “who,” “what,” “when,” and “where.”
  • Consider Socratic—Socratic Seminars are classroom strategies designed to facilitate discussion among students. Teachers are there to guide and prod, but not to contribute. Students work with data or a literacy example and guide themselves to understanding. It’s worth looking into if you haven’t heard of it before.

With this research, we seem to be closer to understanding the intangible skills that make effective teaching and how they can lead to increased literacy. And as we all know, literacy is our best indicator of future student success and preparation for college and careers.

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