A Teacher’s Guide to Dialogic Pedagogy Part 3: The How – Facilitation

‘It’s funny. You don’t have to think too hard when you talk to a teacher.’ Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye

In the previous post I suggested that Eduardo Mortimer and Philip Scott’s categorisation of classroom talk offers a useful tool for teachers as they reflect on the different ‘communicative approaches’ they use. I also suggested that it would be useful for many teachers to increase the proportion of dialogic / interactive talk (or Thinking Together) in their classrooms, and perhaps to reduce the proportion of authoritative / interactive talk (characterised by IRE sequences) used. In this post I will retain the focus on teacher talk and offer some suggestions as to how the transition from authoritative to dialogic interaction could be made.

Orientation to Dialogue

Perhaps the first step is to be aware of the purposes of our interactions with students. IRE exchanges are not ‘bad practice’ – they serve a purpose. This purpose is generally connected to the transmission of information: ‘putting in’, or re-enforcing what has been ‘put in’. If we make a decision to switch to a dialogic approach we might be more concerned with understanding what sense has been made of the information that has been put in and with seeking to facilitate reflection, meaning making and enquiry (in the sense of creating space for students to ask questions about what is not yet understood).

This shift in purpose necessitates a shift in our questioning. Instead of initiating interactions with questions that are checking recall and require brief responses from students, we need to make a shift to asking questions that probe understanding, facilitate the making of connections and require more elaborated responses. We might also ask more open questions (questions to which there is more than one possible right answer). I won’t say more about initiating questions here (though this is obviously an important aspect of practice), but will rather turn to what the teacher might do with the students’ first response that might open up a dialogic exchange.

In his 2020 book ‘A Dialogic Teaching Companion’, Robin Alexander emphasises the importance of ‘the third turn’ describing it as the moment at which ‘an exchange can stop or continue, when it can open up the student’s thinking or close it down, when feedback can be replaced with feed-forward’. I tend to think that the pivotal moment comes even before the third turn is spoken and lies in the teacher’s attitude or orientation to the responding student. Here are a couple of ‘golden rules’:

Be Interested!

Participants in a dialogue need to listen deeply, with care and respect for the other and their ideas. They need to go beyond listening to his or her words, and be attuned to the thoughts and feelings that give rise to them. If a teacher wants to be in dialogue with a student, then s/he must listen – really listen. That means not thinking about the next question, or the next activity, and not listening only for the right or expected answer, but being fully focused on the student, giving them time to think and find their words and actively seeking to understand them and their perspective (see below).

Suspend Judgement

Remember that in an IRE exchange the student’s response is evaluated by the teacher, often in a way that closes the exchange down: ‘Yes, that’s right,’ or ‘No, that’s not what I’m looking for’. I think we find ourselves making these judgements in our minds even while the student is speaking. Try to resist or suspend that thought process and replace it with an openness to what the student wants to say. (‘Suspend judgement’ is a phrase I picked up from reading the work of dialogue expert and physicist David Bohm – see his book On Dialogue).

The Third Turn

Ok, so now we have heard the student. What comes next rather depends on the context, but here are a couple of closely related ‘moves’ you can make that are very often useful, and which have been shown by Cambridge researchers to be an important feature of classroom talk that leads to increased attainment:

Encourage Elaboration

A first response to a question, particularly a challenging one, may well be partial or stilted. If more needs to be said, then simply encourage the speaker to elaborate. Responses such as ‘Go on’ or ‘Say more’ are sometimes all that is needed.

Seek to Understand

If you are still not clear what the student wants to communicate, or if you want to know more about the thought process, prior learning or experience that gave rise to their contribution, you may need to ask a response question. Try some of these:

  • Can you explain that in another way?
  • Can you give me an example of that?
  • What do you mean by…?
  • What makes you say that…?
  • Why is it important that…?
  • Can you say how you worked that out / arrived at that position?
  • Can you summarise that (or ‘give me the headlines’)?

Once we have understood, we can turn our attention to supporting meaning making and encouraging the kind of thinking that might help students to re-construct their understanding. Socratic questioning can be a great help here. There are many published lists of Socratic questions, and various ways of categorising them according to purpose. What follows is not intended to be a comprehensive list, but might give you a useful starting point as you look to expand your repertoire of ‘third turn’ responses:

Help Students to Make Connections and Distinctions

Making meaning of new ideas or concepts and refining our understanding of existing ones involves making connections between new information and existing knowledge, between bits of knowledge that had seemed unrelated and between abstract ideas and concrete experience. It also involves making distinctions between one concept and another. Try questions like these to aid the connection making process:

  • Is there a link between (Concept X) and (Concept Y)?
  • Is this connected to what James was talking about earlier?
  • What might this have to do with what we learned last lesson?
  • Are these two completely different problems or are they similar in some way?
  • Has anyone had any experience of this (phenomenon, emotion, behaviour etc.)?
  • What is the distinction between X and Y?
  • Is what Farah is saying different from what Mike is saying? In what way?
  • How are these things the same / different?

Ask for Reasons and Evidence

Perhaps being able to give a reason for one’s views is the first step towards being able to construct a logical argument. I think it might also help with the process of revealing one’s ignorance and reconstructing one’s understanding. Sometimes I find that as I attempt to articulate my reasons I become more aware of the strength or weakness (or baselessness!) of my position; possible counter arguments become visible and I begin to re-think my position even before someone responds. Perhaps I am drawn into a dialogue with myself. I also make my thinking more available to others; a student’s attempt to justify their position provides a teacher with something of a window onto their understanding (though we need to be wary that what is being shared is a product of the social context). Try questions like these to draw out a student’s reasoning and to encourage them to consider the evidence base for their position:

  • Are there reasons to support that?
  • Why do you say that?
  • Is there an example of that?
  • Is that consistent with the evidence?

Encourage Participation and Collaboration

If the dialogue is part of a teaching episode involving the whole class, then everyone should be involved in Thinking Together. While this doesn’t (and for practical reasons cannot) mean that everybody should speak to the whole class, it does mean that everyone should be called to think. Securing high levels of participation in dialogic exchanges was another factor that contributed to improved attainment, according to the Cambridge research.

This means that you need to resist the temptation to respond to every contribution. A first ‘move’ might be to wait – give others time to think, and to respond. One of the questions suggested above might then be offered to the whole group, who are, after all, supposed to be Thinking Together. Rather than asking the last speaker ‘Do you have a reason to support that?’ ask the group: ‘Are there reasons to support that?’ In a dialogue ideas are shared as resources for the whole group to think with – not my ideas and your ideas, but our ideas. This joining of minds (or Interthinking to use Neil Mercer’s term) should produce better thinking than an individual mind. Opportunities for paired talk will enhance participation and lead to richer contributions to the whole group (don’t underestimate the power of ‘Think-Pair-Share’).

You might find some of these ‘moves’ useful too:

  • David, could you ask Sophie to explain her reasoning to us / give us an example of that etc.?
  • Do we need to ask Michael a question so that we can understand him more clearly?
  • Would anyone like Zainab to say more about that?
  • Do others agree with Alison’s position? Can you say why?
  • Is there a problem with Mohammed’s position?
  • Are there counter-arguments / examples?
  • What might happen if we follow Johnny’s suggestion?

Substantive Questioning and Question Plans

The moves and questions suggested above are context independent. As you seek to support students to deepen / re-construct their understanding of particular concepts and ideas, then you will of course need to ask questions focused on those concepts or ideas, perhaps in response to any misconceptions that may arise. Subject knowledge is a vital component of dialogic pedagogy – it’s very hard to ask valuable questions in the moment if you don’t really ‘know you stuff’.

Thinking through likely misconceptions in advance, and planning questions to challenge these or to require the group to think harder about the key concepts can be very helpful. The transcript shared here captures part of a dialogic exchange between me and a group of three primary school pupils. I had given the pupils some descriptions of changes involving materials and asked them to connect them to the changes of state involved: melting, freezing, evaporating and condensing (you can see the ‘answers’ below). In advance of the session I prepared this question plan. Although not all the questions proved useful, just the act of sitting down and thinking the ideas through put me in a stronger position to facilitate the dialogue. Of course, such plans will take different forms depending on the subject involved.

Planning a Session Around Thinking Together

I often refer to tasks like the one above as ‘talk tasks’ (I should say that I think this task originated from the University of York Science Education Group’s website). They are part of a session deliberately planned around interactive-dialogic exchanges. I might give groups of three pupils the opportunity to engage in dialogue around the activity away from the influence of the teacher (see the next post for details of how we might increase the chance of this talk being productive), then show them my answers and ask them to consider where they disagree with me. They then bring their thoughts and questions to a plenary session (with a circular seating arrangement – see below) in which I facilitate whole-class dialogue. You can see an example of my planning, which involves a consideration of the communicative approach used at each stage of the session, here.

In a session such as this I must remember that I have an accountability to accurate subject knowledge. In the dialogue about changes of state, I hope I was successful in getting Pupil 1 to recognise that there was an inconsistency between her perspective of freezing and mine, or that of the subject. Perhaps that’s all I can realistically hope to achieve – the raising of doubt (‘I… I’m confused now’), the expanded awareness of another point of view. Nevertheless, I feel that I have a responsibility at the end of such a session to switch back from a dialogic to an authoritative communicative approach, to ‘step out of the circle’ (see below) and to re-inforce the view of the subject. Dialogues should not end in shared ignorance. (The need for this depends on context and may of course be different in other subjects – English, PSHE or RE, for example, or in philosophical dialogues).

A word about classroom layout

If a session involving an extended dialogic / interactive exchange is part of your planning, then it is worth considering seating arrangements. If you want students to genuinely listen and respond to each other, it really does help if they can see each other, so consider a circular or horse-shoe arrangement. A more subtle point here is the positioning of the teacher. Moving away from a position of authority at the front of the class and taking a place in circle can be a useful signal to both yourself and the students that the communicative approach is changing. Within the circle the teacher is no longer putting in, but is facilitating the thinking of the students.

In the next post I will shift the emphasis from teacher talk to student talk. For a dialogue to be possible, we need all participants to be open, engaged and thinking together. At the end of the day we are only teaching if our words are contributing to learning, and to learn the students need to think and talk and join in dialogue with each other, with the teacher and with the subject. In order to teach through dialogue, we also need to teach for dialogue.


Alexander, R. 2020, A Dialogic Teaching Companion, Routledge, Abingdon

Mercer, M. and Littleton, K. 2013, Interthinking: Putting Talk to Work, Routledge, Abingdon

Mortimer, M. and Scott, P. H., 2003, Meaning Making in Secondary Science Classrooms, Open University Press, Maidenhead

Phillipson, N. and Wegerif, R. 2017, Dialogic Education: Mastering core concepts through thinking together, Routledge, Abingdon

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