Teaching Effective Classroom Talk: Intellectual Discourse through Phrasing, not Words.

Encouraging a student’s lexical competence and sophisticated use of vocabulary in the classroom seems to be one continual challenge for colleagues and educators around the country.

Articles such as this published in the Guardian suggest that there is national push to further enhance our vocabulary as a nation – whether students or adults. While this is certainly accurate, I think it’s important to differentiate between sophisticated vocabulary and sophisticated phrases to truly move classroom talk into intellectual discourse. Throughout this blog, therefore, I aim to show why teaching intelligent words is not enough and put forward some strategies to encourage intelligent phrasing that hopefully others can use to build the confidence of students and consequently, their success.


Why using a thesaurus isn’t enough.

We have all read the example in an English paper where a student has gone ‘synonym crazy’. It would read something like “Dickens operates adjectives to reveal the difference from the upper class to the lower class. This shows the metamorphosis and makes you feel apologetic for the inferior class.” Okay, a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m sure you can empathise with this. It is clear a student knows, roughly, what Dickens was trying to do by using adjectives to describe the ruthless and glutinous Victorian upper-class, however, in attempting to put it into intellectual phrasing, they have come to associate ‘longer’ words with a ‘sophisticated response’.

So what has gone wrong here? It is that we have told students to change their words rather than encouraging them to seek a sophisticated response. We can all be guilty for seemingly encouraging this. I remember often asserting to my GCSE class to find a ‘better word’ to describe Curley’s Wife and even I have told students early in my career to look to a thesaurus to ‘up-level’ their vocabulary. Admittedly, this response from me as an educator was usually in accordance with attempting to ‘up-level’ their work from a 4a to a 5c using the old levelling system. However, I have come to realise that the answer does not lie in simply teaching students intelligent words but rather in teaching them intelligent phrasing.

In an interesting article ‘the Dimensions of Lexical Competence’ by Maera, 1996, it is argued that understanding vocabulary is a dimensional process rather than the replaceable process we use in the classroom. Surely it is clear to us that altering a word even to its closes synonym can alter the argument/conversation/sentence to entirely new connotations. Even the simplest words are examples of this – and we certainly teach this in poetry. Let’s take the following sentence:

I had a bad day.

Synonyms on Microsoft Word for bad: evil, wicked, corrupt, immoral, terrible.

Changing such a sentence to: I had an evil day, or even still, I had a terrible day, still changes the tone of the day entirely. Bad usually implies that things went wrong, or the day was not particularly exciting. In using evil, it seems to imply that the day conspired against the individual and implies greater levels of despair (yes, you can tell I’m an English teacher).

Furthermore, Maera asserts the pointlessness of simply teaching students to use words. The average adult should be familiar and competent with using around 40, 000 words. So teaching your students even 2,000 words is only 1/20th of the language you use (Maera, 1996) – often not even accurately.

To truly know a word, one must not only know its literal definition but its association with symbols and emotions; its implications and connotations. The diagram below is an example diagram for knowledge of the word ‘butterfly’:

butterfly crop

From Figure 1, Maera highlights how language has a ‘breadth’ and cannot be consolidated by using interchangeable, linear terminology. Connections such as these are what really determine a student’s understanding of the word and, therefore, cannot be taught by simply guiding students to a Thesaurus. This is not too dissimilar to Wittgenstein’s language games (see: Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations) whereby language and the meanings associated with word choice are contextual constructed rather than applied absolutes.

Once we are away of the fluid meaning of language, it becomes clear that we have to move away from encouraging students to make limited assertions about texts with sophisticated words and encourage them to make sophisticated evaluations of texts with statements. So, I want to focus now on encouraging intellectual phrasing as I believe this is essential for developing academic discourse in the classroom. – and, better still, present some strategies that have worked for me in a range of classroom contexts.


The ‘dreaded’ blue curtains.

Every time I have begun teaching symbolism for the first time, particularly with GCSE classes, I always hear one student at some point say “Have you seen the blue curtains picture?” to another.  I’m certain that every English teacher is familiar with, or has heard of, the blue curtains example. If not:

blue crop

The fact is: the students don’t want to be the ‘Blue Curtains’ kid who thinks like the teacher.

So, every time I have heard that student remark to their friend at the beginning of the year, my response is this: “I get it, however, if you’re the ‘Blue Curtains’ kid, you’ll be one step closer to an A*”.  Sometimes, I even go on a ramble about how cool the Blue Curtains kid is: “If a kid wrote that, they’d be ace! They’re deepening their interpretation and know exactly what to do – they put their pretentious hat on and just went for it. I’d like that kid!” Which rapidly and interestingly turned into a class phrase I use often: “put your pretentious hats on” And has solidified itself in my classroom in the following ways:

  1. Having a tiny Oscar Wilde Action Figure that was stolen by my Year 11s at my last, quite challenging school. They stole him to make him a tiny pretentious hat.
  2. Pretentious Crown – My current Year 10s wanted a pretentious crown for the most intellectual phrase said in the lesson. I have just received it from eBay.

And finally,

3. The regular featuring of this guy (pretentious man) on my white board. Commonly followed by me claiming “You have to be THIS GUY” if a student’s phrasing is not strong enough.

pretentious man crop

(Pretentious man: Encouraging Intellectual Discourse since 2014)

Now, I’m not the type of teacher that will dress up or use gimmicks often but I have been using this because it has worked for me in a range of different classrooms. When students say something intelligent they are commended as the ‘pretentious king’ or use the ‘I just put my hat on’ as a fall back so they are ‘not judged’ by their friends. I have seen the confidence of pupils to assert things intellectually rise significantly and it’s clear in the classroom environment that, if they do not assert something with their “hats on” then they will not be rewarded. In fact, it has simply evolved into: Nerdiness is cool. Fin.


Connectives and Discussions

It is clear, however, that intelligent and effective classroom talk is not simply asserting intellectual phrases, but also the ways they are implemented in discussions. The biggest misconception in the English classroom is that there is an absolute right. That is, students are hesitant to assert anything in case it is wrong, or they are overconfident in their assertion so they do not listen, develop or evaluate the ideas of others. We know, as English teachers, that A* and high-level responses must evaluate and be discriminatory about their analysis. Students, however, don’t usually know what this means.

Because of this, I have also developed a key phrasing and connective table that I use in classroom discussion and when students are doing small tasks. It is pictured here:

dialogic crop

At the top of the table are the four key skills needed to ensure responses to questions are strong. It is that the argument students implement into their essays is assimilative, evaluative, personal and adaptive – again, all key terms are used in markers’ comments and mark schemes. Beneath these are the ways that students can ensure their work is demonstrating that skill.

  1. Assimilate – This box can be varied for topic. It should include the key vocabulary from the module. It could also include key themes (romanticism, dystopian, brevity of time, relationships, fear) as well as key devices (semantic fields, symbolism, metaphor, allusion, and anaphora).
  2. Evaluate – Pupils need to be evaluating alternate perspectives that could be interpreted from a particular image. Get them to consider: what would 1920’s man think about this? What about 1920’s woman? Also, ensure you ask in the classroom “What else could this represent?” or throw the question back to them with the clause “On the other hand…” and wait for them to respond. It encourages good disputational talk and addresses the fact that delving into numerous potential meanings is important for an effective essay and a key to comprehensive knowledge.
  3. Personal – We know the best essays are those that read the student believes what they are writing. For that reason, I also tell my students that I cannot teach them A* – they need to have a personal opinion for that. So, get them to use phrases that signify to their marker that they are interested. Such things include: interestingly, cleverly, it is clear the author intentionally.
  4. Adaptive – Again, this goes back to the initial point. Any good essay must be well-developed and saying the ‘absolute right’ is not always the key to English success. Encourage students to write at least 2 sentences on each device using the connectives above or in classroom discussion, when a student makes a fantastic point, award it and ‘throw it back’ to the class to develop: “Also…?” “Furthermore…?”

As you can see, the first box encourages the intelligent words that we strive to be used in our lessons but, as mentioned earlier, this is not effective without encouraging the intelligent phrases to embed an effective understanding of the word.



Of course, the answer does not only lie in the strategies I have given above, however, it is a place to start. As mentioned earlier, I strongly believe to encourage lexical competence we must steer our students through intellectual phrasing and encouragement, and only fleetingly towards the thesaurus. The strategies listed above have both made a significant impact on my classroom environment and have allowed me to see significant progress in my students’ progress and confidence. Finally, it is essential as educators that we continue to try things that will assist and encourage the intellectual growth of the next generation.


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