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Speaking and listening in geography

Students groupwork

‘Dialogic pedagogies depend on talk, but not any old talk – we are not talking here about ‘having a natter’ or a ‘bit of a discussion’. We are talking about deliberate, planned interventions, with clear educational purposes, designed to enhance students’ understanding.’

Biddulph et al., 2015, p. 110

Topics on this page:

  • Teacher talk
  • Dialogic pedagogies
  • Developing students’ oracy
  • Are you promoting quality talk?
  • Activities to create students’ quality talk
  • Reading

Classroom talk lies at the heart of teaching. Ofsted reports that in most geography classrooms teacher talk dominates; teachers ask the questions, teachers give the explanations, teachers give instructions. This is not to say that teacher talk is not important in lessons, but it should always be used purposefully.

Dialogic teaching, as the opening quote indicates, harnesses the effective use of talk to stimulate and extend students’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding. It can involve teacher-student and student-student interactions in both whole class and small group teaching.

As Ofsted points out, students need opportunities for focused talk in lessons. They need to participate in exploratory talk with their peers to make sense of things for themselves. They also need to develop skills of communicating to an audience. As Biddulph et al (2021) write,

‘Students should be given opportunities to talk in a range of contexts and for a variety of purposes in geography including, describing and explaining, negotiating and persuading, exploring and hypothesising, challenging and arguing’.

The other side of the coin is listening. Students often listen to the teacher, but geography classrooms need to provide opportunities for students to listen to each other as well.

Teacher talk

Teachers use talk to provide instruction and support to their students and to model the kind of spoken language they expect of student. Since it is so influential, teachers should think carefully and deliberately about the spoken language they use. Probably the most common verbal interactions led by the teacher are instruction/explanation and question/answer.

Roberts (2023) notes that teachers use ‘managerial talk’ when they are managing classrooms. This can be in relation to both student behaviour and organising activities. She expresses concern that in many new teachers’ lessons, she has observed managerial talk dominating the geographical talk. It is most important to focus talk on the geography subject matter.

See the eight categories of classroom talk in Roberts (2023) Figure 10.1, as identified by Robin Alexander. These include talk dominated and controlled by teachers: instruction, ‘rote’ teaching and exposition, and more interactive discussion and dialogue to encourage the exchange of ideas and deepen understanding. 

Teacher talk can dominate geography classroom talk. Teachers control and direct when students talk in lessons; they decide the purpose of student talk and for how long.

Roberts (2023) reminds us that some teacher talk is highly desirable and discusses the difference between exposition and instruction. Teacher talk is essential for introducing the specialist language of geography and also for capturing students’ imaginations about a topic and motivating them to find out more. Texts can be presented orally by the teacher e.g. through stories and descriptions of places. 

Learning, in the case of teacher talk, is dependent on student listening, and it is important to focus on this. Two thinking skills strategies, Mind movies and Story telling, require students to listen to teachers reading a passage of text. 

In such cases, as students listen, they are thinking back to what they already know. Teachers can use specific listening activities e.g. to note down points, or translate what they hear to a map/table/diagram to help students to engage with the information to better remember it.

  • Investigate the nature of teacher talk by using video and tape recordings of lessons to collect evidence. Analyse the types of talk using Figure 10.1 in Roberts (2023).
  • Use a focused listening task in one of your lessons – such as students listening to a tape or the commentary on a video, an extended description or story read by the teacher or a visiting speaker. Evaluate the success of this approach in terms of students’ geographical learning.

Key Reading

  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 10 ‘The role of teacher talk in the interactive enquiry-based classroom’.

Dialogic pedagogies

Alexander (2000) used the term dialogic teaching to include both discussion and dialogue between teacher and student or between students. Dialogic pedagogy is about using the power of talk to enable students to learn through discussion or debate or in-depth questioning  and construct geographical understanding. The format can be whole-class and teacher led or it can be in student pairs or groups, but all require students to deliberate, question, reflect and consider ideas.

Alexander identifies these characteristics of dialogic teaching. It is:

  • Collective: teachers and students work together as a group/class
  • Reciprocal: teachers and students listen to each other, share ideas and viewpoints
  • Supportive: students freely articulate ideas
  • Cumulative: teachers and students build on ideas (their own and others) and chain them into coherent lines of thinking and enquiry
  • Purposeful: teachers plan and facilitate dialogic teaching.

Pay attention to these different characteristics when you are planning your dialogic teaching in geography. There has been a good deal of research into the use of dialogic pedagogy which has shown its educational value. But it does not just ‘happen’ because the teacher facilitates discussion, it depends on purposeful planning.

Good selection of stimulus materials and activities is vital to achieve the learning goals. You should think about: How will you ensure that students listen to each other and develop ideas collectively? What will encourage the sharing of ideas and viewpoints? How will the tasks help students develop understanding cumulatively?

An important role for the teacher in dialogic teacher is a ‘supportive’ one. Students need confidence to contribute ideas without any concerns about ‘getting things wrong’. All ideas should be valued in the discussions and all opinions heard. The classroom culture of openness, a willingness to listen and a desire to inquire and understand the geography is important for achieving success in dialogic teaching.

Developing students’ oracy

Oracy is both an outcome and a process. As an outcome we are looking for students in geography lessons to talk confidently and fluently using appropriate geographical language. Oracy as a process involves students learning through talk with teachers and fellow students. Evaluations by the EEF indicate that raising the quality and rigour of classroom talk has positive academic, personal and social outcomes.

From the above readings you will see that there is a large body of evidence that students learn more effectively when they are activity engaged in discussion. But to make the most of this it is important to use ‘talking time’ well. Talk has many different types: such as explanation, instruction, description.

Be clear in your lesson goals what type you are looking for students to work with. It might be only a quick element in a lesson such as pair and share, or it could be a substantial part of it in a collaborative activity. You need to consider how long you will allow the talk to last.

A discussion task may create a ‘buzz’ of activity in a lesson – but are the students engaging in quality talk? High-quality talk supports students to articulate geographical ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary.

Look at these indicators for quality talk in geography classrooms (based on the National Oracy Project, Carter 1991):

  • Reciprocity: do students respond to and build upon what each other says?  Good talk should be collaborative, so students consider new ideas from different perspectives.
  • Speculation, making connections and interpreting: are students using terms such as what if… perhaps… I wonder… maybe if they…
  • Students talking at length: instead of the teacher doing most of the talking.
  • Students initiating: in most classrooms the teacher initiates, the student responds and the teacher evaluates. Where students initiate discussion with their peers and begin to speculate, more effective learning takes place.
  • Teacher uses open questions: this encourages students to talk, speculate, feedback ideas etc.

Ask your geography mentor or another teacher to observe one of your lessons in which you plan to use a lot of talk. 

  • Use the above indicators for quality talk from Carter’s research. 
  • Ask your mentor/teacher to give you feedback on the ‘quality’ of the talk they observe.
  • Which Carter indicators were met successfully in the lesson? What made them successful?
  • Which Carter indicators were not so successful? Discuss ways could improve its quality in subsequent lessons.

Activities to create students’ quality talk

The DfE frameworks require that new teachers know that high-quality classroom talk can support pupils to articulate key ideas, consolidate understanding and extend their vocabulary. You need to develop the use of activities that can do this.

Activities that involve verbal description provide opportunities for students to develop quality talk. Questions such as: What might it be like? What and Where? In what ways are these places similar/different? To what extent? Although apparently simple questions, with a good stimulus and in the right context, these can be very fruitful.

The actual amount of challenge depends on the level of thinking expected by the teacher and whether they are asking students to apply knowledge, analyse or synthesise and evaluate.

  • See section 2.2 in Literacy in Geography. Study the list of ways and try out the task.

From this you will recognise that there are a range of different ways to structure talking and listening, both through whole-class teaching and through collaborative learning in groups. By communicating ideas and information, students clarify their thinking and develop own understanding.

  • See Strategies for developing speaking and listening skills within the geography classroom in Walshe (2017) p 200.
  • Try a ‘no pen’ lesson in order to allow students to talk more freely.
  • The GA Project Making my Place in the world aimed to help young people develop their speaking and listening skills within a geographical context. It explored how young people see their world and how they talk about their places. Try out some of the  in your lessons.
  • Look at the suggested activities to encourage ‘speaking and engagement’ in Harris (2017) pp 84-8 and explore ways to incorporate some of these in your lessons. 


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4rd edition. London: Routledge.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge. Chapter 8.
  • Literacy in Geography (2004) Department for Education and Skills (You might find a hard copy of this publication in the school geography department).
  • Millard, W. and Gaunt, A. (2018) ‘Speaking up: The importance of oracy in teaching and learning‘, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching), May.
  • Roberts, M. (2003) Learning through enquiry: Making sense of geography in the key stage 3 classroom. Sheffield: Geographical Association Chapter 7, ‘Focus on speaking and listening’.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapters 10 and 11. 
  • Walshe, N. (2017) ‘Literacy’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association. Chapter 15.


  • Alexander, R. (2000) Culture and Pedagogy: International comparisons in primary education. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Thinking Together (2012) Projects/research into classroom talk.