Can teacher talk affect how students think? Harnessing classroom discourse to increase cognition

In the field of education, much of what we do is connected to cognitive activity - the ways in which our students think affects the ways in which they perform in and out of class. Language education is no exception. Language education is no exception. Cognitive approaches to language learning work under the assumption that the more deeply learners think about what they are learning, i.e. the more cognitive work they do in class, the more likely it is that new information and skills will be retained.

One way of looking at it is that the harder the brain works the more reward it gives itself as a result. This reward is the retention of new words, structures and language skills for the learner to use at a future time. So how can we increase the cognitive activity of our learners in class, helping them to engage more cognitively with the language we teach, leading to greater and deeper learning? First, we need to define what we mean by levels of cognitive activity.


What are HOTS and LOTS?

A lot of current practice in language education at all levels focuses on the application of HOTS (Higher-Order Thinking Skills) as a medium for language learning. This is in contrast to LOTS (Lower-Order Thinking Skills) which include the basic memorisation, repetition and rote-learning practices that are familiar to most of us from our own high-school language learning experiences. HOTS have been defined in different ways by different researchers, most noticeably Bloom (1953) in his famous Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Since Bloom, many others have reviewed the taxonomy, but the order of thinking skills remains basically the same, and a framework for ordering thinking skills on a cognitive scale is very relevant and useful to what we do in the language classroom today. The types of cognitive activity, ordered from highest to lowest, are:


Self-system Thinking (reflection and evaluation of your thought processes, as in a reflective journal task)

Metacognitive (thinking about how you are processing information, and the strategies you are applying, as in a study strategies session or project-based learning process)

Knowledge Utilisation (Using prior knowledge, as in an essay-writing task writing task)

Analysis (Identifying and processing information according to a set of criteria, as in a grammar practice task)

Comprehension (Understanding a message or a piece of information, as in a reading or listening task)

Retrieval (Remembering something that you know, as in a vocabulary review exercise)


It is fair to say that in most high-school language classrooms around the world, cognitive activity in learners is restricted to remembering words, phrases and grammar (retrieval), understanding texts (comprehension) and perhaps analysing grammar and utilising language in written tasks (analysis / knowledge utilisation), but most classroom activity falls at the lower three tiers of the framework.


Language learning and cognitive engagement

Unless a student has an aptitude for languages, or intrinsically enjoys working in a specific language, it is common for learners working at lower cognitive levels to become disengaged from the language being taught. They may lack deep purpose for learning, beyond passing a test or getting a good grade, so identifying a new way of engaging students is important to enable students to enjoy language lessons and to make teachers’ lives easier as they work to task more happily. One way of doing this is to use puzzle-based tasks and activities which require some lateral thinking. Most people naturally want to find the answer to quirky stories or puzzling questions - it is simply human nature, so by challenging students’ curiosity in this way, more cognitive work can be facilitated, hopefully leading to greater retention of language along the way.


Put in terms of the taxonomy we identify above, puzzles require analysis of the prompt, utilisation of different areas of knowledge, thinking strategies to work towards the answer and self-system evaluation of whether their strategies are effective, i.e. whether they are getting closer to the answer. Riddles, jokes, wordplay, mystery stories and texts with missing information are great ways in to these levels of thinking, and as long as students have the language to discuss the topics, ask the right questions and suggest, agree, disagree, etc. with each other to work towards the missing information, these activities are achievable at most levels of study.


Inductive approaches to language learning

Another way of increasing cognitive engagement in students is by taking an inductive approach to presentation of new language. An inductive approach requires students to figure out meaning and functions through deduction based on contextualised examples, partial information and other criteria which they can apply to what they know and build a picture of how to use target forms themselves. Inductive approaches rely on the way that the teacher introduces new language to students, and is organised around ‘noticing’ and reflective tasks which engage learners in exploring new forms and hypothesising about their use.


An example of a simple inductive task is to provide learners with a dialogue script containing some idiomatic phrases which fulfil a specific function, for example ‘showing annoyance’ (I’m at the end of my tether’ / ‘he drives me up the wall’, etc.), and asking students to identify any phrases which show that function. By reading into the context where these phrases are found, students can deduce that these phrases have some kind of negative emotional meaning, and isolate them to work on. Next, students could remove these phrases and ‘translate’ them into simpler language which communicates the meaning that they think fits in the same place in the conversation, for example: He never listens to me when I’m speaking. He drives me up the wall ‘really makes me angry’. With guidance (but not answers) from the teacher, ‘translating’ unknown language into known phrases in achievable and requires levels of cognition from knowledge application upwards on the cognitive scale as students evaluate the language according to their existing knowledge and contextual criteria, select the best phrase as a replacement and engage with the process of deduction itself.


Teacher talk and classroom discourse

Inductive tasks are a good way of encouraging higher cognitive activity for specific periods, but to harness HOTS in learners continuously, classroom discourse can be a very useful resource. Discourse analysis in language classrooms has shown that teacher-student interaction tends to be very formulaic, with teachers frequently asking ‘display questions’ as tools for learning rather than to really find out answers from students. A display question is a question to which the answer is known by the speaker, for example ‘what do we call this?’ (pointing to a picture to elicit the word), or ‘why did the man start complaining?’ (as a follow-up to a listening exercise). Display questions are often information-based and require retrieval of information by students, limiting them to low levels of the cognitive scale we looked at before.


By planning different types of question into your classroom talk, deeper and higher-level thinking can be facilitated in your learners. Why not combine information-level questions (at the lower retrieval / comprehension levels), with more process-oriented questions, such as ‘how did you find the answer?’ / ‘is that what you expected to happen?’ / ‘How would you react in the same situation?’. These questions naturally move students into thinking more reflectively and applying other skills and experience to the content they are studying. Personalising learning in this way can bring out much more interesting ideas and language than simply looking for ‘correct’ answers to tasks. After all, the goal of language learning is the development of language and interpersonal skills, not just the ability to answer questions one after the other.


The structure of teacher-student interaction has also been found to be quite formulaic in language classrooms, with teachers relying on an exchange known as “IRF” (Initiation, Response, Feedback), for most of the exchanges which happen between teachers and students. This exchange takes the form of the familiar ‘teacher question - student response - teacher evaluation’ structure, as in:


Teacher: What tense did the lady use when she described her holiday?

Student: Past simple

Teacher: Yes, well done!


This routine frames student language squarely inside the teacher’s control - the teacher both initiates and closes the exchange, meaning that all the student has to do is say what is needed to get the praise in the ‘Feedback’ turn of the exchange. The IRF routine is useful for finding out what students know, based on a task or activity, but can be adapted to encourage more participation at a higher level from students, therefore raising the cognitive level of thinking and speaking as teachers and students talk.


Rethinking the IRF routine

Breaking the low-cognitive deadlock of the traditional IRF routine is quite easy, if you set the goal to do this at the beginning of a lesson, and control your teacher language in line with this higher-cognitive objective. If you the class you are teaching involves a lot of new or unknown information for students, it is likely that you will still have to guide the interaction significantly to help learners navigate the content of the class. In this case, you may want to continue initiating exchanges with students to check how they are following the lesson, but be aware that the sooner you carry out the Feedback turn of the exchange, where you respond to the student’s answer, the sooner the exchange will be shut down. This stage of the IRF routine can be extended by holding off on your feedback to the student with some higher-cognitive evaluative or reflective questions to sustain the engagement with the question at hand, as in:


I Teacher: What tense did the lady use when she described her holiday?

R Student: Past simple

Teacher: What did you hear that makes you think past simple?

Student: she said ‘looked’ and ‘found’

Teacher: OK, so what makes that past simple? Anyone else?

Student 2: the ’t’ sound on ‘looked’

Teacher: What ending is that?

Student 2: -ed

F Teacher: Good work.


Delaying the final, ‘rubber stamp’ of approval on the students’ responses sustains the focus, and asks students to reflect on why they answered as they did, moving the cognitive level up from ‘retrieval’ and ‘comprehension’ to ‘analysis’, ‘knowledge utilisation’ and ‘metacognitive’ levels. This technique takes some planning and practice to break the tradition of the rubber stamp, but as you get more comfortable bringing other ideas and speakers into the interaction of the classroom, your students will develop a deeper understanding and application of the language you teach.


In summary, Cognitive engagement is an important part of learning in the language classroom. Students who are encouraged to puzzle things out and find answers for themselves are satisfying their natural curiosity to learn. You can enable this through the approach you take to presentation of new language, through the types of task that you give students and continuously through the way in which you frame the interactions you have with your students during a lesson. Take some time to set yourself and your students some higher-cognitive objectives, and think about the ways in which you ask them questions, and the likelihood is that learners will engage more deeply, and be able to apply their knowledge independently in different situations beyond the tests and exams that they are focused on.


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Tom Garside is an international education developer and founder and Director of Teacher Training at Language Point. He has published a methodology e-guide for teachers of ESOL, a Pronunciation activity book centred on pronunciation card games, and will be speaking on ways of ensuring sustained development for English Language Teachers at the Future of ELT conference at Regents University, London on June 15th.

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