C is for Conversation

8 05 2011

A core tenet of the Dogme philosophy is that classroom learning should be ‘conversation-driven’, and that, out of the language that emerges from this conversation, language learning episodes can be co-constructed.

But what do we mean by ‘conversation’?

In a recent comment on Diarmuid Fogarty’s blog, Luan Hanratty wrote:

Conversation is the word we really need to define. Jack Richards wrote that interactions fall into three basic categories: small talk, transactions and performances. For me, small talk is the most important because it constitutes a difficult social skill that is often least practised among learners. But small talk is too mundane to base a whole class around, hence the need for materials.  Dogme has the danger of becoming like the people who tweet about what they had for lunch. Pleasant but not very inspiring, especially in an learning context. Surely we can do better by giving more time to transactions and performances, i.e. speech acts rather than coffee chats.

This is a fair criticism, especially if we construe conversation as being synonymous with ‘chat’, which by definition is largely interpersonal in terms of its function, and local – even trivial – in terms of its field. If learning opportunities are based solely upon this fairly restricted register, it’s unlikely that most students will find their communicative needs are satisfied – especially if these needs include more formal registers, such as academic or technical writing. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that even written registers are becoming increasingly ‘conversationalized’, especially since the advent of digital media).

So, effectively, a classroom conversation needs to be more than chat. And it also needs to be more than the teacher-led question-answer sequences that characterised Direct Method courses, and which are so easily ridiculed: How many fingers do I have? Do I have a nose on my face? Is this your neck? etc.

Causeries avec mes élèves

Incidentally, one of the prototypical Direct Method courses was called Causeries avec mes élèves [Conversations with my students, 1874)]. Its author, Lambert Sauveur, describes the first lesson: “It is a conversation during two hours in the French language with twenty persons who know nothing of this language. After five minutes only, I am carrying on a dialogue with them, and this dialogue does not cease.”

While this dialogue might, in many ways, not have resembled natually-occuring conversation (the first five lessons of his course dealt with parts of the body), one principle that Sauveur rated highly was coherence, his intention being “to connect scrupulously the questions in such a manner that one may give rise to another”. As Howatt (1984) comments: “This principle probably explains his success in communicating with his students better than anything else. They understood what he was talking about because they were able to predict the course of the conversation” (p. 201).

Conversation is predictable, because one turn follows from the other. At the same time, because it is locally assembled, and takes place in real time, it is unpredictable. This tension between the predictable and the unpredictable makes conversation – real conversation –  an ideal medium for instruction.  As Leo van Lier (1996) argues, “learning takes place when the new is embedded in the familiar, so that risks and security are in balance… Conversational interaction naturally links the known to the new. It creates its own expectancies and its own context, and offers choices to the participants. In a conversation, we must continually make decisions on the basis of what other people mean. We therefore have to listen very carefully… and we also have to take great care in constructing our contributions so that we can be understood” (p. 171).

At the same time, for such conversations to provide a site for learning, there need to be strategic interventions on the part of the teacher – interventions that distinguish normal conversation between peers from what has been called ‘instructional conversation’ (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988):

The task of schooling can be seen as one of creating and supporting instructional conversations… The concept itself contains a paradox: “Instruction” and “conversation” appear contrary, the one implying authority and planning, the other equality and responsiveness. The task of teaching is to resolve this paradox. To most truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach” (p. 111).

The notion of instructional conversation has been further developed by scholars such as Neil Mercer (1995), who writes of the ‘long conversation’ that constitutes the dialogic curriculum, and Gordon Wells (1999), who calls it ‘dialogic enquiry’.    In fact, dialogue may be a better term than conversation, not least because it echoes Paulo Freire’s insistence on putting dialogue at the heart of pedagogy: “Whoever enters into dialogue does so with someone about something; and that something ought to constitute the new content of our proposed education” (1993, p. 46). In a similar manner, Sylvia Ashton-Warner yielded to – and exploited –  the hubbub in her infant classroom: “I harness the communication, since I can’t control it, and base my method on it” (1963, p. 104).

Individual presentations

So, really, conversation stands for all the talk, the dialogue, the communication (both spoken and written) that is generated by the people in the room, and that is shaped, scaffolded, supported and signposted by the teacher. It could take the form of formal debates, individual presentations, small group tasks, or a plenary discussion. It could be mediated by means of an online chat function, or Twitter, or SMS messages, or pieces of paper that are traded back and forth across the class. In the end it is simply the ‘stuff’ (to use Ashton-Warner’s phrase) out of which learning episodes are moulded. In its most basic, common-or-garden form it is simply conversation – the most natural form of communication we know.

Formal debate

And, as Gordon Wells concedes, “conversation may not be perfect as a means of information exchange… but when engaged in collaboratively, it can be an effective medium for learning and teaching. In any case, since there is no better alternative, we must do the best we can” (1987, p. 218).


Ashton-Warner, S. (1963, 1980). Teacher. London: Virago.

Freire, P. (1993). Education for Critical Consciousness, New York: Continuum.

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercer, N. (1995). The guided construction of knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

Wells, G. (1987) The Meaning Makers: Children learning language and using language to learn. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.