Improving writing through dialogue

Peter Worley

Peter Worley is the CEO and co-founder of registered charity The Philosophy Foundation, president of SOPHIA and a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London. He has been working in classrooms doing philosophy since 2002, and is an award-winning author of many books on the subject including The If Machine, and his latest, 40 Lessons to Get Children Thinking, both from Bloomsbury.

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One of the most common questions put to me when I do training on facilitating dialogues with teachers, especially when they’re secondary school teachers, is: “All this dialogue stuff is great, but how can we transfer all this on to the page?”, or words to that effect. I think the answer lies in the question itself: to transfer the fruits of dialoguing onto the page. But how?

The standard way to teach good writing is to do so prescriptively: “Here’s how to write a good essay!” Then show a few slides that break an essay down into its component parts: introduction, bulk, conclusion and so on. This is done, presumably, because the students can’t already write a good essay, or, worse, because they can’t even write a bad one. The problem the teacher who put that question to me was getting at is: “It makes no difference! They still can’t write an essay.”

Well, I’m going to suggest a different approach: descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, don’t tell them what they should do; tell them what they do do. “But,” I hear you say, “the whole point is that they don’t do it: they can’t write!” To which I reply: No, but they can talk…

And I’ll bet they can talk pretty well.

One of the most challenging classes I ever worked with, in a poorly-performing South London academy, makes a good case study. I was given a class of Year 7s to try to help them develop their dialogue and thinking skills. Part of the brief was also to set them written work each week that I was to mark.

My first response? I was appalled by their dialoguing skills, but not as appalled as I was by their writing skills! I had even seen their teacher show them one of those slideshows about how to construct a good piece of writing, but you’d never have guessed from their writing.

In time, their dialoguing skills improved. They started to listen to, not shout over each other, and not ‘dis’ one another mid-sentence. Once we had overcome the dialoguing obstacles, I saw an opportunity for their writing skills: they would teach themselves how to write well, and they would do so by appealing to their dialogues. The important thing about a dialogue is that it is conducted by at least two people (putting to one side the notion of an ‘inner dialogue’ for now). So, what they were unable to do as individual writers, they did rather well as collaborative dialoguers.

The key to a dialogue is learning to respond and reply to responses in the right way and at the right time. This is achieved much more naturally through conversation than it is through writing.

Dialogues usually follow this kind of pattern:

Question: Is/what/how and so on…? (E.g. ‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’)

Response to question: No/yes/in a way etc. because… (E.g. ‘Yes, because the mind is inside the brain.’)

Reply to response to question: But… (E.g. ‘But if a coin is in a box, the coin can’t be the box.’)

Reply to the reply: However (usually ‘But’ in speech)… (E.g. ‘But what I mean is: because we say the mind is in the brain it really means that the mind and brain are the same thing.’)

New response: No/yes/in a way etc. because… (If response 1 was ‘yes’ then this might be ‘no’. E.g. ‘No, because the mind doesn’t really exist; there’s really only the brain; the mind is just a word we use for the brain.’)

And so on in a similar manner.

Here, we see the beginnings of a good basic structure for writing, all that’s missing is a conclusion, and a conclusion can be encouraged by asking the question again (see ‘Anchoring’ below). After you have allowed a good number of responses to the question and replies to responses to the question then you simply ask the class the question again:

Question again: Given all that has been said, is…? (E.g. ‘So, after everything that’s been said, is the mind the same as the brain?’)

Note: To write a good piece, the students need to demonstrate sensitivity to the bit that says ‘after everything that’s been said’. In other words, have they taken into consideration all the legitimate ways that their original position may have been challenged? For instance, if it really is true that if X contains Y then X cannot be identical with Y’ (see ‘Arguments’ below), then someone who says, ‘the mind and brain are the same because the mind is inside the brain,’ would either have to revise or reject their thesis.

With a low ability class you are much more likely to get this kind of quality of response from a dialogue, properly conducted, than you are from a piece of writing or from an individual student.

As a teacher, keep a note of all the key moves in the discussion and write them on the board. If the dialogue has run well, then you should have the makings a good (or at least acceptable) piece that they have co-constructed. Get them all to write it up in essay form and you can tell them that this would make a good/acceptable piece of written work (delete as applicable). You could even use the structure above as a template with the piece they have already ‘co-written’ as the model. The key is to tell them what they should do by showing them what they do do.

Template and keyword vocab list

A starting template could look like this:


Response to question:

Reply to response to question:

Reply to the reply:

New response:

Reply to response to question:

Reply to the reply: (repeat this format as many times as you see fit. You might begin with just one set of questions and responses and then build these up each week.)

Question again: (this will, essentially, be the conclusion)

At the bottom of the page you could have a keyword vocab list. Again, this should be descriptive first, prescriptive second, so only include words that have come up in dialogues. The students then use these words as clues for how to start their next sentence – in other words, they look down at the list and choose the best one for starting their next sentence. Over time this list should grow. For example:

  • I think… (thesis)
  • But… (response with objection)
  • However… (reply to response)
  • And… (add to…)
  • I do agree but… (qualify)
  • What about…? (counter-example) and so on…

What about arguments? / Anchoring and Opening Up

Writing a good piece involves teaching something even more complex: a formal argument, where a conclusion is argued for and supported by a premise or premises. I’m going to suggest using the same descriptive strategy for teaching formal arguments too. But first, let me share a strategy for getting students formulating arguments in the first place.

Anchoring is simply asking the question again. So, for instance, the question might be: ‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’ Opening up is asking them to say more following a closed question.

STUDENT: The mind is inside the brain.
TEACHER: So, is the mind the same as the brain? [Anchoring]
TEACHER: Why? [Opening up]
STUDENT: Because if something is inside something else then they can’t be the same thing.

Look what has happened: the student has formulated a formal argument. Formally laid out, it looks like this:

Premise 1: If something, X is inside something else, Y, then X is not identical with Y.
Premise 2: The mind is inside the brain.
Conclusion: Therefore, the mind is not identical with the brain.

It is helpful to note that when people speak naturally, they rarely speak in formal arguments like this. Usually, they reverse the order, saying the conclusion first and then saying the premises after the word ‘because’ instead of before the word ‘therefore…’, ‘so…’ or ‘that means that…’ However, be on the look out for either of these structures hidden behind normal speech.

What’s important about the deceptively simple technique of anchoring is that it brings a thinker/speaker/writer to say how what they have said goes to support the conclusion they have reached in respect of the question they’ve been asked.

Here’s what to do to teach formal argumentation:

1. Run a dialogue with a clear but closed question such as the one above. Here’s a few others to try, but feel free to think up your own. Just make sure they follow the same structure for the anchoring technique to work:

  • Do viruses have rights?
  • Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?
  • Can you see things as they really are?
  • Should people always be given an equal share?

2. Anchor and open up (see above) after just about everything that’s said, when appropriate.
3. Make a note of any formal arguments (see above) that are said by the students.
4. Prepare your slides to teach them how to formulate a formal argument putting their own arguments on the slides - both ‘the teaching slides’ (‘This is a premise, this is a conclusion…’ etc.) and ‘the practice slides’ (‘Where is the premise and where is the conclusion?’ etc.)

It is important to point out that students can only learn from dialogues if the dialogues are good enough to learn from. But I have found that this is down to the teacher more than it is down to them. They will have everything they need to dialogue well: a brain, ears and a mouth. It is up to the teacher to provide the right conditions for the students to be able to use them appropriately. In order to provide the best conditions for a good dialogue, then, it is advisable for the teacher to research and learn how to facilitate a dialogue well.

Here are some recommended resources for how to run a dialogue:

  • Free Space: Field guide to conversations by Jos Kessels, Eric Boers and Pieter Mostert
  • Learning Conversations: the value of interactive learning by M.D. Magano, P. Mostert and G. van der Westhuizen
  • Provocations: Philosophy For Secondary Schools by David Birch
  • The Socratic Handbook edited by Michael Noah Weiss
  • Socratic Circles by Matt Copeland
  • Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees
  • Talking To Learn (TES article) by Prof. Robin Alexander 
  • Talking to learn: dialogue in the classroom by C. Scott in The Digest
  • The Question X by Peter Worley (originally published in Creative Teaching and Learning)
  • The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in The Classroom by Peter Worley (in particular ‘Section 1: How to do philosophical enquiry in the classroom’ pp. 1-45)

How do you go about improving your pupils’ / students’ literacy skills? Let us know in the comments.

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