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The Learning Conference 2003

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Interactive Whole Class Teaching in the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies

Frank Hardman.


The paper will report on a national study, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council (ERSC), into the impact of the official endorsement of interactive whole class teaching in the NLS and NNS on teachers’ thinking and classroom practice.

Since 1997, a major thrust of the new government has been to address standards of literacy and numeracy in English primary schools. In a bid to achieve this end, the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was launched in 1998 and the National Numeracy Strategy (NNS) in 1999. It is claimed that these policy-led initiatives have had a major impact on many aspects of primary education, including teaching styles, and there is much rhetoric about its efficacy from politicians, government agencies, the media, teachers and teachers’ representatives.

A major feature of the strategies has been an emphasis on direct, ‘interactive whole class teaching’ drawing mainly on the school effectiveness and school improvement literature. It is suggested that more interactive forms of whole class teaching will play a vital role in raising literacy and numeracy standards by promoting high quality dialogue and discussion and raising inclusion, understanding and learning performance. In the NLS Framework, successful teaching is described as ‘discursive, characterised by high quality oral work’ and ‘interactive, encouraging, expecting and extending pupils’ contributions’. Similarly, the NNS Framework states ‘high-quality direct teaching is oral, interactive and lively … in which pupils are expected to play an active part by answering questions, contributing points to discussion, and explaining and demonstrating their methods to the class’. In both strategies, interactive whole class teaching is not seen as a return to a traditional ‘lecturing and drill’ approach in which pupils remain passive, but as an ‘active teaching’ model encouraging a two-way process.

Critics, however, argue that the concept of interactive whole class teaching has not been well defined and little evidence has been presented to show it differs from traditional whole class teaching. They also argue that teachers have been given little practical advice on how to implement it in the classroom. Given the lack of empirical evidence showing that whole class teaching in the literacy and numeracy strategies is more interactive and promoting quality dialogue and discussion, the study set out to investigate patterns of whole class interaction in the teaching of literacy and numeracy.

The objectives of this paper are to present our findings on:

∑ the discourse strategies currently used by primary teachers when teaching the literacy and numeracy hours;

∑ differences in the discourse strategies of those teachers identified as being more effective in their teaching of literacy and numeracy; and

∑ differences in discourse strategies used by teachers when teaching literacy and numeracy and across different year groups.


Our sample consisted of 72 primary school teachers working in a range of socio-economic settings across the regions of England. Within each subject area (literacy and numeracy) half the teachers were selected because they were highly effective: the other half made average progress with their pupils. The effectiveness of each teacher was established using value-added data. Structuring the sample in this way allowed for an investigation into whether ‘effective’ teachers were employing a different range of discourse strategies in comparison with the ‘average’ teachers (i.e. those whose value added scores are broadly zero). Roughly one third of the lessons fell into each of Reception, Key Stage 1 (age 7) and Key Stage 2 (age 11).


In order to study the interaction and discourse styles of the 72 teachers teaching the NLS and NNS, quantitative and qualitative methods were used: a computer assisted observation schedule, discourse analysis of transcripts from video recorded lessons and self-completion questionnaire. The three approaches allowed for methodological triangulation to give greater confidence in the findings.

Computer Assisted Systematic Observation

Observations were carried out using a computerised observation schedule developed by the research team know as the Classroom Interaction. The coding scheme builds upon the work of Sinclair and Coulthard (1975), Good and Brophy (1991) and Galton et al (1999) and uses 'The Observer' software (Noldus Information Technology, 1995) to log the number of different types of discourse moves made by teachers and pupils. This was done using a handheld device about the size of a calculator. This computerised system enabled us to observe the lesson in real-time and was quicker than traditional paper and pencil methods because the data was instantly stored, and therefore available for immediate analysis.

Transcript Analysis

Video recordings of a sub-sample of fourteen effective teachers identified by the value added data were collected. The sample was made up of 8 Reception/Key Stage 1 teachers (4 literacy /4 numeracy) and 6 Key Stage 2 teachers (3 literacy /3 numeracy). The video recordings were transcribed and coded using an intensive system of discourse analysis adapted from the work of Sinclair and Coulthard (1975). The teaching exchanges were quantified and turned into percentage scores to compare the patterning of the teacher/pupil interactions across all fourteen lessons. By focusing on the three-part, IRF structure, the findings of the discourse analysis could be triangulated with the computerised observation data. Teachers’ questions were also analysed according to whether they were open or closed and for the use of probe and uptake questions by the teacher. The average length of pupil utterances was also analysed. Comparisons across subjects and key stages were made to see if there was any variation in the type of questions asked by teachers and the length of pupil utterances.

Teacher Questionnaire

A self-completion questionnaire was designed to explore teachers’ understanding of the concept of ‘interactive whole class’ teaching and their perceptions of the range of discourse strategies they currently use when teaching the literacy or numeracy strategies. The questionnaire also explored their views on the quality of the training in whole class teaching they had received. Although mainly quantitative in design, the questionnaire included questions allowing for more open responses.


The paper will report on the full findings of the study in light of the objectives outlined earlier.


The implications of the findings for ‘top down’ curriculum initiatives like the NLS and NNS will be considered in the light of their impact on classroom pedagogy and the professional development of primary teachers who are charged with implementing national policy-led initiatives.


Frank Hardman
School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

Dr Hardman is Reader in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at University of Newcastle upon Tyne and has published extensively in the language and communication area. He joined the University in September 1991 having taught English in comprehensive schools for twelve years, including five years as head of English. He holds masters degrees in both English Language and literature and a PhD in the discourse of post-16 English teaching. Currently he directing projects funded by the Nuffield Foundation and Economic and Social Research Council investigating classroom interaction and discourse and has carried out numerous research and evaluation projects for government agencies in the UK and overseas.

  • Classroom interaction
  • Classroom discourse
  • Literacy teaching
  • Numeracy teaching
  • Primary education
  • Whole class teaching
  • Pedagogy

(30 min Conference Paper, English)