Developing composing through talk

Developing composing through talk: Does the use of a ‘composing talk tally’ in the KS3 Music classroom improve the quality of creative response? Below is my research project I submitted (with some elements removed) for the Chartered Teacher Programme and it was very small scale study that sought to see if I could influence creative group work by scaffolding the conversations groups had during the process.

Overview: I used a modified talk tally (based on the Thinking Together Talk Tally found here to promote exploratory talk when Year 8 students compose. Growing evidence suggests explicit teaching of oracy, modelling the type of classroom talk to promote discussion, can improve learning outcomes. Students were asked to complete a creative task as per normal, but one class will receive the modified composing talk tally and the other will not. I chose this intervention as in department meetings we agreed students in Year 8 were not always confident composers and some teachers found it difficult to provide meaningful feedback. It is also challenging in a 40-minutes lesson to provide meaningful feedback to every group, and a talk tally hopes to give groups a framework to sustain their creative work independently by prompting guided discussion.

Background: Composing remains a challenging aspect of the curriculum, and anecdotally and in music education press teachers reveal themselves to be underconfident in the assessment of composing as well as the teaching of it. In my own context we have a large number of very able musicians alongside much less experienced musicians in the classroom. Finding ways to support students regardless of instrumental ability is an important area for us to explore as a department.

Summary of the literature

In this literature review, due to the large body of literature available on classroom talk (which includes dialogic teaching, oracy and various other guises of classroom talk), a selection of key researchers in dialogic pedagogy (rather than oracy which is not a distinct set of practices as we find in dialogic pedagogy) are highlighted, along with their key texts. Work to research and investigate classroom talk has involved approaches such as conversational analysis and Discourse analysis to ‘make visible the dynamic, co-constructed nature of teacher–student dialogue’ and ‘tone of voice establishes the emotional climate for learning in the classroom’ (Skidmore and Murakami, 2012). This type of study has not featured in this literature review.

By classroom talk I refer to the use of speaking and listening to communicate ideas and express opinions by pupils and teachers. Dialogic pedagogy refers to particular approaches to developing talk, and oracy is the umbrella term for talk. Talk is used by teachers in a variety of ways, including as a tool to gain an understanding of pupil thinking. Having a repertoire of strategies and an awareness of how they use talk in teaching as well as how pupils can use talk to ‘think aloud’ with their peers is essential for teachers.

Importance of talk in education

Language is the medium through which we learn, and an understanding of how teachers can harness the power of talk to support all learners is an important part of pedagogy. The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of the dialogic nature of language was to be of importance to future work in the area by Robin Alexander, Neil Mercer and Rupert Wegerif. It is through the use of language, Bakhtin proposed, that we construct ideas and shape meanings collectively, demonstrating that dialogue is fundamentally a social phenomenon. The Russian psychologist (and contemporary of Bakhtin) Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) emphasised language as a significant influence on cognitive development.

Much talk in classrooms took the form of a ‘monologic’ discourse, where teachers would drive the classroom talk whilst dialogic talk seeks to engage learners in constructing shared meaning. This dialogic approach was most notably explored by Robin Alexander. He made it clear that is important for teachers to develop an understanding of how they can use talk not only between themselves and pupils, but also how to cultivate effective talk between pupils. It is of vital importance to educators to reflect on classroom talk as a social issue and not exclusively as a pedagogical one. Some research has shown more successful students experience more effective talk than the less able. For example, Nystrand et al. (1997) found that ‘dialogic discourse took up less that 15% of instruction time; when ‘lower-track students’ [less-able] were considered there was a virtual absence of such talk’ (Lyle 2008). Dialogic pedagogy is ‘widely viewed as an excellent means of educating students for civic participation in deliberative democracy’ (Alexander 2008).

Skidmore writes that we should not see dialogic teaching as a technique to apply but an epistemological stance, one that prioritises social democratic interaction (Skidmore, D., Murakami, K., 2016). It is through dialogic teaching that we can draw students into participation to construct and validate knowledge: ‘As a result of participation in dialogic education students are expected to become better at dialogue which means better at learning things together with others’ (Wegerif 2017). Phillipson suggests ‘that dialogue is not only a pedagogical tool for achieving these ends but is actually an intrinsic part of the ends themselves’ (Phillipson 2016) and we should see dialogic education as a form of thinking together that underpins education more broadly.

Robin Alexander and dialogic teaching

Robin Alexander has written a large body of work, stemming from an international comparative study of dialogic approaches, that seeks to demonstrate the validity of classroom talk and the need to elevate talk more generally in education policy. Robin Alexander writes that ‘we have known for a long time that talk is essential to children’s thinking and learning, and to their productive engagement in classroom life, especially in the early and primary years’ (Alexander 2012). Alexander states that ‘dialogic teaching harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend pupils’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding’ (Alexander 2010). The term dialogic teaching describes how ‘teachers and pupils work together to build on their own and each other’s’ knowledge and ideas to develop coherent thinking’ (Lyle 2008). Alexander seeks to describe and define different types of talk, and different ‘repertoires’ of talk that teachers use. Alexander emphasises the social nature of classroom talk and how it ‘can be an effective means of re- engaging the disengaged and closing the overlapping gaps of equity and attainment’ (Alexander 2012). He sees the need for teachers’ instructional repertoire to be extended to encompass the various uses of talk (to provoke discussion, ask questions, invite response etc.) and pupils’ talk repertoire needs to be extended beyond providing recall or ‘guess-what-the-teacher-is-thinking’ answers’ (Alexander 2012). This is an important point, as ensuring all learners access the curriculum is a matter of social justice; how talk is used in the classroom has the potential to isolate particular groups of learners if the teacher is not mindful of their use of classroom talk.

An interesting question raised in the literature is whether dialogic education is an aspect of the curriculum or merely an element of pedagogy. ‘In fact, talk is the one area of classroom learning where the familiar distinctions between what and how, content and process, curriculum and pedagogy, break down. Where talk is concerned, the what is the how, and curriculum is pedagogy’ (Alexander 2012).

Neil Mercer and classroom talk

Neil Mercer connects to the work of Alexander well, both seeing talk as something that can be developed through explicit teaching and Mercer extends this work to include group talk. Neil Mercer was one of several writers that sought to create an alternative to the dominant method of classroom discourse, often referred to as the IRF structure (Initiation, response, follow-up). A useful text edited by Mercer (and Hodgkinson) is Exploring Talk in Schools (2008). Mercer writes that ‘providing only brief factual answers to IRF exchanges will not give children suitable opportunities for practice, whereas being drawn into more extended explanations and discussions of problems or topics will’. Mercer saw these extended discussions as dialogic processes that enhance educational experience for learners. He writes about two types of classroom talk – symmetrical and asymmetrical – and how both should exist, noting that often talk takes the form of teachers asking closed questions and pupils responding. Mercer emphasises the importance of establishing ground rules for talk and that teachers should reflect on implicit ideas about talk (i.e. only teachers ask questions and rapid response expected) that might impact on our classroom practice and how pupils will engage in discussions. Barnes’ concept of ‘exploratory talk’ or ‘thinking aloud’ (Mercer 2008) is an important influence in this book, showing it is not enough to put pupils into groups to chat amongst themselves and that teachers have an important role to place in establishing the effective conditions for talk. Compared with Alexander who focuses on teacher and pupil talk in equal measure, Mercer prioritises the talk of pupils.

Neil Mercer distinguishes carefully between oracy and dialogic teaching: ‘Oracy education is the direct, explicit teaching of speaking and listening skills… Dialogic teaching is a set of talk- based strategies for teaching any subject’. Mercer warns that promoting either may be less likely to be successful if they are confused’ (Mercer 2018). It is important to note these are not separate concepts, but rather dialogue is part of oracy.

An intervention devised and delivered by a team from the Cambridge Primary Review Trust (CPRT) and the University of York aimed to improve the quality of teacher and pupil talk in the Year 5 classroom of 38 schools. By improving the quality of classroom talk the intervention aimed ‘to raise levels of engagement and attainment across English, maths, and science in primary schools’ (EEF, 2017). Before and after the intervention pupils were tested in the three subjects, and another 38 control schools were involved who did not receive the intervention. Training and materials were provided for one teacher from each school and the cost of the intervention was £52 per pupil. Interviews and case study of a selection of schools involved also took place. Whilst the final report lauded the benefits of dialogic approaches (citing two months progress due to the intervention) criticism was apparent from some commentators. Many of the reports in national press simplified the nuance of dialogic teaching into ‘debate-style’ or ‘argument-based’ approaches.

Professor Stephen Gorard is quoted in Schools Week saying ‘I think encouraging primary pupils to think more in this [dialogic] way is a good and promising idea – just not supported by these results. In the EEF report one of the intervention teachers’ comments that it was ‘more difficult for lower ability to answer questions because they’re quite higher order questions and higher order thinking, they have struggled to access and understand it’ (EEF, 2017), noting that lower ability pupils struggled in group work. It is mentioned in the report that teachers felt more time was needed to embed the dialogic approaches more successfully, and more training.

Even with the increased interest in dialogic pedagogy and classroom talk ‘employers, university admissions tutors and others regularly complain that applicants’ oral communication skills are in decline’ (Alexander 2012). Dialogic approaches emphasise the important of the teacher’s role in fostering an effective atmosphere for promoting dialogic talk by establishing ground rules and being mindful of implicit understanding of talk feature regularly in the literature. There are problems with this idealised view in that it ‘is very difficult to realise dialogic teaching with all its attributes in everyday practice’ (Sedova, Salamounova, and Svaricek 2014). For sustained improvements to be seen that tackle this decline in oral communication skills there will need to be ‘greater focus on teacher questioning which seeks to prompt and probe pupil thinking, to promote deep learning through skilful scaffolding, whilst acknowledging that such a shift in practice will require sustained professional development and support for teachers’ (Lyle 2008). There is also scope to continue reflection on the importance of group work and group talk.

There continues to be much opportunity for future research to explore the real-life classroom exchanges that occur, and to examine ‘how the dynamics of teacher–student dialogue governs the emotional climate of classroom life’ (Skidmore, 2006). The work of the authors mentioned in this literature review represent a useful starting point for teachers to engage with this area and to consider how a reflection on classroom talk, and the practices of dialogic pedagogy, might be of use to their teaching. Teachers would need a great deal of support in understanding the difference between recitation and dialogue, as the former seems to remain the main approach to classroom talk.

The key questions generated from this literature review are whether dialogic pedagogy has the potential to demonstrate improvements in high-stakes testing, and whether we should be lobbying for talk to be made a more significant part of the curriculum and not only perceived as a pedagogical tool. Pressures to meet the demands of perceived accountability measures can stifle teachers in being committed to the use of dialogic approaches in their teaching (Lefstein and Snell 2011).


To approach the study of whether a composing talk tally would influence the talk by pupils when composing I chose to study the rehearsal process by recording and the subsequent analysis of the data follows the grounded theory approach. Recording the rehearsals rather than just observing and making field notes, seemed ideal to enable me to focus on the use of language and note how students interact. The findings seek to reveal a theory grounded in the data, and whilst this is a small-scale study it seeks to conceptualise the talk by Year 8 students when composing and how an talk intervention can enhance this process.

A pre and post questionnaire will seek to gauge Year 8 perceptions of approaching composing. The set creative task will be recorded, and the length of the final compositions checked. Four groups will be involved – two using the intervention and two not. The group work will be audio-recorded and transcribed for analysis and the task will be completed in one lesson. With any observation or recording of discussions students will be keenly aware they are being recorded or observed and as such the findings and analysis of the data need to take into account this Hawthorne effect. It is hoped as students are recorded so regularly in Music that they will feel comfortable to complete the task as close to their normal approach as possible. The completion of questionnaires can reveal a similar need for students to please and responses need to be taken with care. This is a very small-scale study, and it would need much more use of the talk-tally and refinement for there to be demonstrably long-term effects on composing competency in the KS3 classroom.

In designing the pre-task questionnaire my aim was to establish the approach students took to their composing and to gain a brief insight into their enjoyment of this type of work. It was important for this questionnaire to be short due to time constraints in the delivery of my intervention.

The composing talk-tally was created as a response to the Thinking Together Talk-Tally, ‘a simple observation sheet which a child can use to record the kind of talk they observe when a group of other children are working together’.

I tested out the use of the Talk-Tally with a class and it was apparent that Year 8 class enjoyed the use of this in prompting their talk behaviour, and reviewing the completed talk tally sheets after the lesson it was clear that every group had completed most boxes. This positive outcome – in that the sheets were completed fully – cannot be seen as reliable evidence of successful talk taking place in group work before my project. It could be seen that the use of prompts encourages effective talk. I devised a composing talk-tally by considering, through my own observations of Year 8 class work, the areas of group composing that were deficient and these focused on structural concerns. Typically compositions in Year 8 tended to be short with little attempt to develop the initial musical ideas. I focused the questions on what could be added to initial ideas and how would they make the ideas longer. For my research I sought to reveal how Year 8 students approached these two aspects of composing already and not to intervene with particular strategies, but to see if provoking conversation around the areas could promote group talk.

All of the activities for my research were delivered in two lessons. One lesson was a practice of the process, to test it would work, and a second was a repeat of the process. In all cases I made use of the recordings from the practice for my subsequent transcription and coding. The second attempts revealed that students were keen to replicate their previous work (though in all cases students commented in their recordings that they did not recall the work from the previous lesson). In the forty minutes period students were asked to complete the pre-task questionnaire on their iPads, then to work in groups of three of four students of their choosing. Students were given fifteen minutes to complete the composing task once they had found their chosen instruments and a place to work.

Following discussions with the class Music teacher we agreed the composing task. This connected to the curriculum so the students would be completing work that would be taking place regardless of the research project. The task was to create a short composition using at least five notes that displayed at least three characteristics of expressionism (i.e. ‘clashy’ notes, dissonance). Students has recently studied this musical style and it was agreed that the project would end with a short composing task to ascertain to what extent the musical style had been understood. We agreed students would record their composing process (the ‘rehearsal’) and their final performance. Students all have mobile devices and it was possible for students to make the necessary recordings. To enable this snapshot of the rehearsal and for it to be a manageable transcription process, I requested only a maximum of fifteen minutes be recorded. Students were told that after fifteen minutes, regardless of where they were in the composing process, they were to stop and record their composition as it was.

When transcribing I listened to the recording several times. I was also present in the lesson and could recall the students to aid when I was documenting who said what in my transcription. Once I had written the transcriptions and checked these again I coded the material, noting the categories of material that were revealed through the four transcriptions. The categories are below:

  • Musical questions/comments focused on specific musical details, such as pitch content.
  • Aesthetic comments focused on comments about whether something was good or bad.
  • Structural comments were about the order of material, and the overall structure of the composition.
  • Dynamic comments were about how loud or quiet material should be, and often were connected to structural comments.
  • Mood and character comments were attempts by students to get a sense of the image the music was creating (i.e. particular places as well as adjectives).

I highlighted examples of these codes in the transcriptions and these are found in the Appendix. Additionally I looked through my analysis of the transcriptions to note whether the talk tally was used, and if it encouraged more talk than without it. I also compared the length of the final submission to see if this was altered by the use of the talk tally.

Problems encountered during the project

Music classrooms are inherently noisy places. Whilst there are some break-out spaces there were not enough for every group to have their own space. This resulted in recordings that had a great deal of background noise and the process of transcription was a challenge due to filtering out background noise and conversation from other groups in close proximity to the recorded group.

In the first lesson with the control group students had recording issues and all groups deleted their files in error as they were using a new app for recording for the first time. For the second attempt students were given guidance in how to record and how to submit the files. The task was also revealed to be more complex and students needed more time to complete it, but it was achievable. Many students responded that the task was ‘hard’ in the post-task questionnaire.

Key findings

45 pupils responded to the survey. The questions can be found in the Appendix. There is generally a confident response to the first question asking if students ‘like working on composing activities in small groups’ and equally confident response to ‘do you feel confident about how to approach [composing tasks]’. There was no discernible difference between the control and intervention groups in their like of and confidence in approaching composing activities.

There was no discernible difference between the approaches to composing mentioned by the control and intervention groups in the pre-task questionnaire. Several students commented that they started compositions by seeing what the group strengths were, with some mentioning ‘talk with the group’ to discover everyone’s ideas. Only three responses mentioned listening to other’s ideas. A few responses mentioned said they’d ‘let the more musical people take over’. When asked what they needed from the teacher a few responses mentioned ‘a quiet space’ but many referred to what ‘the style of the composition is’ and the required length. Some wanted more precise guidance and ‘a basic outline of what the [teacher] is expecting’. When asked how they would ensure they were ready to perform their composition most responses mentioned ‘practice’, and a few referred to the need for ‘everyone to know what they are doing’ and to be confident, and use the time well. One response mentioned ‘speaking through what everyone is doing’. The any other comments question included a variety of responses that mentioned needed more time and composing over more lessons.

In the post-task questionnaire when asked about their approach to the task much of the language about composing from pupils and their approach focuses on ‘building’ musical ideas. There was no discernible difference between the control and intervention groups, and there was no mention of the talk tally. This emphasis on the concept of ‘building’ explains why so much of their approach is about layering up different ideas in a group and often this results in short compositions. This process of ‘building’ happens instinctively in the recordings, with few comments made by students about layering up different ideas but it is evident in the playing that students compose by layering up repeated patterns. Melody was the starting point for most students according to their questionnaire results. The difference between improvisation and composition is blurred in the creative work, when listening to the recordings, as students are building up layers whilst building an improvisation that they ‘fix’ and seek to replicate in the performance.

Both groups communicated mostly in sound rather than talking, and for the most part the rehearsals involved students doodling and sharing musical ideas without explanation. Most of the rehearsal involved students continually playing despite students in the group asking for other members to listen. Often whilst a student was explaining an idea others continued to play. It was evident that there is an endless creativity to the rehearsals where students are engaged in continuous musical dialogue, where ideas are shared and improvised with instantaneously. Students combine and add additional layers without minimal criticism but there were some moments when students acknowledged that something was ‘good’ without giving reason why. There was an instance where a student commented that something ‘didn’t fit well’ but they were not able to sufficiently defend the statement for the group to acknowledge the criticism. Interestingly in all groups there is a moment when the students count in together, the point at which their collective composing as reached a moment of synergy where they have agreed the composition.

Control group approach to the composing task

The control groups both played more than they talked. This is evidenced in the shorter transcripts found in the Appendix for the two control groups. There was no consistency in the final performance in that the two control groups produced compositions very different in length (one nearly a minute longer than the other). One control group had more talk of an aesthetic nature, focusing on the mood and character of their composition (‘That can be like a ship on the sea’) and there appeared to be little connection to the composition task. Little conversation occurred in one group regarding the structure of the composition, and much of the conversation in one group was led by one pupil who appeared to give the instructions without engaging in a discussion. The second control group similarly had less discussion regarding the structure of the composition (some occurred near the end, such as ‘do you want to make an intro?’). There was more talk around the pitch contents in the second group, naming specific notes and ensuring other members of the group were clear on the notes to be used. It was evident, as the playing continued throughout the rehearsal recording regardless of whomever was talking, that students have a continuous creative dialogue in that there is a seamless mixture of playing and talking. Students rarely stop to listen to each other and there were several moments where a student calls for attention so they can share an idea (‘Wait, wait, listen’). It was surprising how long the composition of control group one was (over one minute and twenty seconds) as much of the rehearsal time was spent agreeing specific pitches. This suggests the rehearsal time is not used specifically for preparing the performance and the performance itself it largely improvised for the teacher’s benefit.

Intervention group approach to the composing task – using the composing talk tally

With the composing tally one group ignored it, whilst one made use of it to start the activity (having one of the group talk through the questions) and at one point during the group work a pupil asked for a reminder of the questions and near the end they checked again. One of the groups with the talk tally featured one pupil regularly reminding the group about the task (‘it’s supposed to be clashy’) whilst this was not heard in the control groups. For all groups the process remained the same: largely improvisation dominated by one player, and the others would gradually join in or would be instructed what to do by the dominant player. Not all students engaged in talk, and it was evident in one group that one student did most of the talking and led the work. What was evident though was that the intervention group did not necessarily create longer music with the use of a talk tally, but by virtue of a handout they were able to remain focussed on the task and be able to return to the nature of the task regularly.

Both control and intervention groups featured comments about musical ideas being good or bad, but none of these comments provided any reason for this judgment. This has been noted in previous composing in schools studies where students make such judgements without comment. In one group a student was interrupted when they were about to explain their thinking behind commenting that an idea did not fit with the other material in their composition.

The intervention groups featured a more equal contribution of the group members but as one group clearly did not make use of the talk tally (audibly so, on the recording) it could not be claimed the tally had an impact on group involvement. One of the intervention groups gave considerably more emphasis to the structure of their compositions, and they were audibly using the talk tally at various points during the composing process.


It is evident from this very small study that students largely enjoy composing in small groups and the recordings of both groups revealed the time is generally used well for creating a composition. The process is mostly a musical one, and there is a great deal of nuanced activity with the sharing of musical ideas through playing, combining these without discussion through repetition and trial and error. There is a great deal that is unsaid, which is as it should be in the music classroom where the dominant language of instruction is sound. The talk-tally appeared to be useful for the intervention group when one student used it to lead the rehearsal to good effect, whilst it was ignored in the other intervention group. Whilst it was a useful for provoking questions during the rehearsal phase of a creative task students were not able to reflect on their questions in a meaningful way as they needed to be trained on what the possibilities could be. The use of the composing talk-tally revealed that the students found this useful for keeping on task during the activity and they were able to vary their work beyond building up layers to also reflecting on the validity of material and what could be added to strengthen the composition.

Use of a talk tally in Key Stage 3 composing appears to be a useful tool, but there is insufficient data in this small study to make significant claims about the benefits of this particular tool. However there are some recommendations that can be made for small composing tasks at Key Stage 3.

Any prompts that provoke conversation during the composing process can be useful to keep students on track when they cannot always have feedback from the teacher on their work in progress.

Any composing task that involved prompts such as the composing talk tally would need discussion before its first use, and there could be scope to agree the statements as a class so they have meaning to the students.

Consider leading a discussion with students about the concept of ‘building’ when composing. There is scope to help students gain a deeper understanding of how compositions can be lengthened over time as well as thickened through the addition of more layers. It was evident in the post-task questionnaire students saw composing as ‘building’.

Students require precise musical details for them to compose effectively. The talk tally appeared to strengthen the group work by giving the students a clear focus on what to do in the rehearsal (I.e. finding an initial idea and making it longer). Students mentioned in the post-task questionnaire that they needed more precise guidance on the style of the composition and with effective modelling by the teacher before the task (or by playing past group work by students) it could help clarify the expectations. Often composing was an open-ended task, despite being given apparent precise guidelines, and such students did not always write music that fitted well with the task.


This small study found little change in the quality of composing between the intervention and control groups, and that the rehearsal recordings revealed most time is spent on playing and doodling in sound that talking about composing. However it is evident in the small number of recordings that students would benefit from a greater range of tools to develop their composing and a more developed composing-language to enable them to discuss and develop ideas. Much of the work involves students doodling and responding instinctively, but to enable every student to improve their composing a shared language and approach to composing talk would provide a structured framework.

If this study were to be repeated there are some further opportunities that would improve it:

    The questions would need to be discussed with the class and agreed. Without any teacher explanation it was clear from the intervention group that used the talk-tally in the recording of their rehearsal that they were quick to respond to questions with a yes or no response. The questions had aimed to provoke a composing conversation and students would need further training and support to understand and know how to engage in a composing conversation.
    Confidence to compose seemed high but the results did not always match the level of confidence. Even with high levels of confidence students commented on the task being ‘hard’. A more precisely defined activity that was modelled before students before they went to work on it could have improved their response.


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