Dialogue and Learning: A Long and Contemporary History

From September 6, 2014 Post

On this blog about “Dialogue” many of the posts have been related to school success and reading success, particularly as children grow from infancy through elementary school. In an effort to find patterns relevant to school and literacy success as they relate to dialogue the following format will be used for future posts reviewing classic and current works on dialogue: Reasons, Roles, Rules, Routines and Rewards.

I begin with an “old” classic written by an author whose work I greatly admire: Marion Blank. Her recent work on reading includes: The Reading Remedy: Six Essential Skills, 2006, Jossey Bass.

Each review will include the main points of the reference [in quotes], my comment [in italics], and “Related Ideas” from other historic and current sources.

Marion Blank, Susan A. Rose, Laura J. Berlin

The Language of Learning: The Preschool Years

Grune and Stratton, 1978

“Regardless of differences in orientation, one factor that almost all [preschool] programs share (with the notable exception of Montessori) is the important placed on the verbal exchange that occurs between the teacher and the child.” (p. 1)

Reason: “We have set out to study the language of the preschool that foster higher level intellectual activities.”… (p. 8) ….

…influenced by James Moffett…”Moffett’s model contains three components which, at first glance, are disarmingly simple. First, there are the participants who are speaking and listening to one another (speaker-listener dyad); second, there is the topic or subject which the participants are discussing; and third, there is the level of the discussion.”…. (p. 9)

For example: Preparing a batch of cookies. Some likely teacher questions

What is this? (referring to the flour)

Tell me what we put in the bowl before we added the egg.

Why don’t we eat that part?

What will happen to the cookies when we put them in the oven?

Note diversity of questions…“of greater importance for our purposes is the level of complexity (of the questions). For Instance, a request such as, tell me what we put in the bowl before we added the egg, will almost certainly be more demanding for a young child than a question such as, what is this. It is the differential of the complexity of the demand that we call the level of discussion.”

Blank goes on to describe a scale of complexity—labeled a “perceptual-language distance rubric.” (p. 13)

First there is the material being discussed: perceptual. Second, there is the language that the teacher uses to direct the child’s analysis of the material—language. So the scale consists of 4 levels representing the perceptual element and the language used to “abstract” the information from the material.

Matching Perception

Selective Analysis of Perception

Reordering Perception

Reasoning About Perception

Roles: Who are the participants and how are they related to each other?

In this early work, Blank et. al. was focused on the roles of teacher and learner. They do not expect, given the child’s (cognitive and social) developmental levels, to be able to focus on or modify the level of abstraction for different listeners.

Rules: The teacher sets the rules and directs the discourse in terms of her (his) goals of helping the child to learn to use language more abstractly. At the same time, the children are free to talk about whatever is of immediate interest to them. “Topics of discussion are perceptually based experiences that are within the young child’s level of comprehension. Within this limitation, however, the variability ought to be as great as possible because variability serves both to maintain the children’s interests and to lead them to generalize their use of discourse skills.” (p. 20)

Routines: “to proceed from simple to relatively complex levels.” (p. 21) with the caveat that the teacher’s goals may not be consistent with the child’s ability in any specific instance of discourse.

The authors go on to describe ways to measure a child’s current level of discourse abilities and what to do to scaffold the child to the next level (of abstraction), with examples of dialogues demonstrating the types of language activities that will help the child to grow. This is NOT the more typical (and heavily criticized) I-R-E(initiation, reply-evaluation) sequence. The teacher clearly has in mind to help the children move to a higher level of responding.

RELATED IDEAS: Past and current

Cognitive Taxonomies

Bloom’s Taxonomy (1956, 2000), other hierarchical taxonomies, Higher Order Thinking, Level of Questioning

Attention to level of complexity/abstraction has been a focus in education for a long time—Bloom: back to (1956) and currently (2000+).  Other level of abstraction schemes, including current focus on complex text.

Analyzing Cognitive Complexity, Baxter and Glaser, 1997



PARCC Text Complexity and Cognitive Complexity Measures: Their Role in Assessment Development and in Supporting Claims about Student Proficiency and Readiness



Cognitive Complexity – Depth of Knowledge (DOK)

The Role and Importance of Cognitive Complexity (2012)

The Iowa Core Standards for Literacy and Mathematics are intended to play a central role in defining what teachers teach. That is, teachers are to align their instruction to the Standards. The Standards not only define the topical, procedural, and conceptual knowledge students are to learn, they also define the type of cognitive processes in which students are to engage. This is known as cognitive demand or cognitive complexity.


Webb: Alignment, Depth of Knowledge and Change (2005)


Smarter Balanced  Assessment:  CCSS

Cognitive Complexity

….”The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has adopted a cognitive Rigor Matrix for its assessment program.  This matrix draws from two widely accepted measures to describe cognitive rigor:  Bloom’s (revised Taxonomy of Educational Objectives and Webb’s Depth-of-Knowledge Levels.  The Cognitive Rigor Matrix has been developed to integrate these two models as a strategy for analyzing instruction, for influencing teacher lesson planning, and for designing assessment items and tasks.  To download the full article describing the development and uses of the Cognitive Rigor Matrix and other support materials, go to”: [page no longer available].


Questioning and focus on level of questioning also have a long and current history.

(Palinsar and Brown, 1986), (Robin Lee Harris Freedman: Open-ended Questioning, 1994), (Frey and Fisher, Rigorous Reading: 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Text, 2013)

Thick and Thin Questions: YTube-2012, 2013




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