Dialogic Teaching in a Detracked High School ELA Class: "We Talk Here"

Signy Emler, Molloy College


This dissertation combines the two fields of dialogic teaching and detracking in a study of one teacher’s English Language Arts high school classroom. The policy of tracking students into separate academic classes perpetuates segregation and is antithetical to the principles of democracy. Dialogic teaching is where students and the teacher engage in inquiry and exploratory talk to co-construct knowledge, and all students are provided with frequent opportunities to express their voices. Grounded in theory that views language and identity as socially constructed and situated, this qualitative case study examined how students from different racial, socio-economic, political and cultural backgrounds worked together to co-construct meaning through academic discussions based on a variety of texts and critical topics. It also explored the key elements of the focal dialogic classroom, the epistemological beliefs and instructional practices of the focal teacher, and the ways students made sense of the class. The purpose of this research was to determine whether dialogic teaching, coherently introduced, could help all students fundamentally shift their identity, develop confidence in their voice, and increase their agency as students and as citizens in a democracy. To better understand the dialogic, detracked classroom and how students perceived dialogic teaching and its impact, I conducted fieldwork in the focal class during the 2018-19 school year. Data collection included 52, 40-minute observations, eight interviews with the focal teacher, and interviews with the 23 students. This data was triangulated with student demographic data; student writer’s notebooks; student reflections; and the focal teacher’s plan books, reflections, and academic writing. The findings illuminate the ways that the focal teacher used intentional listening and explicit instruction of student talk skills to level the playing field for all students. The teacher also promoted the idea that ability and intelligence are not fixed and that students learn best when learning is socially constructed. Students reported that the class had an impact on transforming their identity, developing confidence in their voices, and activating their agency as students and citizens. Dialogic instruction was shown to be an effective method for detracking, while maintaining academic rigor that benefited all students. Further, detracking allowed students to widen their conceptual understandings of the material through the benefit of working in small heterogeneous groups with students from other tracks. Implications of this study point to the potential for dialogic teaching to facilitate detracking, to change the trajectory of students’ academic identities, and to fulfill the mission of public schools in educating future citizens in an increasingly diverse society.