SOLO and Theory of Effective Learning (Part 2)

The Role of Speaking in Improving Information Processing

Since Vygotsky, it has been generally agreed that language stimulates thought. The nature of speech makes it very useful as a teaching method:

Strategies such as peer-pairing and small-group and whole-group discussion…important for the social aspect of learning. Wallace and Louden (2003)

Students are often hesitant to volunteer answers to questions directed to them by the teacher, however, if given time to explore ideas verbally with their peers they can reformulate their ideas until they have a response they are comfortable with. Using SOLO taxonomy gives students a framework to structure talk, allowing them to extend their discussion beyond the superficial. Using tools like hexagons gives an additional focus for those discussions as well as providing a means to record the ideas. This is a method which can give students the opportunity to explore alternative ideas, it is also less threatening as more than one person is responsible for the reply and embryonic ideas are not up for public scrutiny.

There has been considerable research into the types of task which promote effective information processing. Tsai and Huang (2001) identify 5 levels of  information processing (which show similarities to Bloom’s taxonomy):

  • Defining
  • Describing
  • Comparing
  • Conditional inferring
  • Explaining

These are all activities that can work effectively through speech. Speech also has the benefit that it is much more fluid; mistakes are not recorded and canhelp students construct their personal meanings” (Wallace and Louden, 2003).

Students With Poor Literacy Levels

While it is important to remember that speech-based activities are not a panacea:

Increased participation in classroom discussion has positive effects on course grades. Voelkl in Burchfield and Sappington (1999).

Speech opens up activities to those whose levels of written literacy are poor. However, this is an area of differentiation which is not fully exploited by many teachers. This was highlighted when, as part of a whole school project on oracy skills, I observed the experiences of two Year 10 students over the course of two days. Student A was in lower sets, Student B was in higher sets.

Student A’s lessons provided very few specific opportunities for students to have spoken involvement. Many of the questions directed to Student A and their class mates were simple closed questions, which did not allow for students to develop or show their understanding beyond simple recall of facts. Student A was rarely asked to expand on their answers.

Student B’s lessons provided much greater opportunity to use work-related talk. The fluency of talk, and the fact the students led the discussion, suggested that this was a common occurrance.

Comparing the experiences of the two students identified a key point – that higher ability students are often given more opportunities to demonstrate HOT skills and were therefore more confident in using them. This links to Cano and Cardelle-Elawar’s (2004) point that how we teach students has an effect on their epistemological beliefs. The student response reflects the way in which they are taught; therefore this is something that all teachers need to consider. If we want students to achieve, we need to encourage them to process information deeply by providing appropriate opportunities and tools like SOLO.

This prompted me to trial SOLO and the use of hexagons with my bottom set Year 11 group, rather than taking the safer option of a top set. As a group with poor literacy levels, some of whom were very reluctant to put pen to paper, and who could present challenging behaviour, this was a nerve-wracking prospect. However, the results, outlined in my earlier post, pleasantly surprised me and made me realise that effectively designed and supported speaking tasks could lead to excellent progress with this group.


Burchfield, C. and Sappington, J. (1999). Participation in classroom discussion. Teaching of Psychology, Autumn 1999, Vol.26 Issue 4.

Cano, F. and Cardelle-Elawar, M. (2004). An integrated analysis of secondary school student’s conceptions and beliefs about learning. European Journal of Psychology of Education, Vol.XIX, No. 2.

Tsai, C-C. and Huang, C-M. (2001). Development of cognitive structures and information processing strategies of elementary school students learning about biological reproduction. Journal of Biological Education, 36 (1).

Wallace and Louden (2003). ‘What we don’t understand about teaching for understanding: questions from science education’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 35, 5

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