There’s a lot of talk that happens in an English class. From whole-class to small group discussions, from think-pair-share to writer’s workshop, from literature circles to Socratic seminars. I want my students to have rich classroom conversation, I want them to own them, and I want them to develop conversation skills.
Academic conversation is a hot topic right now.
Zwiers and Crawford, authors of Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings, define quality conversation as transactional, collaborative, and growing. In other words, academic conversation is all about idea-exchanges between people who are working to co-create new knowledge and meaning. This book is a must-read for teachers who are looking to dig deeper into this important topic. I highly recommend it!
As English teachers, we regularly provide opportunities for students to engage in classroom conversation about a specific topic, to share insight with each other, to answer a question, to debrief or brainstorm, etc.
As new teachers, we’re told that students should “think-pair-share” and that literature circles are a great way to give students choice. We arm ourselves with Padlets, Graffiti Walls and Gallery Walks, Fishbowl conversations with backchannel chats…
The truth, though, is that not all classroom conversation is created equal.
The truth is that talk does not always = learning.
Six Signs of a Surface-Level Classroom Conversation
It may appear that students are engaging in discussion, but what are the signs of quality classroom conversation vs. surface level talk.
- The first sign of surface-level conversation is that it is quick and doesn’t sustain itself.
- The second sign is that students are putting on a show for the teacher. I know you’ve been there…students looking at you as they talk for approval…students who talk when under your watchful eye but then resume talking about Fortnite when you move on to the next table group…
- The third sign is that students are selfish talkers, more concerned about their individual contributions to discussion than with really listening…this leads to competitive conversation and jumpy conversation with isolated ideas that don’t build upon each other.
- The fourth sign is that conversation is not text-based.
- The fifth sign is that conversation stays at a surface level (simple recall, summary, paraphrase) vs. a deeper and more analytical level (attention to details in the text, inferential thinking, synthesis).
- The sixth sign is that conversation doesn’t build, make connections, lead students to “big picture” insights.
Essential Classroom Conversation Skills
Zwiers and Crawford go on to suggest five core skills (or conversation moves) that students should use in order to increase the quality of classroom discussions.
Each of these moves is not just about the speaker, but also about the listener.
The listener must work hard to understand what is being said, and also how his or her own comments fit within the larger conversation. In addition, the listener must be able to prompt further discussion when the speaker does not say enough.
I feel like listening is a ghost skill, one that teachers may ignore because it is hard to assess. And I’ve most commonly seen teachers try to assess student listening through worksheets or an end-of-discussion reflection. Although this might be a good listening exercise for audience members or a good reflection activity, it implies that listening is separate from the skill of discussing, and that’s simply not the case.
I teach my students that they’re listening to not only understand, but also to add to the conversation.
Listening isn’t a one-way-street, it’s a multi-lane highway. To really drive a quality classroom conversation, listening and talking must merge together, make lane-changes, and think about the final destination so as not to become lost.
My Classroom Discussion Rubric
These five core skills are the backbone of what we teach students to know and do in English language arts discussions.
Take a look at this year-long discussion rubric that I use in my English 10 class, for example:
Notice the progression from “developing” to “exemplary.”
There is a difference between simply making one’s voice heard in discussion and seeing each comment as a part of a larger conversation. Showing connections between comments, showing understanding of others’ ideas, using specific evidence from the text to inspire conversation…these are the marks of academic conversation.
At an exemplary level, I’m always looking for unique insights (I call it adding value), students who use their own voice to create opportunities for further conversation (i.e. asking questions, challenging an idea), and students who make connections not only between ideas, but between texts.
Let’s quickly take a look at some of these basic classroom conversation skills.
Classroom Conversation Skill #1: Support…Support…Support
Specific evidence is the backbone of an academic conversation. Students must be taught to support their ideas with examples…specific examples rather than general statements.
It is important to teach students to start with text-based examples and broaden the conversation to other texts, the world, and eventually to their own lives. Students tend to start broad with personal connections, but have trouble going back to the text to find examples. I always tell my students, “Show me what you know…with evidence.”
Classroom Discussion Skill #2: Can you Elaborate, Please?
This conversation move involves sharing enough information or support for one’s ideas.
Zwiers and Crawford suggest that it is important to teach students to listen actively and ask “can you elaborate on…” to prompt further ideas from a speaker who hasn’t elaborated enough. Simply adding the word “on” to this discussion stem changes the dynamic of the conversation so that it demonstrates active listening and the desire to add depth to the conversation while giving specific feedback to the speaker who can then add further depth to his/her ideas by providing specific evidence.
Teaching students to ask good questions at an appropriate time helps students to propel their own conversations forward and deeper. Simply questions such as “I wonder…” or “why do you think that way?” serves to prompt elaboration and clarification. Students can also ask questions as a way to make connections, synthesize, and extend the conversation.
Classroom Conversation Skill #3: Dig Deeper
To move toward academic conversation that is interactive and learning-focused, students must learn to be just as concerned with the ideas of others as they are with formulating and stating their own two cents. This is a sophisticated skill, to be sure.
Teach students to:
- Explore multiple perspectives, not just the first idea that comes to mind.
- If multiple ideas are shared, pick the best one to respond to and build upon.
- Find and share the connection between others’ ideas and their own idea.
- Challenge the ideas of others with respect and curiosity.
Classroom Conversation Skill #4: Check for Understanding
Essentially, this classroom discussion move asks students to verbalize their listening by stating it in their own words. This shows active listening, but it also allows the other student(s) to clarify possible misunderstanding.
A good place to begin is asking students to go beyond simple agreement or disagreement. Instead of just saying “yes, and” or “I agree,” I teach students to briefly paraphrase what they are agreeing or disagreeing with before adding their own value to the conversation. This is also a great opportunity for students to form connections.
Classroom Conversation Skill #5: Think Big-Picture
Typically, this conversation move should happen at the end of a discussion or between discussion topics/prompts as students try to make sense of the conversation as a whole, but if we’re being honest, most students don’t get here at all. This is a hard thinking task in terms of depth of knowledge (DOK), but it helps to provide a sense of purpose to a discussion and also aids in student retention.
To build student capacity for synthesis, teach them to ask:
- What thoughts fit together and why/how?
- What are trends that should be noticed and why are these significant?
- What conclusions can be drawn from this conversation?
Fostering academic conversation is a teacher design challenge.
To ensure that students are set-up to succeed:
- Use a variety of discussion strategies to engage students.
- Make sure that discussion questions push students to higher DOK levels.
- Create discussion tasks that lend themselves well to debate and multiple-perspectives.
- Give students discussion stems to facilitate academic conversations.
Create an Environment of Respect/Rapport
Encourage rich classroom conversation by building a foundation of respect and rapport. To this end, spend time allowing your students to get to know each other and interact on a basic conversational level before designing experiences that foster quality interaction between students.
- Encourage curiosity. Teach students to ask good questions and value diverse perspectives. At the same time, make sure you’re not sending the subtle message that there is always a “right” answer.
- Get off the stage. Teach students that talking to each other is more important than talking to you. Set the expectation that they will learn with and from each other as from you as the sole source of information.
- Warm-up. Think of discussion as an oven that takes awhile to warm up to the optimal temperature. In literature circles, I give my students the first five minutes to discuss their very basic reactions to the book so that they are ready to discuss on a deeper level.
Gathering Classroom Discussion Data
Not sure where to start? I suggest viewing one or two of your classroom discussions with a clipboard-in-hand (or iPad) to keep track of student conversation.
Your goal will be to look for trends. Use these observations to decide what a class needs to focus on most (or first) and/or to help students set goals for discussion.
Code It: Walk around the room and tally how many times you hear students using each of the conversation skills.
- S = Support
- B = Build
- Ch = Challenge
- E = Elaborate
- Cl = Clarify
- P = Paraphrase
- Syn = Synthesize
Draw It: During classroom conversation, create a visual map by drawing lines between students to track the flow of conversation. If you really want to get fancy, you can use different colors to track how long students are able to build conversation. Re-start in a different color each time a conversation stops building or is “dropped.”
Watch It: Have students record a five-minute segment of a classroom conversation, watch it, and reflect on which conversation moves they notice/don’t notice. Or, show a clip that has one or more of the five essentials present alongside a clip that does not. Ask students what difference(s) they notice.
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