Coaching students to engage in worthwhile academic discussion begins with intentionality. You have to teach students how to listen to and talk to each other.
Have you ever asked students to “turn and talk” to a partner or small group? You may have noticed one of two scenarios. In the first, an air of doubt creeps across the class. And students, not knowing what to say or how to say it, remain silent. In the second, students comply with your request, but their pseudo exchanges lack the meaningful dialogue needed to develop deeper content knowledge. Either way, it’s not what you hoped for.
This article looks at a step-by-step plan you can follow to build better classroom conversations at any grade level or within any subject.
Step 1: Assign Partners
Begin by assigning each student an academically and socially compatible partner. Match students with similar performance data, and make sure they can work together well. Avoid assigning random partners from the start. There will be time for that later once listening and speaking expectations are modeled and reinforced.
Also, wait before asking students to share their thinking within groups. When we ask students to discuss ideas in groups of four or five, we often give reluctant voices permission to not participate and grant more assertive voices the license to control the conversation. In their book, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking, Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford emphasize paired conversations. As they explain, partner work allows “half of the students in a class to talk at any one time” and “forces a partner to focus on and listen to what the other is saying.” Of course, that requires we teach our students to listen closely.
Step 2: Practice Paraphrasing
For classroom conversations to support deeper content understanding, the students involved must do more than simply wait for their turn to talk. They must actually listen to each other’s ideas. In Content-Area Conversations, authors Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg point out that “the listener also has responsibilities” because “true discussion needs the active participation of others if there is to be an exchange of ideas.”
You can teach students to self-monitor their listening by using the art of paraphrasing. Instead of asking students to share a verbatim recount of what they heard, show them how to paraphrase what a partner said by putting it into their own words. This gives meaning, and sometimes clarification, to what was said. You can stress listening by planning lessons in which partners only paraphrase each other’s ideas.
Step 3: Practice Responding
Once students are comfortable paraphrasing each other, provide them with opportunities to respond to each other. This could mean challenging the thinking of a partner by asking for evidence, giving evidence, or building on the ideas already shared. Use response frames to support learners who are not sure how to frame their reaction to a partner’s thoughts. For example, “Show me where it says…” indicates a partner wants proof to support what she heard. “Another idea I have…” says a partner wants to add to what he heard his partner say.
Support this level of scholarly dialogue by posting response frames and prompts around the classroom. However, keep these frames as options and scaffolds to encourage more genuine exchanges.
Step 4: Jigsaw Partners
Gradually provide opportunities for students to share ideas with multiple partners. Arrange inner/outer circles in which partners face each other in a large classroom circle. Pose a question or prompt worthy of discussion and allow students one to two minutes to talk with their first partner. Then, cue the outer circle to rotate a specific number of spaces to the right or left. Now the student has a new partner to share ideas with, including those ideas generated with the previous partner. Continue the rotating conversations for a few more rounds.
“Tea party,” as described by Kylene Beers in When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do, is a less controlled version of sharing thinking with a series of partners. Beers uses it for a pre-reading activity. Give each student a direct quote from an upcoming text. Set the timer for about five minutes. Instruct students to walk around and socialize, as if at a tea party, and network to make connections and draw conclusions about the topic or focus of the featured text.
Step 5: Combine Partnerships
Form small groups of four by joining one paired group with another. Make sure the students have access to the response frames and prompts for support when needed. Always give each group a significant question or task that requires analysis, synthesis, or evaluation to elicit strong discussion. Consider rotating the group spokesperson to hold all members accountable for listening and sharing the big ideas discussed within the group.
Nurturing useful academic discussion takes patience, purpose, and practice. When implemented effectively and consistently, classroom talk benefits all learners as they work together to make sense of new and challenging content.