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Friday, September 27, 2013

Let Your Students Do the Talking

Think about the last great conversation that you participated in.  What made this a good conversation?  Were you able to follow an argument, understand the point-of-view of another, expand on your beliefs, or even debate an alternate perspective?  Now, imagine if you engaged in a discussion only to be led through a serious of scripted questions for which there was only one answer?  And imagine if the person asking you these questions already knew all the answers.  When we feel like our voices matter and that our questions mean something, we feel more invested and engaged in the conversation.  However, if the goal of the conversation is for the listener to become a passive recipient of knowledge, then why would we join this "conversation"?

Unfortunately, these are the types of text "discussions" that often play out inside our classrooms.  In their book Notice and Note, Beers and Probst describe this inauthentic, authoritative classroom talk as monologic (2013).  Typically during monologic talk, the teacher imparts knowledge to students in the form of a lecture, explanation, or set of guiding questions.  We might think we are engaging our students in conversations around a text--we might even lead our students through a carefully scripted list of questions--but these are merely pseudo-conversations.  Think about it: when we ask a question for which we already know the answer, hoping kids share out the correct response for all to hear, then are we really having a conversation at all?  It's no wonder why so many students are disengaged.

On the other hand, dialogic conversation involves asking authentic questions for which we don't know the answer so that both students and teachers work together to create meaning.  According to Beers and Probst (2013), these conversations involve a give-and-take as the speaker becomes the listener and the listener becomes the speaker.  Through this discourse, the students act as "co-constructors of their knowledge" where their voices count and their ideas matter (p. 27).  If we want our students to engage in class discussions, then we need to critically examine the role of talk in our classrooms and make sure we encourage students to question ideas, allow them to take ownership in their learning, and help them to tackle the challenges of rigorous texts.

Beers and Probst offer several tips on how to improve student-to-student discourse in our classrooms.  The following list is based on their suggestions:

1.  Listen to the conversations in your classroom to determine if there is evidence of rigorous thinking.  Although students might be engaged in the conversation, it's important to make sure they refer to the text to deepen and expand on their knowledge and that they are reflective, patient, and tolerant of other students' ideas and perspectives.  We want to encourage dialogic conversation, but we need to make sure it's rigorous talk.

2.  Let the students pose the questions.  It is easy to ask students lots of questions that help guide them to an understanding; however, this line of questioning simply guides them to our understanding.  As teachers, let's encourage kids to think through the text and bring their own ideas, refections, and interpretation to the table.  Just because the kids are asking the questions doesn't mean we have to accept anything as an answer.  Remember, we are looking for rigorous and accountable talk.  So when students misread or offer an interpretation with no justification, we need to push them to the text to reread, rethink, and support their views.

3.  Provide students with strategies to help keep the conversation going.  Students who are not used to dialogic talk might not know how to engage in the discussion.  Although we might be tempted to takeover, instead pass out conversation prompts on notecards for the students to refer to when there is a lull in the conversation.  Provide students with mini-lessons and plenty of modeling on how to frame a response to a comment they wish to elaborate upon, disagree with, or need clarification on.  Just as students need our help using reading and writing strategies, they need explicit instruction, modeling, and practice speaking and listening during class discussions.

4.  Provide students with specific feedback about their conversations.  Offering students specific feedback such as, "The point you just made about Roger's connection to Mrs. Jones really helps us understand why Roger chooses to stay rather than run away," not only encourages students engagement, but it also promotes more discussion.  Simply offering up a "Nice job" or "Good point" here and there is disruptive to the flow of the discussion and doesn't help others understand why the comment is "nice" or "good."  We want to seize on these unobtrusive, golden opportunities to instruct whenever possible.

5.  Encourage students to elaborate.  When we set the expectation for rigorous and accountable talk, then we need to push students to "tell us more" or "give us an example" when sharing comments that lack text support.  If students struggle to provide support, take advantage of the opportunity to model elaboration for them.  For example, if the student claims that Mrs. Jones must have stolen things when she was young but provides no evidence to support this claim, then the teacher could prompt the student by saying, "I understand your ideas here, and if I look toward the end of the story, I see a passage that would support your comment."

6.  Ask high-level questions to all our students--even to those students who struggle with reading.  Underachieving students benefit from deep, thoughtful engagement with a text and should not be sheltered from the experience of dialogic conversation.  All students deserve the opportunity to grapple with challenging texts and challenging questions.  If they don't learn how to work through these challenges with us during school, how can they be expected to do it in college and beyond?

7.  Arrange the desks to allow students to see each other's faces.  Simply moving the desks out of rows and into a circle makes a world of difference in promoting class discussions.


Students recognize when they are simply being led through a series of scripted questions.  It's inauthentic.  It's fake to them.  Just as we adults don't appreciate monologic talk, neither do our students.  If we want our students to experience deep, meaningful discussions full of aha moments and critical thinking, then we need to put down the question and answer list, pull up a chair, and let our students do the talking.

Works Cited:
Beers, G. K., & Robert, P. (2012).Notice & note: strategies for close reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.