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March 11, 2021

Rich Talk = Rich Learning

Effective Academic Conversation with Kenji Hakuta

It may feel a little unusual to think that the more your students talk in class, the more they might learn. But that is just what we, researchers and professors at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, have found to be true. Constructive conversation and meaningful interaction throughout a lesson not only develop students’ crucial communication skills, but also give them a richer understanding of the content.

Although new education standards in college and career readiness highlight collaboration and communication as critical skills, this type of peer-to-peer interaction is actually quite rare in the classroom. While common activities such as whole class discussions, jigsaws, and think-pair-shares can produce the appearance of constructive interactions, they often don’t provide enough substantial opportunities for students to engage in back-and-forth dialog, especially for ESL students.

So what can we do to make sure our students are getting the opportunities to learn deeply about a specific topic AND hone their communication skills?

Build A Culture Of Conversation

The first step is to build a culture of conversation in your classroom where it’s okay to make mistakes and okay to say things that are not polished or perfect. Knowledge is something that’s generated throughout time — you want to help your students build towards an answer, not necessarily get it right immediately. Make sure each question or discussion:

  • has a purpose for conversing that connects to objects
  • requires thinking and doing something with ideas
  • encourages students to share novel ideas and to learn from one another

So how can you tell if the conversations you’re fostering are constructive? At Stanford, we developed a Conversation Analysis Tool that looks at two primary dimensions of conversation. You can use these concepts to quickly understand how effective a conversation is, and how to insert prompts that will guide it back in the right direction and accomplish your objectives.

Dimension 1 — Turns build on previous turns to build up an idea

  • Ask yourself, “Can they or did they build on each other’s ideas throughout the exchange?”

Dimension 2 — Turns focus on content or skills related to the lesson’s objectives

  • “Are they talking about the prompts and addressing the prompts?”
  • “Are my prompts mapped to my objectives effectively?”
  • “Do the turns address the lesson objectives?”

If you feel that your students are not quite ready to engage at either of these two levels, there is a third dimension – Dimension 0 — which we added as a preliminary step that focuses on whether or not students are effectively taking turns during the conversation. If you are just starting to develop your “Culture of Conversation,” this is a good way to do an initial assessment.

School starts in a few weeks. Are you ready to try this?

Start Fresh: Establish A New Classroom Culture

The first month of classes is a crucial time for establishing a new classroom culture.

  1. Look at the big ideas in each unit to draft conversation prompts
  2. Think about what you want to see (content, language, thinking, conversation skills)
  3. Practice with the conversation analysis tool(s) (samples in course)
  4. Write model conversations that show features
  5. Share your conversation goals with your students and involve them in the assessment process

Online Course: Effective Conversation In the Classroom

Want more in-depth practice at guiding and assessing effective conversation? Stanford has a short online course designed specifically to help K-12 educators create meaningful conversations among students. The course, Effective Conversation in the Classroom, is being offered this August in three online sessions over three weeks. Registration is open at

The course has been developed by Understanding Language/SCALE, a recently merged research and practice center based at Stanford University that focuses on both language and performance assessment in K-16 settings. The mission of UL/SCALE is to support educators and policymakers in transforming systems to advance equity and learning for students — particularly for English Language Learners (ELLs) — by illuminating the symbiotic ways students learn language and academic content, and through the development and use of curriculum-embedded performance assessments. Classroom teachers and instructional coaches for grades K-12 and in all subject areas are welcome and encouraged to take this course together with their colleagues.

The teaching team consists of Professor Kenji Hakuta, Dr. Jeff Zwiers, and Dr. Sara Rutherford-Quach, who together have been designing and offering online professional development courses for educators for four years.

Kenji Hakuta, Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Stanford University, is active in education policy. He has testified to Congress and courts on language policy, the education of language-minority students, affirmative action in higher education, and improvement of quality in educational research. Hakuta is an elected Member of the National Academy of Education, a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recognized for his accomplishments in Linguistics and Language Sciences. He has served on the board of various organizations, including the Educational Testing Service, the Spencer Foundation, and the New Teacher Center.

Jeff Zwiers, senior researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, has worked for more than 15 years as a professional developer and instructional mentor in urban school settings, emphasizing the development of literacy, thinking, and academic language for linguistically and culturally diverse students. He has published books and articles on reading, thinking, and academic language. His most recent book is Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. His current work at the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching focuses on developing teachers’ core practices for teaching academic language, comprehension of complex texts, and oral communication skills across subject areas.

Sara Rutherford-Quach, lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a former bilingual elementary teacher, has more than 13 years of experience working with linguistically diverse students and their teachers, and has conducted extensive research on instructional practices for English learners. Sara was previously awarded a National Academy of Education Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for her work on the role of silence and speech in an elementary classroom serving language-minority students. Her areas of interest include classroom discourse and interaction analysis; language, culture, and instruction in multilingual and multicultural educational environments; institutional, policy, and curricular change; and educational equity. Sara has been involved with the design and teaching of more than 20 MOOC offerings since 2013, and she also directed the development of many learning modules with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the ELPA 21 Consortium.


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