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March 16, 2021

Talking the Talk: Engaging Your Students in Scientific Discourse

Lets talk science

The Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) provide us with a clear picture of what inquiry instruction should look like in the science classroom:

  1. Asking Questions (Science) and Defining Problems (Engineering)
  2. Developing and Using Models
  3. Planning and Carrying Out Investigations
  4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data
  5. Using Mathematical and Computational Thinking
  6. Constructing Explanations (Science) and Designing Solutions (Engineering)
  7. Engaging in Argument from Evidence
  8. Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

Not only do these practices help us keep our students active, but they can also help students better learn the content, pique their curiosity, and give them an understanding of how science knowledge actually develops. Focusing solely on covering the vast amount of content included in textbooks leaves students with a skewed view of what science is and how science advances. NGSS advocates a 3-dimensional approach to learning in which the SEPs are used to help students learn the Disciplinary Core Ideas or DCIs (i.e, the content: physical scienceslife sciencesearth and space sciences, and engineering and technology) and the Crosscutting Concepts or XCCs (i.e., the big ideas that span all branches of science).

Teaching students how to participate in productive science talk in the classroom is a key way to help them learn about and enact the 8 SEPs, from asking questions (SEP #1) to engaging in argument from evidence (SEP #7).

Talk science

This blog briefly explains the differences between traditional classroom talk and “productive talk” and includes tools and strategies for generating and facilitating the latter in your classroom.

Traditional versus Productive Talk: What’s the difference?

As thinking is often done simultaneously with speech, all students need regular opportunities to think out loud.  Making student thinking visible through talk reveals key information for the teacher about their initial and developing understandings. While learning is the result of thinking, not all forms of classroom talk lead to the same levels of thinking. Research shows that most classroom talk follows the Initiation-Response-Evaluation (I-R-E) pattern [e.g., Lemke, J. L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex]:

Initiation: The teacher poses a question, typically one that is closed and requires students to recall a “right” answer or perform a quick calculation.

Response: Often the first student to volunteer or call out provides a one word or sentence response.

Evaluation: The teacher reacts with a comment indicating whether the student’s response is correct.

The Problem with I-R-E:

  • Answers are valued over thinking
  • Few students, and only certain types of students, participate
  • Encourages only the lowest levels of thinking

What Should Classroom Talk Look Like?

Through a variety of grouping formats (i.e., pairs, small groups, and whole class), students should spend the majority of their class time discussing, grappling with, and reasoning and asking question about how and why science phenomena occur.

How Can I Generate and Facilitate Productive Science Talk?

Below are tools and strategies for supporting productive discourse in your classroom:

1) Develop and Reinforce Talk Norms:

It takes time for students to learn new patterns of communicating and engaging in scientific discussions may feel uncomfortable at first. For students who have grown up with traditional I-R-E style instruction, opening the floor for them to compare different science explanations, to weigh evidence, to critique models and explanations, and to revise ideas over time will be unfamiliar. Students need time carved out for them to try new forms of discussion and they need explicit rules for participation. Here are some example discussion norms:

1. Everyone participates

2. Support claims with evidence

3. Challenge ideas, but respect the person

4. Revise and rethink often

Penuel, W.R., Moorthy, S., DeBerger, A., Beauvineau, Y., & Allison, K. (2012). Tools for Orchestrating Productive Talk in Science Classrooms. The Future of Learning: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS 2012). Sydney, Australia: International Society of the Learning Sciences.

2) Implement Teacher Talk Moves:

Productive discussions do not materialize on their own—the teacher plays an important role! Students tend to need help in the following areas:

(a) Sharing, expanding, and clarifying their thoughts

(b) Listening carefully to their peers

(c) Deepening their reasoning

(d) Considering and responding to others’ ideas

Michaels, S., & O’Connor, C. (2012). Talk science primer. Cambridge, MA: TERC.

Check out these resources:

  • Handout containing a list of teacher prompts/talk moves you can use to support students with each of these four goals.
  • Videos of these moves in action with a class of 4th grade students (if they can do it, our middle and high school students should have no problem!)

3) Introduce Student Talk Stems:

Engage students to communicate
Science sense making
More role cards

To support students in responding to one another without the need for prompting from the teacher, below are some resources containing productive talk stems for students.

(a) Engage Students to Communicate in Scientific Ways (BSCS, 2014): contains a chart outlining what scientists do and sentence stems for what scientists say (also indicates which category of stems supports each of the NGSS SEPs).

(b) Science Sense-Making Role Cards (University of Washington): contains stems for students taking on the following roles: observation specialist, inference specialist, connections specialist, and model specialist.

(c) More Role Cards (University of Washington): the cards contain stems for the following roles: questioner, skeptic, idea exchanger, interpreter

Share stories of productive science talk from your classroom! Let us know how it went with trying out any of these strategies/tools or post other effective examples of how you get your students talking like scientists.


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