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April 7, 2021

Get Your Students Talking…Academically!

“Since the dawn of language, conversations have been powerful teachers. They engage, motivate, and challenge. They help us build ideas, solve problems, and communicate our thoughts. They cause ideas to stick and grow in our minds. They teach us how other people see and do life, and they teach other people how we see and do life. Conversations strengthen our comprehension of new ideas.”

-Academic Conversations by Zwiers and Crawford, 2011

Most people would not argue with Zwier’s and Crawford’s beliefs about the importance of conversation, yet few conversations are happening in some schools.

How can you tell?

Do an informal study in your own classroom.  Randomly select 2 or 3 students and tally the number of times during your lesson they share an original thought about the content you are teaching.  If you find that most of your students are passively listening or answering low level questions, you might want to include academic conversations in your lesson plans.

What are the types of academic conversations?

Classroom conversations can take on many forms: academic conversations, accountable talk, argumentation, Think-Pair-Share, Turn and Talk, or math conference.  What you call your classroom conversations isn’t as important as making sure you are teaching your students the skills they need to talk about their thinking and learning.

But why are academic conversations important?

There are many reasons to teach your students how to engage in academic conversations.  Here are a few:

  • Oral language is the foundation for the thinking that eventually happens in a person’s head when they are reading and writing.  In other words, academic conversations develop effective inner dialogue and self-talk.

  • Oral language builds understanding of academic vocabulary. Using new words in authentic conversations about academic concepts makes them “stick” and leads to a deeper understanding of the meaning.

  • Academic conversations help students refine and enrich their understanding of concepts.  To participate in an ongoing conversation, students need to think deeply about a topic and make connections with prior knowledge.

  • Academic Conversations allow teachers to quickly assess what students know and understand about a concept.  During the conversation, teachers can respond to misconceptions and guide their students’ thinking. They also gain important data to inform their plans for the next lesson.

Test Yourself!

If you have doubts about the power of academic conversations, try to talk about a subject you know just a little bit about. You may be able to use a few terms correctly, but you will feel your brain working as you try to tie ideas together.  That is how your students should feel when they are learning.  Making that happen in a classroom takes skill and planning.

Don’t just take it from me…

Ms. Tolmach, a first grade teacher at Curtis School of Excellence, shared her experience teaching her students to talk about their thinking and learning.

What kind of lessons work well with academic conversations?

Lessons where students are solving a problem work best. For example, I gave pairs of students different bags of manipulatives. Each bag had different amounts of objects.  I asked them to choose tools to help them organize and count the objects. They chose cups, plates or ten squares.  At the end of the activity, we had a math conference in a circle. Students explained what they did and how they counted their objects. I encourage other students to use the sentence stems to comment on their classmates’ plans.

What was a challenge you encountered?

I had to teach my students that if you disagree with someone, it doesn’t mean that you don’t like them. There can be a lot of taking sides in first grade and talk about who is a friend. I wanted to make sure they understood that disagreeing was not a judgment about a person. We are just sharing ideas.

Teaching my students to listen to each other was also a challenge. I always reminded them to keep their eyes on the speaker and make a comment on what was said before sharing their own ideas. Sometimes students would say, “I like what you said”, and then just go off and on unrelated tangent. So I reminded my students to say more about what the speaker said.

What three pieces of advice do you have for teachers who want to begin academic conversations?

1. You might want to start in small groups like guided reading groups to teach students to listen and respond to each other

2. Start with a few sentence stems on an anchor chart and model how to use them often.

3. Think about how to respond to a student who has a misconception without saying the answer is wrong and giving the correct answer. Sometimes I would ask other students what they thought, and then look for someone who seemed to be thinking the same thing I was thinking.  Other times I would ask probing questions to guide the student.  Sometimes it wouldn’t work and the student would stick to the original answer.  Even that was good information for me to have about my students’ understandings. 

Check out these videos to see some great examples of how to foster academic conversations in your classroom:

Watch Ms. Volta at Bradwell get her students talking by renaming the number with accountable talk.

How about some intermediate level conversations? Learn how Ms. Kearley holds her 3rd grade students accountable in their math conversations.

What about for high school, you ask? Check out this video that teaches you how to have literary pinwheel discussions.


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