Academic Conversations for Diverse Learners: The First Steps

Author: Tonia Miller, Education Specialist: ESL/Bilingual

Reasons for Students to Converse in Schools

“I didn’t know what I knew until I talked about it”

–Seventh-grade science student  (Zwiers & Crawford  2011)

We use language to represent our thinking and, in turn, the act of producing language, through speaking or writing, itself helps us both process and retain information. Given this, it seems natural we would want classrooms to be filled with talking students since we want them to be thinking about the content we are teaching (Fisher et al. 2008).

Rich academic conversations can be powerful tools in schools to build:

  • oral language and communication skills
  • literacy skills
  • academic language and vocabulary
  • critical thinking skills
  • creativity and academic ambience
  • relationships
  • empathy and the understanding of different perspectives
  • skills for negotiating meaning and focusing on a topic
  • content understandings
  • the ability to cultivate connections
  • students’ capacity to co-construct understanding
  • teachers and students’ abilities to assess learning
  • culturally relevant lessons
  • equity in student experiences
  • inner dialogue and self-talk
  • engagement and motivation

(Zwiers & Crawford  2011)

However, most of our students, and particularly English language learners (ELLs), do not walk into our classrooms with the tools necessary to engage in purposeful, academic conversations with their peers. We must explicitly teach these skills, while providing an environment conducive to, and in which students are held accountable for, language learning and speaking academically.

For most educators, it is common knowledge that young children learn to listen and speak before they learn to read and write. Additionally, we know that those children who develop these primary skills will transition much more easily to reading and writing tasks since oral language provides a firm foundation for literacy. Unfortunately, we often neglect to apply this knowledge of language learning to our older students who are learning English, as many classrooms particularly in secondary schools, do not often depart from a lecture style of teaching.

The academic vocabulary of our classrooms must first become part of students’ working oral vocabulary before we can expect them to fully comprehend these terms when reading or apply them in writing. Subsequently, ELLs need frequent, structured opportunities in class to develop academic oral language.  There is a great deal of preparation that goes into realizing this objective. Fisher et al. (2008) support this notion by stating, “We don’t want students to simply talk; we want them to engage in highly academic and oral discourse, using the language and vocabulary of the discipline to talk about grade-level content. And just as we prepare students to read or to write, we must prepare them to talk.”

 

Getting Started with Academic Conversations

“It was weird. When we finished talking, we had a totally new idea.”

– Sixth-grade student  (Zwiers & Crawford  2011)

Setting the expectation for academic discourse should begin at the onset of a school year. Students need to understand that an essential part of being successful in class will depend upon their ability to engage in academic conversations. A good place to start is to define what conversation is, and possibly more importantly, what it is not. Many students may believe that the goal of conversation is to win an argument. While debate does certainly have a place in academic discourse, students need to understand that primarily conversation “is a process of bringing your ideas to the table, sharing them, and shaping them as you listen to the ideas of another person. All partners should walk away with new ideas. Rather than winning, the goal is learning.” (Zwiers & Crawford 2011)

Additionally, students need to be taught the acceptable parameters for academic conversations.  A good way to accomplish this is to establish discussion norms. Students will need to be involved in this process and the teacher may facilitate a discussion around questions like: How you can tell if someone is or is not listening to you? How does it feel when someone interrupts you while you are speaking? What happens when one person dominates a conversation? How can we respectfully disagree with another’s opinion? Students can develop sentence stems related to the norms that may be posted in the room as a reminder and an anchor of reference for students when engaged in conversations. For ideas about using anchor charts and sentence stems, go to http://www.pinterest.com/pin/190910471676802369/.

Reinforce these norms by assessing them often. Praise students that adhere to the discussion norms and involve students in group or self-assessment of their conversations. Students can use checklists or rubrics to determine if, or how well, they are using effective conversations skills, such as:

  • staying focused on the topic
  • building on another’s idea
  • supporting ideas with examples or evidence
  • respectfully negotiating an idea when in disagreement
  • maintaining eye contact and using good conversational body language
  • choosing the most academic ways of talking

(Zwiers & Crawford 2011)

 

Student Interaction Practice Activities

There are numerous activities students can engage in to get them talking about your classroom content. While they may not quite meet the criteria of an academic conversation, they are useful in training students to speak with their peers in a structured manner, which will scaffold and support the more autonomous conversation work that will come as the school year progresses.

The following sample partner and group activities, as well as many others, can be explored at Region 13’s theteachertoolkit.com:

  • Inside/Outside Circle
  • Think-Pair-Share
  • Nothing Ventured
  • Back and Forth
  • Password
  • Turn-and-Talk

 

Next Steps for Building Academic Conversations

To extend and deepen the conversation skills practiced during student interaction activities, the next step is to instruct students in engaging in actual academic conversations. Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford have written extensively in Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings about teaching students the five core skills their research has identified as making conversations more academic:

  1. Elaborate and clarify
  2. Support ideas with examples
  3. Build on and/or challenge a partner’s ideas
  4. Paraphrase
  5. Synthesize conversation points

(2011, p. 31)

Zwiers and Crawford (2011) have designed an Academic Conversation Placemat which incorporates both question prompts and response starters for each of the five previously mentioned core conversations skills. Each conversation skill has an associated symbol, providing a visual connection, and hand gesture, providing a kinesthetic connection, to help students remember and focus on the goal when practicing a particular skill.  These frames for discussion become more and more natural for students over time, provided they are given enough exposure to teacher modeling and supported practice.  For more information about the Academic Conversation Placemat and other tools to use to foster academic conversations in your classroom, visit http://www.jeffzwiers.com/ac/ac_overview.html.

 

Sources

The Teacher Toolkit. Accessed March 5, 2014. www.theteachertoolkit.com.

Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey, and Carol Rothenberg. Content-Area Conversations: How to Plan Discussion-Based Lessons for Diverse Language Learners. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2008.

Zwiers, Jeff, and Marie Crawford. Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. Portland: Stenhouse Publishers, 2011.


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