Blogstitute: Classroom Talk — A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement

July 13th, 2015

We hope that you are still with us on these hot summer days as we continue our Blogstitute today with Liz Hale, author of the recent book Readers Writing. In this post Liz talks about how her thinking evolved around classroom talk and how she harnesses its power to enhance her teaching. Follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15 and be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win free books at the end of this year’s Blogstitute!

readers-writingClassroom Talk: A Vehicle for Student Learning and Engagement
By Elizabeth Hale

If you had asked me what I thought about students talking in the classroom during my first year of teaching in Boston, I probably would have thrown my hands up, looked to the sky, and said, “It just drives me crazy!” Back then, classroom talk was something that seemed to work against my teaching, not support it.

The longer I was in the classroom and the more instructional strategies I learned from colleagues, workshops, and professional literature, the more I understood how classroom talk is one of the most powerful vehicles for teaching and learning, from both a cognitive and an affective standpoint. Of course, this change required a shift in my perspective on what classroom talk meant. Rather than see it only as student-generated talk that disrupted teaching and learning, I began to understand that it could be a purposeful tool for student learning and engagement.

Many teachers understand that productive and beneficial classroom talk does not just happen but is something that needs to be initiated and supported by the teacher, even if it eventually becomes student driven. The more defined the form and purpose of classroom talks are, the more productive they tend to be. In my books Readers Writing: Lessons for Responding to Narrative and Informational Text (2014) and Crafting Writers, K–8 (2008), the main instructional focus is writing. But embedded throughout the lesson structures and instructional strategies are purposeful times for students to talk. They are critical vehicles to help students learn about, and care about, what we teach them about writing.

Here are a few specific ways I use student talk to support learning:

  1. Turn and Talk to name what is being taught or modeled

In this first, twenty-second turn and talk in a mini-lesson, all students are asked to tell a partner the name of the craft technique or “writing about reading” strategy that was just modeled within a paragraph of writing. This consistent expectation supports accountability and engagement as well as memory retention.

  1. Turn and Talk about the “why” of the lesson

In this also-very-brief turn and talk that comes in between teacher modeling and students writing an entry in their reader’s or writer’s notebooks, everyone briefly tells a partner what he or she is learning or why the “writing about reading” strategy or craft technique is beneficial to know. Here, I am supporting not only accountability of learning but also student ownership: I want them to be able to verbalize and understand how a particular strategy will help them as a reader or writer.

Sometimes I do this same kind of turn and talk before the direct instruction part of the lesson. For example, in one of the Readers Writing lessons, I ask, “So why do you think writing about the relationship between two characters is a good strategy to use in your reader’s notebooks? Why not just write about one character at a time? Tell your partner what you think.” The purpose here is less about reinforcing a concept just taught and more about getting students to think analytically about what they learn.

  1. Partner Share of writing

After any kind of independent writing, whether it is in a writer’s or reader’s notebook, I always have a partner share before the whole-class share. This takes a little extra time, but it is worth it! I have seen so many students who previously did not care about their writing start to become more invested during independent writing because they knew that, every time they wrote an entry, it would be shared with a peer.

Classroom Talk: The Benefits

Making room for purposeful student talk—whether in the context of literacy instruction, read-aloud, or content subjects—does take thoughtful planning, attention, and time, but here are three reasons why doing so is worth the effort!

  1. Student Learning

Unlike listening, talking is an active way to process ideas. You can learn by listening, of course, but it is a more passive way of learning. Production of speech is cognitively more demanding, and so talking about one’s ideas, as opposed to just thinking or listening, can result in deeper processing of information (Cazden 2001). In fact, scientific research using brain imaging shows that certain areas of the brain are more active when talking is about to occur than when a person just listens or thinks about an idea (Carota et al. 2009).

  1. Student Engagement

While there is much to be said about how students learn as they are talking out ideas, talking also greatly benefits student learning and engagement that occurs before and after talk—and you probably don’t need to conduct a study to agree. Think about the teacher workshops you’ve been to and how much your engagement differs depending on whether the speaker just talks at you for hours or makes time for you to process what you are learning with someone next to you. When you get to talk every now and then, your ability (and desire) to absorb information from the speaker can be maintained at a high level.

  1. Lesson Management

Unbeknownst to my first-year teacher self, classroom talk can also be a preventative management tool! This is a simple matter of human nature. Again, put yourself in your students’ shoes. If you sat in a chair all day right next to people your age, five days a week for 180 days, it would be hard—if not impossible—to always be quiet, listen, and pay attention. By channeling the desire to talk into academically productive ways, student learning not only benefits but can often curtail the off-task talk that is otherwise likely to occur.

Shifts in Perspective

I realized that, for me, taking advantage of talk in the classroom required two shifts in perspective. The first was getting over my fear of losing control. Especially in my first year of teaching, I thought that unless I was facilitating and directing all conversations, students would just start talking about anything and everything. It took a few years to understand that creating places for student talk, both short and long, actually gave me more control in terms of management, because I valued the reality of the receiving end of instruction. The second thing that shifted for me was redefining what learning was. I had a hidden assumption that, unless I was in that role of facilitator and was present to hear and give feedback to every spoken idea, students would not really be “learning.” What I do as a teacher still very much matters, of course. But now I place a lot more value on what all of my students’ minds experience in terms of processing what I teach than on whether I am there to hear everything they say. After all, the goal of our teaching is less about what we do every day in our classrooms and more about what our students’ minds experience. Bringing different kinds of talk into your classroom, even though it will take some trial and error along the way, is an investment in how your students experience learning.

What other forms of classroom talk have teachers found useful in supporting student engagement and learning? I would love to hear your ideas!


Carota, F., A. Posada, S. Harquel, C. Delpeuch, O. Bertrand, and A. Sirigu. 2009. “Neural Dynamics in the Intention to Speak.” Cerebral Cortex 20: 1891–1897.

Cazden, C. 2001. Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute,Classroom practice,Writing

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Diane Anderson  |  July 13th, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    These strategies are important for ELLs. It engages students in all four areas of language learning: listening, speaking, reading and writing and reinforces the lesson with meaningful repetition.

  • 2. Cheryl  |  July 14th, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    I really appreciate this blog. What you have shared most certainly makes good philosophical sense and resonates with how I also learn. I like talking to process. In fact, I often need to talk in order to hear myself think as I like to say. I will be returning to the classroom this fall after a LONG break from teaching. Back then I had been teaching long enough that I had become comfortable in letting kids talk as part of learning. However, there is part of me that is likely going to feel much like a first year teacher all over again, and I can already sense that fear of not having control if I allow that talking to occur, so I am very appreciative of your reminders and examples to reinforce that I need to start doing what I had once come to know as good teaching practice. I will be interested to read more of your ideas when I obtain a copy of your book =)

  • 3. Julie Clay  |  July 14th, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    Much of this post reminds me of my past experiences in the classroom. A couple years ago I experimented with Socratic seminars for the first time as a project for a graduate course. When you wrote that “beneficial classroom talk does not just happen”, you are quite correct. My usually social and chatty freshmen were pretty quiet during our first few Socratic seminars and the atmosphere was uncomfortable. I found that students needed explicit instruction and modeling in how to talk to each other, which I had completely overlooked because I knew they had conversations. However, a special set of skills is needed for academic conversations. Although I had to set aside class time to teach and practice these skills, it was worth it as the discussions improved and students eventually took the reins. I still have upper classmen who come back and tell me those discussions were their favorite parts of my class. There is definitely a place for student dialogue in the classroom.

  • 4. Teresa  |  July 15th, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Over the past few years I have included more student talk in my classroom. It does take some time to get used to the increased noise level, and I used to cringe whenever an administrator or another teacher came into my room. However, it is so beneficial to increasing student engagement and learning that I wouldn’t go back. I’m adding this book to my wish list so I can get even more ideas.

  • 5. Kelly Mogk  |  July 17th, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I love what you share about getting comfortable with letting go of control. I think that can be an early barrier for many teachers when it comes to navigating the wild world of constructive classroom conversation. I am a person that tends to be pretty easily affected by the volume around me, so I often have to step back and remind myself that noisy is good!! Young learners deserve the same opportunities to discuss and think through new concepts that any adult would want. I agree with Julie’s comment about Socratic Seminar — this is such a wonderful way to start helping students learn how to have critical conversations in effective and meaningful ways. 🙂

  • 6. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 19th, 2015 at 8:26 am

    I appreciate that you included the opportunities for partner sharing before whole group. Many of our students are not quite ready to share in front of the whole class yet. Having partner shares and turn and talks gives everyone a chance to be heard.

  • 7. Sarah  |  July 19th, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    I need more of this in my classroom! I hear rave reviews from a lot of teachers who have made the transition. While I do use a little bit of talking in my room, I see the benefits of using more. Just like everyone else, I struggle with engagement and motivation. I added this book to my TBR list and I may look for a few more on the topic before September. Thank you!

  • 8. Joanne Bell  |  July 20th, 2015 at 7:27 am

    I think that the ideas you have brought up, tie into and stress the importance of vocabulary. By giving time for students to talk, they can process and practice the concepts and words. This will also lead to better writing because they use the words.

  • 9. Justin Greene  |  July 21st, 2015 at 10:14 am

    This post definitely is important in all classrooms. Sometimes we forget to have the students stop, reflect, and discuss their own ideas with their shoulder partners or groups. This is a post that I will revisit as the school year begins. thank you for this reminder.

  • 10. Rachelle  |  July 21st, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Thanks for listing specific ways to add talk to the classroom! Using more purposeful talk is one of my goals for the year. I’ve often used turn and talk to have students share ideas about what to write or trying out different techniques out loud before writing, but I like the idea of having students restate the purpose of the lesson at the beginning to help focus them and explain why a lesson is being taught.

  • 11. Maribeth Batcho  |  July 22nd, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    Another reason to have students share with a buddy prior to a whole group share is to help the resistant writers hear what other kids are writing about so that they can find a topic too. Sometimes, I will have a whole group share of what is written so far and then have the writers return to continue or finish. This really helps those kids who think that they have nothing to say!
    Thanks for a great post!

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