For more than twenty years, Lucy West has been studying mathematical classroom discourse. She believes that teachers need to understand what their students are thinking as they grapple with rich mathematical tasks and that the best way to do so is through talking and listening. Adding Talk to the Equation helps teachers learn how to skillfully lead math conversations so all students stay in the game, stay motivated about learning, and ultimately deepen their understanding.
This video features five case studies filmed in grades 1–6 and shows teachers at various stages in their practice of generating and managing rich mathematics conversations. Lucy emphasizes the progression that occurs as teachers get more comfortable with new talk moves and as they learn to tune in and respond to the math conversations taking place among their students. Although these discussions occur during math instruction, the strategies used to create an environment for respectful, productive discourse can be applied to any subject area.
The video segments examine the importance of creating a safe learning environment; the value of thinking, reasoning, and questioning; the role of active, accountable listening; and the necessity of giving all students a “You can do this” message. Lucy also emphasizes that slowing down, even in the face of time constraints, is crucial for creating a classroom where all students feel they have something to contribute.
The 84-page companion guide includes transcripts of all of the case studies, with detailed commentary from Lucy that gives you a window into her thinking and the complexities of the work she is doing with teachers, as well as her reflections on missed opportunities.
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!
Classroom 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:
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
Kids love to talk about their passions and tell stories about their experiences. How can you transfer this enthusiasm to writing? And how can you use other types of talk–one-on-one and in small groups–to build trust, inform revision, and develop confident writers?
Veteran instructional coach Mark Overmeyer gives you five useful structures for making the most of talk in writing workshop in his new book, Let’s Talk.
In addition to the classic one-on-one student-teacher conference, Mark guides teachers on how to incorporate teacher-led small-group conferences, teacher-led public conferences, peer conferences, and small-group peer review conferences. Along the way you will pick up dozens of tips and examples–effectively giving feedback, asking better questions, assessment, meeting the needs of ELLs, conference & record-keeping forms, and more–that will help you become a better writing teacher.
Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz are the authors of Intentional Talk: How to Structure and Lead Productive Mathematical Discussions. They join us for our Summer Blogstitute with a post about the power of discussion to build a positive, supportive classroom environment. Please be sure to leave a comment for a chance to win a package of eight free Stenhouse books from all of our participating authors — including Elham and Allison!
We wrote Intentional Talk because we know facilitating classroom discussions is something many teachers want to get better at and something that can be inherently challenging. We believe that teaching children to participate in genuine discussion is worth the effort—not just because it can be engaging for students to learn from one another, but also because the health of our society depends on our ability to engage each other’s perspectives and come to new understandings through dialogue. We want to teach through discussion but also for discussion. And it never fails that when we are in discussion with children, we learn something new!
Our book describes different kinds of goals that teachers may have when planning and leading a mathematical discussion. In an open strategy sharing discussion, the goal is to get many different ideas out on the table. We contrast that with targeted discussion, which has a more focused goal around a particular idea. For example, a targeted discussion may occur when it’s time to really make sense of one strategy, investigate where an idea is going awry, or slow down and make use of a particular mathematical tool. Teachers will find examples and planning templates for these different types of discussions, and we encourage our readers to think about when these discussions might be most useful as a unit unfolds.
We all know that leading productive discussions is dependent not only on the teacher’s planning but also on how students participate. Helping students learn what it means to be part of a genuine discussion is a tall order. We think taking the time to cultivate productive norms in the first six weeks of school is vital to how well students take up listening to one another and also take risks in sharing new ideas.
One way to gain insight into what students think about participating in discussions is to ask them. Their responses can be great fodder for what we explicitly bring into our norm-setting conversations at the beginning of the year. What would we learn from students by asking the following kinds of questions?
Have students draw a picture of themselves during math discussions. Ask: What did you draw, and why did you draw it?
Why should we have discussions in math class? Why not just sit at our desks and do our own work?
What’s the difference between a discussion and just getting a chance to give answers?
How does it feel when the teacher calls on you?
When your classmates are sharing their ideas, what are you thinking about?
What does it mean to be good at math?
What makes it challenging to share your ideas in math class?
What do you think you learn from hearing how someone else solved the problem?
What does it feel like when someone listens to your ideas and understands your thinking?
Classroom communities become places where students thrive when they feel invested, known, and connected to each other. If we want to have genuinely rich mathematical conversations, listening first to our own students can give us good ideas about how to create positive learning environments.
 Parker, W. C., & D. Hess. 2001. “Teaching with and for Discussion.” Teaching and Teacher Education 17:273–289.
Classroom conversations are crucial to mathematics learning. How do you respond effectively to student ideas, keep students engaged, and use discussions to support your educational objectives?
In their new book Intentional Talk, Elham Kazemi and Allison Hintz show teachers how to direct discussions with a goal in mind, whether it be to generate lots of problem-solving strategies or to target a particular idea. Through numerous classroom vignettes and practical examples, you’ll see how to teach all students to participate in meaningful ways and support their thinking using effective questioning and teacher “talk moves.”
Different types of goals require planning and leading discussions differently. Elham and Allison show you how to do this, with printable planning templates and chapters focusing on:
defining & clarifying key mathematical concepts and terms;
comparing similarities and differences among strategies;
justifying why specific strategies work;
determining the best solution strategy; and
thinking through errors and building on partial understanding.
What role do classroom conversations play in thinking and learning?
What skills do students need to explore an important question, idea, or topic?
What structures can teachers use to foster quality conversations in language arts, social studies, science, and other subjects?
Tapping their experiences as instructional coaches, Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford share a model for fostering effective classroom conversations in their new book, Academic Conversations. Readers will discover how to:
build critical thinking and academic vocabulary;
enhance content understandings far beyond what tests require;
improve students’ oral language skills—essential for academic and career success, but seldom practiced outside of school;
assess student learning that doesn’t show up in writing or on tests;
fortify lessons with rich, authentic conversations through subject-specific methods such as history case studies, creative writing projects, and science labs.
Filled with dozens of activities and examples of real dialogue by diverse students, Academic Conversations will make your classroom a place where students independently initiate and sustain conversations that create, shape, and share important ideas. You can now preview the entire book and pre-order online!