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How to Modify Common Classroom Activities to Build Conversation Skills

Posted by admin on Dec 23, 2019 10:07:17 AM

When students learn to have skillful conversations—academic or not—it is not only a powerful way to develop content understandings, thinking skills, and language, but they are also more equipped to overcome a wide range of life’s challenges.


Dr. Jeff Zwiers’ new, research-based book, Next Steps with Academic Conversations, is a practical guide for strengthening the quality and quantity of productive conversations in your classroom lessons and activities. In his book, he gives practical tips on how you can modify much of what you already do in the classroom to help students build their conversation skills.

Here is a list of common classroom activities and how to make conversational adjustments that you can start using right away.

ACTIVITY: Read and answer questions


Have students converse about their varying answers to more conversation-worthy question(s). Make sure the questions help students build up ideas, not just test their comprehension. Have them question the questioner: Why did the writer or teacher ask me this question?

ACTIVITY: Create a group poster


Make sure the poster has a purpose beyond just getting points (e.g., it helps others build up a big idea). Have students meet in pairs before and during the poster creation to talk about their varying ideas for representing the ideas and why. Students ask each other to clarify and support ideas related to the poster.

ACTIVITY: Whole-class discussion and note-taking


Have frequent pair-shares in which listeners prompt for clarification and support to help the talker build up the idea. Use a Building Ideas Visual for note taking during the discussion. Ask students to prompt their peers with prompts that they think you would ask, or say, What would be a good response to Elisa’s comment?

ACTIVITY: Take a side (or four corners)


After students have built up both (all) sides, they stand up and choose a side (or a corner). They then turn to a partner on that side and describe the strongest evidence used to build up that side (why they chose it). You can have several students in the middle and have the two sides (or four corners) try to convince them to join their side. They can start with acknowledging the evidence on the other side: “Even though we realize that . . . , we argue that the evidence of . . . is stronger and . . .”

ACTIVITY: Gallery walk


Have students who are in each group making a poster practice what they will say, before you pick which one. They can practice in two successive pair-shares with different partners (A and B, C and D, then A and C, B and D) in which they prompt for clarifying and supporting of the main idea. Then call on one person, let’s say D, to stay at the group’s poster and present. Then as D presents the poster to others who circle around, have listeners ask clarify, support, and (if D is arguing for one side of an issue) evaluation questions. (What criteria did you use? Why?) Also give listeners a purpose for listening—the entire activity should help all students build up important ideas.

ACTIVITY: Watch a video


Stop the video at times to have students engage in mini-conversations about a key clarification or piece of evidence. Have students fill in a Building Ideas Visual (see Chapter 2) or Argument Balance Scale (see Chapter 3) during the video (stop at times to allow for more thinking and writing time). Then have students meet with other students to compare and fill in any bricks that they didn’t record.

To learn more about the benefits of academic conversations and how to increase the quality and quantity of them in your classroom, get Next Steps with Academic Conversations today.

Buy the book


Topics: Classroom practice