Talk makes everything better.
Effective and accountable student talk is arguably the most precious aspect of reading and writing development. When we give students a space to talk they are able to practice language, process what they read, and understand more to eventually write more. Yet if we were to measure the ratio of teacher talk to student talk in our classroom, we will often find that we-the teachers-do the bulk of the talking.
According to John Hattie’s work, it also has a high-effect size of .82 for Classroom “Academic” Discussions, which is an equivalent of two years of academic growth! In Hattie’s glossary he states “Classroom discussion is a method of teaching, that involves the entire class in a discussion. The teacher stops lecturing and students get together as a class to discuss an important issue. Classroom discussion allows students to improve communication skills by voicing their opinions and thoughts. Teachers also benefit from classroom discussion as it allows them to see if students have learned the concepts that are being taught. Moreover, a classroom discussion creates an environment where everyone learns from each other.” (Glossary of Hattie’s influences on student achievement)
In their white paper: “Teaching for Rigor: A Call for a Critical Instructional Shift,” Robert Marzano and Michael Toth underscore a crucial shift most teachers will need to make to effectuate wide-spread increases in student achievement: Students must work harder than teachers. Additionally, students need to engage in far more effective and accountable academic discourse. We need to subvert the ratio wherein teacher talk minutes outweigh student talk minutes. And, we need support in how to make student talk minutes worth the time and effort.
First things, First: Establishing a Classroom Culture for Accountable Talk
It is a shift to consciously let students do more of the talk, and in order to do this effectively you have to have a classroom culture that is set up for this. Students have to feel respected and have a level of trust among each other before they share their ideas and opinions. How to do this? Selma Wassermann outlines 5 guidelines teachers need to build to create effective “classroom discussions”:
- Listen, Attend, Apprehend (to apprehend, teachers have to take what students are saying in and then make meaning)
- Clarify What Students Mean
- Give Students Time
- Appreciate Students’ Ideas
- Accept Lack of Closure (there is no “final or right” answer, we want students to “tell us more” and to further examine their thinking)
Four Key Considerations for Effective and Accountable Student Talk
- Oral Output
- Academic Conversations
- Text- or Task-Based Discussions
- Accountability in Processing, Speaking, and Idea Evaluation
Oral output is defined as the type of student talk that is highly teacher-prompted. This kind of student talk is produced with, for example, sentence frames. Students are given the context for their words/ideas, a frame to structure their articulation, and it can limit the likelihood for co-construction as well as improvisation. This type of talk follows level one comprehension questions (DOK, Costas Level 1).
This is a very important type of student talk especially during instruction intended to:
- Build surface learning (the first of the three stages of learning)
- Basic language skills (building language with “miles on the tongue”)
- Grammar: The primary way language (also referred to as grammar) is learned is through conversation and auditorily recognizing correct and incorrect language patterns. So, during a language lesson, teachers would be wise to include the targeted language pattern in the form of a sentence frame so that students can repeat and/or mimic the proper language use.
- Effective and explicit vocabulary routine: It is ideal to use sentence frames to elicit specific word use. Oral output holds an important space in literacy and language development!
Effective and accountable student talk should not be limited to oral output. For example in his research, Jeff Zwiers states: “We calculated that paired conversations would enable the most talk per minute among our students: half of the class could talk concurrently. Yet most of the think-pair-shares that we observed were short and shallow. They offered students little chance to negotiate meaning or make decisions about the direction or depth of a conversation. Even when teachers gave students extra time in pairs, students didn’t automatically do the things proficient speakers and experts do to have powerful conversations. We predicted that equipping students with conversational skills would make meaningful academic conversations less of a rarity over time” (Zwiers, 2008). Students need more minutes to talk! We want to continue the use of sentence frames and turn-and-talks (especially during surface learning), but we also want to expand our accountable talk strategies to include effective academic conversation as well.
Unlike oral output, academic conversation requires improvisation, co-construction, a richer lexicon, deeper levels of analysis and understanding, as well as a myriad of academic conversation habits or protocols. These habits and protocols, as well as the context in which they are best used, must all be taught explicitly, monitored thoroughly, and practiced extensively. To further illustrate this, Jeff Zwiers states: “Academic conversations are back and forth dialogues in which students focus on a topic and explore it by building, challenging, and negotiating relevant ideas. They push students to think and learn in lasting ways” (Crawford and Zwiers, 2011). In order to do this we must plan this out, just as we plan out our content we have to plan our academic discussions and how they can build and grow on each other. To foster rich academic conversation, Jeff Zwiers offers the following protocols:
Teachers can use these prompts, hand signals, and stems to foster richer academic discourse. Zwiers uses these scaffolds because he finds: “Many classroom activities elicit short bursts of student output, such as think-pair-shares or vocabulary games. But we wanted a way to give students the training they needed to engage in extended discussions that involved constructing academic ideas with others” (Zwiers, 2008). These prompts can be used for all grade levels, however, students will mimic the teacher more often in the lower grades. In the lower grades, teachers can frequently complete the stems and have students mimic the teacher’s response. Then, the teacher can gradually release students over time depending on students’ readiness, stamina, and autonomy.
Text and/or Task-Based Discussions
The goal of effective and accountable student talk is to increase students’ agency in texts, tasks, and writing. This idea is so beautifully captured in James Britton’s quote wherein he states: “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” A critical aspect of effective student talk is that it is always text-and/or task-based. For example, whether students are completing a sentence frame or engaged in a conversation, we want that talk to help students build meaning, increase understanding, and ultimately get them back into the text to enrich their discussions. As we know, discussion is an essential pre-writing activity. Speaking and listening are also vital to correct language/grammar use. There are a variety of strategies to support text-and/or task-based student talk including self-generated questions. Below is a simple checklist of considerations:
❏ Does the sentence frame include a word or syntax pattern from the text you are reading? (Unpacking the language structures of a complex text, or in math or science can be a powerful tool for students.)
❏ Does the conversation guide students to explore, expand, process, and co-construct their understanding and analysis of the text or task?
❏ Does completing the sentence frame or engaging in this conversation requires students to return to the text to complete the task or problem solve?
❏ Will this sentence frame or conversation support students in their writing?
Accountability in Processing and Speaking
It isn’t an easy thing to hold students accountable for their talk. Sometimes student groups are quiet and it can be difficult to empower them to say much, and other times groups are very chatty! In either case, it is not easy to make sure every student is on task, using the targeted words or language, or turning back to text to support their reasoning. The first consideration we want to make is setting up a structure in your classroom where there are clear expectations. Anchor charts can be a teacher/student reference to ensure Accountable Talk is happening. But, we need to continue to add to and build on these for students so they elevate their talk beyond just the sentence frame. Below is an example of an anchor chart you could use to set these expectations:
Regardless of where students are in their language proficiency, student talk must be accountable if it is going to be effective and good use of our precious instructional minutes. To make student talk accountable, teachers must structure a routine where student talk that always includes:
- A clear and relevant topic as well as a sentence frame or conversation prompt and protocol
- Time for each student to silently form an idea/response before speaking
- Clarity on who will talk to who
- Clarity on who speaks first and who speaks second/third
- In effective conversations, eventually, the roles become improvisational and there is less “turn-taking.
- Mystery around who will share publicly so that all students speak with the assumption that
they will be presenting their idea(s) whole-class
Below is a routine that will help teachers meet the primary goals of accountable talk in the context of a think-pair-share:
Accountable Think-Pair-Share Routine: Time: 3-10 minutes per turn-and-talk
- TEACHER provides students with a sentence frame/discussion prompt/protocol.
- TEACHER asks every student to think/process the concept first (15 seconds-1 minute).
- STUDENTS signal they have formed an idea by giving a thumbs up on their chest.
- TEACHER indicates to students who the pairs are as well as who will speak first
- K-3 – assign peanut butters and jellies
- 3+ – assign “As and Bs” or a creative way to distinguish the roles within a partnership
- TEACHER walks around to monitor student discussion
- TEACHER has previously and privately selected who will share (pick one-two students)
- TEACHER approaches this/these team(s) and helps correct misconceptions, vocabulary misuse, etc…TEACHER tells the partnership they will present but does not say which of the two or three will stand and deliver. TEACHER asks the partnership to share the statement/idea back and forth a couple of times before the whole-class share.
- TEACHER signals the end of the discussion and asks one or two students to share
- STUDENT stands and states: “engage”
- THE REST OF THE CLASS mimics: “engage”
- STUDENT states his or her comment/idea
- THE REST OF THE CLASS says, “Thank you for sharing!”
You can visit this link to access an accountable talk placemat that supports a better understanding of who is speaking to who in a group of four: bit.ly/talkplacemat. Teachers are encouraged to use the Jeff Zwiers academic conversation prompts and protocols (above) to foster academic conversations in addition to sentence-frame scaffolded turn-and-talks.