Have you ever heard, or thought, that people write like they talk? Well my team has discussed several times of recent years that we need to speak, at least some of the time, with more formal academic language around our students. Students need to hear complete sentences and complex thought articulated eloquently for them to be able to do the same. Not only that, but they also need to practice speaking that academic language so they can write it well.
I just attended a training on academic conversations at my ESD, and I really appreciated the strategies for teaching students how to implement academic conversation. In a world where students are more used to tweets, texts, and half-articulated ideas, developing the ability to have deep, developing skills for sustained conversation is essential. Discussion is not only essential to the standards, but also to an educated adult society.
Introducing Academic Conversation
My training was based around the book Academic Conversations, by Zwiers and Crawford, as well as some Kagan engagement strategies.
The first aspect to teaching students academic conversation is providing them with sentence starters to lead their conversations. There are two roles: the prompter and the responder. Zwiers has an example of a “placemat” of starters that you can have on student desks, but there are a plethora of visuals and handouts for students found on Google and Pinterest.
After you have decided the format you want to use to give students the prompts, you need to start having them use them. When you first begin using the prompts, it is helpful to have one or two that the students are practicing. Put a thought-provoking quote, fact, or picture up and have students discuss it with each other using a specific stem or group of stems.
I also liked an example we read where the teacher had the students practice the prompter role and the teacher responded. This can be modeled from both sides of the conversation.
It is also important to have strategies for when the conversations aren’t working. The book has a list of suggestions for “when conversations deteriorate,” but I like a few particular strategies to manage appropriate conversations.
- Establish norms. I know as adults we often have the secret “yeah, yeah, yeah” response to norms, but students might not have been exposed yet and it is never too early to teach them civilized behaviors.
- Create a chart of appropriate responses. When I score student papers, I often write “not quite accurate.” Maybe I really want to write “what were you thinking!?!” It would be helpful to create a chart for students to have alternate, respectful, academic responses instead of what they really want to say.
- Another management strategy is for students to evaluate themselves and their partner. Dave Irwin has this helpful “Conversation Counter” handout on his website, http://www.langdevopps.com/resource/, under Academic Conversations. (He also has tiered conversation prompt “tents” for ELLs and struggling students.)
The next step is to teach students how to be active participants in the conversation. There are some great activities in the book for teaching students to listen and paraphrase, to synthesize their thinking, and to build on ideas presented by their partners.
- Students should understand how to ask useful/relevant questions that will extend or deepen the conversation. Using the prompts will help them learn how to keep the conversation going.
- The students also need to learn to how assess their partners’ understanding and be aware of confusion or comprehension. An understanding and awareness of partners in a conversation is a skill that, when developed, will definitely help them in life
- Additionally, kids need to learn how to listen. I recently read a meme that said something along the lines of we need to listen to understand, instead of to respond. Using the conversation prompts helps them engage in listening and absorbing without thinking about what they will say on their “turn.”
Overall, I really enjoyed the training and I look forward to reading more of my book and implementing Academic Conversation prompts in my classroom. I am hoping that it will make discussions feel more accountable, on task, and less chaotic. Have you tried using conversation prompts? If so, what activities worked well for you?
In my non-teacher consumed hours I love to spend time with my husband and son, play board games, sew/craft/quilt, and read (I DO teach ELA).I aspire to be more into fitness and outdoors more often, though I find a comfy chair and a good book/movie mightily appealing.