Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 1

(This is the first post in a five-part series)

Dialogue increases student learning across all academic content areas. Period. Vast amounts of research support this. In his 2010 Education Week article, Do No Harm, E.D. Hirsch asserts that,

“To impart adequate verbal competence is the most important single goal of schooling in any nation. Verbal scores are reliable indexes to general competence, life chances and civic participation. Good verbal scores diminish notorious income gap. Decades of data show that the earnings gap between racial and ethnic groups in the United States largely disappear when language competencies in Standard English is factored in.”

Income gap aside, let’s talk learning styles. Some of us are verbal processors. We can’t possibly be expected to formulate ideas on paper before we've had a chance to verbalize them. Therefore, nowhere are verbal skills more important than in ELA classrooms, where we explore abstract and intangible ideas expressed through layered texts using figurative language versus cold, hard data, dates, and formulas. Ideas must be built communally and nourished through a process of collaboration before students are primed to write about those ideas. We also know that recasting ideas into our own words moves them from our short-term to our long-term memory, so we then “own” those ideas. But in spite of the mountain of research supporting student talk, teachers commonly express some version of “We don’t have class discussions because my students don’t know how to talk to each other. They can’t handle it.” Lucy Calkins confirms, “Talk is rarely taught. It is rare to hear teachers discuss their efforts to teach students to talk well” (Caulkins 2000, page 226)

I don’t wonder why this is. I’ve been there. I’ve had classes where no matter how I shuffled I couldn’t find small-group combinations that resulted in constructive, on-task work periods; classes where we couldn’t have a civil, let alone enriching or insightful, whole-class discussion until well into March; and classes at the other end of the spectrum where no amount of coaxing or bribery could elicit a response from anyone. Anyone? Anyone?

But let’s face it, verbal competency is Apollo 13—failure is not an option. Speaking and listening skills are justifiably a part of our standards and students need to be apprenticed to these skills just like reading and writing. Paul Barnwell shares both conviction and challenge in his Atlantic article "My Students Don't Know How to Have a Conversation."

“As I watched my class struggle, I came to realize that conversational competence might be the single-most overlooked skill we fail to teach students. Kids spend hours each day engaging with ideas and one another through screens—but rarely do they have an opportunity to truly hone their interpersonal communication skills.”

So, the cycle continues: Students rarely get the opportunity to hone verbal skills, and teachers avoid class discussions because students’ verbal skills are absent or unrefined. We settle for the initiation-response-evaluation pattern that passes as discussion in most secondary classrooms. In an article summarizing a 2003 study on the dynamics of classroom discourse, Rick VenDeWeghe highlights the following findings from a 2003 study of secondary ELA classrooms in his article Research Matters: Classroom Discussions of Literature:

  • In 1,151 instructional episodes analyzed from grades 8 and 9, only 6.69 percent had even one dialogic spell.
  • 31 percent of the episodes had no dialogic spells.
  • In English classes, 91.4 percent of the episodes had no discussion.
  • Of the 8.6 percent of English discussions, the average amounted to 50 seconds in 8th grade and under 15 seconds in 9th

These statistics indicate that for the most part we are not merely neglecting to apprentice our students in verbal competency, but failing to even provide them opportunities to attempt expression. This neglect says that we’re okay with advancing students who show little to no proficiency toward these standards. It’s the same as saying, “My students don’t really know how to write, so we just don’t do it.”

For many educators, it’s not that we’re unconvinced of the importance of fostering student dialogue. It’s just figuring out how to make it happen. How do we move toward a positive and productive model—a model that facilitates students not only generating ideas, but then extending, expanding, and explicitly supporting ideas as they emerge.

The next four posts will be dedicated to sharing a few ideas, tips and success stories for fostering student talk in our classrooms. Let the dialogue begin.

References:

Calkins, L. M. (2000). The Art of Teaching Reading. New York, NY: Allyn & Bacon.

"Questions in Time: Investigating the Structure and Dynamics of Unfolding Classroom Discourse," by Martin Nystrand, LawrenceL. Wu, Adam Gamoran,Susie Zeiser, and Daniel A. Long


Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 1

What Can We Do About Those Cliches?: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 2

Talk Moves Create a Culture of Talk: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 3

Enhancing Discussion Through Technology: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 4

The Teacher’s Role in Classroom Discussions: Fostering Student Talk and Classroom Dialogue – Part 5