During a recent peer learning lab, teachers observed students latching on to clichéd responses during small- and whole-group discussion. For example, some students were saying the author’s message was “just open your heart to life” or “love is all there is.” In the debrief, the teachers expressed concern that students weren’t arriving at a more nuanced understanding. The question we spent the next twenty minutes chewing on was “What can we do when students respond to challenging interpretive questions with clichés?”

We began by discussing the important role that exploratory talk plays when students grapple with difficulty. Researcher Courtney Cazden defines exploratory talk as “speaking without the answers fully intact” (Cazden, 2001, p.170). Students engage in exploratory talk when they are experiencing cognitive load. Examples might include speaking in incomplete sentences, or just mumbling a word here and there to see what idea might stick. Cazden invites us to consider exploratory talk as the rough draft of discourse.

I shared with the group that when I first encountered this idea, it prompted a great sigh of relief. Seeing exploratory talk as a rough draft relieved the anxiety I used to feel when listening to my own students’ conversation permeated with disfluency. This new understanding positioned me to become more accepting about where my students were in the process of dealing with a difficult question and text. It helped me recognize that exploratory talk was an essential step on the journey toward a more complete and refined response.

This made us all wonder if the notion of exploratory talk has implications when it comes to dealing with clichéd responses from students. We pondered the notion of clichés as a type of exploratory talk—a quick grasp for meaning in the midst of ambiguity. Rather than being perturbed by a clichéd response, what if we instead acknowledged that it too is a necessary part of the interpretive process and then chose to facilitate from a place that is more accepting, curious, and inquiry-based?

One of the conclusions we arrived at was that by taking such a stance, perhaps we could more effectively help students enlarge their initial understandings that begin with cliché. Instead of acting in frustration and spoon-feeding students the interpretation we “think they should get,” we could instead ask follow-up questions such as “What did you see in the text that caused you to think that?” This would send students back to the text to reread, talk, and write about the specific moments in the text that led to the cliché in the first place. By acknowledging the cliché as the starting point for understanding and then posing a series of text-based questions to investigate further, we would essentially be modeling some of the moves that result in a more developed and sophisticated response.

Works Cited

Cazden, C. (2001). Classroom discourse: The language of teaching and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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