Collaborative discussions have become a part of classroom practice due in large part to CCSS listening and speaking standards as well as skills called for in other state standards. For English learners, it can be quite challenging to think critically about a topic and use academic language to express ideas, summarize another’s points, and pose the kinds of questions that advance a discussion. They need to be taught the skills to do so but they also need to spend time actually using academic language – talking, listening, interacting.
This creates a bit of a dilemma: finding the right balance.
An elementary school principal told me that at her school, which has a high percentage of English learners, they practice the 90-10 approach. That is, 90% student talk and 10% teacher directed instruction.
Now, I’ve been promoting less teacher talk since publishing research on instructional conversations in the early 1990’s. In fact, one of the eight components of the SIOP Model is Interaction. My colleagues and I have been encouraging teachers to “get out of the way” and give students opportunities to talk to one another for a couple of decades, especially those students who are learning English.
However, a 90%—10% approach seems extreme, especially for young English learners who are just beginning to learn about the world around them and the books in front of them. This ratio begs the question: What, for example, can second-graders teach each other or practice talking about for 90 percent of the school day, or even the ELA block? Especially students who are still in the process of learning English? Much of the interaction in classrooms involved techniques such as turn-and-talk, popcorn questioning, and think-pair-share.
Asking students to turn-and-talk or think-pair-share frequently simply for the sake of reducing teacher talk is a case of student interaction gone awry.
Interactive activities — for elementary and secondary students — should to be purposeful and used as a means of achieving specific learning goals. For students to participate in high quality interaction, teachers need to clearly communicate to students what they are going to talk about and why they are doing the interactive activity, whether the oral exchange is brief or is an extended academic discussion where students express their ideas, grapple with concepts, discuss issues, and argue a point.
In our book, Developing Academic Language (2016), my co-author Deborah Short and I present guidelines for conducting collaborative academic discussions. These include:
- Teach students the rules for discussion. Participating in an academic discussion doesn’t come naturally for anyone so we can’t expect to set students loose to have a productive conversation. Rules such as turn-taking, staying on topic, being respectful, listening actively and building on each other’s comments are skills that need to be taught and practiced with guidance.
- Align the discussion to the lesson objectives. The topic of discussion should reflect the lesson’s purpose but so should grouping configurations. Students might be organized in pairs, triads or groups of 4 to 6. The composition of groups might vary as well, depending on the objectives. Partners or groups are matched by English proficiency level (the same level or English learner with English proficient), language background (same language background for support or different languages), and reading levels.
- Pose good questions to prompt high quality discussions. If you want students to have a productive, interesting discussion, you need to begin with an interesting question. And, good questions are those that drive higher-order thinking, that force students to grapple with an idea or issue and draw on information they’ve gained during the lesson or unit.
- Teach students how to ask questions. Help students understand that there are different reasons for asking questions such as clarifying (Can you explain that more?), confirming (I think you said that…), eliciting (How does this connect to what we were reading?), or predicting (Do you think that in the next chapter…). Also, questions should advance the discussion rather than simply repeating a language frame or using similar questions over and over.
- Link oral discourse with reading and writing. Research tells us that the domains of reading, writing, listening and speaking are interrelated and best developed together. Student discussions should include reference to text evidence, using text or writing as a basis for making a point and so forth.
- Hold students accountable for their talk. The most productive discussions are those that have clear expectations and some type of accountability for each student’s participation such as the teacher circulating with a clipboard assigning points on a rubric or having students take responsibility for judging participation.
- Set reasonable time limits. Students are sometimes left to turn-and-talk or think-pair-share for several minutes about questions that could be answered in 10-15 seconds, questions that are often mundane and without a strong instructional purpose. Those wasted minutes here and there add up to a lot of lost instructional time. With academic discussions, teachers should monitor pacing and make sure discussions don’t stall.
The need for these guidelines is exemplified in the following lesson on nutrition. The teacher asked students to talk to their partner and discuss, “What do you like to eat for after-school snacks?” Students talked for several minutes, then regrouped and shared their answers some of which included liking candy and hot dogs. The teacher accepted all answers, presumably not wanting to shut down participation, and went around the circle asking students to use a language frame to answer: I like _______ because ________. The process continued until each child had a turn.
Here are a few problems with this student-to-student interaction and why the guidelines above would be useful:
- The interaction needed to be more closely aligned with the topic of nutrition. Asking students to talk about healthy snack choices they’ve read about rather than asking them to talk about what they like to eat would have better met the objectives of the lesson. (#2, #5) Further, once some students reported that they like snack foods that are not nutritious, the teacher was caught in a bind. Either she points out why those foods may not be the best nutritional choice and risk criticizing the student and/or his family or she accepts the answer, makes no judgment (e.g., Ok, thanks Minh), and implicitly endorses the food choice. It appeared she did the latter. The problem could have been avoided with more purposeful planning.
- The question driving the interaction was mundane and didn’t require higher-order thinking. There aren’t many ways to think critically about why one likes a certain food! (#3)
- The same frame used repeatedly becomes boring and often leads to students disengaging. (#4) After students talk together, have several students report out using the frame, then move on with the lesson. Better yet, provide the frame for the students to use when talking together. The teacher can circulate to hear their language use and when the group reconvenes, call on one or two students to share.
- Too much time was spent on student talk; it takes only seconds to name a food and say why you like it. Also, having every student repeat the frame ate up time resulting in lost instructional minutes. (#7) Time spent on this part of the lesson could have been reduced significantly and been put to better use.
Back to the issue of balance: The amount of student talk vs. teacher directed or teacher facilitated instruction is tricky. Until we have empirical evidence to guide us, we need to rely on what seems reasonable to meet lesson objectives, meet standards, and develop students’ academic language.
But, the quality of interaction may be even more important than the amount. Hopefully, you’ll find the guidelines useful.