Academic Conversations Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking And Content Understandings

Where would we be without conversation? Throughout history, conversations have allowed us to see different perspectives, build ideas, and solve problems. Conversations, particularly those referred to in this book as academic conversations, push students to think and learn in lasting ways. Academic conversations are back-and-forth dialogues in which students focus on a topic and explore it by building, challenging, and negotiating relevant ideas.

Unfortunately, academic conversations ar...read more

Where would we be without conversation? Throughout history, conversations have allowed us to see different perspectives, build ideas, and solve problems. Conversations, particularly those referred to in this book as academic conversations, push students to think and learn in lasting ways. Academic conversations are back-and-forth dialogues in which students focus on a topic and explore it by building, challenging, and negotiating relevant ideas.

Unfortunately, academic conversations are rare in many classrooms. Talk is often dominated by the teacher and a few students, or it does not advance beyond short responses to the teacher's questions. Even certain teaching approaches and curriculum programs neglect to train students how to maintain a focused, respectful, and thoughtful conversation.

To address these challenges, authors Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford have identified five core communication skills to help students hold productive academic conversations across content areas. These skills include elaborating and clarifying, supporting ideas with evidence, building on and/or challenging ideas, paraphrasing, and synthesizing. This book shows teachers how to weave the cultivation of academic conversation skills and conversations into current teaching approaches. More specifically, it describes how to use conversations to build the following:

  • Academic vocabulary and grammar
  • Critical thinking skills such as persuasion, interpretation, consideration of multiple perspectives, evaluation, and application
  • Literacy skills such as questioning, predicting, connecting to prior knowledge, and summarizing
  • Complex and abstract essential understandings in content areas such as adaptation, human nature, bias, conservation of mass, energy, gravity, irony, democracy, greed, and more
  • An academic classroom environment brimming with respect for others' ideas, equity of voice, engagement, and mutual support

The ideas in this book stem from many hours of classroom practice, research, and video analysis across grade levels and content areas. Readers will find numerous practical activities for working on each conversation skill, crafting conversation-worthy tasks, and using conversations to teach and assess. Academic Conversations offers an in-depth approach to helping students develop into the future parents, teachers, and leaders who will collaborate to build a better world.

by Shaeley Santiago

When two or more people converse, their ideas mix and interact to create new knowledge. Talkers walk away from the conversation with much more than they could have thought up on their own. Like flowers that rely on bees to pollinate them, we need the ideas of others for our minds to thrive. (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011, p. 18)

convo_skills_poster As language educators, we recognize the critical role of speaking when learning a language. Yet encouraging our students to have meaningful discussions in class can sometimes be like pulling teeth. Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford have written a very practical text in Academic Conversations that not only extols the virtues of conversations in five different categories but also provides teachers with a wealth of activities, structures, and supports to explicitly teach students how to have productive conversations about a wide variety of academic topics.

The book begins with a review of more than twenty specific benefits of academic conversations organized into the following five categories.

  1. Language and literacy Oral language is foundational for reading and writing as well as the skills of argumentation, group discussion, and listening for understanding.
  2. Cognitive Benefits in this dimension range from critical thinking skills and creativity to negotiating meaning.
  3. Content learning Conversation helps build knowledge through connections and the mixing of ideas that lead to new and deeper understandings.
  4. Social and cultural Interacting with peers creates an environment of learning and access to the power of language for influencing and impacting other people..
  5. Psychological Engagement, motivation, confidence, choice, and voice are all important psychological outcomes of academic conversations.

Besides these benefits, improved speaking aligns with 21st century skills for a global economy like those explicitly listed in the Common Core State Standards and lists from employers of target skills in their employees.

So how do teachers explicitly teach these critical skills of academic conversation to their students? Zwiers and Crawford focus on five core conversation moves.

  1. Elaborate and clarify
  2. Support ideas with examples
  3. Build on and/or challenge a partner’s ideas
  4. Paraphrase
  5. Synthesize conversation points

These skills are represented in the Constructive Conversation Skills Poster (download PDF) available as one of the Lesson Tools on Zwiers’ Academic Language Development Network website. The site includes a number of other resources such as exemplar lessons and videos as well as related publications.

Once teachers understand the five core conversation skills, the third chapter of Academic Conversations presents a series of activities including graphic organizers and sample figures to support activities that will fit nearly any topic. Chapter 6 focuses on using conversation activities to build students’ vocabulary and grammar. Chapters 7-9 go a step further by addressing the specific academic areas of language arts (Chap. 7), history (Chap. 8), and science (Chap. 9), delving into discipline-specific issues. Other chapters include information on setting up effective tasks to engage students in conversations (Chap. 4), training students to be more independent in their conversations (Chap. 5), and how to assess conversations or content learning expressed through conversations (Chap. 10).

Overall, Academic Conversations contains a wide variety of activities designed to help classroom teachers of multiple ages and content areas explicitly teach the skills necessary for students to talk about what they are learning. If you have any doubt why conversation is an important way to help students learn, reading through the benefits listed in book will convince you of its value. If you are convinced but struggling with how to better facilitate deep discussions between students in your class, then the practical activities in this book will help you reach that goal.

Zwiers, J. and Crawford, M. (2011). Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Shaeley Santiago, ESL Instructional Coach for Ames Community Schools in Ames, Iowa, is an avid user of technology for professional development. In addition to her duties for Ames schools, Shaeley also teaches classes for Drake University’s teacher education program.

photo credit: 2013 09 26 COE orientation 937 via photopin(license)

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