For many years, I asked comprehension questions from the text and called on students to answer. The problem with that model is that I wasn’t allowing students to share their thinking first. Now, I have students discuss the text before I ask any questions. How do you get students to have academic conversations? You need to set the purpose in reading and teach students the strategies on how to think.
I need to mention some resources that gave me a lot of insight on how to train students to share their thought process before having conversations. Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwiers. There are five conversations skills for students to learn for having academic conversations. They are the following: clarify, support ideas with evidence, build on /challenge, paraphrase, and synthesize. I added two more strategies from the book, Reading Strategies that Work by Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis. The strategies are connect and visualize. I took those seven ideas and made academic conversation cards.
It is noteworthy to also mention the book, Visible Learning for Literacy by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie. Classroom discussions ranks 7th in effect size. Effect size is the magnitude of a given effect. Classroom discussions are evidence of the students’ learning. Academic conversations are a powerful tool to use as formative assessments.
Implementing Academic Conversations
Model using the language prompts and strategic thinking. What we ask of our students, we must model. This can be done through read alouds, shared reading, and think alouds. For example, after reading a science article on the effects of pollution, you can paraphrase what the article is about. Model how to use key ideas and vocabulary in the paraphrasing.
As a class, you may want to discuss finding support for ideas. You might start with the language frame, “In the fifth paragraph on page 2 the author states that pollution has risen in the last year.” This in itself is a great conversation starter. Students can find more support for that idea such as what is causing the pollution to increase. You may want to give students another article to read and have them practice paraphrasing and finding support for ideas using the language prompt cards.
After just a few weeks, your classroom will be buzzing with academic language. Why? Students have a purpose for reading and they are taking more ownership in their work. Rather than being told that they are reading and answering questions about pollution or parts of an atom, they get to paraphrase and find support for ideas. The content of what you teach does not change, but there is a shift in teaching the students to critically think.