Academic Discourse: Beyond “Turn and Talk"

There is a growing recognition that student conversations in classrooms, if they happen at all, are often of limited value. Students sometimes respond in monosyllables and interact with the teacher, but not with their peers. Some students tend to dominate discussions and, particularly when observers are present, teachers tend to call on students who know the answers. The result of this combination of student disinterest and teachers focusing on a few students allows those who most need to engage in rich and lively classroom discussions to check out.

Even when teachers encourage classroom discussion, the results can be superficial. The “turn and talk” or “share with a neighbor” can lead to unfocussed discussions that do not expose students to academic discourse that is essential for their progress. Here are five guidelines to encourage greater academic discourse in every classroom:

1.     Define academic discourse.

2.     Model academic discourse.

3.     Give students time to think before they speak.

4.     Provide rich reading opportunities as a spur to academic discourse.

5.     Use argumentative writing as a support for academic discourse.

1. Define academic discourse

Clearly define what you expect in terms of academic discourse. As in so many areas of education, we tend to over-complicate this matter, with articles and books about academic discourse being a lot more about the arcane of the academic part of the term and not much about the discourse part. Students at every level, primary to secondary, can understand these three elements of academic discourse:

1.     Make a claim in a complete sentence.

2.     Make reference to a previous speaker – the teacher or another student.

3.     Make reference to the text under discussion or some other resource.

These can be appropriate for each grade level, with higher grades providing discourse, claims, and evidence that have greater complexity. But the fundamentals are the same. Consider these examples.

In Ms. Walden’s first grade class, the subject was superheroes: “My favorite superhero is Superman. He can fly. Even though De'Shawn likes Spiderman, he has to climb up buildings, but Superman can fly to the top before Spiderman even starts.”

In middle school: “I don’t agree that Teddy Roosevelt is the greatest president. In fact, he became famous for his role in the Spanish-American War, but I don’t think we should have been in that war in the first place. Ricardo and Jasmine both said that Teddy Roosevelt was the greatest president because he started the national park system. That may be true, but he also made a lot of mistakes.”

In high school: “Compound interest works both ways. If I’m investing money, it grows very fast, as my chart shows. But if I’m in debt, the interest that I owe also grows very fast. I disagree with Simon, who called compound interest a miracle. It’s not magic -- it’s just math."

In each of these cases, there are claims, complete sentences, and evidence. However simple these examples may be, compare them to the student discussions that you most often hear.

2. Model academic discourse

Do so at every opportunity. Staff meetings, morning announcements, and professional development workshops are all opportunities to model academic discourse with claims, complete sentences, and evidence.

3. Give think time

Give students time to think before they speak. Academic discourse does not come naturally; it is a skill that requires practice. So rather than a casual “turn and talk with a neighbor,” we should ask students to “Please stop and think about your claim and the evidence you have to support your claim. We’ll start table talk in two minutes.”

4. Provide reading opportunities

Expose students to rich and engaging reading that models academic discourse. Stories about Marie Curie, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and Socrates all offer opportunities for students to look at a similar set of facts but draw different conclusions and thereby enjoy a rich discussion.

5. Use argumentative writing

Support oral academic discourse with written academic discourse. The evidence is clear: Nonfiction writing, and especially argumentative writing, is a key to improving students’ skills in reading comprehension and their performance in math, science, and social studies.

Dr. Anthony Muhammed eloquently describes academic discourse as the “language of power” and the “language of opportunity.” Although we understand that this is not the language that students common use at home or in casual conversations, it is the language that they will use in higher education and in the world of work. The more we practice it, and the earlier we start, the better students will be.

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