EL Education.

Collaborative Culture: Academic Talk

How can I help students have productive academic discussions in class? 

"To speak, and to speak well, are two things. A fool may talk, but a wise man speaks." —Ben Jonson

Given how socially motivated our students can be, you'd think they'd be pros when it comes to talking about a task! Most students do not intuitively know how to have productive academic discussions, however. Asked to investigate or analyze a topic or begin a project, some students will hold back and be silent, afraid to share ideas; others may be bossy and take over the work. Without norms, protocols and practice, it is not easy for students to share voices and ideas, consider each other’s ideas thoughtfully, critique their own and each other’s thinking, and create a plan to work effectively together. 

Below, we'll discuss how norms, protocols and practice all work together to make academic talk bloom successfully in your classroom. 

Learning Target

I can describe the need for norms, protocols, and practice in order to have productive academic discussions in class. 

  Munroe, Randall, XKCD, Retrieved from https://xkcd.com/1324/  With the help of norms, protocols and practice, even weather geeks will be able to participate in effective academic talk. 


Munroe, Randall, XKCD, Retrieved from https://xkcd.com/1324/ 

With the help of norms, protocols and practice, even weather geeks will be able to participate in effective academic talk. 


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Practice: Group Work and Discussion

Learning Target

I can explain why norms for discussion are essential for productive academic talk in the classroom. 

What It Is 

Explicit norms for group work are a set of positively-toned guidelines that are discussed in depth before any academic talk takes place. Norms compel students to treat each other respectfully, share air time, take the courage to speak up, and build on each other’s ideas. These norms are most powerful when co-constructed with students, discussed, practiced, and assessed after group work times.

What It Looks Like

Watch this video for a strong example of how norms work to shape and guide academic talk. 

Why It Matters

Norms help students decide whether to say something and how to phrase it before a word even leaves their mouths. They guide students in using language to create safety, support, and caring for one another- all critical components of a community where real, risky learning takes place. When created carefully and enforced consistently, norms create the connections by which content learning is transmitted, challenged, and enhanced. 

Practice: Talk Moves in Academic Discussions

Learning Target  

I can explain why protocols for discussion are essential for productive academic talk in the classroom. 

What It Is 

Protocols are a related, well-defined set of actions in a classroom used for a specific academic purpose. They are usually structured in "step" form (as in, "First, find a partner. Then, take turns reading the provided paragraph aloud."), and can be used in multiple ways: for sharing information, peer editing, brainstorming, or, as in this case, productively discussing an academic topic.  

For an in-depth look at the "whys and wherefores" of protocols, check out chapter 5 of the book Content Area Conversations, here. 

What It Looks Like

Click here for the video "Talk Moves in Academic Discussions," demonstrating the use of a strong protocol to produce meaningful academic talk. Note that the students in this video are English Language Learners! Protocols for academic talk are especially valuable for providing structure, clarity, and repetition for our students who need linguistic scaffolding. 

Why It Matters

Protocols provide the skeleton upon which students can safely build their own ideas. Protocols help shy students to participate, rein in overly enthusiastic learners, and in general level the playing ground so that neither student personality nor academic confusion define the results of the protocol. Instead, the content of students' minds is allowed to shine.

Practice: Fahrenheit 451 

Learning Target

I can explain why practice is essential for productive academic talk in the classroom. 

What It Is

Protocols for academic talk are introduced in a low-stakes manner, practiced, reflected upon, and practiced again. The cycle continues, often throughout the entire academic year, until students feel confident and secure-- even willing to run the protocol without teacher assistance. 

What It Looks Like

Below, you'll watch a video of Julia St. Martin's 10th grade ELA class practicing academic conversation that is grounded in evidence from two different texts. The outer circle of students in this "fishbowl" protocol serve to track the work of the inner circle as they practice, keeping them accountable and offering suggestions for improvement.

Why It Matters

Practice isn't just for free throws on the basketball court or scales on the piano. Students, especially those not used to active discussions in class, need practice in order speak fully, openly, and thoughtfully in academic conversations. To expect students to know how to conduct this kind of conversation automatically is unrealistic. Students need multiple repetitions and meaningful feedback on academic talk experiences in order to grow into confident speakers in class. 

Dig Deeper

Synthesize & Take Action

For Teachers...

  1. Consider a place in an upcoming unit or lesson in which it would be helpful to have a rich, student-driven academic conversation. What would that conversation look like and sound like? Draw up a list of the characteristics of this ideal academic talk. 
  2. How can you use norms, protocols, and practice to move your students toward your ideal academic talk as defined in Question 1?
  3. What "bumps in the road," specific to your students, do you think you will encounter in implementing effective academic talk? How can you plan for them ahead of time? 

For School Leaders...

  1. Reflect upon the level of classroom-based academic conversation in your school or district. Do you have any evidence or data on how often these conversations occur, and/or to what degree they are rigorously academic? If not, how could you obtain it? 
  2. Given what you have learned on this PLP page, what are some concrete action steps you can take to improve the amount and quality of academic talk in your schools or district?