The primacy of oral language to literacy development is not a new idea. Wilkinson (1965, 3-5) asserted this thinking decades ago and Britton (1983, 11) poetically noted, “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.” With the importance of student talk so well established, it would seem logical that student talk and conversation should be flourishing in today’s classrooms. Why, then, does the “ping-pong” model of conversation—in which a teacher asks a question, a student answers, and this pattern continues—get perpetuated in so many classrooms? Why is it so difficult to move away from this “ping-pong” model towards one in which conversations are more akin to basketball, with students responding to and asking questions of one another?
The answers to these questions are complex and involve an interaction of systems and competing priorities. One major reason for the intractability of the prevailing paradigm lies in the difficulty of switching our stance from one of disseminating information and checking for understanding to one of posing authentic questions and listening for how students are processing and constructing knowledge.
A change in stance is not easily or quickly accomplished, but there are two key practices that can help us to make this shift: the use of cooperative structures and the use of facilitation techniques (Brunn 2010, 83-90). These practices can be integrated into any content area and don’t require a compromise of any other best practices a teacher is already using.
Cooperative structures like “Turn and Talk” and “Think, Pair, Share” are great ways to allow every student to talk in the same amount of time it would take for two people to share their thinking with the whole class. They also offer a safe option for quiet or shy students to share ideas that they may be reluctant to share with the whole group (Brunn 2010, 88).
Teachers who are already using cooperative structures in their classroom might think about adding other variations to their repertoire, such as “Think, Pair, Write,” in which students engage in writing after conversing with a partner; or “Heads Together,” in which groups of four students discuss a question among themselves. Additionally, it may be helpful to think about the intentional use of these structures for achieving a specific purpose. Used at the right time, such as at a point in the lesson when few students respond to a question, they can help stimulate thinking and elevate the conversation.
A teacher’s use of facilitation techniques is key to encouraging more students to contribute their ideas and listen to and respond to one another. The table below summarizes some facilitation techniques along with a rationale for each, as well as examples, where appropriate. Some facilitation techniques are deceptively simple. See for yourself by paying attention to your responses to students. Do you find yourself responding neutrally, or do you find yourself praising with comments such as, “Good thinking!” or “That’s a smart idea!”?
|Asking open-ended questions||Elicits greater depth of student thinking and allows for the contribution of multiple ideas||“Why is it important that you express your opinion even if you know others may not agree with you?”|
|Using wait-time||Gives students a chance to think before talking and encourages more students to participate|
|Asking facilitative questions||Encourages students to respond directly to one another’s ideas||“What do others think about what [Marie] just said?”
“Do you agree or disagree with [Jose]? Why?”
“What questions can you ask [Tom] about what he said?”
|Avoid repeating and paraphrasing students’ responses||Encourages students to speak clearly, take responsibility for listening carefully to one another, and
ask classmates to speak up or repeat comments as necessary
|Responding neutrally with interest||Builds intrinsic motivation and encourages students to think and speak independently without the need
for teacher validation
|“Interesting—say more about that.”
“Hmm – what do others think about what [Alex] just said?”
Note: Techniques adapted from the Being a Writer™ and Making Meaning® programs, developed by Center for the Collaborative Classroom.
Used together, cooperative structures and facilitation techniques can help increase the volume of student talk greatly. Now, it’s our turn to listen.
Britton, James. 1983. “Writing and the Story of the World.” In Explorations in the Development of Writing, Theory, Research, and Practice. Edited by Barry M. Kroll and Gordon Wells, 3–30. New York: Wiley.
Brunn, Peter. 2010. The Lesson Planning Handbook: Essential Strategies That Inspire Student Thinking and Learning. New York: Scholastic Teaching Resources.
Center for the Collaborative Classroom. 2014. Being a Writer. Alameda: Author.
Center for the Collaborative Classroom. 2015. Making Meaning. Alameda: Author.
Wilkinson, Andrew. 1965. “The Concept of Oracy.” English in Education, 2, no. A2 (June): 3–5.