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December 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 4
Classroom Conversations

Building Literacy Through Classroom Conversations

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If we want students to think critically across disciplines, let’s give them time to talk.

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Instructional Strategies
Building Literacy Through Classroom Conversations Header Image
Credit: Yuri A / SHUTTERSTOCK
Teachers are asked to do more with less every day. Not surprisingly, we are pretty good at it by now, but it is still tough. The most challenging ask, in my opinion, is the expectation that we do more (instruction, social-emotional support, assessment, etc.) with less time. Planning and pacing guides, curriculum, and calendars are increasingly jam-packed. How do we fit in all the standards and non-academic requirements?  
While I would never be so arrogant as to claim that there is one obvious, easy answer (even though that would be lovely), I do have a suggestion: lead more discussions. Classroom conversations can pay off in several areas: Engaging in conversations in meaningful, purposeful ways can support students academically, socially, and emotionally.  
Our students, at all ages, participate in conversations on a regular basis with their families, friends, and classmates. We can build on the conversational skills they have already developed to help them discuss math strategies, books they’re reading, scientific questions, and historical events. When students discuss academic content, with teacher guidance and support, they deepen their thinking about their learning. Talking pushes students to think through their understanding, plan how they might explain or persuade, and revise their thinking. Listening offers different perspectives on content as well as new problem-solving strategies.

Talking It Through

For classroom conversations to be effective, we have to help students learn to share their ideas more clearly, listen to their peers more actively, and synthesize the ideas that are shared. We will likely have some students who have strong conversational skills before they enter our classrooms, but we cannot assume that of all of them, no matter their age. Modeling discussion strategies, identifying when students are demonstrating them, and offering sentence stems as students need them can all support students in developing stronger skills. We need to give students ample opportunities to practice their conversational skills, and feedback to improve and grow them.  

Engaging in conversations in meaningful, purposeful ways can support students academically, socially, and emotionally.

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As students gain sophistication in conversations, they will also make gains in other ways. Academic discussions help students develop more extensive and accurate background knowledge. This comes when people with multiple perspectives and sets of knowledge share what they think and know. Even students who do not speak up during a classroom conversation are being exposed to new ideas and differing viewpoints. Students add to their understanding as they listen to peers.  
Picture a classroom conversation in an upper elementary classroom about how to prove one fraction is larger than another. Students who are making an argument, whether they are accurate or not, are attempting to explain why they have chosen one of the fractions. They use mathematical vocabulary. They put ideas together. Some classmates may respond by agreeing or disagreeing, which adds to the collective understanding of fractions and how they work. Other classmates might ask questions, attempting to clarify their own understanding or to gain more detailed information. All these steps provide opportunities for students to collectively build their background knowledge around fractions in the process of trying to solve the initial problem of which fraction is larger.

Supporting Reading and Writing

Classroom conversations can also support students in broader literacies. To be successful as they get older, students will need to develop strong reading and writing skills in all content areas. They will need to read textbooks and articles to gain new information in math, science, and social studies. They will need to read novels, plays, short stories, and essays in English classes. Even into adulthood, our students will need to read directions, explanations, and information to complete forms and participate in their profession. Reading is a crucial life skill.  
Different texts require different skills from readers. One thing that all readers benefit from when examining complex texts is having some background knowledge. Right now, as you read Educational Leadership, you likely have sufficient background knowledge to make meaning from the articles and columns here. If you were to pick up an issue of the journal Science, you might have a different experience. I certainly would! I lack much of the background knowledge necessary to navigate those articles. I could set myself up for a successful experience by talking with some peers about the topic of an article before reading it. Although many of my colleagues are unlikely to be experts on any topic in a Science article, we all bring our unique experiences and knowledge to the discussion. Through our conversation, we will help each other deepen and broaden our background knowledge. Our students are no different. Their ­conversations will bring out the variety of experiences and knowledge they possess, and through them, students can support each other’s growing background knowledge. That can serve as a scaffold for reading any text. 

Conversations will bring out the variety of experiences and knowledge students possess, and through them, students can support each other’s growing background knowledge.

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Participating in classroom conversations can help students develop better writing skills as well. Sharing their thinking in conversations forces students to organize their ideas and make them clearer and more coherent. Before students begin a writing assignment, offer them an opportunity to talk, in a group or with a partner, about their ideas—and to receive feedback from peers. That feedback might be in the form of questions asked or comments made by their classmates, or it might be as subtle as a look of confusion on a classmate’s face. Sitting down to write, after such conversations, will be easier for students and should result in more sophisticated, clearer writing.

Keep the Conversation Going

All these academic benefits are ­powerful arguments for including conversations in your classroom. They aren’t the only reasons though. Conversations also help students develop stronger social and emotional skills. You can suggest to students that they are thoughtful about how often and for how long they speak in a ­conversation, which develops their self-management and strengthens their listening skills. One goal for a conversation can be to try to understand a perspective that is different from their own, which builds social awareness skills. Conversations can grow these skills naturally, but drawing students’ attention to how their social and emotional skills are developing can strengthen the process.  
As teachers, we want to be sure our students grow and gain as many skills as possible while they are with us. That can be an overwhelming concept when we are faced with a jam-packed curriculum and calendar. Structuring opportunities for classroom conversations not only better supports students, but can also ease teacher stress by simplifying some of our lesson planning.

Demystifying Discussion

Jennifer Orr offers elementary school educators strategies for teaching K-5 learners to engage in student-led academic conversations.

Demystifying Discussion
End Notes

1 Pilonieta, P., & Hathaway, J. I. (2023). Kindergarteners’ engagement in academic conversations. Early Childhood ­Education Journal, 51, 665–674.  

2 Donovan, C. A., Sekeres, D. C., & Kerch, C. J. (2020). Scaffolding background knowledge and emergent writing through conversations. YC Young Children, 75(5), 57–63.  

Jennifer Orr is an elementary school teacher in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. She has taught for more than two decades in almost every elementary grade at schools serving highly diverse populations. She has experience with students who are learning English; in special education and advanced academic programs; and from military families.

Throughout her career, she achieved and renewed National Board Certification; wrote articles about technology in education, literacy, math, questioning, and more; and presented at state and national conferences on the same topics. Orr is a member of ASCD’s Emerging Leader class of 2013. In 2012, she won the Kay L. Bitter Award from ISTE.

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