If you are not using a structured conversation or talk technique regularly in your classroom yet, this is THE one to implement NOW. It's not only easy to implement right away, but it can also be used in every grade level and content area. There is practically no prep work need yet the benefits for students rock!
The benefits of academic talk are too great to avoid. If, as teachers, we do all the talking, then WE do all the learning. Talk makes learning stick. Students must verbalize to internalize.
When I was an ESL specialty teacher, I would spend the day co-teaching in various classrooms on my campus. One thing I noticed about classrooms, is that some were like rainforests. Picture this: plants of all types, flowers blooming, creatures crawling around, brightly colored birds and butterflies flying through, monkeys swinging through branches, frogs hopping about, etc. The rainforest was vibrant and alive and all types of life thrives in the ecosystem. While other rooms were like desolate, deserted islands...no life, no sound, no energy.
What made the classrooms vibrant rainforests where children thrived while others were desolate, deserted islands? The answer was ample opportunities for structured academic TALK.
Classrooms where talk was scaffolded, taught and fostered with fidelity bred a natural sense of community. In these classrooms students felt safe to take risks and speak about the thoughts going on in their mind. They felt safe to change their mind when new information was learned. Students and the teacher recognized that it was more important to process thinking than to get the answer right.
Q Triple S A is probably the best structured conversation technique that I have used. I first learned about it from the book 7 Steps to a Language-Rich Interactive Classroom written by John Seidlitz.
Begin by posing an open ended, essential question. Thought provoking questions are the best for structured conversations. Crafting great questions takes practice and collaboration with other teachers can help. Post the question so students can see if and easily refer back to it during their conversation.
Next, provide students with a sentence stem for the answer to the question. As a class rehearse how to say the sentence stem. This rehearsal not only helps students understand that they will need to use the stem but also helps if students aren't quite sure of how to say some of the words.
Third, tell students to stand or give a thumbs up when they can complete the sentence. It can be any signal that you think of really. I like to use hands on hips and thinkers chin. This step is critical for 100% participation. When you begin to implement this step, it may take longer than you would like. BUT don't skip it. Kids will test you. If you stand your ground they will learn that you EXPECT EVERYONE to participate. Remember: It's not about getting the right answer. It's about thinking and learning. Gone are the days that we ask a question and call on one kid to answer it while everyone else zones out!
Now that all kids are ready, we partner them up and let them share their answers. Partnering can take the form that you see fit. It may be a group share or it could be A/B partners. The important part here is that students know how they will share with their peers. Explicit instructions on sharing need to be delivered so that students who are reluctant speaks will understand the expectations while those that dominate talk will also understand where to draw the line. This share time gives the teacher an opportunity to listen in on conversations. The teacher can wonder the crowd and take notes that will guide the next steps in instruction. Note of caution: As you listen to conversations, be careful of your feedback. Often saying "Good job" can halt a discussion by making students feel they have completed the task. Perhaps feedback like, "You're on the right track. Can you say more?" or "What else can you tell us about that?"
The final step in Q Triple S A, is to assess. This simple means that the teacher will RANDOMLY call on a few students to share their answer with the whole group. Now remember, they've all been given the opportunity to share in small group (which helped to lower their affective filter). That opportunity also provided a listening experience for them, so they may build on their initial answer. The reason for randomly calling on students is that it helps us to avoid always calling on the same kids. It also keeps everyone on their toes. We hold our kids accountable to the learning.
Whether you are a kinder teacher or a high school algebra teacher, I challenge YOU to try this amazing technique with your kids! And let us know how it goes.
Seidlitz, J. & Perryman, B. (2011). 7 Steps to a language-rich interactive classroom: Research based strategies for engaging all learners. San Clemente: Canter Press.
Have you ever walked into a classroom and heard a teacher say, "I love how quiet you all are. Keep it up."? Quiet classrooms are dangerous for English language learners and most other students as well. Talk is key to learning. If the goal is to lift the level of language, how can we do that in a quiet classroom?
A lot of research has been done on the amount of talk that takes place in an average classroom. Research has found that ELLs spend less than 2% of their school day improving their academic language! Unfortunately, the one doing the most talking is usually the teacher. And as we know...the one talking is the one learning. When we talk, we process, we negotiate, we internalize. Teachers are doing a lot of the work and students are zoning out.
To shift this workload and learning, students need to do the talking. As teachers, we should give students engaging topics and esssential questions to discuss and turn it over to them. There are many ways to achieve a room full of students who are talking about the work. But I think as teachers, our biggest fear is that they won't talk about the work...they will get off topic or they won't talk at all. A secondary fear is that there is so much curriculum to cover that if we let them talk, it won't get covered. Here are 3 ways to ensure that your classroom talk is effective.
ONE. Be explicit in the talk structure and routine. Teach your students HOW to hold the talk conversation so that it is accountable. Students of all ages need to hear the teacher say that partners need to sit facing one another. They need to know that one person talks while the other(s) listen(s) and nod(s). They will need to see how the partners pass the conversation to one another. For example, when I'm finished talking, how do I let my partner know it's his/her turn? I might say, "What do you think?" In this day in age, kids are intrenched in technology, social media, and this lack of face to face communication leads us to the need for excplict instruction about conversation. Modeling what you expect is important. Model, model, model. Show your students what the conversation will look like and what it should not look like.
TWO. The question or topic you pick is key to the success of the conversation. If your district utilizes unit plans, they will include essential questions and enduring understandings. Those are excellent for selecting what you want your students to discuss. Just be sure that you have already exposed your students to the information. They can't talk about questions that they haven't studied yet. If your district does not use unit plans, you can look at the TEKS or state standards that your lesson is addressing. Take the standard and turn it into a question. Don't change the vocabulary in the question to make it "easier" for them to understand. Instead, teach them the vocabulary using visuals and synonyms if you need to. Once you have a question in mind, post it visually for your students. Otherwise, once you ask kids to discuss with their partner, you'll hear, "What are we supposed to talk about?" and then they will get off topic. Posting the question ensures that two modalities have been addressed: verbal/oral and visual. Those kids that need to hear it, heard it. Those kids that need to see it and read it, can!
THREE. Give them sentence stems or starters to propel their thoughts. ELLs are cognitively capable of answering questions and thinking deeply. They lack the English language. Sentence stems provide a scaffold and support for the structure of the sentence. Remember when you were first learning to ride a bike? Someone ran behind you holding the seat and keeping you balanced. Then when you were ready, they let go. That's what stems are like. Just like when learning to ride a bike, we all need a different amount of support. With beginner and intermediate ELLs, stems will be more basic. They also benefit from a word bank or visual/picture. Advanced and advanced high ELLs still need stems too. Their stems can be longer and push them to explain more.
If you are looking for more to read about talk, here are a few excellent resources: