Are you looking for ways to foster academic conversations in your classroom? Encouraging students to engage in meaningful conversations with their peers is a critical component of the learning process. Helping students develop communication skills that can be applied across all areas of life is an invaluable tool for success in the classroom and beyond. From verbal exchanges to written communication, there are many ways for students to practice conversations that support academic growth. Here are 12 strategies you can incorporate into your lessons to increase student engagement and create a more collaborative learning environment.
1. Low-risk Starter Topics
If you took a peek in Olivia’s old high school yearbooks, you would see the same message handwritten from classmates over and over: “You’re so quiet!”
As a student, Olivia was terrified to say “here” for attendance, let alone contribute to an academic discussion. This is why, as a teacher, she has made it her business to make her students feel comfortable sharing their ideas during class.
Her number-one rule?
Never ask students to speak up about something serious until after they’ve had a chance to speak up about something that has no emotional or moral connections.
Some students need lots of low-risk discussion experience before they’re ready to speak up about an issue that matters to them.
Here are a few examples of low-risk discussion topics:
- Is a hot dog a sandwich?
- What is the worst gift you could give someone for $5.00?
- Which is more efficient: cutting spaghetti or twirling it?
The topics may be ridiculous, but the light-hearted content gives you the perfect opportunity to really crack down on your discussion norms.
Check out this Super Silly Spaghetti Debate to get your kids talking!
2. Structured Turn and Talk
We’ve all been in a training or professional development session where the instructor has told us to “turn and talk” about something. But when we “turn and talk,” how do we decide who talks first? What should we do when our partner talks the whole time and we don’t get a chance to share? Or – even worse – what happens if we don’t have a partner at all?
Fortunately, these scenarios only happen a few times a year for adults. Unfortunately, they happen almost daily for our students.
So how can we better support them when we invite them to converse with one another?
Natayle at Hey Natayle is a big fan of incorporating a little trick she learned at a Kagan Cooperative Learning several years ago.
Anytime you ask your students to talk with one another, specify:
- What they should be discussing,
- Who they will discuss with,
- Who will share first,
- & How long they have to share.
Broken down, it sounds like a lot. But here’s what it looks like in reality:
As group is reading The Monkey’s Paw, the Teacher pauses and asks the students, “What can you tell about Mr. White based on the opening scene of chess?”
After providing think time, the teacher says, “Turn to your elbow partner. Whomever’s name comes first alphabetically will share first. You’ll have 30 seconds to share before switching.” And at the 30 second mark, the teacher nudges students to switch so both pairs have time to share.
Providing structure to peer-to-peer conversations increases accountability and participation while reducing anxiety and the ability to “check out.”
To see some of Natayle’s favorite discussion routines that promote academic conversations, check out her blog post here.
3. Structured Partner Choices
It is very important to help students achieve quality peer-to-peer conversations in your classroom. However, just telling students to find a partner will most likely lead to students selecting the same students all the time and just working with their friends.
Kristy from 2 Peas and a Dog tries to forge good peer-to-peer conversations by providing structured partner choices. Structured partner choices are different ways that teachers can help students find partners or groups without having to make them.
- Cut a deck of cards in half – find an old deck of cards, cut them in half and then make sure you have enough card halves for the number of students in your classes. Then hand out a card half to each student. When it is time they need to find their partner by matching their half with the one that matches.
- Clock Partners – give students a blank clock template and they have to make 12 different appointments with their peers at different times 12, 1, 2, 3 etc. Then when it is time to find a partner you tell them to find their 3 O’Clock partner. Find out more about Clock Partners here.
- Think-Pair-Share – this strategy has students thinking by themselves, then talking with their seat partner, and finally sharing with the whole class or a small group. You can find more details about this strategy here.
Give One, Get One – This strategy ensures that all students are involved and participating in the lesson. Have students divide a blank piece of paper it in half. Have them label one side Give One and one side Get One. Pose an open-ended question to your students. Have them write it at the top of their papers. Something like “Was the author of the article correct when he said…”. Give students time to respond to the question in the Give One section. Once all students have several thoughts down, have students partner with a classmate to share. Each student writes down any new information in the Get One section. Learn more about this topic here.
4. Mini Blogging
Mini blogging is a creative way to encourage peer-to-peer interactions through silent discussions. Simply post a prompt you want students to discuss and allow the students to respond in writing. Students don’t need to get bogged down in the technicalities of formal writing here; instead, they can simply express their thoughts and ideas freely. This method is perfect for introverted students or students who need extra think time before sharing.
To facilitate the discussion piece, students need to share their blogs with the class. This can be done by simply allowing students to rotate around the room reading each other’s blogs. Students engage in conversations by leaving comments or questions in the form of sticky notes for one another – this will help build an engaged learning atmosphere that welcomes all types of learners!
For more ideas on how to facilitate peer-to-peer conversations, listen to episode 8 of Middle School Cafe podcast – click here.
1) Use JamBoards
In class, students come up with their questions using question stems and then create a sticky in a Jamboard where they post them. You can then display the questions to the class so that they see exemplars as they compose their own questions, and so that no question repeats. This creates a good variety and sets the stage for the second step.
2) Students pick a question and respond on a Google Doc
Depending on the class, students choose 1-2 questions and then respond to it in a Google Doc. This is what Yaddy usually grades. You can also emphasize to them your requirements for paragraph writing, like using the claim-evidence-reasoning framework to make sure students are writing strong paragraphs backed by evidence.
3) Students Discuss in a small group
The stakes are so much lower in a small group. In a virtual setting this may look like students responding in a chat box or under comment nests in a Google Classroom stream. In person, this looks like students sitting near each other and talking about a question that interests them. Try not to jump into the conversation too much so that students feel free to speak about what matters to them.
4) Students Discuss in a whole class
Whole class discussions can be where teachers encounter the most hiccups. But Yaddy shows students her Google Sheets where she has their names with check boxes to track how many times they have spoken. In this way, students know they must contribute in order to succeed. And for teachers, if you see they didn’t get to contribute, you can assess their communication privately.
5) Students fill out a 3-2-1 Closure Google Form
Like all good teachers, Yaddy wants to make sure that her students have walked away having learned something or reflected on something. So she has them fill out a simple 3-2-1 closure form through Google. This makes it so teachers are not dealing with a mess of papers (cause yuck, who doesn’t lose papers?) and so that she can easily see who was really engaging and who was posturing.
Yaddy has used this format to help students navigate discussions on mental health in The Hunger Games, and social justice in The Hate U Give. If you want to try out her question stems, you can click here. If you want to read more on how she fosters academic discussions, you can click here.
6. Letter Swap
Facilitating academic discussions can be challenging whether you have a class full of talkers, one with no talkers, or a mix of both. Lesa from SmithTeaches9to12 has had all three experiences in her 15 years of teaching.
One method she’s found that really works for everyone is a hybrid of quiet written discussion in the form of letters to peers followed by out loud discussion.
Here’s how she makes this work in her literature circle novel study units:
- Students read to a deadline and have essential questions or big ideas to explore along with some close reading prompts. Keep it to 2-3 aspects at most so students can dive in rather than just skim the surface.
- At each deadline students write a 2-page letter in response to the provided prompts. The key thing about the letter is it should have wide margins. Think 1.5-2 inches!
- In small groups, students swap letters. They read them and make notes in those wide margins. It uses all the same hallmarks of a discussion: I agree/disagree, Have you thought about…, and so on with point-form support or rationale.
- Once the group completes the round robin of letters, they shift to an out loud discussion. This discussion extends what they’d written using a focused prompt. For example, if they had to write about elements of a character then the discussion might ask them to highlight positive and negative aspects or to discuss the effects of this character on others.
The letter swap provides everyone the chance to participate; this is especially helpful for the quiet(er) students who may shrink from an out loud discussion. In Lesa’s experience, the out loud discussion tends to be more balanced with contributions rather than dominated by the ‘talkers’.
7. Language Bridges
Perhaps now more than ever, it is imperative that students learn how to have effective, productive, meaningful, and authentic conversations. We live in a world where the models students have for debate and discussion are troubling, to say the least. (See any cable news opinion-based program.)
So Krista from @whimsyandrigor creates structured opportunities for students to practice concrete skills necessary to have discussions on a variety of topics.
For the first discussion of the year, Krista poses an opinion-based topic, such as “Technology does more harm than good.” or “Our school should not have grades.” (If you want more of these ideas, be sure to sign up for Krista’s email list!)
Then she sits back and watches the chaos unfold. As they talk, she observes and takes notes on what she is seeing and hearing.
After about 5-8 minutes, she stops the discussion and asks students to reflect on the experience. Most, if not all, acknowledge that it didn’t feel productive and many express frustration. That’s exactly what Krista wants them to feel!
In the next class, Krista shows the class a chart that lists what specific skills they need to work on, what specific skills they are rocking, and offers specific suggestions for what to try next time. Here is an example of what she created after her 7th graders’ first discussion:
One of the most important goals she highlights is using Language Bridges. This is a list of phrases they can use to build off of what others say. (Can you say more about…? I heard you say… I disagree with… because… I would like to add…) They sound (and feel!) so grown up using this type of language and it forces them to truly listen to each other and respond thoughtfully. If you want a free copy of these language bridges, just click here!
Krista and her students notice, because of the concrete examples and goals, the significant progress the class makes throughout the year. The discussions are robust, meaningful, and productive.
Now, if only those cable news hosts could join Krista’s class for this lesson…
Although her high schoolers might still groan and complain when she mentions Seminar, Simply Ana P deeply believes in the power of these class discussions to encourage peer-to-peer academic conversations, which in turn foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills.
One key advantage of Socratic seminars (or Paideia, or others) is that they promote active learning. Students become active participants in their own learning and have the opportunity to engage in dialogue with their peers, listen to different perspectives, and challenge each other’s ideas. By doing so, they learn to articulate their thoughts more clearly and develop a deeper understanding on various topics.
In addition to always reviewing overall seminar expectations, Ana suggests having students set their own seminar goals prior to the beginning of the discussion, such as speaking three times or validating classmates’ comments. By setting individual goals, students are able to take ownership of their learning and develop their own learning strategies that they can then reflect on and grow in in future seminars.
For an example of goal options Ana displays for her students, click here. And for an example of how she incorporates this and other elements into an active before, during, and after reflection, click here.
The more seminars you host, the more comfortable and confident the students will become in all of these skills.
P.S. Don’t be afraid of a little awkward silence! Let students sit in it and then move past it themselves – allowing this truly gives them the reins on these conversations.
9. Speed Debating
When it comes to academic conversations, Samantha from Samantha in Secondary knows that structure is key.
Students aren’t naturally inclined to have academic conversations. It takes years of practice to nail down the norms. One way Samantha loves to practice is with Speed Debating.
Speed Debating is simple. Pair students up and give them an argumentative prompt. This can be something simple and silly like, “Which is better, cats or dogs?” You can also up the ante by asking more complex questions such as, “Should cellphones be allowed in schools?” To see my argumentative prompts that you can simply click through during this exercise, click here.
Provide explicit instructions for the activity by giving the following guidelines:
- Who goes first? (Negative or affirmative)
- How many rebuttals are permitted?
- How long does each person have to share their argument?
Once the parameters are set, start debating! Students love this exercise and it gets them talking in a structured, academic way.
10. Rhetoric Through Disney
Rhetoric can be one of the most challenging concepts to teach and for students to discuss with each other, but it’s one that packs a powerful instructional punch as the layers of skill and complexity can be vertically articulated from the first exposure all the way up to the AP level. Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching is a long time teacher of rhetoric at all levels, and if you’re just beginning, she recommends taking a familiar, Disney approach to get things started.
Not only is Disney familiar territory to most students, but there are a huge number of songs that are actually arguments. Songs provide a way to teach both the rhetorical triangle itself as well as the rhetorical situation. Think about “Under the Sea”: it’s Sebastian’s (unsuccessful) plea for Ariel to rethink her satisfaction with life under ‘de water. Even “Let it Go” is Elsa’s attempt at convincing herself that she’s better off living in an ice castle rather than in town with the regular folks. Amanda’s favorite Disney song / argument to teach new rhetoricians is “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast. Using Lumiere as the speaker, students work in small groups to unpack the layers of the rhetorical situation together in groups without the intimidation of a speech in an unfamiliar context.
For a walk through of Amanda’s lesson and a copy of her materials, check out her blog post here!
11. Music Lyrics
When it comes to academic discussion and getting students talking, Katie from Mochas and Markbooks knows that music can bring people together in a way unlike any other medium.
Music lyrics and videos are a rich source of social commentary and a reflection of their time period as well. It can be much easier to share ideas and opinions on topics, even divisive ones, in the context of song analysis. Students generally feel more comfortable speaking up when discussion surrounds media and pop culture that they are familiar with. Music also creates a more relaxed vibe for students to converse. To enhance a more casual feeling that will encourage conversation, you can lower the lights and use lamps in your classroom, or even a light projector on the ceiling.
If you are looking for a way to incorporate music in a way that will promote peer to peer discussion, you can check out Katie’s song analysis resources here and read this post to further explore how to use music to facilitate social justice discussions in particular.
12. Quantitative and Qualitative Feedback Strategy
If you host discussions often, you might run into some issues. For example, some students don’t participate, while others dominate. Some students come prepared, while others effectively “wing it.” Even with effective classroom discussion strategies, discussions digress into arguments.
This is what sent Daina from Mondays Made Easy to search for a discussion strategy to better moderate the flow of conversation and improve the quality of responses – thankfully, the perfect discussion strategy does exist!
The quantitative and qualitative feedback strategy sets clear expectations for students with something called a “comment key.” A comment key specifies desired and undesired responses in a group discussion.
To get started with this strategy, you can brainstorm the types of comments that students generally make in discussions (or use this ready-to-print comment key).
Then, assign each comment in the key a shortcode and write it down next to the comment. For example, an opinion can be short-coded as “O,” an opinion with evidence can be short-coded as “OE,” and an original theory could be short-coded as “OT,” etc. This is important information that you will use to provide feedback during and after a classroom discussion.
Finally, create a spreadsheet with two columns: one for the students’ names and another to keep track of their comments during the discussion using shortcodes. After the discussion, evaluate the data in these columns.
You can display this spreadsheet on an overhead projector and annotate it while observing the student discussion. This will give the students an opportunity to witness the grading process firsthand and evaluate their own participation. It will also help them comprehend how they are contributing to the conversation.
Check out this video demonstration to see this discussion strategy in action! You can also read more about this strategy here.