Eyes Open Moment: Listening in on Academic Talk  

Join me in a classroom where small groups of students have just begun discussing Ralph Fletcher’s memoir, Marshfield Dreams. Students have recently read a chapter about Ralph’s brother, Jimmy, who is a young naturalist. Jimmy thrives by immersing himself in the outdoors and is having difficulty transitioning to the traditional school environment. 

***

Student 1: When Jimmy starts school he is already bored of school. It’s different and he is just bored. He’d rather be in the woods.

Student 2: It’s like he is moving to a new house he’s not ready for. There is not anything that interests him there. 

Student 3: Do you think it will always be bad for Jimmy. Can’t he get used to school? 

Student 4: He doesn’t like school. His grades are low and he is not paying attention or trying to learn because he doesn’t like it. Still, he has to go. 

Student 5: Why doesn’t he like it? Can’t he like both things? School and outdoors? 

Student 4 (again): He can’t explore. So he doesn’t like it. He doesn’t have the patience to try to like it. He just has to do it. 

Student 1 (again) : He’s not doing what he likes. He knows a lot about science and the woods and it’s not as much fun when you are in a room and they just tell you stuff. That’s how he feels about Kindergarten.  But, he has to go. 

*** 

If these were your students, speaking independently, what would you have to say about their discourse? 

There are two kinds of classroom talk that are necessary in the classroom – social and academic. We know what social talk looks like - it’s the talk that builds friendship and connection through structured ways in the classroom, and in the chatter we hear during downtimes. This kind of talk must come first. It’s part of building your community. (You can read more about the social talk which builds connection in this post.)

Once we have confidence and comfort in our community, we are able to take a risk by sharing our thinking - publicly - through academic talk. This is talk that supports comprehension of any academic subject: a discussion about a topic in social studies; talk in response to a read aloud; a conversation about a mathematical concept. To work on academic talk, the talkers and listeners - in this case the students -  need to feel that the risk is worth the endeavor. They need to feel comfortable enough to ask their real authentic questions and use their talk to grow their personal ideas - their authentic thoughts about the content they are learning. 

It helps for teachers to attune to what it sounds like when students use their talk to develop understanding. This takes open listening, not for the content on its own, but for the kinds of talk that help both the speaker and listener understand the content more deeply. 

The first step is to record some actual discourse. This can be easily accomplished by jotting a quick transcript while listening to a small group or partner talk, like in the example above. (This will also prevent the teacher from interrupting!)

In my research on classroom talk, I’ve found that academic talk falls within two broad categories. Students use talk to clarify ideas and to explore ideas.  

Talk to clarify ideas. This kind of talk is used by the speaker to ensure understanding. They might ask a question. They might restate an idea they have heard. They might return to something that was shared earlier in the discussion. This talk is productive because it helps the speaker attend to the clarity of their own thinking

It helps the listeners to either hear an idea they have in someone else’s words or to clarify something they also had a question about. 

Talk to explore ideas. This kind of talk helps the speaker to process an idea. Oftentimes this is an articulation of a thought a student has had while listening. In academic conversation this might show up as taking on a new perspective, connecting two ideas that are already shared, relating a connection to a personal experience, or challenging something that has been said already. 

It helps the listeners by giving them something to compare to their own ideas. An outside idea might help strengthen or change their own idea. 

Now, return to the transcript above. Or, better yet, listen to the talk in your own classroom. 

Which students clarify and which explain?