Strategies to get our youngest learners thinking—and talking about texts!
We’ve all had those moments in a classroom when you, as the teacher, have planned a great discussion about a particular topic or text. You’ve set aside a good chunk of time in your timetable for it, but it falls flat on its face.
You hear the distinct sounds of crickets in the room, and it becomes like pulling teeth to get more than a one-word response out of students, let alone getting students to build on one another’s ideas.
The classroom conversations from early in my career were dominated by one or two confident, quick-processing Hermione-type kids who nearly fell out of their chairs wanting to answer a question. I distinctly remember feeling like I was playing a game of whack-a-mole; there was no natural flow, and it did not reflect any authentic conversation I had ever taken part in. I would call on a student whose hand was raised, listen to their statement, pass a comment (judgment), and then move on to the next raised hand. It was hit or miss if they had paid any heed to the previous statement made by their classmate.
Not long after this, one of my colleagues and mentors made a passing comment: ”When hands are up, ears are closed.”
She was right.
Hands Down, Brains On! Prompting Strong K-5 Discussions
I thought about those times when I was a student sitting in my class, my hand stretched up as high as it could go making the “ooh! ooh!” sound reminiscent of Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back, Kotter (I know I’ve aged myself here, but I swear I only caught the reruns). At this point, I wasn’t listening to anything else around me; I was trying to hold on to the answer in my head and get the teacher's attention because “I knew the answer.” There was no discussion taking place at all. My ideas were certainly not growing from considering the voiced thoughts of others. These were the types of conversations I was replicating in my classrooms, but they were not the ones I wanted students to have.
I wanted to know how to move my students past providing teachers with “right answers” to listening to their classmates and responding to them, so I went to observe my colleague and mentor to see what sorcery she used to get her first-grade kids involved in authentic conversations, particularly those around the text.
It wasn’t sorcery I observed, but well-timed and well-considered open-ended prompts.
I noticed that after offering her prompts, my colleague said nothing! She waited, allowing processing time, and then had students Turn & Talk to a partner. By doing this, she made space for her students to think about their ideas and practice what they sounded like out loud—to someone else. Then, as she brought the group back together, she revisited the talk goal she had set for the group that day and offered some frames to help them practice this talk goal.
Instead of responding every time a student contributed, she paused, nodded her head to indicate she was listening, and looked at the other students. Without fail, a different student would jump into the conversation. At the end of the discussion, my colleague pointed out to the students how they had used that talk goal and how it helped them to grow the group's thinking about the text they had been reading.
What the Research Says About Building Better K-5 Discussions
The ability to think, articulate, and discuss ideas and disciplinary content is critical to students’ success, and it is just as relevant in a K-5 literacy classroom as in an undergraduate course.
Developing the academic language and discourse required to make connections, develop opinions, and build a shared understanding of ideas can be transferred to all areas of learning. In a literacy classroom, if we want students to be able to respond to texts in writing in an articulate manner that develops and discusses ideas, then they first need to develop and discuss these ideas with others.
The belief around the power of discourse and discussion in a classroom is not new. Literacy experts have been arguing for purposeful talk in classrooms for decades.
Vygotsky (1978) contends that, by giving students practice talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.
Wolf, Crosson, & Resnick (2004) agree that good accountable talk moves have a positive and strong relationship with the level of rigor in lessons.
Maria Nichols, in her 2019 book Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Teaching Purposeful Talk, states that purposeful talk around text helps to construct ideas that are bigger, bolder, and more inclusive than students could possibly construct individually.
Nichols adds that the kind of talk successful collaborators in the ‘real world’ engage in is purposeful, and “that purpose is to tackle the unknown—to strategize, to innovate, to problem-solve, to construct understanding.”
These are precisely the kind of skills we want our students to engage in.
Why isn’t discourse and discussion the norm in all K-5 literacy classrooms? For starters, building discourse around text in a K-5 literacy classroom through a focus on purposeful or accountable talk is vastly different from more traditional question-and-answer or listen-and-retell exchanges.
Moving From the IRE Model to Collaborative Discussions in K-5 Classrooms
The traditional and very prevalent Initiate-Response-Evaluation (I.R.E.) technique, where the teacher initiates a question or prompt, a student responds, and the teacher evaluates the response before moving on to the next child, promotes a Discourse of Acquisition (Crouch & Cambourne, 2020) where students must guess what the teacher was thinking and respond ‘’correctly.’’ I.R.E. does not encourage metacognition or collaboration in students, and more often than not, I.R.E. does not ask the student to provide rationale or evidence for their thinking.
Courtney Cazden (2001) asserts that the teacher-led questions asked in the traditional I.R.E. structure limit the joint construction of meaning teachers and students can achieve through genuine dialogue and therefore limits how deeply students are thinking about texts.
When students build awareness of their own thinking and learning as they talk with others about texts, they become aware of the depth of meaning they have constructed and learn how collaborating with others helped them grow their knowledge to something greater than they would’ve on their own. This helps them shift from a Discourse of Acquisition to a Discourse of Meaning Making (Crouch & Cambourne, 2020).
The essence of reading is what results when we construct meaning from a text. Engaging with students in the collaborative process to co-construct meaning from text through dialogue can be more effective at improving students' comprehension of a text (Kucan & Palincsar, 2013).
As a teacher, my goal became to help students read, think, and talk about texts so they could make sense of what they were reading and see how it provided mirrors and windows into our lives, the lives of others, and the world around us.
In an elementary literacy classroom, these kinds of collaborative conversations may sound like lively exchanges where kindergarteners compare and contrast how different baby animals sleep because they’ve just read a book about baby animals. They can sound like first graders discussing how to be a good friend after reading a story about friendship. And for third graders, a productive conversation may be ranking the best reasons for spending less time in front of devices after reading a text called “How Much Screen Time?”
Strategically engaging students in comprehending through talk requires dynamic, flexible instruction that helps them view comprehension as an active and purposeful process, and it doesn’t happen overnight. In collaborative discussions, students are active participants who agree and disagree, connect ideas, clarify, and ask questions. They don't just respond to the teacher; instead, they're looking to one another for responses, and they are participating in an actual discussion. We should see students being responsible for thinking deeply about the text, not just regurgitating answers. How often have we heard that the one doing the talking is the one doing the learning?
Talk Moves to Engage K-5 Students in Collaborative Discussions
The teacher plays a crucial role in facilitating student discussions in their classrooms. As a teacher who is creating space and structure for these collaborative conversations, it’s my job to help kids shine and grow their thinking together. It is my job to offer the right amount of support when needed by modeling and scaffolding responses and by modeling “talk moves” that are necessary for participating in the group, moves such as adding on to a comment or disagreeing.
Most importantly, it is my job to model how to think deeply about the text using examples and textual evidence. Eventually, my job is to step back and allow my students space to try these moves out for themselves and to let them shine as they become responsible for conversing collaboratively.
Let me leave you with a few “talk moves” I have stashed in my tool belt. The chart below lists the “talk moves” that I started with all those years ago after visiting my colleague’s classroom. This chart is also available to download—just click on it to get the PDF.
Purposeful Talk in K-5 Classrooms Builds Strong Learning Communities
It took time for these moves to feel like they were second nature, especially providing students with thinking time. Those moments of silence were excruciating when I started out! However, through consistent use and through giving myself and my students the gift of time, the prompts seemed to roll off my tongue a little easier.
As time progressed, I noticed that through my modeling, students were starting to use some of the talk move prompts and strategies before I even needed to. Gradually, our discussions around texts shifted to being more collaborative— with many contributors, not just the Hermoines or Arnolds of the class.
I encourage you to try these talk moves out. Start with one and give yourself space and grace to approximate. After all, practice makes progress for both you and your students. Engaging students in these collaborative discussions around text will permeate throughout all learning, in any content area, creating a positive and inclusive classroom environment where students feel empowered to participate and contribute to the learning process.
This article was adapted from my 2022 collaborative session, “Building Discourse in a K-5 Classroom,” at Literacy For All: The National Institute, Carnegie Learning’s annual professional learning event for literacy educators. I hope you’re as excited as I am about the 2023 Institute, scheduled for July 17th-20th in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Burkins, J. & Yaris, K. (2016). Who's Doing the Work? How to Say Less So Readers Can Do More. Stenhouse Publishers.
Cazden, C. (2001). Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning. Pearson Education Canada.
Crouch, D. & Cambourne, B. (2020). Made for Learning: How the Conditions of Learning Guide Teaching Decisions. Richard C. Owen Publishers, Inc.
Kucan, L. & Palincsar, A. S. (2013). Comprehension Instruction Through Text-based Discussion. International Reading Association.
Nichols, M. (2019). Building Bigger Ideas: A Process for Teaching Purposeful Talk. Heinemann.
Hailing from Victoria, Australia, Sonya’s twenty-year career in elementary education has seen her move from classroom teacher to Literacy Coach to Assistant Principal to a valued literacy consultant. A passionate educator and lifelong learner, Sonya thrives on coaching and modeling effective practices to help teachers deepen and fine-tune their instructional literacy practices based on 21st-century standards. Sonya is central to the coordination and delivery of precise, customized, high-impact literacy professional learning and leads an expert team with a wide range of knowledge about effective literacy instruction and school transformation.Explore more related to this author
Engaging students in collaborative discussions will permeate throughout all learning, in any content area, creating a positive and inclusive classroom environment where students feel empowered to participate and contribute to the learning process.
Sonya Fleming, Manager of Professional Learning Design, Literacy