Does Classroom Dialogue Make A Difference For Student Learning?

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classroom dialougueOften attributed to the philosopher and teacher Socrates, classroom dialogue, whether teacher to student or student to student, has been considered essential pedagogy for centuries. Even as we move boldly into the 21st century and focus on communication as an essential skill, we continue to acknowledge the importance of dialogue in the classroom. Does it really make a difference in student learning?

University of Cambridge researchers Christine Howe, Sara Hennessy, Neil Mercer, Maria Vrikki, and Lisa Wheatley conducted a study to find out the answer. To determine an answer, the team filmed 72 classrooms of 10 to 11 year-old students in a variety of urban and rural settings. The total number of students observed was 1700. Classroom dialogue was analyzed and standardized achievement data from the 1700 students was analyzed. The major findings indicated three aspects of dialogue that strongly predicted performance on the standardized tests administered:

  1. Elaboration – Students who were encouraged to elaborate and build upon prior knowledge or others’ ideas fared better on the standardized exams.
  2. Questioning – Students who were encouraged to question and reason fared better on the standardized exams.
  3. Student participation – Classrooms where student participation was high produced students who fared better on the standardized exams.

To learn more about the study, visit As you prepare for your classroom next week, find ways to encourage elaboration, encourage questioning, and encourage student participation. You and your students will benefit greatly!

Let My Students Think

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child thinkingThink time is an important part of the communication process that is often overlooked in planning. Those periods of silence in the flow of a lesson can be awkward for students and teachers alike, but those moments of thought can yield tremendous insights from students.

What should a teacher do during the silence of a student in thought? In her article All the Time They Need, author Ellin Oliver Keene writes about using think time with students who are learning English as a second language. The following suggestions for those quiet pauses for reflection can be used with all students (Keene, E. O. (2014). All the Time They Need, Educational Leadership, 72(3), 66-71):

  1. Restate a question or comment the student previously made
  2. Tell other students you respect the thought time
  3. Offer the student an opportunity to review something related to the question
  4. Ask all students to quietly reread the text in question
  5. Use silent signals (i.e. lowering your hand, thinking pose) to encourage other students to lower their hands and wait
  6. Ask students to write down comments or questions to be included later in the dialogue

Giving individual students time to think in the communication process can help other students develop their thoughts as well. Over time, silent thought will become the norm and students will begin to use it independently. As you prepare for next week, plan for a little quiet space in student communication opportunities. You and your students will benefit greatly!

How Did You Get That?

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student math discourseClassroom dialogue can be a powerful tool for student learning in all grade levels and content concentrations, particularly when student ideas are central focus. Teachers need to create safe spaces for such dialogue by providing structure and goals for student talk.

In the article Talking About Math, authors Allison Hintz and Elham Kazemi share the following strategies for guiding student discussions in the classroom (Hintz, A. & Hazemi, E. (2014). Talking About Math, Educational Leadership, 72(3), 36-40):

  1. Open Sharing. Open sharing strategy generates many possibilities for solutions. Students are asked to listen carefully, make sense of a variety of strategies, analyze the ideas of others, and determine if their own solution is similar or different to others. A key question within this strategy is, “Did anyone reach a solution a different way?”
  2. Targeted Sharing. Targeted sharing strategy guides students toward a single solution through the use of specific goals, defining and using key terms, or challenging and revising an incorrect solution. Students listen carefully and contribute in ways that lead to a consensus regarding a solution.

Open sharing and targeted sharing can be employed in a variety of content settings with careful planning. Think about these strategies as you prepare for the upcoming week. Try them a few times and see what comes from the discussions that arise.

Creating A Communicative Climate

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students communicating

Students frequently engage in energetic chatter within the classroom; however, that chatter is often idle. A wise teacher will channel student energy and dialogue in meaningful ways. Authors Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey suggest the following to create a classroom that is “driven by discussion, rather than distraction” (Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2014). Speaking Volumes. Educational Leadership, 72(3), 18-23):

  1. Offer meaningful and complex tasks. Students need clarity regarding the task itself and why it is important as it relates to overall learning goals. If students understand these matters, they are more likely to remain on task.
  2. Model behavioral clues. Nonverbal communication is a valuable part of the communication process. Gestures, body position, eye contact, and nodding invite and foster communication.
  3. Encourage argumentation, not arguing. Teach students to provide evidence to support and justify their claims. Teach students to question in ways that offer disagreement without being disagreeable. Hold all students accountable for what they bring into the discussion.
  4. Provide language support. Students often have ideas and struggle to express them. Providing sentence frames, word walls, audio devices, and/or peer support can help.
  5. Listen, question, prompt, and cue. Thoughtful monitoring provides students with feedback and opportunities for future growth.

Carefully consider these elements as you plan for student dialogue in your classroom. You and your students will be glad you did!

Six Step Communication Process for Moments of Crisis

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communicationStudents who have experienced trauma need a safe and caring adult to help intervene when they respond to some emotional trigger in the classroom. In their book Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, authors Kristin Souers and Pete Hall detail six communication steps that are helpful when addressing student in crisis (pp. 79-82):

  1. Listen.  While it may be difficult to not immediately interject in a heated moment, it is best to listen carefully to what a student in crises is telling you. Often the student is conveying an important message about what triggered the response, whether it is exhaustion, prior bad experiences, a belief system, preconceived notions, or fear.
  2. Reassure.  A student in crisis needs to know that his/her perspective is important.
  3. Validate.  A validation is an acknowledgement that you hear the student. A validation is not an acceptance or approval of the student behavior.
  4. Respond.  Respond by explaining your observation of the incident. A response is not a time to defend your position, but it is a time to share your perception of the situation.
  5. Repair.  A repair could be simply expressing that you are sorry the student is having the experience at this time. If you believe you somehow caused a trigger response, a heartfelt apology may be in order.
  6. Resolve.  A resolution is an opportunity to work with the student to develop a new way of behaving in the classroom so another trigger response is not exhibited. This may require behavioral changes on the part of the student, the teacher, or both.

As you plan for your week ahead, think about how you can partner with students to create a safe, caring environment that will allow for positive and productive classroom outcomes. You and your students will benefit greatly!

Bring the SPIDER WEB Into Your Classroom

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spider webCommunication and collaboration are essential skills for the success of our students. As such, students need opportunities to practice and develop these skills in the safe spaces of our classrooms. In her book The Best Class You Never Taught: How SPIDER WEB Discussion Can Turn Students Into Learning Leaders, Alexis Wiggins introduces the SPIDER WEB classroom philosophy. According to Wiggins (p.9), SPIDER WEB discussion is:

  1. Synergetic – Team oriented – The whole class is engaged.
  2. Practiced – Ongoing process.
  3. Independent – Students lead the discussion.
  4. Developed – Discussion builds on itself.
  5. Exploratory – It is focused.
  6. Rubric-assessed – Students have clear and concise guidelines.

The WEB is a student- or teacher-generate visual representation of the dialogue.

As you prepare for your classes next week, think of ways that you can begin to implement some of the SPIDER elements. Your students will learn much in the process!