Developing Deeper Discourse

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Developing Deeper Discourse

Co-authored by: Michelle Leip and Kathleen Kryza

In our last issue, we shared ideas and strategies for promoting civil discourse practices in the classroom. In this issue, we are offering even more support to help you create meaningful dialogue among students. We have included a guide for designing and developing discourse into your lessons, a series of visual thinking activities, sentence starters with differentiated prompts, and finally a “cheat sheet” for making it easier to build student discourse into your lessons. 

When planning lessons that include discourse, you should consider the following:

   What is the Purpose for the Talk?  

Why do you want students to talk anyway? What do you hope they get out of the conversation? When creating the objectives for your lesson, think about which level of Bloom’s taxonomy you want the students to be able to access.  Some lessons will be at the bottom tiers of the taxonomy (knowledge, comprehension), but the deep learning happens at the higher end of the spectrum (analysis, synthesis, application, evaluation). (See Bloom's Question Starters in the Try It Out section to the right.)  We need to intentionally create opportunities for higher level learning while simultaneously providing the supports necessary for students to get there. Crafting our objective will help us know which strategies to use to help students access the content through more advanced discourse.   It’s important for you to begin with the “Why.”

   What talk protocol and/or prompts do you want to use? 

There are many excellent talk protocols available that can be adapted and applied to the purpose of the talk you’re planning. Here is a list of some options with descriptions; so you can choose an appropriate one for your specific lesson. You’ll also find a couple of links in the sidebar that have talk protocols and strategies. In Chapter 3 of Kathleen Kryza’s book, “Transformative Teaching”, you will find even more guidance on how to create successful talk in your classrooms. (Click here to purchase your own copy.) 

One of the simplest and most versatile protocols is the trusty “Think - Pair- Share.”  In this protocol, the teacher poses a question, students have time to think, then they discuss their ideas with a partner, and finally they share with the whole class. Although the structure is simple, it is most successfully implemented when students are shown routines and procedures for using this protocol effectively. Elementary students can be taught to sit “Knee to Knee & Eye to Eye” when talking in pairs. Older students will need explicit instructions as well. Some teachers use the 4Ls - look at your partner, lean towards your partner, listen, and lower your voice. Modeling and providing feedback are a vital part of incorporating talk protocols. 

   What type grouping of will you use?

Grouping your students should be intentional rather than random. You can choose to group students by readiness levels, interest groups, learning styles, or other factors can be considered - such as behavior. Switching up the types of groups keeps students engaged and interested. Students can work in pairs, triads, groups of four or more. Different tasks lend themselves to different sized groupings. Be sure to choose the right type of grouping for the task at hand. 
   What routines and procedures do you need to have in place?

Having a classroom of students all talking at the same time can seem overwhelming to many teachers. However, if effective routines and procedures are in place, this seemingly daunting situation can run very smoothly.

Through explicit instruction of routines and procedures, students should know how to do the following:

  Move into and out of the groups.
   Know what to do they do when they get there.
   Know the appropriate noise level for talk groups . Teach them to use their three inch voices or have a chart with Talk Levels. See elementary and secondary examples in the Try It Out section to the right.
  How to take turns talking and how to really listen to others when they talk. At the beginning of the year, it is helpful to implement a talking tool to remind students that only one person (the one holding the tool) can talk at a time. You can use a talking stick, or even a marker, as a talking tool. See link to elementary talk and listen sticks in the Try It Out section to the right. We can also ask students to paraphrase what their partner said to hold them accountable for really listening.
  Assess their group’s effectiveness in using routines and procedures. (An exit card or simple rubric of group behaviors can be used for this.)

Using anchor charts on the wall is a great way to remind students of the expectations for the essential routines and procedures. Students need to practice, practice, practice the routines for partner and group work so that no energy is wasted in messy transitions or misbehavior.

  How should the classroom be arranged? 

Every aspect of our physical classroom and every instructional choice contributes to the success of meaningful student talk. Desks should be arranged in a way that supports the goal of student talk. If students are working in pairs, the desks should be arranged in sets of two. If working in small groups, there should be clusters of desks together. In some classrooms, where a lot of student talk happens,  the desks are arranged in sets of two as a default. These teachers then teach their students to get in groups of four or “pod themselves” when they need to work in a small group. Students in these classrooms have practiced routines and procedures to move efficiently into small groups so that time isn’t wasted during this transition.   

   How will you have students self reflect on their talk skills?  

It’s important for teachers to give students feedback on their group and partner work talking skills. Providing students with rubrics and letting them know how they can be successful is a great first step. Before they are assessed with the rubric, provide opportunities for them to watch videos of other students talking and evaluate their performance.  You can find videos online or you can record students and have them watch and assess each other. This experience will help students truly understand what it means to have a successful academic discussion and to hold themselves up to that expectation. 

Choose one of the following videos to watch with your colleagues. Discuss your observations, using any of the talk prompts that you found on the link provided. Comment on what resonated with you, what questions you have, and what will be the first thing you will try.

Math Discourse

Text Analysis Video 

Socratic Questioning Techniques

Further reading: 

  • Michaels, S., O’Connor, C., Williams Hall, M., & Resnick, L. (2010). Accountable Talk Sourcebook: For Classroom Conversations that Work. Retrieved from
  • Richardson, Anne. (2010). Exploring Text through Student Discussions: Accountable Talk in the Middle School Classroom. The English Journal 100(1), 83-88. Retrieved from

Some Activities/Resources to help bring the info to your classroom.

Some meaningful, related web content.

















  • Kryza, K., Brittingham, M., & Duncan, A. (n.d.). Transformative Teaching: Changing today's classrooms culturally, academically, & emotionally.