Using Instructional Conversation

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Oct 30, 2010

Pedagogy Standard V

Teaching Through Conversation

Engage students in dialogue, especially instructional conversation (IC).

Classroom Application Indicators

The teacher

  1. Performs IC routinely within an instructional frame.
  2. Guides students to full participation in IC.
  3. Achieves academic outcomes in IC.


The premier form of teaching assistance is dialogue. In dialogue, ideas are formed, expressed, and exchanged, through both speech and writing. Dialogue often rises to abstract levels. Even common topics are discussed in thoughtful ways in dialogue. The fifth pedagogy standard emphasizes teaching with dialogue using IC.

Teaching through dialogue is as old as and probably older than Socrates, the ancient Greek who introduced it. A form of dialogue, IC is relatively new to modern classroom teaching. Very few students are granted the privilege of sustained conversation on academic topics with their teachers on a regular basis. The major benefit of the five pedagogy standards is that they address this persistent inequity by guiding teachers to design instruction to support the regular use of IC with every student.

IC inserts dialogue, a unique and essential form of teaching assistance, into the five-pedagogy-standards system. The routine use of IC guarantees that regular, privileged, and sustained interaction time with a teacher occurs for all students. The chapter's opening excerpt presents a slice of an IC led by a teacher working with English language learners (ELLs). The students experience instruction through dialogue by participating in it. Their comments demonstrate their need for IC's language models, language production opportunities, and conceptual learning assistance. Regularly scheduled IC within an instructional frame ensures that all students, regardless of ability or background, participate in the premier teaching strategy just as the ELL students do in the excerpt quoted.


IC has been demonstrated to be an effective intervention for improving reading comprehension for all students, but particularly ELLs. Scientifically based findings indicate that its use in combination with other approaches, such as literature logs, has a positive effect on ELLs' comprehension (U.S Department of Education, 2006; Saunders, 1999; Saunders and Goldenbert, 1999a, 1999b). In IC, teachers' dialogue with students is characterized by responsive assistance. In other words, the teacher guides students to acquire new information on the basis of what they already know. In dialogue about prior knowledge, teachers identify a hook in students' knowledge to which they can connect new information. If students' knowledge is absent or limited, the teacher provides a joint productive activity (JPA) for building common knowledge. For example, students may write a story together or participate in another activity that shows what they know and builds their understanding about a topic. IC is responsive assistance when dialogue is contextualized in students' experience and when it challenges students' thinking to reach new levels. At the same time, dialogue develops students' language and literacy and deepens content understanding. After participating in IC, students apply their new knowledge and ideas in a follow-up activity.

At its most powerful, IC appears as animated conversation on academic topics among students and teacher. In fact, IC has unique features. It is at once assessment and assistance. Students' participation reveals their language and thinking proficiencies, which teachers can assist in improving. Assessment in IC is a basis for teachers to assist students specifically and provide corrective feedback. It is at once conversation and instruction. Conversation includes everyone in the group and accepts their preferred speech forms, which may differ from the language of instruction. Instruction brings meaning making and coherence to teaching and learning goals. IC is at once pedagogy and teaching because it is a process of and approach to teaching that conveys any content. ICs are opportunities for teachers to help students examine their own knowledge and experience, and make connections to new knowledge.

IC is the culmination of the five pedagogy standards. As an integration of pedagogy and teaching, IC is supported by the standards. The first standard lays the classroom foundations for teaching with IC, and the succeeding standards build on that foundation. The fifth standard rests on the implementation of the first four.

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