Using Instructional Conversation (page 2)

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

Inidcator 1: The Teacher Performs IC Routinely Within an Instrucational Frame

IC occurs in small groups of preferably no fewer than three and no more than seven students. The teacher engages the students in conversation about text, related personal experiences, knowledge of themes, and key concepts in order to accomplish lesson goals. The conversation builds on students' participation and succeeds on the basis of their production of language and understanding that meet the teaching goal of the particular IC lesson. The teacher's IC goal may be modified as a conversation develops, depending on what students say. This unique feature of IC emphasizes its responsive format and its student-centered process. On the basis of students' responses, the teacher may decide to reset the goal of a lesson at a lower or higher level that students can easily achieve, or the teacher may strive for a more complex level of understanding that students are ready to grasp.

IC is a JPA of teacher and students. IC products are often the charted progress of the IC. Teachers may diagram the course of an IC using a structured overview or other semantic diagram, such as a web, sequence, logic tracker, or list. In the upper grades, teachers may have students plot the course of an IC as it develops. In content areas, problem solving or other applications of the concepts have been products. The following diagram lists the main features of K–8 IC, including its product—new knowledge. As might be expected, half of the features are those of conversation and the other half are those of instruction. The six separate features integrate into IC.


The diagram shows that the IC features for instruction and conversation work together at each level by combining the advantages of direct teaching with those of academic dialogue or conversation to benefit knowledge expansion and development. The first level, which establishes a clear goal and includes everyone, is the most divergent. The IC goal of instruction and the inclusiveness of conversation together produce interaction that neither a goal-oriented nor unstructured (free-for-all) conversation alone can produce. At the second level, the teacher assesses students' prior knowledge. The teacher's response encourages participation and identifies connections between what students know and the unknown. Through assistance, at the third level, the teacher ensures that students make the connection to new knowledge. The teacher also balances the students' participation. Importantly, the teacher's participation is less than the students' participation levels. In IC, students converse at rates equal to or greater than the teacher's rate. Together the features of instruction and conversation develop the conversation to accomplish the lesson goal.

For teachers to assess during IC, they must encourage students to produce language while respecting students' reticence. Teachers encourage students to speak by asking interesting or easy questions that tap feelings as well as knowledge. Even when a teacher nudges a reticent student into conversation, the student may not fully participate. It may take time for a student to learn conversation conventions and language for academic conversation, especially if the student is linguistically or culturally different from the class average. Because learning in IC relies on student participation, students' speaking preferences and conventions are respected. A silent student is not an ignored student but rather spurs the teacher to understand more about students' participation patterns and preferences. Teachers use responsive questioning and comments to increase assessment and to provide assistance. An IC goal is to balance participation across all students.

As a JPA (discussed in Chapter 1), IC is not strictly prescribed or pre-scripted but reflects a plan with a clear academic goal. IC is thoughtful and accountable conversation about content topics. Planning usually anticipates students' contributions of prior and personal knowledge. Teachers prepare questions that they will use to introduce material, to transition from experience to text, and to ensure understanding. The questions might also anticipate surprise contributions and teacher responses. The IC product is the documentation of teacher and students working together.

A teacher begins IC by simply asking students to talk about a selected activity; text; or experience from their point of view, that is, on the basis of their knowledge from home, community, or school. The teacher encourages every student to talk and share experiences that relate to a text and to the concepts the teacher plans to develop in the IC. Students' preferred language forms and styles are accepted, and teacher responds and models appropriate language forms. Students can exercise new vocabulary and concepts, and the teacher assesses their increasing grasp of these. Students share their knowledge and relate it to new information they must acquire. IC reveals gaps in understanding that teachers can assist students to close. This approach dilutes the ''sage on the stage'' form of instruction and emphasizes the inclusive, informal conversational feature of IC.

IC is planned. It occurs about text, a stimulus, or a learning task and elicits students' language expression. IC features dialogue that is energetic and accomplishes a teaching goal. The goal can be expressed in terms of a product. IC usually begins with discussion of prior knowledge that encourages students' participation for the purpose of scaffolding their understanding and co-constructing knowledge. In a small-group IC, teachers elicit students' talk about a text or narrative reading or other stimulus and expect to receive a large, sometimes loud, and usually joint response from students. Teachers urge students to question and challenge, rationalize and justify, find alternative and insightful solutions to problems, and continuously seek information to produce increasingly complex and higher-order thinking practices.

How Instructional Conversation Works

In a mathematics IC, five seventh grade Spanish-language minority students and their teacher discussed a circle measurement activity. The students had little experience in English conversation on an academic topic. The teacher referred to the product of the activity: a chart with strings that represent circle measurements. She generated many opportunities for each student to explain the chart and use the concept labels. The teacher's instructional goal was to ensure competence discussing the concepts in English. In IC, the students reveal their language proficiency levels and academic and social skill needs for the teacher to assess.

By the end of the instructional frame, the students were using circumference and diameter at high rates. The teacher challenged them to understand diameter and circumference and the relationship between the two concepts. The teacher moved the students into the learning zone just beyond what they knew in order to challenge them into more complex thinking about the concepts and the relationship between them. The students understood the concepts as more than a number of facts. The excerpts in the following paragraphs demonstrate the features of the IC.

Instruction Side of IC The instructional part of IC begins with the goal of assessing students' language proficiencies and levels of content knowledge, and with assisting them to increase their levels of understanding. As the teacher learns more about the students, more information is available to plan for their learning.

IC is the premier teaching occasion on which teachers foster all students' knowledge development through sustained academic dialogue. In IC, teaching assistance is explicit. Teachers guide students to make connections between ideas, facts, and procedures in problems, and to think critically about texts. Teachers monitor students' participation to ensure that each student is assisted more deeply than merely providing procedural applications or an answer. Teachers must assist students in acquiring the thinking and rethinking resources to understand current and subsequent learning challenges. IC is an occasion for teachers to focus on students' content understanding and academic language development. It is the path into students' zones of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), where thinking develops and learning occurs.

IC Sets a Clear Goal In general, a teacher describes the goal of an activity in the briefing session of an instructional frame. The specific goal of an IC can be stated as the IC begins and during the lesson. In the following excerpt, which was also presented in Chapter Four, the teacher states the goal of the lesson:

Teacher:   Yeah, we're measuring circles but there's a special word for that, that particular measurement.

In another example, the teacher states the goal at the beginning of the IC:

Teacher:   I have ten cookies I want to share with you, but I'm not exactly sure how to do that. How in the world am I going to equally share these cookies with this group?

The teacher can mention the goal of the IC during the lesson whenever it is helpful to students. In the following example, the teacher explains how she is guiding the IC:

Teacher:   Now I'm going to help you by relating it back to the Hawaiians.

IC Assesses IC is an occasion for continuous student assessment. Teachers encourage student participation to obtain language that reflects students' thinking and knowledge, as in this excerpt that is also discussed in Chapter Six:

Daniel:     This is the conconference, or whatever.

Teacher:     So this one's the circumference, and this one is the diameter?

Daniel:     I just remember that the diameter is the smallest, small, smaller than this one [referring to the circumference string].

Teacher:     Well, which string did you measure around the edges with?

Daniel:     This one [pointing to the circumference string].

Teacher:     This one? The circumference?

Daniel:     Yeah, and this one across it.

Teacher:     Across it? So why do you think that this is smaller than this—that the diameter is smaller than the circumference? Why do you think that happens?

Daniel:     Because if this one shrinks, like she said, it will shrink down, this one's still going to be smaller than that one.

Teacher:     Why? What would happen, what would happen to this, the diameter?

Daniel:     That one stays smaller. It will get smaller.

In this excerpt, the teacher focuses on assessing one student's understanding. The teacher recognizes an ELL student's need for more practice with vocabulary. She models the correct term for him. She checks his performance in the activity and then questions him on his understanding of the concepts and of their relationship to one another.

IC Assists Performance In an earlier excerpt from the same IC, the teacher modeled the terms diameter and circumference. She referred to a concrete representation of the terms: a string used to measure the circle elements. In the next excerpt, one student twice uses his everyday language to refer to diameter as ''half.'' In response to the teacher's modeling of the mathematics term, he succeeds in saying it. Even though two students argue over who has the right to answer a question, the teacher ignores the altercation, continuing to assist by modeling the mathematics terms.

Edgar:     This is my long, my circle one, and this is my half one

Teacher:     OK, this is your circumference line [running a finger up the string].

Edgar:     Yeah.

Teacher:     The long one? And this is your diameter line?

Edgar:     [Nodding] Diameter.

Teacher:     How do you know it, how do you know that?

Edgar:     'Cause—

Luis:     The, the—

Edgar:     Shut up, it's my question, dude.

Luis:     This one's bigger and that one's smaller.

Edgar:     No, 'cause it's my question, 'cause this is longer [going around the outside of the lid] than half [sliding finger down the middle of the lid and meaning diameter].

Teacher:     OK, so you know that the circumference is long, bigger than the diameter.

In addition to modeling language during this exchange, the teacher directed a question at the Bloom taxonomy's level of comprehension (see Chapter Six). She asked, ''How do you know it?'' to assist the students in describing what they could recognize.

At the beginning of this chapter the students in this IC succeeded in using the content terms to explain how the mathematical concepts of diameter and circumference are related. The teacher's questioning included Bloom's application and analysis levels, which are more complex than the comprehension level. Through the teacher's continual assistance, the students were able to use the mathematics terms. The teacher persistently modeled language. She nudged the students with questions into more complex levels of thinking.

If an IC meanders far from its goal or stalls, the teacher reconsiders questions and prompts, and revises them immediately. The teacher may choose to reassess the level of material under discussion. Teachers often redirect IC by attending to features of the text or stimulus having to do with feelings and effect. The teacher may ask students directly how they feel about the development of the story characters.

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