Using Instructional Conversation (page 6)
Pedagogy Standard V
Teaching Through Conversation
Engage students in dialogue, especially instructional conversation (IC).
Classroom Application Indicators
- Performs IC routinely within an instructional frame.
- Guides students to full participation in IC.
- 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.
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].
Teacher: The long one? And this is your diameter line?
Edgar: [Nodding] Diameter.
Teacher: How do you know it, how do you know that?
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.
Conversation Side of IC
The ideal conversation is inclusive, responsive, and balanced. IC promotes a speaking role for every student. The teacher monitors students' participation, especially to encourage reticent students.
Inclusive Teachers often begin IC with a topic or stimulus to elicit students' talk about their experiences, feelings, and prior knowledge. To encourage their talk, teachers may use manipulatives, illustrations, semantic webs, overviews, charts, textbooks, trade books, writing, games, student models, and student suggestions and comments. In the following excerpt, the teacher accepts every student's contribution, even irrelevant comments such as Concha's:
Luis: The black hole.
Teacher: Do you know what the black hole is? Can you explain that to everybody in the group?
Luis: It is a round thing, and it has a lot of stars.
Teacher: It is a round thing. [Turns and writes on board] So you're saying that the black hole is something—
Concha: I don't really care.
Teacher: That is round [Luis and Concha laugh] and it has, what else did you say?
In an ideal IC, students do not raise their hands or take round-robin turns. During the early phase of an IC, teacher and students converse about a broad range of topics, but particularly individual experience and background knowledge. In the brief IC excerpt that follows, the teacher uses a photograph from a familiar television series, Star Trek, as a stimulus for students to talk about space, an interesting topic previously discussed with the whole class. The teacher selected an opening topic based on general math so she could get to know the students. Her goal was to develop rapport and find out what the students already knew about space. Although five students are participating, one student's responses demonstrate the advantages of IC for sustained dialogue between teacher and student that produces a complete and specific expression of the student's thinking.
Edgar: They have like holes in them. Like— [Moves his hands in a circular motion]
Teacher: They have like holes in the planet. Holes in the planet, does anybody know what else we can call that?
Luis: Pozos. [Holes]
Edgar: Shooting stars.
Teacher: Shooting stars? Is that another name for the holes in the planet? Does anyone know what those—
Edgar: Shooting stars are like stars, but they go shooo [makes sweeping hand gesture] really fast and when you see them you can make a wish.
Responsive IC assumes that students may have something to say beyond repeating the correct answers from the book. Students often provide correct answers, but IC requires teachers to grasp the intent of students' answers, whether they are correct, incomplete, or irrelevant. Teachers listen to personal and new information from students. They adjust their responses to assist students' communicative efforts to promote the conversation. Teachers continuously monitor the match between their planned IC assistance (such as activity level, questioning, scaffolds, and duration of IC) and the information presented by students' conversational participation, which may change the level or direction of the IC. This approach sounds highly challenging, but it actually involves routine adult conversational skills plus a teacher's insightfulness. For example, the following excerpt shows how a teacher is responsive and provides immediate assistance to a student:
Concha: I can't remember anything!
Teacher: You can't remember, that's OK. That's why we are reviewing. Now, do you know what it means when it's that three? What was [your regular classroom teacher] just talking about?
Concha: Circles and squares, circumference.
Daniel: Degrees and all that.
The teacher immediately sensed Concha's feelings of failure. The teacher reviewed the purpose of the conversation with Concha, then directed questions to her. The teacher's attention to Concha did not interrupt the flow of the conversation. The lack of disturbance was evidenced in the way the group continued. Daniel answered questions addressed to Concha, as did Edgar. Concha's subsequent appropriate contribution, ''Radius,'' indicated that she had returned to the conversation.
Certainly the teacher was skillful in maintaining the flow of the conversation while dealing with a single student's difficulties. The students' sustained attention to the content suggests that the group was highly focused and on topic. Later Concha was able to provide assistance to another student. Here the teacher begins to provide assistance again but defers to Concha when she tries to help the other student.
Teacher: Do you guys want to mark the middle?
Daniel: Hey, my middle came out crooked.
Teacher: Did you, when you—
Concha: Did you fold it twice?
Daniel: No, I didn't fold it twice.
Concha: Alright, so that's it.
Daniel accepted Concha's assistance. The course of an IC is open-ended, no matter how well planned. Responsiveness is key to affirming students' input, to exploring its meaning and value for the IC, and to returning the conversation to its goal.
Balanced Participation Teachers develop IC using students' contributions. In the following IC excerpt about Saturn's rings, the teacher guides but does not dominate. She allows a student to assist the conversation by introducing visual evidence.
Teacher: Yeah, and we also talked about some other characteristics. We talked about colors, and sometimes some planets have rings around them, right?
Luis: Just Saturn has it, only Saturn? [He looks up at a poster.]
Teacher: I don't know. Does only Saturn have a ring around it?
Teacher: [To Daniel] Yeah?
Luis: They're all right there. Look. [Points up to poster. Everyone looks up.]
Edgar: Yeah, I think, huh?
Concha: Yeah, only Saturn.
Teacher: [To Concha] Only Saturn? [Concha nods.]
Notice how Luis answers the teacher's question but then returns the question back to the group. Luis then points everyone to the classroom poster. The visual evidence informs everyone, including one student who participates nonverbally with an affirmative nod.
Including IC regularly in the instructional frame of classroom teaching provides discussion and dialogic opportunities that assist learning. IC is an advance, but its occasional or sporadic presence is insufficient. Its full effect is accomplished when it is the culmination of the system of five pedagogy standards.
How to Schedule IC
The system of five pedagogy standards is designed to support IC as the major teaching approach. The instructional frame includes a variety of activities and groupings but schedules IC as a regular, daily activity. IC that is scheduled daily can be devoted to a single lesson on a specific topic, or it can extend over numerous sessions. The seventh grade ELL circle measurement IC was conducted over five classroom sessions of thirty minutes apiece.
Students know what the plan for the day is because the teacher always posts or writes the instructional frame on the board. This happens even before the briefing, when all of the tasks and activities are explained. Every one knows how the frame works and where they are scheduled to be according to their individual schedules with their sequence of numbers indicating the activity setting they are to attend. Or students might have a choice schedule, which contains activity settings they want to attend, which they have worked out with the teacher. On a choice schedule, students still attend the teaching activity setting and follow-up (see Appendix 8C). They understand that the teacher's work with groups in the teaching center is very important and is interrupted only in an emergency.
At the end of a frame's instructional activity session (which usually lasts twenty minutes) the teacher signals for everyone to move on to the next activity. Travel around the classroom is completed within a minute. After another twenty-minute session, the teacher signals the return to a whole-class format to debrief. On the way to the debriefing, the students deposit their papers in their work folders in the places designated to receive the work products. Then the ten-minute briefing begins. Students describe their progress. The classroom agreement is reviewed to check how it matches their experience. The teacher is pleased to inform the students that their progress matches the agreement and they will soon have a pizza party reward. All the students leave the class with smiles and feelings of accomplishment.