George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

3 Ways to Guide Early Elementary Students to Talk About Their Learning

Young students love to talk, but harnessing that enthusiasm for learning requires some structure.

January 7, 2022
Preschool students talking to each other while sitting on the floor
SDI Productions / iStock

Teachers traditionally put a lot of effort into getting kids to be quiet, but primary school children love to talk. We now know the importance of student talk and the impact it can have on their learning—the person who’s doing the talking is doing the thinking and learning. So, how can we harness that enthusiasm to get these young students to ask questions, tell us their thoughts, and share what they’re learning?

The best strategy, it turns out, is neither silence nor totally unrestricted talk, but rather a structured framework for encouraging them to talk about their learning.

Observing and Learning

As a consultant who specializes in the areas of instruction, student engagement, second-language learning, and instructional technology, when I have my initial visit to a school, the administrator and I spend 5 to 10 minutes in each classroom. This valuable time provides a snapshot of the instruction and student learning and gives us observational data that shows the bright spots we want to capitalize on and areas where there’s room to improve.

When we observe students talking with one another about what they’re learning, we see them turning to their elbow or shoulder partner and telling them what might happen if they mix the red and blue paint together, or groups of three or four working to solve a math problem with manipulatives, collectively writing a sentence, or simply talking in their group about why the character in a book acted the way he did. Regardless of what configuration we observe, it’s always a highlight to hear students discussing and processing what they’re learning.

When the administrator and I step out of the classroom, the first question I ask is, “What bright spots did you notice?” Often they respond to the level of management of the class, the level of the teacher’s questioning, or the type of engagement.

One question I ask teachers after I’ve built a trusting relationship with them, and they’re struggling with whether to allow their students to discuss, process, and create questions with one another, is, “Why not?” You probably know the answers I receive:

  • It feels out of control.
  • I can’t control what might happen.
  • I tried it once and it was a disaster.
  • It gets too loud.
  • We don’t have time.
  • They talk about things that aren’t relevant to what we’re learning.

I can understand where these teachers are coming from. It can feel scary and out of control, and it can become quite loud. I’ve discovered that providing a structure for student talk helps eliminate all those what-ifs and possibilities of off-task behavior.

Structures for academic talk are short, focused, and intentional, and students need to practice them several times to become fluent in the process. Here are my three favorite ways to implement academic talk in the primary grades during every subject.

1. Red Line, Blue Line

Have your students pair up and face each other, creating two separate rows. Pose a simple question, such as, “What are the four stages of a butterfly’s life?” or “What would happen to the larval stage of the butterfly if its habitat didn’t receive the normal amount of rain that season?” Let the red side of students share their thinking with the blue side of students. Then, have the blue side shift one person to the right, have the person at the end come to the front, and now have the blue-side students share their thinking with the red side.

The purpose is to have students listen, talk, think, and possibly debate their thinking. After two or three conversations, they’ll have a good understanding of the four stages of a butterfly, and, depending on the level of questions, they’ll have moved to a higher level of thinking.

2. Numbered Heads Together

This well-known Kagan and Kagan technique uses a simple grouping structure to ensure that each member of a group understands a lesson’s content. To use the technique, number the students in each group, up to four. (If one group is smaller than the others, have the number three answer for number four as well.) Ask students a recall or comprehension question, or present a problem to solve. Provide time for students to write their responses individually and then discuss as a group. Remind students that every member of the group must be able to answer the question or solve the problem. If you call out number two, for example, then student two from each group responds. Repeat with additional questions or problems.

If you and your students like competition, give points to teams when their group responds with an accurate answer or provides a thorough thought-provoking response.

3. Dance—Freeze—Share

This is a great way to get students up and moving as they’re processing new information. Pose a question, turn on the music, and have students walk or dance around the room until you turn off the music. Students stop where they are and pair up with the closest student. Student pairs then share their responses to the question with each other. Then the music starts again, and when it stops, students meet and share responses with new partners. Three times is the magic number.

When you simply model, practice, and implement these strategies daily, your students will learn the process and the structures in no time. Remember, we need students to talk about what they’re learning to truly grasp the concepts and learn the content. You’re simply providing the frame to set your students up for successful academic talk.

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  • Classroom Management
  • K-2 Primary

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