Student discourse is a fantastic way to hear our students take ownership of their thinking and learning. According to education researcher John Hattie, it’s a very effective classroom practice and positively impacts students. To make this happen for our young students, I know we elementary teachers have to lay the foundational work. But I constantly ask myself, why does it feel so challenging to get started?
I talked to my co-teacher, and we thought of two main factors that make discourse learning flop. First, it’s very awkward at the beginning. Students don’t know how to effectively discuss their thinking, which leads to many long, awkward walls of silence and blank stares. Second, teachers can be apprehensive about giving up our control of the conversations during lessons.
Knowing that these two factors can effectively stall discourse instruction, we created three intentional steps to teach our students how to have discussions with one another, and we saw some pretty amazing results in our classroom from it.
3 Ways to Make Discourse Learning Work in Upper Elementary
1. Modeling. Our first step was to model how effective communicators discuss academic content. Since our students are elementary, they do not have much prior knowledge of this, nor have they usually seen this done at home. We intentionally set up mock discussions about the content.
In these discussions, we front-loaded the students to find examples of our using good discussion skills. We modeled everything from maintaining eye contact and correct body language to paraphrasing what the other person said before stating our thinking. This can significantly help students who struggle to develop these nonverbal skills independently. It helps build these soft skills that students will need as they grow older and have to work more collaboratively.
The key to this is to intentionally tell the students, “This is what it should look like when talking to your partner or the class.” We went in-depth about how this would make them better at speaking, which they would need to use throughout school and whenever they entered the working world.
Not only did we show them what to do, but also we showed them what not to do—e.g., talking too loudly or softly to their discussion partner, facing the wrong way, going off topic. This shows students how these errors can derail an academic conversation and will help them identify personal growth areas when they self-reflect on their discussion skills. Just as we would use direct instruction to teach letter sounds or number sense, we need to teach and model how to talk to one another directly.
2. Waiting. This can be one of the most complex parts of teaching students how to use discourse in the classroom. Until all students have mastered discussing content, there will be plenty of awkward silences. When this happens, the first thing my co-teacher and I do is try to give them some discourse stems to help their thinking along. When we decided to improve discourse class-wide, we accepted the silence as part of the learning and just sat back and waited.
This turned out to be a fantastic teaching moment for the kids, even though we, as instructors, did nothing but sit back and watch. The students didn’t want to sit in silence any more than we did. Eventually, our students who were not the biggest fans of public speaking would start to speak up. When they did this, they received praise from their classmates, and this created a classroom culture where it was expected that all share their thinking.
3. Reflecting. The first two steps introduced our students to discourse. We showed them how to discuss with one another and created a classroom culture where it was expected and encouraged to share thinking. While most of the students were participating, some of them were not sharing very much and not diving deeply enough into the content discussion. To address this, we started having time for personal reflections and, more recently, peer feedback about their discussion skills.
First, we kept notes on who was saying what during the discussion, and then at the end of each discussion time, we got the students to think about what we were doing well and what areas they wanted to improve on the following week. This constant self-reflection and goal setting maintained a growth mindset with our students. They were focused on what they could be doing to get better at discussion and the necessary steps to get there.
Recently, we have also been having students give peer feedback to one another that’s focused on discourse skills. Getting feedback from another student also builds a communal growth mindset. The students can give honest feedback and praise about each other’s performances, and when it comes from one of their peers rather than a teacher, it seems to affect them differently. They build each other up and work together on developing their discussion skills. It’s just like how we as teachers take advice from colleagues differently than from our administrators. It helps create a collaborative environment in the classroom.
We saw an area of growth that our classroom needed. We took a step back and gave our students ownership over their classroom and classroom discussions, and we were pleasantly surprised by the results. It built confidence in all learners and gave them a chance to develop their soft skills. It also grew our classroom community, and, most important, it let our students become experts on the content they were learning and sharing with others.
It wasn’t always pretty, and there were bumps along the way, but taking a step back as a teacher and letting your students lead the way can yield incredible success.