So…I talk a lot.  In fact, I talk for a living!  (How’s THAT for working talking into an art form!)

Well, I’ve been told that I “talk just to be talking”…of course I disagree, but that doesn’t surprise you, does it?

When I’m coaching teachers and observing in their classrooms I see lots of talking for talking sake, but not necessarily lots of talking for mastery sake!  Let me explain…

There are two kinds of important verbal interactions in classrooms:

  1. Responses
  2. Discussions

Excellent classrooms have a smattering of BOTH kinds of speaking – teachers who get excellent results make sure that the output (or what kids are saying) is something that they monitor closely and measure carefully…kids need to be responding continually as they try new techniques so that we know what they’re learning and can give them in-the-moment feedback. 

Now here’s where I see lots of confusion…

Some teachers are confusing lots of talk and lots of responding with lots of quality talk and lots of quality responding!

Here’s where they’re going wrong, I think: they are confusing lots of responding with lots of discussion.  And it causes frustration because they’re thinking, “Geez!  Why can’t I get my kids to have a proper conversation about this new piece of text?  All they do is copy my answers or shrug their shoulders when it’s their turn to add to the discussion…they also let the same kids do all of the answering all the time…ugh ugh ugh!

Does that sound familiar to you?  (Not that it happens in your classroom of course, but you’ve heard that…ahem…a “friend” is having this problem…)

If you’re struggling with this, here’s where you can fix it:

#1: There is a difference between a response and a discussion

Responses are quick and rapid answers that are oftentimes simple, recall-based skills that they’re practicing.  Many a time responses are given as a whole class and in unison.  An example of a response would be this:

Teacher: Guys, listen to the this word.  “Peak”.  What is the first sound you hear in “peak”?

Students: /p/

Discussions are more complex and conversation driven.  They aren’t focused on a “right” answer, but a complete response that is longer and more complete. An example of a discussion would be something like this:

Teacher: Ladies and gentlemen, today we are going to have a discussion about the motivation of our main character.  I would like you to think of two examples from the text that give you clues as to why the man decided to leave the dog in the mountains, even though the dog was his best friend.  Think for a minute and then I’m going to have Jonathan start our discussion of the character’s motive.

Jonathan: Well I agree with Heather’s response when she said the man had to save himself before he could ever save the dog.  I think the man was motivated to leave his dog in the mountains even though he loved him so much, because the dog was injured and slowing the man down.  The man knew that he only had a few hours to live so in order to be able to save the dog in any way, he had to save himself first.  The author even gave me that idea when he wrote…

#2: Just because students are good responders doesn’t mean that they’ll be good discussers

Responding is a skill.  Holding a discussion is a skill.  Both have to be practiced regularly in order to become automatic.  I find that some teachers get really frustrated when students aren’t doing well in a conversation around a concept or piece of text.  And when I ask them “How often do you practice discussion as an academic skill?”  They usually will say, ” ALL the time!!!”

But when I dig deep and give them perspective on discussion v. responding, they realize that they have had students responding constantly (which is why they’re so good at it!), but discussion is rarely taught explicitly and rarely practiced often.

So, what do you do about all of this?

Well, I encourage you to start by putting a yellow highlight in your lesson plan book/curriculum guide/teacher’s manual where you’re going to have students respond. 

Then put a green highlight everywhere in your materials that you’re going to have students discuss.  If you find that you’re radically lop-sided, add in the under-represented skill a few more times to even it out. 

Sometimes it’s the simple awareness of how often we engage in practices that helps us refine our practices beautifully!