• by Paula Johnson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • May 2016 •

The Challenge

Teachers know it is not enough to be proficient in the subject area they are teaching. They also must have an understanding of pedagogy, or how students learn, particularly across the diverse learning environments we see today. A key strength is the ability to employ instructional strategies that engage students in academic discourse. In order to assess what students are thinking, we have to get them talking. This strategy is instrumental in the development of academic vocabulary for all students, especially English learners.

Thus, there is a call for professional development that guides teachers, and in turn students, in redefining their roles in the development of knowledge (Schoen, et al., 2003). Providing teachers with professional learning in the use of instructional conversations and higher-order questioning is a critical element in laying the foundation for meaningful learning.

How do peer-conversations about a student’s approach to a problem or conjecture regarding an idea develop critical thinking skills? What constitutes meaningful discourse? Is it possible to effectively increase understanding and engagement by delivering instruction through a student-centered dialogue model? In this article, we investigate the role that conversation plays throughout instruction toward building teacher capacity and student self-efficacy in subject matter knowledge.

The Purpose

To effectively meet the challenges of an increasingly diverse population of learners, we must employ a student-centered approach to teaching and learning that not only relays instructional content, but also engages students in authentic activities that elicit disciplinary discourse to construct knowledge (Anderson, 2007).

Carpenter, et al., (2004) proposed that students who only know what has been taught to them, without any relevant connections or meaning, will not have the capacity to apply what they have learned in new situations. This transfer of knowledge is what has been lacking for far too long in the areas of comprehension and retention.

The goal of instruction is to prepare students to be problem solvers with the ability to overcome unforeseeable challenges. Therefore, we must provide an environment where students are willing to engage in conversations that allow them to communicate their ideas. Teachers’ awareness of students’ knowledge can more thoroughly support meaningful learning and critical thinking (Carpenter, et al., 2004). Unfortunately, in the traditional classroom, students are not linguistically involved in the lesson. They are the receivers of information, rarely producing opinions or suppositions. Without student voice, teachers cannot readily assess their level of understanding.

The Process

Instructional conversation is a form of a discussion-based lesson that develops students’ conceptual and linguistic skills through guided discourse where all students are held accountable for participation (Goldsmith, 2013). Students engage in scaffolded exchanges with their peers and the instructor to communicate their personal understandings and negotiate meaning of content on various levels. This use of student conversations supports the students’ development of academic language and vocabulary. Teachers seek opportunities to reinforce correct pronunciation, definitions and speech patterns by modeling paraphrases of student responses to guided questions (Echevarría, et al., 2012). These interactions also provide valuable assessment data that reveal errors in reasoning, computation or logic (Vanderhye & Demers, 2007).

As Johnson, et al., (2013) describe: “Substantive conversations require considerable interaction that is on task and involves higher order thinking processes during the negotiation process (i.e., drawing conclusions, challenging ideas, asking questions). The discussion can have guidance but is not completely scripted or controlled by the teacher.” Active involvement of all students is necessary to promote an improved collective understanding of the content. In order for students to generate authentic discourse in a coherent manner, they must be willing to engage. Teachers must provide a safe environment where students are free to express their thinking without fear.

The use of the Think-Pair-Share (TPS) model also aids in increasing student confidence (Goldsmith, 2013). This form of turn-and-talk occurs after a teacher poses a question, when students then pause and think about their reply, pair up with a partner, and then share their responses with each other. The affective filter is lowered, and students are able to engage in a short discussion free from the eyes and ears of the rest of the class. Once the students are brought back together, they all have had the opportunity to fine tune their answer. Students who are still hesitant when called upon will have the support of their partner.

Providing students with multiple opportunities to discuss ideas with fellow students promotes peer-supported strategic thinking. Finding the “right” answer becomes secondary to discovering the process or reasoning behind a concept. The integration of this method of instruction with academically rich vocabulary and higher-order questioning is especially effective with English learners (Goldsmith, 2013).

The Results

Teachers using substantive conversations encourage students to bring to mind their own ideas and views of a topic before engaging in rich dialogue with their peers to identify common understandings and key information, and addressing any confusion about the problem. This method of inquiry enables students to collectively think through a problem before actually beginning to solve it.

For example, a pair of chemistry students might hypothesize possible outcomes of an investigation before conducting the experiment. They scrutinize the problem as a doctor might examine a patient before determining treatment. Students learn to look for clues regarding how to approach a task or problem. They are able to view the work before them from a situational perspective, considering the academic vocabulary involved and call on prior experiences to generate solutions.

Conversation plays a vital role in the modern cycle of instruction. In order for students to begin thinking like scholars, they must be placed in an environment that supports a community of practice that operates according to scholarly behaviors. Professional learning activities for teachers must include strategies that effectively increase engagement, critical thinking, and dialogue as methods of developing student agency.

Providing students with numerous opportunities to contribute to thought-provoking discussions surrounding content increases student participation and willingness to present their ideas related to topics of instruction. Moreover, as teachers improve their capacity for using higher-order questions to guide student discourse, they also are able to more readily perceive student misconceptions and redirect students with questions that allow them to revisit their thinking, dialogue with their peers, and choose a different approach or conclusion (Johnson, et al., 2013).

Student-centered classrooms that employ substantive conversations promote voice, choice and learner identity. In this type of environment, students learn to negotiate meaning through a structure that shifts the responsibility of learning from teachers to the students.


Anderson, R. “Being a Mathematics Learner: Four Faces of Identity,” The Mathematics Educator (2007).

Carpenter, T.P., & J.A. Dossey, J.L. Koehler (Eds.). Classics in Mathematics Education Research (Reston, Va.: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 2004).

Echevarría, J., M. Vogt, & D. Short. Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model, fourth edition (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc., 2012).

Goldsmith, W. “Enhancing Classroom Conversation for All Students,” Phi Delta Kappan (2013) 94(7), 48-52

Johnson, P., & V. Betancourt, A. Villarreal, R. Rodríguez. Synthesis of Effective Teaching Strategies and Practices – A Handbook for Secondary Mathematics and Science Teachers (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2013).

Schoen, H.L., & K.J., Cebulla, K.F. Finn, C. Fi.  “Teacher Variables That Relate to Student Achievement When Using a Standards-Based Curriculum,” Journal for Research in Mathematics Education (2003).

Vanderhye, C.M., & C.M. Zmijewski Demers. “Assessing Students’ Understanding through Conversations,” Teaching Children Mathematics (2007).

Paula Johnson, M.A., is an associate at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

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[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 2016 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]