Student Talk: Taking Control of Classroom Conversations

One of the most challenging habits for me to break as a teacher was designing lessons that relied heavily on lecturing.  The core of my lesson relied on my content knowledge and my interpretation of the material for the students; and why shouldn’t it?  I love talking about history and am a master of my content.  I could go on for days about the Constitutional Convention or The Federalist Papers, but this idea that teaching=lecture led to some challenges for me in a classroom of wiggly 8th graders with an attention span of only about 15 minutes.

I will never forget my first encounter with an instructional coach from my district who helped me break through this teaching=lecture mindset.  I shared some challenges I was experiencing with classroom management and hoping for some discipline management strategies that might help me keep the kids focused on instruction.  You could imagine my surprise when her solution was for me to design a lesson where the student sat in groups and received a prompt for a task they would complete with the small group at their table and then pass to the next group for discussion and sharing.  Mind Blown!  If student talk was the challenging behavior I was facing, how is it possible that putting students in groups and asking them talk to each other could be the solution?

It’s kind of brilliant if you really think about it, they want and need to talk, so instead of struggling to keep them quiet, take control of the conversations they are having.

Breaking through my need to lead the conversation and control the content was by far the most challenging and most rewarding growth I have experienced as an educator.  But with an urgency to cover all of the standards in a limited time, trying out new strategies can be risky.  What if it fails and I lose a day of instruction?  How will I recover the instructional time?  These were the excuses I would make for not taking a risk, but when I refocused my understanding of the student’s needs it all came together.  If I can’t get them to stop talking, how can I incorporate more opportunities for talking?  If they wont sit still, how can I incorporate more opportunities for movement?  If they are constantly drawing and doodling instead of engaging in the lesson, how can I incorporate more opportunities for them to be creative?  I had to get past my fears and let go of this need to control the content for the students with a lecture, and I am so glad that I did.  The energy in the classroom and the relationships that were able to develop with this new approach resulted in a positive classroom culture and an increase in academic achievement.

I will admit that an essential part of my decision making when it comes to classroom strategies will include asking the question “What does John Hattie say about this?”  John Hattie‘s research on strategies that influence student achievement shows us that student self-verbalization in the classroom has an effect size of .55, making it a high yield strategy to implement.  Along the way, I found that the most successful implementation for me included sticking to about 3-5 very structured conversation strategies and taking the time to teach students the expectations of each.

I’m sharing my favorite strategies here, and what might surprise you is that these strategies can be easy for teachers to implement the following day and embed into the classroom culture with very little cost of time or money.  My favorite part, and the most important, is that these strategies can be implemented in a structured and organized way that will challenge all students in the classroom and promote equitable participation.

Strategies for Structuring Classroom Conversations

Accountable Talk

Students will be able to express their ideas by using and talk stems that are respectful and academically appropriate.  Participation in class discussions becomes more equitable and accessible with a safe and structured system because the talk stems help students to summarize other’s responses, ask clarifying questions, express agreement, or offer another point of view.  This structure promotes listening and speaking skills and gives all students a chance to participate without fear of saying the wrong thing.

ADD PICTURE and LINK TO Accountable Talk Implementation Documents

The best part about this strategy is that it can benefit students in all grade levels and across content areas.  In my classroom, I had a laminated Accountable Talk Card taped to the corner of student desk and would prompt them to reference the card during classroom conversations.  This simple card, paired with an anchor chart displayed on my bulletin board, became a powerful tool for learning and for classroom management.  Think about each time you have started a lesson with a discussion question that prompts students to blurt out a one word response.  Several student wan to participate, and this is great, but how can we ensure that all students have an opportunity to participate.  A simple prompt to use their accountable talk cards will help students slow down their thinking and use a talk stem that will encourage speaking in complete sentences and listening to each other.  Accountable Talk can be incorporated into any of the other discussion strategies listed here.

Watch this VIDEO to see what accountable talk looks like in the classroom.

Q Triple S A

The Q Triple S A strategy is by far my favorite structure for student discussions and it can be used in an Accountable Talk classroom.  It takes Think-Pair-Share to another level by clarifying purpose and scaffolding responses with answer stems to increase engagement and conversations that are on target.  I first learned this strategy at a workshop presented by Seidlitz Education on the book 7 Steps to a Language Rich Interactive Classroom.  Step 6 in this book is – Have Students participate in a Structured Conversation.  Here is how the QSSSA works.

Question: Ask a question based on a key concept

Signal: Provide a way to indicate readiness

Stem: Provide a sentence starter for answering the question

Share: Explain how students will respond to the question using the stem

Assess: Select students to share and/or have them write

That’s it! There is not much prep required beyond having your essential questions ready for the lesson.  Watch this VIDEO (at 3:20) to see the QSSSA strategy in a real classroom.

There are so many variations to the implementation of this strategy.  Students can have discussions with their shoulder partner or small group, or they can move around the room to find a partner for discussion and switch when the timer goes off.  A strategy I used was a speed dating setup where students formed two straight lines facing one another.  After a minute of discussion students are signaled to switch partners – one line slides down one spot and the person at the end would come to the beginning of the line.

Ongoing Conversations

I first learned of this strategy in a Cult of Pedagogy podcast called “Getting Students Talking with Ongoing Conversations”.  The podcast was an interview with teacher, Jeff Friedman, who was looking for a way to get students talking about content.  He found it challenging to keep classroom conversations on topic as the students found ways to pair themselves with friends and turned the discussion time to social time.  Here is how the strategy works.

Each student is given a conversation tracker where they can log the conversations they have with classmates.

The teacher defines a time period for the tracker (2-3 weeks) and a assigns a prompt or topic for the conversation. Students are required to have conversations with each student in the class, or a predetermined number of students, say, 75% of the class.

Students record their discussions on the tracker with the student’s name, date, and one sentence summarizing the discussion.

Once a pair of students has had a conversation, they may not return to each other until they have met the minimum number of unique conversations set by the teacher.

Mr. Friedman is an English teacher, but I can definitely see this strategy working in any content area.  For my social studies team, I created a template in a Google Sheet that can customized for each unit of study.  For an ambitious teacher who wants to keep everyone accountable, the list of student names can be included on the tracker to ensure that all students have had a chance to engage with each other.


This is another great discussion strategy that incorporates movement and can be used in an Accountable Talk classroom.  In the VIDEO from the Teaching Channel, Sarah Brown Wessling facilitates a classroom discussion that takes small group instruction to another level.  Working in small groups of 4-6, students are given a prompt to begin a conversation.  Once the students have developed their ideas, the groups are asked to rotate 2 students to the next table.  The new groups are given a related question to discuss and the group members have an opportunity to share key points from their previous discussions.  Each rotation, groups will choose new students to rotate, keeping the groups fresh and dynamic.