Academic Conversations

Talking with others is a powerful way to learn. In Academic Conversations, students explore ideas and negotiate meanings to deepen understandings and connections. While this strategy cultivates a range of thinking and language skills, it emphasizes the development of five conversation skills across disciplines:

Elaborating, clarifying, and questioning

Supporting ideas with examples and evidence


Building on ideas

Synthesizing key ideas of the conversation

Developing these skills helps students to fortify their academic language, critical thinking skills, content understandings, academic writing, and oral communication skills. Moreover, Academic Conversations are also powerful windows for assessing language, learning, and thinking.

For more information, refer to the book Academic Conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking across disciplines by Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Stenhouse.

Elaborating, clarifying, and questioning

Elaborating provides more important information about a topic or idea. The elaborator should predict the amount and detail of the information to be shared to make the point clear. Likewise, a listener should know when more information is needed. This often happens when a speaker introduces a general, complex, muddy, or abstract topic without much detail.

For example, when a speaker says, "She was a very important person in that time period,” most adults would ask for elaboration or explanation, or asking why and how. For younger students, prompting for elaboration often simply means "tell me more about" which is fine because they are showing that they want to hear more.

Two things then happen: they shift the focus from their own thoughts to show they are interested in what the partner has to say, and they get to hear more language....

Elaborate and Clarify Prompts


  • Can you elaborate on ...?
  • What does that mean?
  • What do you mean by...?
  • Can you clarify the part about?
  • How is that important?
  • How does it support your point about...?
  • I understand the part about... but i want to know...
  • Can you be more specific?

Response Starters:

  • What do you think?
  • Can you give an example from the text?
  • Where does it say that?
  • What is a real world example?
  • Can you give an example from your life?

Supporting Ideas with Examples and Evidence

A student must learn to fortify an idea by supporting it. Examples, evidence, and logical reasons are the main ways to do this. We recommend starting with examples, of which we have identified four main types.

The order is important here, because many students tend to jump straight to the examples from their own life and run out of time to talk about examples from texts or world, which tend to be more powerful and challenging.

Encourage students to think of examples in the order below, at least initially. Along the way, train students to prompt partners to justify their examples—to explain why their example is a good example: "Tell me more how this example supports the idea of...."

Support Ideas with Examples and Evidence Prompts


  • Can you give an example?
  • Where in the text can you find...?
  • Where does it say that?
  • Can you find examples from other text?

Response Starters:

  • Can you think of any real world examples?
  • Can you give an example from your life?


Paraphrasing is the skill of keeping track of what we are hearing, organizing the speaker’s points, and describing what we understand in our own words.

It requires some selection and inference. We “read” the speaker's tone and emphasis, and see what is important to them.

This helps us select key points for our paraphrased version of what the speaker said. We also might highlight the points that relate most to the main topic of the conversation...

Paraphrase Prompts


  • I think it means...
  • In other words...
  • More specifically, it is... because...
  • An analogy might be...
  • It's important because ...

Response Starters:

  • How can we add to this ideas of ...
  • What other ideas or examples relate to this idea?
  • What else could support this idea?
  • Do you agree?
  • What are other points of view?

Building on Ideas

You might have noticed that students often just "popcorn" out ideas, without connecting to the ideas of other students. Students need to learn to build on a partner's idea and/or appropriately challenge it.

The co- in collaborate, cooperate, and co-construct means together. It means building up ideas. In a conversation, your next idea should build on, connect to, or logically challenge what your partner just said. Your idea should not be a random idea tossed out to smother or replace your partner’s idea.

We must teach students to address, respect, and build from every single partner utterance. That is, no popcorning —or brick-piling....

Building on Ideas Prompts


  • Let me see if I heard you right...
  • To paraphrase what you just said, ...
  • In other words, you are saying that...
  • It sounds like you think that...

Response Starters:

  • I think it means...
  • In other words...
  • An analogy might be...
  • It is important because...
  • Building on your ideas...
  • On the other hand...
  • That makes me think of...

Synthesizing Key Ideas of the Conversation

Ideas, useful and not, float around while talking, and it takes skill and practice to keep track of them and combine the useful ones.

Synthesizing conversation ideas means remembering, highlighting, and fitting together key points from the conversation into a coherent thought statement. It is the process of taking the many paraphrased chunks, mentioned in the previous section, fitting them together, weeding some out, and whittling them down into a shared conclusion...

Synthesize Prompts


  • Can you elaborate on ...?
  • What does that mean?
  • What do you mean by...
  • Can you clarify the part about...?
  • How is that important?
  • How does it support your point that ...?

Response Starters:

  • I understand the part about ... but I want to know ...
  • An example from my life might be...
  • An analogy might be...
  • One case that illustrates this is ...

Big image
The easy part is learning what the skills are; the hard part is teaching them along with all the other things that need to be learned each week.

Fortunately, these high-leverage skills are very effective at supporting the learning of most content concepts, skills, and language.

Practicing Conversations

DESCRIBE: I noticed that ... I see that ... I hear you saying...

CLARIFY: What did you mean? Can you explain...? I am confused about... I don't understand...

QUESTION: I am wondering... Why did the (author, poet, creator, photographer)...? Why is...? Why does...?

EVALUATE: I like how... I do not like how... My favorite thing is ... I really enjoyed ... The most important thing is...

REACT: I agree/disagree because... This makes me feel...because... I think...because... That's amazing/funny/cool ... This reminds me of...

DRAW CONCLUSIONS: This gives me a clue that... I think that the message is... This teaches a lesson about...

SPECULATE: I think that maybe... I am guessing that...

EXPAND: What do you think? Tell me more about that. Let me add to what ____ just said... That's true ... plus... I also (noticed, thought, wondered)...

The 7 Features of Effective Discussion Tasks (Academic Discussions Zwiers & Crawford 2011)

1. Require both parties to talk.

2. Require critical and creative thinking.

3. Take advantage of controversies and conflict.

4. Recognize and reduce ambiguity.

5. Encourage thinking based on principles, laws, and approaches of the discipline.

6. Build in opportunities fro transfer of knowledge and skills.

7. Provide choice and ownership.

Participation Protocol for Academic Discussions


Lean in

Lower voice

Listen attentively

Use text evidence & examples