The Power of Talk in Casual Conversation Helps me Understand my Students as Learners
Chit-chat: one of the most dreaded sounds in a classroom – a sound that we as teachers have come to believe means that students are unfocused, not working, and not learning. Surprisingly, though, these ideas that we have about the sounds of casual conversations in our classrooms are very much stigmatic. Although students might not be fulfilling the educational goals we set in place for them, they are learning other things, such as how to interact appropriately with their peers and facts about their peers that may set the foundation for them to form bonds and friendships. They may also be learning proper conversation etiquette, a skill necessary for life outside of school (Nakamura, 2010), and developing each other’s knowledge in a variety of different informational areas (Maybin, 1991). When students have conversations in our classrooms, they are most definitely focused, working, and learning. It is our job to turn these conversations into something meaningful and perhaps educational; that is, if the students have not already done this themselves. My own enjoyment while conversing with my students, as well as the enjoyment I see in my students when they have personal time to talk to each other, sparked my curiosity about how I could incorporate “chit-chat” into the students’ learning. I began to pursue my colloquium topic: How does the power of casual conversation help me understand my students as learners? This also led me to wonder how I could use conversations as a form of assessment, to inform my instructional moves, and how I can develop it as a life skill for my students.
My curiosity about how conversations influence learning began when I overheard some of my students talking during snack time one day. It was the first day that my students had truly gotten snack time to themselves since the beginning of school. Most of the time, we read a book aloud to the class during snack, but this was the first day back from Thanksgiving break, and I chose to just let them chat about their mini school vacation. As I walked around the classroom, I was able to take part in almost all of the conversations, and I felt a great sense of pride over the understanding I had of each individual in my room. More than that, though, I had been able to bring some of my own knowledge to the table in a few of the conversations and answer some questions that students were debating about. In one group, I sent a student to the computer because none of us knew the answer to the question they were discussing. I realized that just because I wasn’t formally teaching anything did not mean that the students weren’t learning from me or from each other.
The more research I did about this topic, the more intrigued I became. By reading articles and watching videos about the power of casual conversation in the classroom, I have learned that conversation is one of the most valuable ways of establishing a positive and supportive classroom environment (Cone, 1993), that students learn best from teachers that they have connections to (Pierson, 2013), and I have come to the realization that students need to have time to learn social skills at school because they may not have the chance to learn them at home. Rita Pierson makes the point that “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” in a 2013 TED Talk, so establishing a relationship with students is incredibly important. One of the best ways to establish a relationship with students is by having conversations with them to determine who they are, what they are like, and some key details about them; these key details may come in very handy when trying to figure out how to reach the children as learners. There is true value in connecting with students on a personal level, as it is one of the many ways that teachers can make a difference in a child’s life. Having these simple bonds and tidbits of knowledge about each child shows our students that we care about them. Blomberg (2011) discusses in her article that by getting to know her students, she was able to personalize her lessons to directly connect with their lives. The things they heard, saw, and experienced every day outside of school became incorporated into what they were learning in school, because she was able to make references to particular students’ situations as the opportunities presented themselves, particularly during reading and writing. Newman (2010) and Goodwin (1997) also stress the importance of small talk and conversation in the lives of ESL students and students with learning disabilities, respectively. By being exposed to and working on these skills, students become confident talkers, which often leads to more successful learning and participation in the classroom.
A lot of my research has been done simply in my own classroom, too. I have learned that many teachable moments, for me as well as for my students, arise while engaged in simple conversation. A few times a week, I give the students the chance to talk to each other during snack instead of listening to our read-aloud book. I always take this opportunity to wander around, listening to what the students are talking about, recording bits of what they are saying, and joining in some of the conversations when it seems appropriate. The things that I have heard have been incredible! This is a time of day when students build relationships with each other, improve their knowledge of social skills based on feedback from each other, and teach each other fun and different facts and information that they do not get from our curriculum-based content teaching. One of the most interesting conversations I heard was when Victor brought in a blood orange for snack. As soon as he started peeling it, the other students at his table noticed that it didn’t look like any kind of orange they’d ever seen before, and the questions flew out of their mouths before they could stop themselves: “What IS that?! Why does it look purple?! Is it rotten?! It looks out of season kinda! Are you sure you can eat that?!” and more. He confidently reassured his peers that it was just a blood orange, that it was really delicious and sour, and that although it is not yellow (his favorite color), it is still one of his favorite fruits. Without any teacher assistance, the students inferred that it must be called a blood orange because the actual fruit part looks like blood! Another fascinating observation I made during these snack time chat sessions has to do with manners. When one student brought up a topic that was a little bit inappropriate for snack, another responded with “That’s great conversation for while we’re eating”, in a fairly sarcastic tone, which caused the other student to say “Sorry” and switch topics. Now this response could very well have a lot to do with the fact that my students are in 5th grade, and younger students might have a different reaction to what was being said. However, if teachers can help point out to students when they need to be more socially aware, it will not be long before the students are doing it without the teacher’s help.
After making all these observations and gathering all of this data, I wanted to be able to use what I learned about my students to take their education to yet another level. After all, part of my wondering had to do with how I could use this information to form instruction. So I planned an activity that I thought would appeal to my students based on a lot of what they talk about during snack time: their food. My goal was to give my students more exposure to some interesting-looking, unique-tasting fruit that is not akin to what they receive at snack time from the school. I also planned to integrate at least one strand of the Common Core into the activity so that it had educational value as well. I carried out this short lesson on a Monday morning, the only time we have for open instruction on whatever we choose, and the results I got from the students were fascinating. I’m looking forward to shaping lessons based on chit-chat more frequently and incorporating the students’ interests with the Common Core requirements.
Conversations do not just have to happen during snack time. Teachers can set up part of the learning in their classrooms as discussions, and focused discussions will take place naturally if the right questions are in place and the right supports are given. The trick is teaching students to be aware of when engaging in conversation is appropriate and when it is not. Turn and Talk opportunities are one such example – students are expected to hold a quick conversation that involves each party and then wrap up the conversation when the teacher gives the signal. Teachers can also use what they hear the students saying to gauge whether or not the students need help with a particular subject or in a particular area. It is natural for students to talk about what they’re learning, which teachers can probe deeper about and even use as an assessment tool. Oftentimes students will ask each other for help during parts of the day, and these conversations can be beneficial for the teacher to just listen to in order to evaluate all students who are part of the conversation on how they understand the material. Cone (1993) was able to capitalize on her students’ schema about specific subjects and used the students to teach each other the background knowledge they needed to have before beginning close book studies. This was very powerful for her students because it engaged the listeners, who were interested to hear what their peers knew, and gave confidence to the speakers, who were able to share about subjects they knew a lot about and successfully broaden their peers’ understandings.
In the coming weeks and my future experiences I have as a teacher, I’m looking forward to using my understandings to improve my classroom environment as well as my students’ learning experiences. However, I still have questions about this topic that I will continue to look at as time goes on. I am very curious about what students think of learning through conversation – if they think it is possible and if they are aware of it happening. I also wonder if and how this would differ in the younger grades. What would this conversation-based teaching look and sound like, and would these students be able to recognize it happening? Would there be patterns in what students talk about? And how would conversations change if the teacher took part in them more frequently? How would the classroom culture change as well (or would it at all)? Finally, I am very interested to know if students from other socioeconomic backgrounds would have similar conversations. I challenge you to truly listen to your students as they chat and see how you can use it to inform your teaching decisions and build relationships with your students.
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Goodwin, A. L. (Ed). (1997). Assessment for equity and inclusion: Embracing all our children.
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Maybin, J. (1991). Children’s informal talk and the construction of meaning. English in
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Nakamura, I. (2010). Formulation as evidence of understanding in teacher-student talk. ELT Journal, 64(2), 125-134. doi: 10.1093/elt/ccp050
Newman, E. (2010, Oct. 11). Teacher talk: Small talk. Not so small after all? Retrieved from
TED Talks: Rita Pierson. (2013, May 3). Every kid needs a champion. Retrieved from