This is the third part of a three-part series on academic conversation for English learners: Getting Started | Using the skills | Specifics and assessment.

The Zwiers/Crawford strategies are useful for discussing narrative and expository text and lend themselves well to higher order questioning between teacher-student and student-student. Whole Brain Teaching (WBT) by Chris Biffleis is another system that works well for literacy, and is particularly well-suited for teaching and learning procedures used in math or science.WBT also works very well in combination with academic conversations as a signal system.

Class/yes is a great attention-getter and action-stopper. The teacher says “Class” is some style of voice, varying each time. It could be fast, slow, in falsetto, in bear voice, anything the teacher chooses. Student respond with “Yes” in the same style of voice. As long as there is variety, students of all ages seem to continue to respond to this cue.

To begin the action, the cue is Teach/OK. After directions have been given (and content input, and norms reviewed), the teacher makes some physical gesture says “Teach!” Students repeat the gesture and say “OK!” The teacher might clap, snap, swing arms, do a “Travolta” with arms or anything at all. The students do the same. As with Class/yes, the key is variety and enthusiasm. A bland “teach” will get a bland “ok” every time.

Scoreboard is a procedure used by WBT teachers to track students’ success with Class/yes and Teach/OK. WBT also has its own set of five classroom rules.

Mirror is the strategy that lends itself best to teaching/learning sequential procedures, and still involves students with oral language processing. Students match a specific movement to words connected to content. To begin, the teacher says “Mirror” and holds up his/her hands in the classic mime pose of hands in front. The students copy this move. The teacher move hands around or makes other movements, and the students copy. The next stage is “Mirror with Words.” The teacher adds words to the movements that help students remember steps in a process. I have mostly used this in math procedures. Students of all ages like combining the movements, even high school if presented with verve! It aids memory and movement feels good.

All the WBT strategies are based on keeping a high level of energy in the classroom. The pace is fast, and engagement is typically high. All (or most) students are turning and talking about content at once, usually with a connected movement. It takes some practice, and it might not be your “style” at first, but teachers that use it are very happy with it.

The Whole Brain Teaching website has videos with many examples of these skills.

Assessment of the conversation is separate from assessment of the content. Zwiers and Crawford suggest recording and transcribing student conversations and cataloging the quality and quantity of specific uses of language. That will give detailed information of the students’ use of question forms, verb tense, syntax and more.

Alternatively or additionally, a teacher can circulate around the room during the conversation period and record instances of sentence and question frames heard on a tally form. Each conversation period can be compared to others for improvement in the use of frames such as “Can you elaborate on that?”, or “I think what you are saying is….”

The teacher can assign a student or pair of students to tally the use of frames, or the number of students responding to the WBT strategies. These “scouts” can be listening to the whole room, be assigned to one pair or a limited number of pairs. The scout job would rotate often.

There are quite a few details to organizing conversations between students who might not be used to discussing content at deep levels. However, it’s better to start with a few steps at first than to never start at all. The rewards for these methods are great. Have fun talking!