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

Academic conversation is a strategy that increases student engagement and comprehension in content topics. It is ideal for English learners (ELs) because it gives them a safe environment to practice academic English with a peer who has more mastery.

In first part of this series, we explained the norms for setting up academic conversations and how to organize partnerships in the classroom.

Once the content has been delivered, students need skills on how to actually hold the conversation. According the Common Core State Standards for Listening and Speaking, students should:

  • Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about (grade level) topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups, following agreed-upon rules for discussions (e.g., listening to others and taking turns speaking about the topics and texts under discussion) and continuing a conversation through multiple exchanges.
  • Confirm understanding of a text read aloud or information presented orally or through other media by asking and answering questions about key details and requesting clarification if something is not understood.
  • Ask and answer questions in order to seek help, get information or clarify something that is not understood.

Kudos to the teachers whose students are already able to do everything on that list. We are all headed in that direction, and, as with the other challenges presented by the CCSS, some practice is called for. In case you were wondering, those are the kindergarten standards listed above.

There are several sources available for conversation skills and structures. Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford (2011) present five key skills in their book "Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings." Maria Nichols (2006) and Dixie Lee Spiegel (2005) also offer plans for starting and developing classroom talk.

Working from the Standards above, we have already discussed grade-level topics and texts (the input) and the agreed-upon rules (the norms). Now we need to keep students engaged through multiple exchanges.

To that end, Zwiers and Crawford present the skill of "elaborate and clarify." As with all the skills in their book, it comes with sentence frames and teaching strategies. The students' task is to keep their partner talking until he/she has fully explained his/her thinking, more than a one-time, one-phrase response.

Some frames for this skill are "Can you tell me more about..?", "What do you mean by …?", and "Can you be more specific?"


Questioning taxonomies are also helpful at this stage to help students probe their partners for more information. There are several that can lead to ask higher-order questions. Easiest to use is the leaf/root taxonomy, also known as skinny/fat.

Leaf (or skinny) questions are knowledge-level questions. The answers are easily available in the text. Root (or fat) questions, are "below the surface" and require more thinking to answer.

Costa's three levels of questions is also a favorite with its examples of "gathering, processing and applying information." The granddaddy of all taxonomies is Bloom's, of course. It's still useful, especially now in that it has been renamed with verbs (remembering, understanding, etc.) instead of nouns (knowledge, comprehension, etc.).

Regardless of the taxonomy you use, it's usually counterproductive, at least at first, to set requirements on the type of question asked. We want kids to become fluent and comfortable with asking and answering each others' questions, so that they continue to deepen the practice. The keyword is practice. In my experience, the more they practice, the deeper their questions become.

Role of the facilitator

The facilitator's role is to provide the content input, teach the skills, organize the partners, and then sit down and be quiet. Once the conversations have begun, the teacher must stay out of them, except to wander around and listen to the quality of the interactions.

At a certain point, you will feel the conversations begin to die out, or change to casual conversation. Give your signal to end the session. Ask if anyone would like to share the ideas they were discussing.

If there is reluctance, ask who will share what their partner was saying. Also ask who heard the particular discussion or question frames used. This is one of the ways to assess the conversation quality.

Deliver the next chunk of input and repeat.

Deepening the practice

Practicing norms, smoothing locating a partner, and elaborating on text is just the beginning. Once students have practiced these skills for several trials, it's time to add more. The next one for which Zwiers and Crawford list teaching ideas and language frames is "support ideas with examples." Students must be able to locate information in the text to support any assertion they might make.

Supporting ideas is followed by paraphrasing. This sounds easy on the surface. All one partner does is repeat back what he/she heard.

As it turns out, this skill requires (and allows practice in) careful listening skills. It will take at least a class session paraphrasing common topics to get skilled at this. The telephone game is a good way to show the importance of careful listening and repeating.

After paraphrasing comes synthesizing, or summarizing. The partners must come to a conclusion or a recap of what they have been talking about. What were the main points? Main questions? Were there any disagreements and were they settled? Did each partner say something that stimulated thought in the other?

Last in the Zwiers/Crawford list of skills is "challenge or build on a partner's opinion. They place this one in the middle of the sequence, if there is a sequence.

In my experience, this is difficult for English learners to do. It also includes the use of all the previous skills. I like to teach this one after my group has reasonable fluency with the other four. It is important to introduce this skill with a topic that is well known and high interest for the students.

In final part of this series, we will examine specific procedures and assessment of the conversation.