4 Steps to Facilitate Meaningful Student Discussions in Your Classroom

How many times have you said “ok turn and talk to your elbow partner”, or asked a discussion question to the whole group only to hear crickets? Speaking and listening are skills that need to be taught just like reading, writing or math, but unfortunately there isn’t much curriculum support for teaching these skills. So what’s a busy teacher to do? Here is your step by step guide to helping your kids to talk to each other in meaningful ways and stay on topic. 

  1. Create Discussion Agreements

If you are noticing that partner talk is just not going the way you want it to, consider discussing agreements for talking and listening with your class. Ask them, “How can you tell if someone is listening to you? What should you do if your partner doesn’t want to share? What should you do if your partner starts to go off topic?” This kind of discussion can really help kids realize how important it is to listen to each other. It can be helpful to write these agreements out on chart paper and keep them posted in the classroom.

  1. Plan Strategic Partnerships

Long before the lesson starts, when I create seating charts, I think about the different speaking and listening skills my students have as well as their personalities. Which students talk a lot? Who doesn’t talk much at all? Who asks questions? Who stays on topic? Who is good at including people in a discussion? I also think about the language and behavior needs of my students. With all this information mapped out, you can create strategic partnerships based on the different personalities and needs in your classroom. 

After you plan your partnerships, this is also a good time to pull small groups of kids that have the same challenges when it comes to speaking and listening. You can use these small group lessons to coach them on their specific area of need. For example, If you identify a group of kids that has trouble having a back-and-forth discussion after they have shared their own idea, you can teach them strategies for keeping a conversation going. 

  1. Provide Lots of Language Support

Sometimes class discussions or partner talk is a flop because the kids don’t know what to say or how to structure their thoughts, and they need a little more guidance. Decide on some common sentence frames for general conversations, as well as specific ones that support the topic you are teaching. While I’m planning a lesson and thinking about the questions I’m going to ask, I also take some time to think about what I’m hoping student responses will be or how the discussion will go. For example, if I want students to talk about their opinion of a character in a book based on evidence in the text, I’ll plan out a sentence frame and post it during the discussion for them to refer to. That might sound like “I think ___ is ____ because in the book they_____ed.” I’ll leave that sentence on the board while we discuss and provide some examples of how that might sound. When kids are talking, I’ll even point to or voice over the sentence to remind them to use it and help them structure their thoughts. 

  1. Write or Think Time 

Sometimes students don’t share because they just haven’t had enough time to gather their thoughts. After you’ve asked the question, always give students time to think or jot down their ideas. In math, for example, if you give students a problem to work on and then have them discuss their strategy with a partner, make sure to give everyone ample time to work out the problem and think about the strategy they have used. While students are thinking and jotting, I often voice over the sentence starters while they are silently writing. Then when it comes time to share time, they are more ready to get the conversation started. During whole group lessons, I always make sure that notebooks, post its, or whiteboards are easily accessible so they can quickly and easily jot their ideas. While they are talking, they can refer to their notes if needed. 

What are your tricks for getting kids to have meaningful conversations in your classroom? Comment below with your favorite tips.

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