Section 2: Discourse in Science

  • Participating in collaborative academic discussions and presentations is one of the four competencies necessary for students to develop 21st century communication or literacy skills. Oftentimes, teachers produce questions that students are expected to respond to and discuss. Research suggests that student interaction, through classroom discourse and other forms of interactive participation, is foundational to deep understanding and related student achievement (Bruce, 2007). The Common Core State Standards urges teachers to take on a facilitative role of discourse so that questioning, speaking and listening stem directly from the students. Discourse serves a vital role in helping students negotiate common understanding and develop critical reasoning skills.

    One of the big goals in science learning is to help students make sense of scientific phenomena and ideas. Helping students make sense is accomplished, in large part, by giving students opportunities to talk. There are two reasons for this. First, talking is the primary mode of sense-making in human beings. Second, hearing students’ talk, gives you access to their thinking and allows you to adapt instruction to their current understandings. You might be surprised to find that what students communicate is vastly different from what you believe they are thinking. 

    What Does the Research Say?

    The review of literature identifies specific outcomes from increasing opportunities for students to engage in productive discourse:
    • Students' ideas become "visible"
    • Provides opportunities to compare one's thinking to others
    • Fosters peer to peer interaction
    • Provides authentic opportunities to acquire academic language and English Language fluency
    • Provides opportunities to negotiate and refine ideas
    • Uses evidence to build and critique academic arguments
    Research by Sarah Michaels and Cathy O'Connor who authored Talk Science Primer (Michaels & O'Connor, 2012) examined what is academically productive discourse. When they analyzed students' interactions, they found that their conversations were not always productive and often students needed scaffolds to support academic discourse. 
    Recognizing that this can be challenging, let's examine the literature for structures that support academic discourse. In the Talk Science Primer (Michaels & O'Connor, 2012), 7 elements of academically productive talk are identified that shift classroom discourse from recitation to discussions that deepen students' understanding of complex material and reasoning.

    7 Elements of Academically Productive Talk
    1. A belief in the possibility and efficacy of this kind of talk

      Teachers recognize that through well-structured discussions students can increase their content knowledge, argumentation, reasoning skills, and learn with increasing independence. Teachers must believe that their students are smart and capable of doing this and share this belief with their students.

    2. Well-established ground rules

      Teachers and students must have a clear understanding of what is expected of them during academic discourse. Students need active listening, respectful responses, and structures to engage in argumentation modeled for them.These are practices that are developed in students and require accountability by all members of the class.

    3. Clear academic purposes for talk

      Teachers must identify the purpose of the communication when planning for academic conversation. This requires thoughtful considerations for the following:

      • the content being explored
      • the students' current knowledge base in relation to the learning goals
      • anticipation of how the discussion might unfold
      • the structures to support specific students: small group, partner work, language partners

        Clear academic purposes for talk 

    4. Deep understanding of the academic content

      Teachers need to have a deep understanding of the core science concepts, scientific and/or engineering practices, and students’ common ideas in order to plan for discourse that targets key concepts.

    5. A framing question and follow-up questions (POP-UP: Student’s learning naturally loops through a cycle of wonder, exploration, discovery, reflection, and more wonder, leading them on to increasingly complex knowledge and sophisticated thinking. The power of open-ended questions comes from the way these questions tap into that natural cycle, inviting students to pursue their own curiosity about how the world works. The use of framing questions can reveal students understanding of concepts at key moments in the learning cycle. Developing a set of questions helps teachers anticipate or prepare for the discussion.

      • "What outcome do you predict?" and follow up the initial question with comments such as, "Say more about that."
      • "Does anyone agree or disagree with what Janine just said?"
      • "Does anyone want to add or build on to the idea Jamal is developing?"

        A framing question and follow-up questions

    6. An appropriate talk format

      Teachers need to examine the desired outcomes from academic discourse, the context of their class and where in the learning cycle the discussion is located in selecting talk formats. Typical talk formats include: whole group, small group and partner talk.

    7. A set of strategic "talk moves"

      We will examine these "talk moves" in detail in a later section. These moves are designed to open up conversation and support student participation.

    The Talk Science Primer

    The Talk Science Primer was developed by The Inquiry Project (2012) that focuses engaging students in science inquiry in grades 3-5. Many of the strategies can be adapted for your specific grade level. The Talk Science Primer consists of four parts: 

    • What is Academically Productive Talk
    • Why is Talk Important??
    • Establishing a Culture of Productive Talk
    • How Can Teachers Support Productive Talk
    Read the Talk Science Primer by clicking here:  Talk Science Primer

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Discourse in Science Reflections