Section 4: Goals for Productive Discussions

  • Goals for Productive Discussions

    According to the National Research Council (2012), science is fundamentally a social enterprise, and scientific knowledge advances through collaboration and in the context of a social system with well-developed norms. The goal is to increase productive discourse in the classroom in which students are having focused, coherent, and rigorous scientific discussions. The following pages outline several strategies to foster productive discussions in your classroom.

    Help Individual Students Share, Expand, and Clarify Their Own Thinking
    If a student is going to participate in the discussion, he or she has to share thoughts and responses out loud in a way that is understandable to others. If only one or two students can do this, you do not have a discussion–– you have a monologue or, at best, a dialogue between the teacher and a student.

    Help Students Listen Carefully to One Another
    Students need to listen to others and try to understand them in order to contribute to the discussion. Your ultimate goal involves helping students to share ideas and reasoning. It is not enough to hear a series of students giving their own unconnected thoughts one by one. Students need to hear and understand the ideas of others.

    Help Students Deepen Their Reasoning
    Even if students express their thoughts and listen to others’ ideas, the discussion can fail to be academically productive if it lacks solid and sustained scientific reasoning. Most students are not skilled at pushing to understand and deepen their own reasoning. Therefore, a key role of the teacher is to continuously and skillfully press the students for reasoning and evidence.

    Help Students Engage with Others' Reasoning
    The final step involves students actually taking up the ideas and reasoning of other students and responding to them. This is when the discussion can take off and become exhilarating for students and teachers alike.

    These four goals are critical in promoting discussions that lead to greater learning. Unless students are developing new and expanded ways of talking and arguing, and new ways of listening and attending to the thinking of their peers, using evidence and data to support their claims, the talk may remain superficial and fail to lead to robust learning.

    As you watch this video clip, observe how the teacher met these goals for productive discussions. Note the ease at which students communicate with one another...what do you notice about the context of the students conversation?


    In the classroom on the video, it is apparent that this teacher has created a culture that encourages student directed discourse. An example of this is demonstrated at the beginning of the video when one student gives a plausible explanation for an observed event and the student’s peers are adding supportive data and elaborating on the original idea.

    Talk Moves

    The Talk Science Primer by The Inquiry Project at TERC (2012) contains the following nine talk moves that can generate productive discourse in the classroom and contribute to creating a culture of science talk.

    Individual students share, expand and clarify their own thinking

    1. Time to Think: 
    • Partner Talk 
    • Writing as Think Time 
    • Wait Time
    2. Say More: 
    • “Can you say more about that?” 
    • “What do you mean by that?” 
    • “Can you give an example?”
    3. So, Are You Saying...?: 
    • “So, let me see if I’ve got what you’re saying. Are you saying...?” (always leaving space for the original student to agree or disagree and say more)
    Students listen carefully to one another

    4. Who Can Rephrase or Repeat?: 
    • “Who can repeat what Javon just said or put it into their own words?” (After a partner talk) 
    • “What did your partner say?”
    Students deepen their reasoning

    5. Asking for Evidence or Reasoning: 
    • “Why do you think that?” 
    • “What’s your evidence?” 
    • “How did you arrive at that conclusion?” 
    • “Is there anything in the text that made you think that?”
    6. Challenge or Counterexample: 
    • “Does it always work that way?” 
    • “How does that idea square with Sonia’s example?” 
    • “What if it had been a copper cube instead?”
    Students think with others

    7. Agree/Disagree and Why?: 
    • “Do you agree/disagree? (And why?)” 
    • “Are you saying the same thing as Jelya or something different, and if it’s different, how is it different?” 
    • “What do people think about what Vannia said?” 
    • “Does anyone want to respond to that idea?”
    8. Add On: 
    • “Who can add onto the idea that Jamal is building?” 
    • “Can anyone take that suggestion and push it a little further?”
    9. Explaining What Someone Else Means: 
    • “Who can explain what Aisha means when she says that?” 
    • “Who thinks they could explain in their words why Simon came up with that answer?” 
    • “Why do you think he said that?”

    This video gives you the opportunity to observe how the teacher fosters a culture of productive talk in a 3rd grade classroom. Take note of the talk moves that are used in this classroom. 

    Click on the image below to access the video:Listening for Unexpected for Surprising Ideas

    The video is from The Inquiry Project and Talk Science Professional Development, Copyright 2011. Talk Science PD is a blend of web-based study, opportunities to try ideas in the classroom, and face-to-face study group meetings designed to help teachers increase the effectiveness of classroom science discussions. 


    Talk Formats


    Let us explore the Three Talk Formats in more detail. 

    Three Talk Formats

    There are three types of talk formats used in the classroom to support academic discourse: Whole Group, Small Group and Partner Talk. These formats work best when specific norms are in place for listening, participating equally, and collaboration.


    Beauchamp, A., Kusnick, J., & McCallum, R. (2011) Success in science through dialogue, reading and writing. Davis, CA: The Regents of the University of California, Davis.
    Below are three talk moves that support each of the three talk formats accordingly. These talk moves can be seen during the discrepant event.
    1. Whole Group: Dialogue Stems
    Stems serve as starting points or focusing tools for the dialogue. This is an excellent way to keep students on topic when asked to discuss the discrepant event. Having dialogue stems allow for the teacher to redirect student conversations on a focused topic. Dialogue stems allow the teacher to direct the conversation and generate responses for a particular category (i.e. observations, predictions, etc.). In the category of predicting, examples are:
    • I hypothesize…
    • I imagine…
    • Based on… I infer…
    • I observe…
    • In my opinion…
    Here, teachers can also differentiate between opinions, observations and inferences using dialogue stems. Dialogue stems allow the teacher to direct the conversation and generate responses for a particular category (i.e. observations, predictions, etc.). This strategy can be used during whole group instruction. Dialogue stems also allow the teacher to focus on a particular goal for productive discussion. The following are examples of dialogue stems, particularly for the four discourse goals.
    Below are examples of dialogue stems that you can use in the classroom. A strategy is to create “table tents” in which students can easily refer to the stems to assist with discourse.

    Dialogue Stem Purpose Goal
    Based on ___ I infer that… 
    Can you say more about that?
    Predicting and asking for clarification Individual students share, expand and clarify their own thinking.
    In other words, you think… 
    My partner thinks… 
    I found out from _____ that…
    Paraphrasing or Repeating Students listen carefully to one another.
    “My claim is _____and the evidence is _______
    I arrived at this conclusion because… 
    My claim is supported by the text because…
    Asking for evidence or reasoning Students deepen their reasoning.
    I agree with you because… 
    I got a different answer…
    Agree/disagree Students think with others.

    In this video clip, the teacher sets up dialogue stems for whole group and small group discussions. 

    2. Small Group: Say Something

    This strategy is best with small groups of 3-4 students. The first designated group member begins the conversation about the discrepant event. Then, the following group members subsequently add to the original comment. This allows for one topic to be thoroughly explored and to have all comments relate in some way to the original scientific phenomena demonstrated. It is important to solidify norms and ensure that only one person in each group is speaking while the other group members are intently listening. Students can make observations, comments, inferences, or connections to prior knowledge. Students can also clarify their understanding or ask questions about the topic at hand. Students can say “I have nothing to add to the topic of -insert topic here- at this time” if they are not ready to share their ideas. Thus keeping them accountable for being engaged in the conversation. 

    Observe the students practicing the "Say Something" protocol. It is evident that this teacher has created a culture that encourages student directed discourse, and has specifically reviewed the norms for "Say Something". An example of this is demonstrated at the beginning of the video when one student gives a plausible opinion for the observed event and the student's peers are adding supportive data and elaborating on the original idea. As you continue to watch the video, you may notice that the same students are further along in the give and take of collaborative conversations. 



    3. Partner Talk: Think-Pair-Share

    Think-Pair-Share is a great way to get students to explore their thinking while developing their academic language with their peers. However, students must actively listen to their peer's ideas and negotiate a common understanding after engaging in discourse.

    Think: my thoughts or understanding at this time Pair: what I understand my partner is telling me
    Share: our common understanding after talking, what we can share with others and what was most important from our discussion

    Please complete the reflection form for Section 4: Goals for Productive Discussions - Talk Moves and Talk Formats. Do NOT move on unless you have received a confirmation page that says this: "Your answers have been submitted." 


Discourse in Science Reflections