Ritchhart Part 3: The Language of Listening and Community

In the first blog post in this series I introduced Ritchhart’s Chapter on Language: Appreciating Its Subtle Yet Profound Power from his text: Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools (2015).

The first post from this Language Chapter focused on The Language of Thinking, one of 7 kinds of languages.  In this post, I’m going to begin a series that brings together, The Language of Listening, The Language of Community, and ideas from his Chapter on “Interactions: Forging Relationships That Empower Learners.”

The Language of Listening

In this section, the author highlights the power of being a good listener.  “Good” doesn’t mean agreeing with everything others say, it does mean engaging in a dialogue that includes clarification, making connections, building coherence (of ideas) and challenging…”not in terms of correctness or accuracy, but in the exploratory sense.”

Ritchhart says, “Good listeners ask authentic questions to clarify points, unearth any assumptions they may be bringing to the situation, and be sure of the speaker’s intent. To verify their understanding, good listeners paraphrase what speakers have said and ask speakers to verify that they have correctly represented their ideas.” (p. 83)

With clarity established [at least temporarily], a whole range of moves is possible, “depending on the context and goals.”  Clarity allows the participants (teacher, leader, students) to make connections among speakers’ contributions, thereby threading ideas together with the intent to creating a coherent dialogue.  If we then challenge ideas being presented, there is an opportunity to extend the conversation.  Learners can explore how these ideas might or might not apply in other contexts, to their own unarticulated ideas, to implications of the ideas and to other connections.

Listening, in classrooms, happens in a community of learners.  In Chapter 3’s discussion of the Language of Community, Ritchhart’s focus is on language that we use to show that we are part of a group.  Pronouns, in particular, are highlighted.  He points out the difference when a teacher uses “you…(are going to) vs. we (are going to).”  “We’re going to identify connections,” which indicates that the teacher is thinking and learning with the group.  In terms of creating a community of learners, the “we” must include the teacher not only as the director of the activity but also as a participant in the learning process of that activity.” (p. 72)

The second point of interest in this chapter is the use of “I”.  “…he (Pennebaker) has found that in reviewing email exchanges the person with less power is apt to use the pronoun “I” with greater frequency that the more powerful individual in the relationship.”  So, we might say that our use of pronouns can give insight into our sense of self, and our priorities, beliefs, and intentions.

A third point in this section on the Language of Community addresses the question of who is a member of the community.  As his example, he cites the question teachers might ask:  “What kind of answer are they looking for in this problem?”, bringing in the anonymous outsider to the task, situating the authority outside of the classroom. (p. 73).  The issue here is having students connect with authorities in a (the) field:  “It is harder to build an affinity with the discipline of study if one sits outside it and doesn’t even know the major figures who have contributed to it.” (p. 73)  Don’t we want students to become members of a discipline, to become mathematicians, scientists, historians?

The 3rd segment of Ritchhart’s text that is very specific to language use in his chapter on Interactions (Chapter 8).  I can’t and don’t intend to try to do it justice here (I really recommend buying this book), but there are a few ideas that are particularly relevant to listening and community: giving students roles to play in conversation, providing students with conversational routines to use, and establishing “rules” for interaction.

Ritchhart goes into great detail to describe the teaching and interactions in the 7th grade class of students with special needs, whom he refers to as “disenfranchised learners.”  He describes a “game” (Enbrighten) in which students take on particular roles to develop reading comprehension and language skills. The roles are summarizer, visualizer, vocab master, connector, questioner, clarifier, or predictor.  “Students then read a text together and complete their assigned roles in preparation for the class discussion which might be led or facilitated by the teacher of one of the students.” (p. 205) These roles are carried out with the scaffolding, support, and modeling that each student needs.

The author next describes a pattern of interaction (routine) that allows students to build on one another’s ideas.  In contrast to the QRE routine (teacher question, student responds, teacher evaluates), which he describes as “ping pong”, a basketball metaphor is suggested as a preferred pattern of interaction.  In the basketball routine, the “ball” (question) is passed around and ideas are bounced off one another.  Ritchhart then describes several multi step routines that engage students in thinking, sharing and reflecting.  They start with a free write, move into 3 person discussions, whole class sharing and then a Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate routine.

One final point from this chapter that I would like to highlight here: rules for interacting.  We might call these “educational ground rules.”  One set of suggested rules comes from the work of Herrenkohl and Marion Guerra (l998):

Contribute to group work and help others contribute

Support ideas by offering reasons

Work to understand others’ ideas

Build on one another’s ideas.






The Language of Thinking

In the last blog post that focused on Ritchhart’s book on Creating Cultures of Thinking, I commented on Chapter 3 (Language:  Appreciating Its Subtle Yet Profound Power and ended that post with the following comments:

The next post in this series will explore the “Language of Thinking.”  It will be interesting to see how these introductory examples of “language use” (choice of words, ways of joining the conversation, asking questions about connections, possibilities, and reasoning) do or might play a role in the Language of Thinking.

The Language of Thinking (pp. 68-71)

Ritchhart begins this section (1 of 7 kinds of classroom “languages”) by referring to work of Costa (l991) on teachers using a rich vocabulary of thinking words, words like “inquire, generate, question, puzzle, theorize, to name a few of a very long list.”  He expands that idea by citing work by Tishman and Perkins (l997), who made a further distinction  of “thinking vocabulary” by subdividing the words into words about process (justify, examine), product (a hypothesis, a judgment) and attitudes toward an idea (agreement, doubt).  And, Ritchhart added a fourth category: states (confusion, awe).

Like most of our learning goals, we don’t just want students to “know” the vocabulary of thinking, we want them to use it in discriminating ways—to be specific about the cognitive tasks they are engaged in.  It matters that students understand that they are to “describe” rather than “infer” or “conclude,” for example.

For Ritchhart, “the language of thinking assists metacognition in both its reflective components as well as its planning aspects.  ….this helps us identify those processes for examination.” ….Metacognition isn’t merely backward looking, however.  Metacognition involves ongoing monitoring and directing of one’s thinking.” (p. 69)….Having a language to identify thinking processes is a requirement for us to call them into play.  If we cannot name the processes, then we can’t easily and effectively activate them.” (p. 70)

The main way students develop a language of thinking, he says, is by being in situations where others are using it….. “Noticing when and where students are thinking and specifically naming the thinking being demonstrated is a key move that teachers, parents and mentors can use to develop awareness, direct attention and reinforce processes.” (p. 70)

It starts with teachers highlighting and reinforcing what they want students to notice.  “For instance, in Lisa Verkerk’s class, the routine See-Think-Wonder asked students to look closely, notice details, observe carefully, make interpretations, build explanations, reason, generate alternatives, provide evidence, make connections, and raise questions….Rather than just telling students they had done a good job, she used language to notice and name something specific that they had done well: observing.” (p. 70)

Obviously that type and range of cognitive activity (thinking processes) is a lot to pay attention to at one time.  “Thus we need to identify what kinds of thinking we are looking for in a particular lesson.  Ritchhart notes that when the targeted thinking is missing, it can be scaffolded by the teacher.  “When it is present, we can …make it visible to them.” ….”Think of students as apprentices trying to develop a set of skills that allow for more and more independence.  We want to draw attention to those skills and processes that are authentic to the learning task at hand and not just the completion of the work.”(p. 71)











Language as a Tool for Changing Classrooms and Schools

Book Review:Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools, Ron Ritchhart, Jossey-Bass, 2015

This is a book for teachers, focusing on many forces that have the power to change our classrooms and schools so that students can become more successful learners.

The 8 forces are: Purpose and Promise, How Our Beliefs Shape Our Behavior, Language, Time, Modeling (Seeing Ourselves through Our Students’ Eyes), Opportunities (Vehicles for Learning), Routines (Supporting and Scaffolding Learning and Thinking), Interactions (Forging Relationships that Empower Learning).

The focus for this series of posts is the chapter on “Language: Appreciating Its Subtle Yet Profound Power.”  The chapter describes 7 “kinds of language”:

The Language of Thinking

The Language of Community

The Language of Identity

The Language of Initiative

The Language of Mindfulness

The Language of Praise and Feedback

The Language of Listening

The author begins this chapter by describing a classroom scene where Lisa, a fifth grade teacher, is teaching the children to use a particular thinking routine: See-Think-Wonder.  Lisa begins the lesson by giving the students a series of photographs showing children around the world as they experience some type of hardship or inequity.  Ritchard describes the action:  “As I moved around the room with the cameraman, I was pleased we were capturing good footage of students talking and sharing their thinking at each step of the routine.”

He describes the way he moved from focusing on Lisa’s choice of content, preparation, purpose, and the way she was developing a larger understanding, to focusing on Lisa’s use of language. He “became more and more engrossed not in the lesson itself, but in how Lisa’s language served to effectively guide and direct the students’ learning and thinking….  …it was only by carefully attending to Lisa’s language that I was able to begin to understand how all the aspects of expert teaching took shape.” (p. 63)

Lisa starts the conversation by asking, “What do we see?”…Lisa then asks the students, “What do you think might be going on with those children? Students immediately begin to offer possibilities and alternatives.”…..” Students put forth possibilities, add on to one another’s ideas, and connect to things that had been seen….”

Ritchhart points out the importance of Lisa’s choice of words:  “we” (this is a cooperative venture); “might be going on” (seeking alternatives, possibilities, and options rather than naming).

He goes on to describe the way she joins the conversation to help them move forward:  “Feeding their own words back to them, she gives them a chance to elaborate on their initial thinking and modify it if necessary…” (p. 65) and she “effortlessly weaves in feedback in a non-evaluative way by point out the good thinking they have done….”   She asks clarifying questions, using “responsive language” to convey that she has heard and “what questions, connections, or possibilities others have raised.” (p. 66)….not looking for correctness but “engaging with them in coming to a deeper understanding”..(p 66)…..”pushing them for the evidence and reasoning behind their responses….” (p. 67) [bolding mine]

Using a variety of linguistic frameworks, Ritchhart says “we can distill a number of key “language moves” that can create a culture of thinking… (p. 68).

The next post in this series will explore the “Language of Thinking.”  It will be interesting to see how these introductory examples of “language use” (choice of words, ways of joining the conversation, asking questions about connections, possibilities, and reasoning) do or might play a role in the Language of Thinking.




Parent Conversation and Learning in Middle School

How is parent  conversation related to learning?  Here’s a short excerpt from:

Good Talk: Raising Smart Learners Through Rich Conversations

By Annie Murphy Paul September 30, 2013

“……While the conversations parents have with their children change as kids grow older, the effect of these exchanges on academic achievement remains strong. And again, the way mothers and fathers talk to their middle-school students makes a difference. Research by Nancy Hill, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, finds that parents play an important role in what Hill calls “academic socialization”—setting expectations and making connections between current behavior and future goals (going to college, getting a good job).

Engaging in these sorts of conversations, Hill reports, has a greater impact on educational accomplishment than volunteering at a child’s school or going to PTA meetings, or even taking children to libraries and museums. When it comes to fostering students’ success, it seems, it’s not so much what parents do as what they say….”


Feedback: Part of the Learning Dialogue Cycle

Here’s a link on feedback with a short excerpt:


February 5, 2016 by Inservice Guest Blogger

Teaching Students to Give and Receive Meaningful Feedback By Kristin Vanderlip Taylor

“Feedback is essential to growth in learning—without it we might keep making the same mistakes or not know how to fix them. Teachers have the opportunity to provide purposeful feedback to students throughout learning experiences, not just as a summative evaluation. Feedback, though, doesn’t only need to come from teachers; peer critiques can also present valuable insight to students in a way that a teacher’s perspective might not. However, modeling questioning strategies and conversational practice are critical if we want our students to ask for and give feedback to each other that is meaningful and relevant, rather than superficial and disconnected….”