Chapter 2 Getting Started with Academic Conversations from Zwiers and Crawford, Academic Conversations, 2011

This chapter begins as do the other chapters with quotes from learners or teachers:

Comment from a 6th grader:  “It was weird.  When we finished talking, we had a totally new idea.” (p. 27)

In a sense, Chapter 2 is the heart of this book.  It covers two central ideas: Conversation Norms and Core Skills for Academic Conversations.

Shared Conversation Norms.  I can’t image a more critical skill (standard) than learning how to use conversation to learn, to create ideas, to negotiate, perhaps especially as we elect new leadership in our country.  Here verbatim (from pages 30-31) are the authors’ list 7 norms:

*listen to each other

*share our own ideas and explain them

*respect one another’s ideas, even if they are different

*respectfully disagree and try to see the other view

*let others finish explaining their ides without interrupting

*try to come to some agreement in the end

*take turns and share air time

The five core skills of conversation which are explained in more detail in Chapter 3 are:

Elaborate and clarify

Support ideas with examples

Build on and/or challenge a partner’s idea


Synthesize conversation points

Real strengths of this text are the number of examples the authors provide and the extent to which it is possible to generalize these ideas to written language and across content areas.


Academic Conversations and School Success

Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford,  Stenhouse, 2011

Dialogue Blog for Monday, March 21 16

This book offers an extensive treatment of classroom talk with multiple examples and suggestions for application across the content areas.  In this multi-post sequence, my focus will be on the following chapters:

1 Reasons to Converse in School (pp 7-26)

2 Getting Started with Academic Conversations

3 Lesson Activities for Developing Core Conversation Skills

4 Designing Effective Conversation Tasks

5 Training Students for Academic Conversations

8 Conversations in History

9 Conversations in Science

To begin Chapter 1, Z and C offer a comment by a 4th grader:

“Conversations not only made us sound smarter, I think they actually made us smarter.”

Zwiers and Crawford begin this chapter by talking about the need for oral academic skills in school and in the larger world, and they note the problem that “Despite their power, rich conversations in school are rare.” (p. 7)  As always in reviewing a book in-depth, I highly recommend buying it.

Advantages of Conversation

They then go on to present a long list of “advantage of conversation” across a wide range of domains: language and literacy (LL), cognitive (COG), content learning (CON), Social and cultural (SC) and psychological (PSY).

Under Language and Literacy Advantages, they note:

Conversation Builds Academic Language

Conversation Builds Vocabulary

Conversation Builds Literacy Skills

Conversation Builds Oral Language and Communication Skills

In the Cognitive Domain, they note that Conversation

Builds Critical Thinking Skills

Promotes Different Perspectives and Empathy

Fosters Creativity

Fosters Skills for Negotiating Meaning and Focusing on a Topic

In the Content Domain they say Conversation

Builds Content Understanding

Cultivates Connections

Helps Students to Co-Construct Understanding

Helps Teachers and Students Assess Learning

For the Social Cultural Domain, conversation

Builds Relationships

Builds Academic Ambience

Makes Lessons More Culturally Relevant

Fosters Equity

And, in the Psychological Domain, Conversation

Develops Inner Dialogue and Self-Talk

Fosters Engagement and Motivation

Builds Confidence and Academic Identity

Fosters Choice, Ownership, and Control Over Thinking

Builds Academic Identity

Fosters Self-Discovery

Builds Student Voice and Empowerment.




Ritchhart Part 5: The Languages of Mindfulness and Praise/Feedback

Ritchhart begins:

The Language of Mindfulness

Can language cause us to be more aware, mindful, and flexible?  A long line of research suggests that it can.  The amazing thing is that this language is subtle in its presence but powerful in its impact on our thinking.  Specifically, language that slows for the possibility of interpretation and that opens the door to even a small bit of ambiguity has the power to keep the mind in an open state, avoiding early closure, pursuing possibilities, and listening to information presented by others…..”  (p. 78)

Ritchhart then goes on to give an example of a teacher who uses “conditional” vs. “absolute” vocabulary by choosing terms such as “might” vs “is” in inviting students to consider their work as they look at a picture relevant to a history lesson.  Ritchhart continues on with a description of a series of studies on “mindfulness” conducted by Ellen Langer, himself, and others over a ten year period in which the researchers determined that the way a task was presented (as an absolute or a conditional phenomenon) determined how the learner would respond.  Learners could think of problems as  “right/wrong answer” tasks or as tasks that offered possible solutions.  Furthermore, the way problem solvers treated tasks (absolute or conditional) impacted the degree to which the participants “negotiated” solutions with others, thereby inviting others into a/the conversation.

“Now visualize yourself in a classroom, and a fellow student makes a statement with which you disagree.  His or her words might have the effect of shutting down conversation. In contrast, when someone expresses an idea in conditional language, it can be much easier to add your thoughts to the conversation.” (p. 80)

Given this perspective, if we want students to become thinkers, it is important to be sensitive not just to the specific words (or phrases or sentences) we use, but the kinds of language—absolute or conditional—that we use.  There is a whole literature that addresses this distinction that is well worth our consideration.

The Language of Praise/Feedback

Here, again, Ritchhart talks about the kind of language we, as teachers use, in this case, to provide students with guidance about the work they are doing, have already done, and/or will do.  He draws a distinction between praise and feedback (a topic getting a lot of attention lately in the education literature as it focuses on “growth mindset” and “formative and summative feedback.”) “Praise terms such as “perfect,” “good job,” “well done” are characterized as “not informative to the students; consequently, it may have no impact on the child beyond the realization that he or she got the answer right or wrong.” (p. 81) Referring to Dweck’s “Growth Mindset” work, he notes that Dweck (2007) suggests that “praise is intricately connected to how students view their intelligence” (p. 34) and therefore praise of one’s abilities may produce a burst of pride but ultimately be detrimental to learning….” (p. 81)

In contrast ”feedback” is described as being informative, task related, and potentially actionable relative to improving the task performance or guiding future learning.  Ritchhart offers suggestions on a research-based “language of feedback” illustrated by reference to Lisa’s (the featured teacher in this text) examples.    It is noted that she first points out, specifically, what they did that worked: “tried to find an explanations for what’s going on…used what you already know, things that you’ve already seen…” And then she “directs their attention to the next task, again highlighting the thinking to be done.” (p. 82)

And, again, it is not just the specific words/phrases/sentences that the teacher uses that matter, but the purpose/intention of the language choices that matters. Ideally, we don’t usually use words that don’t match our intentions.

Ritchhart ends the section by noting that there are other “kinds of language” that are relevant to the classroom and learning that we could consider: the language of trust, the language of direction, the language of responsibility, the language of framing, the language of metaphor, and the language of discourse.

And on the last page of this chapter, the author offers 7 ways to “Become proficient users of the languages of the classroom”:

*Become more aware of the language moves you are currently making.

*Listen to your students’ use of conditional and absolute language.

*In planning, list the key thinking moves.

*Practice the language of praise and feedback in writing.

*To become a better listener, try to avoid making assumptions about what others are saying or presuming you understand their intent.

*Check if you are nurturing initiative versus developing dependence…

*Make a list of the various roles you want students to step into in your classroom.


Ritchhart Part 4: The Languages of Identity and Initiative

The Language of Identity

Ritchhart raises the question of roles students take, depending on how we, as teachers, introduce a lesson/topic.  Do we tell them what they will learn about or should teachers introduce a lesson by saying: “Today as scientists we are going to be investigating how chemicals react under various circumstances.”  In the first example, students are likely to take a passive role as receiver of information, rather than taking on a new role.  “This [new role] includes not only discipline-based roles (scientists, artists, historians, and so on) but also process-based roles (thinkers, researchers, data collectors, analysts, commentators, advocates, inventors, and the like). (p. 75)(bolding mine)

Ritchhart says that the field of literacy instruction has already identified learners as readers or writers. “For decades, those involved in literacy education have embraced the language of identity and have come to refer easily to students as readers writers, authors, poets, and so on as a matter of course.” (p. 74)

Clearly, students have the ability, even at a young age, to identify themselves as active learners in a specific domain  and to use the language of learning:

I have heard a 4 year old distinguish between “teached” and “learned” in a conversation about learning.

I have heard Kindergarten children refer to themselves as “readers’ and “writers.”

And I have heard a middle school student refer to herself as a learner after having a “coach” say, “You’re learning.”

I can’t help but wonder at what age children come to see themselves as “learners” and have the vocabulary to talk about their learning.  What role do parents and teachers play in providing the vocabulary of learning?  One road to seeing oneself as a learner is the “initiative” that children are able to take in their learning.

The Language of Initiative

There is so much in this section that it will be difficult to do it justice.  But here are a few examples of what Ritchhart offers.

“Contemplating the skills and dispositions required for success in the twenty-first century, we saw the need for flexible, independent learners able to demonstrate initiative and innovation emerge as a common demand across multiple constituencies.”… (p. 75)

“If we accept that initiative is indeed an important goal for education in the twenty-first century, then we need to know what actually develops when we foster initiative.  A key aspect of initiative, or what researchers in sociology and psychology sometimes refer to as “agency,” is the ability to make choices and direct activity based on one’s own resourcefulness and enterprise….” (p. 76)

To help students develop this initiative,

^Teachers can use language to direct a student’s attention to the strategies they employ:

*”Tell me what you just did.”

*“What is your plan for tackling this?”

In contexts where students are given the opportunity to use initiative, students’ language reflects that:

^Students’ use of “agent” language includes:

*Use of hypotheticals:  If we do this…” or “let’s imagine…”

*Use of modals (would, could, should) as ways to identify option for consideration.

In describing such contexts, Heath (1999) “notice that both leaders and older members of the group regularly used the language of initiative, thus providing new members the opportunity to internalize it.” (p. 78)

Ritchhart ends this section by saying:

“Our goal as educators, parents and mentors is to encourage those whom we are trying to nurture to be the thinkers and see themselves as thinkers, planners, and doers.” (p. 78)

The language we use can encourage or discourage students to/from being “agents” and “thinkers.”

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.




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