Leadership Lessons  

April 29, 2014
When Jeff Zwiers, author of Academic Conversations, was working with teachers as an instructional coach, he asked a fourth-grade student what she liked to do. Her eyes got really wide, and without hesitation, she emphatically said, “I love to talk!” Zwiers then goes on to say that this was indeed true, but that most of her talk, like that of others in the class, was not academic. He gives the following as an example of “academic” conversations he observed:

A: Why did the author write this?
B: To teach us about courage.
A: Yeah, the guy was brave.
B: Okay. What do we do now?

Students do not tend to use academic communication skills in social situations outside of school, especially in low-income homes and communities. Although these highly valued oral skills are not emphasized on state tests, curriculum programs, or intervention efforts, academic and professional success after schooling ends depends on them. According to Zwiers, “They are major gate-keeper skills, and too many students who lack them are being stopped and turned away at this gate.”

Research has shown that English language learners need more oral language skills, especially academic language, and vocabulary development than native English speakers to achieve grade-level reading levels. Unfortunately, oral language is rarely taught in depth after third grade when lessons tend to be dominated by teacher talk.

The teachers wanted more and better student talk in their classrooms where students initiated and maintained conversations, creating, shaping, applying, negotiating, and sharing academic ideas but there were few practical resources on training students to converse academically in pairs and small groups on their own. In response, Zwiers and Crawford wrote the book Academic Conversations to help teachers in grades three to twelve teach their students to converse in academic ways. The book covers everything from how to get started through how to assess academic conversation.  Three chapters show how to use conversations in the specific content areas of language arts, history and science.

Zwiers gives teachers the following convincing arguments to use in case someone asks why their classroom is so loud. These reasons may also convince teachers to get and study this long-needed book!

Conversation Builds:                                                              
  •Academic Language
   •Literacy Skills
   •Oral Language and Communication Skills
   •Critical Thinking Skills
   •Content Understanding
   •Academic Ambience
   •Confidence and Academic Identity
   •Student Voice and Empowerment  
Conversation Develops
   •Inner Dialogue & Self-Talk    
Conversation Fosters:
   •Skills for Negotiating Meaning & Focusing on a Topic                                 
   •Engagement and Motivation
   •Choice, Ownership, and Control over Thinking      
Conversation Cultivates
   •Connections (between ideas)                     
Conversation Makes
    •Lessons More Culturally Relevant 

-by Rosemary Cervantes, English Language Coordinator