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Traditions, Research, and Practice Supporting Academically Productive Classroom Discourse

Summary and Keywords

This article focuses on both research and practice relating to academically productive classroom discourse. We seek to “expand the conversation” to include newcomers to the field of classroom talk, as well as practitioners and youth researchers who want to contribute to knowledge building in this area. We first explore a variety of traditions, questions, and methods that have been prominent in work on classroom talk. We also summarize some key findings that have emerged over the past several decades:

• Finding 1: Certain kinds of talk promote robust learning for ALL students.

• Finding 2: The field lacks shared conceptualizations of what productive talk is and how best to characterize it.

• Finding 3: Dialogic discourse is exceedingly rare in classrooms, at all grade levels and across all domains.

• Finding 4: A helpful way forward: conceptualizing talk moves as tools.

Following the presentation of each research finding we provide a set of commentaries—explicating and in some cases problematizing the findings. Finally, we provide some promising approaches that presume cultural and linguistic assets among both students and teachers, including curricular programs, teacher education, professional development programs, teacher research, and intergenerational communities of inquiry. In all of this, we try to make our own assumptions, traditions, and governing gazes explicit, as a multi-generational and multi-role group of authors, to encourage greater transparency among all who work in this important and potentially transformative field of study.

Keywords: classroom discourse, academically productive talk, sociolinguistics, ethnography of communication, practitioner inquiry, dialogic discourse, talk moves

Introduction: What This Chapter Is (and Is Not)

In an Oxford Research Encyclopedia article on classroom talk, it’s fitting to begin with an example of classroom talk that we will examine together, and refer to it throughout the article. But beyond this beginning section, there is nothing typical about this “handbook” article. Instead of a comprehensive review of the research, we interrogate the diverse research traditions and approaches that make up a large body of scholarship, and provide a selective and synoptic summary of some of the key findings, taking care to locate ourselves, our governing gaze, and our traditions. We also offer a constructive critique—of our own and others’ work—exploring some of the key gaps and challenges facing scholars of classroom talk. Finally, we go beyond description of the status quo and shift to a more “prescriptive stance.” We describe some new developments—that show the promise and power of key ideas, a shared metalanguage, and innovative applications—in producing useable knowledge and “on the ground” benefits for students and teachers. Our goal is to locate, and even revive, a number of scholarly traditions and look critically at the intellectual history of the work on classroom talk—particularly useful for newcomers to this complex body of work. Finally, we hope to do so in a way that is accessible to both academic researchers and practitioner researchers—so that the diverse community of scholars and practitioners and youth researchers interested in classroom discourse can collaborate more successfully across disciplinary and institutional boundaries, and stand on one another’s shoulders in efforts to promote more equitable and powerful learning opportunities for students and teachers alike. To help readers navigate, we provide at the outset a bulleted list as a way to preview the structural and thematic components of each section.

A Telling Case: “Is It Real?”

  • Brief context: Teacher, student (relative newcomer)—in a discussion about an art image (Claus Oldenberg “ice cream” sculpture)

  • Transcript

  • Noticings and questions

  • Academic traditions we draw on

  • Our governing gaze—the linguistic assets that students bring, and belief in teachers as knowledge builders

  • Kenneth Burke’s “Parlor”

Brief Context

The following exchange took place in an English as Second Language classroom, in a public school) in a midsize urban city in the northeastern part of the United States (grades 7–12, typically ages 12–17 but in this case, with many newcomers, ages ranged from 12 to 20. In this school, 75% of students speak a language other than English at home, and 90% receive free or reduced-priced lunch. In some aspects, this school and classroom are representative of the cultural and linguistic diversity in US urban schools, and in some respects, they are not. The neighborhood is predominately poor, but located near a private university. Furthermore, the school is located in a well-known receiving community for refugee families and unaccompanied minors, many of whom are also students with interrupted formal education.

This interaction was audio-recorded by the teacher, who was at the time participating in a teacher-research seminar with colleagues in the district and two university-based researchers (Sarah Michaels and Jie Park). The tape was transcribed by the teacher and brought to the teacher research seminar as an example of a puzzling moment (Ballenger, 2009) from her classroom. The context is a whole-group classroom discussion in which students are looking at an image of Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture titled Floor Cone projected on a screen at the front of the room.

Traditions, Research, and Practice Supporting Academically Productive Classroom DiscourseClick to view larger

Figure 1: Claes Oldenburg, Floor Cone, 1962, Museum of Modern Art.

Dimensions: 53 3/4" x 11' 4" x 56" (136.5 x 345.4 x 142 cm).

The image—a photograph of a three-dimensional sculpture, approximately 12 feet × 5 feet × 5 feet—from the Museum of Modern Art—was projected and discussed as part of an innovative literacy curriculum, Discussions4Learning (D4L). D4L uses fine-art images and real-world photographs from around the world to spark discussion and interpretation, and provides a supportive script for teachers to help them introduce students to sophisticated vocabulary and complex syntactic constructions in the context of meaningful discussion. Initially designed for early elementary learners (K–3, ages five to eight), this curriculum offers suggested talk moves and “discussion tips” to help teachers shift from recitation to reasoning-based discussions in which students take on the primary responsibility of inquiring into, interpreting, and arguing about complex images as texts. The curriculum, by design, provides students with provocative interpretive challenges and multiple opportunities for choral repetition of complex constructions, and helps learners to use carefully selected vocabulary in meaningful and shared contexts. In short, the curriculum is designed to support students in developing communicative competence and stamina, as well as fluency with academic vocabulary and discourse structures. The transcribed incident is an exchange between the teacher, Lori Simpson (a White, monolingual woman in her mid-forties) and a 17-year-old student (Elvis, an emergent bilingual youth from Peru who, at the time of the discussion, had been in the country for eight months).


Simpson: Is this a sculpture, what do you think this is, is this a sculpture or painting?

Elvis: A sculpture (mumbling). It’s real (quietly).

Simpson: Elvis, what did you say?

Elvis: It’s real.

Simpson: Real what?

Elvis: (inaudible) I don’t know dimension.

Simpson: Elvis, why don’t you come a little closer so you can see and we can hear you.

Elvis: (inaudible)

Simpson: You said that it was real, what do you mean, it’s real?

Elvis: It's not a sculpture, not an artwork.

Simpson: You don’t think it’s an artwork at all?

Elvis: No.

Simpson: What do you think it is?

Elvis: (inaudible)

Simpson: So, you think it’s…

Elvis: Real.

Simpson: Real? So you think it’s a real ice cream cone, OK. So (door opens). So, you think that… It’s actually a sculpture but you think that the artist is trying to represent an ice cream cone with this sculpture? Is that what you think Elvis, that it’s an ice cream cone?

Elvis: (inaudible) What do you see there?

Simpson: What do I see? Well that’s sort of an unfair question because I know what it is. Because I read about it.

Elvis: (inaudible)

Simpson: I’m sort of interested in why you think it’s a real ice cream cone.

Elvis: ’Cause, (inaudible) maybe a sculpture. The reason I (inaudible)

Simpson: OK, why not?

Elvis: Because it don’t represent something.

Simpson: Can you say that one more time, please.

Elvis: It doesn’t represent something.

Simpson: It doesn’t represent something. What does it mean to represent?

Elvis: To show us what he (inaudible)

Simpson: So we talked about that word last week, and we said that to represent means to look like something else. So for one thing to stand in the place of something else, to look like something else. And you don’t think this represents an ice cream cone, you think it is an ice cream cone?

Elvis: Yes.

Simpson: So do you think you could go and eat that?

Elvis: (inaudible)

Simpson: Elvis, I’m just asking.

Elvis: Yeah, no, my answer is no because I don’t like ice cream.

Simpson: Because you don’t like ice cream?

Elvis: Yeah, I don’t like ice cream.

Simpson: OK, so if you’re saying that it isn’t ice cream but it doesn’t represent ice cream, then what is it?

Elvis: I don’t know.

Melvin: You’re confusing him.

Simpson: No, now I’m confused. Because he started with that it was real, that it was really ice cream but then he said it doesn’t represent ice cream. So now, I’m confused and I want to understand what he’s saying.

Elvis: I don’t say that it doesn’t represent ice cream, I say, it does represent ice cream.

Simpson: Oh! It does, oh I’m sorry, I thought you said it doesn’t represent an ice cream.

Elvis: Yeah

Simpson: It does represent, so is it artwork?

Elvis: (inaudible)

Simpson: Elvis, I’m just curious what you think.

Elvis: I already tell you Miss (inaudible)

Simpson: OK, so my next question…

Noticings and Questions

We invite you to take a few moments, and reread this transcript. If possible, mark it up in any way you’d like, as if you were doing a “slow read” of any rich text. What do you understand—reading between the lines, as well as the text itself? What is going on here? What meanings are communicated, by and to whom? What questions does the transcript leave you asking? That is, take note of how you read as well as what you read. It would be interesting, in the most dialogic of worlds, to hear your questions, and compare your noticings with a variety of readers. We can’t do that, but we can share with you some of our noticings and questions.

Here, for the record, are some of our noticings. Just from the words and turns, we get the sense that the interaction didn’t end well, with Elvis not feeling understood, and the teacher feeling puzzled by Elvis. We know (or can reasonably infer) from line 47 that Elvis believes he has sufficiently explicated his understanding to Lori. We know (or can infer) from line 39 that Melvin, a classmate, intervened and resisted Lori on Elvis’ behalf. It’s clear from the transcript itself (lines 37, 40, and 42) that Lori felt puzzled about what Elvis knew or understood by the term “real.”

Like all transcripts of classroom talk, some things can just be “read off” the text, that is, interpreted with a degree of confidence by virtue of what’s in the transcript itself. Some interpretations warrant and rely on knowledge of the context—what’s come before, and even, perhaps, what happens later. And knowing a bit more about the context than the general reader, we can add some additional, relevant noticings or “facts of the matter.” We know, for example, that Lori and Elvis were both drawing on vocabulary and language structures that were highlighted in the Discussions4Learning (D4L) curriculum—in this lesson and from previous lessons. The vocabulary specifically highlighted in this lesson are “represent” and “sculpture,” along with “appearance,” “prop,” “similar,” and “dissimilar.” We also know that Lori’s question “Is it real?” was guided by a suggestion in the curriculum guide, explaining that the objective of this lesson (with this particular image) was to “Talk about real and pretend ice cream.”

Beyond these noticings, we (and you) can ask numerous questions, at many different levels. Here are some questions that we might be inclined to ask after a first read.

  1. 1. What is going on here? What does Elvis mean by “real?” What does the teacher think Elvis means by “real?”

  2. 2. What role does the image from the D4L curriculum afford the teacher and the student, as a tool, a multimodal text, or mediational means?

  3. 3. What talk moves (identified in the literature on academically productive talk) is the teacher using, and what impacts do these moves have—what follows them?

  4. 4. What social, linguistic, and epistemic (intellectual) practices are reflected in this transcript?

  5. 5. How are the teacher and student positioned by their talk, with respect to one another, other students, or knowledge?

  6. 6. What is the relationship between student and teacher in terms of knowledge, power, and ideology?

  7. 7. What community of practice around talk and text is Elvis being socialized into?

  8. 8. What assumptions about language and the world are in play, on the part of both teacher and students?

  9. 9. What implications does the teacher’s and students’ language use have for those involved (teacher, Elvis, other students in the school, researchers)?

  10. 10. In researching and documenting classroom talk with a transcript like this one, how much context is important and relevant?

  11. 11. In analyzing this interaction, what is the appropriate unit of analysis (utterance, turns, interactional “case,” literacy event, or …)?

Given the scope and length constraints of this article, we could never do justice to answering these questions (though we think we have a range of interesting answers). And indeed many other questions could be asked about this transcript as well. We share these questions, however, because they call attention to our perspectives, assumptions, and values (as all questions do). And in this case, they signal several of our deeply held assumptions about language, about classrooms as contested social and ideological (political) arenas, and about teachers and learners as language users and meaning makers.

The Traditions We Draw On

What can you read from our list of questions, about us and our interests, perspectives, and values? You can read quite a bit about our backgrounds, about the intellectual and methodological paradigms we draw from, and seminal figures we have been influenced by. That is, our questions shed light on who we are and what traditions we draw from. (Note: These are our framings and positionings, and a very partial listing. Moreover, scholars might will places themselves in multiple categories or not agree with the categories we have assigned them to. We recognize that these categories are fluid and not mutually exclusive.)

  • We draw on a sociocultural (also referred to as cultural historical or activity theory—or CHAT paradigm or framework (Vygotsky, Wertsch, Bakhtin, John-Steiner, Moll, Matusov, and others), though we bring our own differences—generational and disciplinary—to the table in our collaboration

  • We draw on and see links with situated-cognition and practices-oriented perspectives (“the practice turn”) (Brown & Campione, Lave & Wenger, Rogoff, A. Collins, and others)

  • We draw on the foundational work out of “ethnography of speaking” or “ethnography of communication” (Hymes, Gumperz, Scollon and Scollon, Silverstein, and others)

  • We take an ethnographic, discourse analytic (sociolinguistic) methodological stance, and assume that the participants (teacher and students) are making deep cultural sense, drawing on discursive traditions that look at class- and culture-related codes (Bernstein, Cazden, Heath, Erickson, Au, Florio-Ruane, Green, Bloome, C. Lee, Van Oers, and others)

  • We draw on work in ethnomethodology/conversation analysis, in focusing on sequential moves, turn-taking patterns, positioning, and participant frameworks (Sacks, Schegloff, Goffman, Mehan, Goodwin & Harness-Goodwin, and others)

  • We draw on work that explicitly acknowledges language, discourse, and literacy as ideological and implicated in social and structural inequalities, such as, for example, work in critical literacy studies, new literacy studies, multiliteracies, and critical discourse analysis (J. Collins, Freire, Luke, Janks, Delpit, Gee, Street, Kress, Cope, Kalantzis, Gutierrez, Fairclough, Rogers, Mercer, Wegerif, Hennessey, Lefstein, and others)

What do these traditions have in common? They share a focus on understanding that language, class, cultures, and mind are inextricably intertwined, and that language users are not disembodied, autonomous beings but rather members of historically and institutionally shaped “big D” discourses (in Gee’s terminology, 2015). Hence, these traditions rely typically on ethnographically grounded inquiry methodologies, with close attention to the situatedness of speech events. They assume the intelligence and sense-making capacities of participants, and recognize that language both reflects and creates context. To this end, we draw on these traditions in the service of equity and access for children and young people, in a range of sites and contexts. Rather than engage in a divisive debate about the affordances of qualitative versus quantitative inquiry, or the trade-offs between high-inference versus low-inference coding tools, these traditions take as their starting point the meaning and meaningfulness of language in use—that is, language as a dynamic and complex set of practices, with ideational, social, and ideological functions.

Our Governing Gaze

Intellectual traditions are not neutral. They carry with them values, tacit assumptions, epistemological and methodological orientations, and “governing gazes” (in Emig’s 1982 phrase). Our governing gaze—and by this we mean the tacit or explicit assumptions, values, and commitments that guide our work as researchers and teachers—necessarily filters what we notice among the many patterns and particularities in classrooms, how we make sense of what we see, how we communicate—with whom, and in whose interests—our research findings. So what is our governing gaze? We take an explicit resource-based or “assets” perspective, which intentionally counters “deficit” approaches. We view teachers and learners—even those who may be deemed by the dominant discourse as less than proficient—as creative and thoughtful language users, negotiators, theorizers, and creators of meaning, and capable of work of consequence (Fillmore, 2014; González, Moll, & Amanti, 2013; Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003; Lee, 1993; Valdés, 1996, 2014; Wong-Fillmore & Fillmore, 2012; and others). While valuing students’ linguistic and cultural assets, we are committed to supporting children and young people, especially English-language learners and students from minoritized backgrounds, to control the “codes of power” (Delpit, 1995), and also to use them to challenge and reshape the status quo. That is why we often use the term “recruit” or “leverage” rather than “value” linguistic and cultural assets. We see our work as rooted in the assets-based perspective, but not just surfacing or reveling in what students bring. At the same time, we do this in contexts and also work to create contexts (with teachers and students) where students are deepening their home-based ways with words while coming to control the codes of power. Our commitment is to create spaces (from, with, and through research) where people learn to use language as a navigational resource—learning to work across differences, to think productively with others as epistemic agents and designers of new texts and new meanings.

We’ve used our own work on classroom discourse, our use of a focal transcript, and the questions the transcript raises for us to begin to name the traditions and scholarship relevant to work on classroom discourse. But it’s important to note that this list is partial—in two senses of the word. First, it is not complete. We recognize that it is overly US-centric, and it doesn’t refer to many early scholars (before 1972, when Functions of Language in the Classroom was published). We also are not calling out large bodies of work that focus on classroom discourse and argumentation within particular disciplinary contexts (such as argumentation in science or history). At the same time, we make an effort to bridge the gap (to some extent) between the US and Europe (and other countries) by pointing to some of the similarities and differences in the research on classroom dialogue across sites. For example, we note the special issue (April, 2017; van der Veen & van Oers) on classroom dialogue and learning outcomes published in Learning and Instruction. This special issue includes perspectives from the US, Europe, South-America, and the UK. The second sense in which the list is partial is that it is “interested”—that is, it is not a neutral listing of all major publications and scholars. Rather, it reflects our own histories, academic training, affiliations, and relationships.

Kenneth Burke’s “Parlor”

Any synoptic review in a domain as extensive and complex as classroom discourse is challenging because of its multifaceted, multigenerational, and multidisciplinary nature (drawing on the fields of anthropology, linguists, sociology, literature, trans-disciplinary educational research). Moreover, traditions or subcommunities are fluid and dynamic. Participants have intermingled and inter-animated one another (and continue to do so). Many of the scholars we have listed and many we haven’t would see themselves in several categories, and see, as we do, issues of access and social justice as motivating their work. They all draw on earlier work, and some have shifted their membership over time. We are reminded of Kenneth Burke’s famous quote:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. (1974, pp. 110–111)

In the domain of classroom discourse, with many different intellectual traditions, differing across societies, with numerous journals and institutional affiliations, the parlor metaphor is a good one: the conversation is long-standing, precedes us, has many voices, and will continue after we leave. Within the parlor there are divergent affinity groups, special interest groups (or “SIGs”) as well as informal clusters based on lineage, governing gaze, and preferred logic of inquiry. But in the case of classroom discourse, we think there are actually numerous parlors, with people moving from room to room.

Why, in a synoptic overview in a Handbook article, have we devoted six pages to sharing our work with a teacher, naming our questions, and marking the traditions from which we draw?

First, because there are many traditions and parlors it is important to be transparent about what traditions have shaped our research and offer insight to the readers about why we’ve decided to highlight certain aspects of classroom talk and organize the existing literature in the way that we’ve done. Second, we believe that knowledge is power, and that researchers’ findings (both the content and the framing of their work) impact social futures and life chances of adults and children. Therefore, part of our governing gaze is to interrogate the gaze itself, critically framing our own and others’ approaches and intentions, recognizing that how we talk about talk, text, and identity (seemingly small, fleeting particulars) can have serious consequences for teachers and students. That is, we recognize that other people (students, families, and teachers) inhabit the consequences of our work.

As mentioned at the outset, we are not undertaking a comprehensive, neutral review of the many different approaches and traditions of work on classroom discourse. Numerous handbook chapters, review articles, and books on classroom discourse already exist. Although those kinds of reviews have affordances, what we hope this article will offer is different. We hope to broaden the conversation so that newcomers and old-timers can begin to engage with traditions of the past and current work, and so that researchers and practitioners can come together on more common ground, understanding the importance of interrogating and making public one’s own history, epistemic traditions, and governing gazes—in the service of working together to understand better and enact productive classroom talk that positions students and teachers as generators of knowledge, supporting deep meaning-making and robust learning.

What Have We Learned About Classroom Talk Over the Past Half Century? What Broad Research Findings Can We Agree On?

  • Finding 1: Certain kinds of talk promote robust learning for ALL students

    • Commentary

  • Finding 2: The field lacks shared conceptualizations of what productive talk is and how best to characterize it

    • Commentary

  • Finding 3: Dialogic discourse is exceedingly rare in classrooms, at all grade levels and across all domains

    • Commentary

  • Finding 4: A helpful way forward: conceptualizing talk moves as tools

    • Commentary

Here we will lay out four key findings and their implications. In each case, we report findings from the literature and offer some commentary on underexamined assumptions or possible explanations.

Finding 1: There Is Increasing Evidence That Certain Kinds of Talk Promote Robust Learning for All Students

Many educators and researchers believe that talk of certain kinds—sometimes called dialogic discourse, academically productive talk, or accountable talk—may support more robust learning for all students. Increasingly, we have a research base that substantiates these beliefs. A number of large and carefully controlled studies, across a range of subject areas, from ELA to mathematics and science, and across a range of grade levels have shown that this kind of well-guided discussion supports diverse learners, including English learners, students from marginalized communities, and struggling learners. In some studies, these gains have been shown to transfer across subject domains and persist over years. This is a small, but impressive body of work (Adey & Shayer, 2001; Applebee, Langer, Nystrand, & Gamoran, 2003; Bill, Leer, Reams, & Resnick, 1992; Chapin & O’Connor, 2004; Forman & Ford, 2015; Howe & Abedin, 2013; Mercer, Dawes, Wegerif, & Sams, 2004; Mercer & Littleton, 2007; Mercer, Wegerif, & Dawes, 1999; Resnick, Asterhan, & Clarke, 2015; Reznitskaya, Anderson, McNurlen, Nguyen-Jahiel, Archodidou, & Kim, 2001; Reznitskaya, Glina, Carolan, Michaud, Rogers, & Sequeira, 2012; Shayer, 1999; Schwarz et al., 2015; Topping & Trickey, 2007a, 2007b; van der Veen, de May, van Kruistum, & van Oers, 2016; Walshaw & Anthony, 2008; Webb, 2009; Wilkinson, Murphy, & Binici, 2015). A major compendium of this work has just appeared in a volume edited by Lauren Resnick and colleagues, in which they conclude that certain forms of talk actually “build the mind” (Resnick et al., 2015).

Commentary on Finding 1: Why Might This Kind of Talk Support Learning and Deliberative Engagement?

Michaels and O’Connor (2012, pp. 4–5) suggest five reasons with both theorized and empirical evidence for why talk is central to promoting robust learning:

  1. 1. Talk provides a window into students thinking. Teachers and students themselves see more about what they understand and don’t understand.

  2. 2. Talk supports learning by boosting memory, providing richer associations, and supporting language development.

  3. 3. Talk supports deeper reasoning and encourages students to reason with evidence.

  4. 4. Talk apprentices students into the social and intellectual practices of different disciplines.

  5. 5. Talk supports the development of social skills, and encourages risk-taking (which enables students to go public with their thinking).

Resnick and Schantz (2015) identify three possibilities for why these particular forms of talk might “grow intelligence/lead to transfer”:

  1. 1. They may help students learn argumentation skills, which can be transferred to other domains.

  2. 2. It may increase students’ confidence in their own “intellectual competence,” which can motivate their engagement.

  3. 3. They are “socialized into a culture of argumentation” that makes it safe to contribute and values reasoning over the one right answer (Resnick & Schantz, 2015, p. 444).

Finally, some have suggested that developing these discursive norms, recurring opportunities to practice them, and student identities as collaborative knowledge-builders—in school—might promote more deliberative discourse and deliberative decision-making in the public sphere (Cazden, 2001; Habermas, 1990; Michaels, Shouse, & Schweingruber, 2008; New London Group, 1996; Mayer, 2012). The idea of deliberative democracy has been taken up by a wide range of political and legal theorists, along with philosophers of education.

A parallel line of investigation in education—developing quite independently of philosophical and legal work on deliberative democracy—has similarly focused on the central role of particular forms and norms of discourse. This work has grown out of the emerging interdisciplinary fields of cognitive science, sociocultural psychology, and situated cognition. It does not focus on democracy or civic participation and decision-making, per se; instead its central concern is learning with understanding of complex academic content, with the commitment that this kind of learning will be available to all students. The research draws on constructivist and sociocultural principles that emphasize the importance of social practices, in particular the careful orchestration of talk and tasks in academic learning. Even in the content areas of mathematics and science, where students are expected to master a body of authoritative knowledge (algorithms, formulae, symbolic tools, as well as facts and accepted theories), particular forms of talk that involve sense-making and reasoning with the ideas and tools of others have been shown to promote deep understanding of complex concepts (Chapin, O’Connor, & Anderson, 2013; Forman & Ford, 2015; Lehrer & Schauble, 2005; Lampert & Ball, 1998; Matusov, 2009; McDonald et al., 2014; Michaels et al., 2008; Resnick, Bill, & Lesgold, 1992; Warren & Rosebery, 2008; Yackel & Cobb, 1996; among others).

This research consensus around dialogic pedagogies in and out of the classroom and across divergent intellectual traditions is a hopeful achievement. But this hopeful note leads directly to one that is far more sobering.

Finding 2: In Spite of This Call for Opening Up the Classroom Conversation to Promote Reasoning, and an Emerging Evidential Base Linking Talk to Learning, There’s a Lack of Shared Conceptualizations of What Productive Talk Is, and How to Best Characterize It

Researchers and practitioners talk about and characterize alternatives to recitation in many different ways—referring to “dialogic,” “discussion-based,” or “discourse-intensive pedagogies.” In the recent compendium of international research on academic talk and dialog mentioned above (Resnick et al., 2015) the authors use different terms and different programs to describe the forms of talk where students are positioned as reasoners and thinkers (e.g., Collaborative Reasoning, Accountable Talk, Academically Productive Talk, Argument Literacy, Philosophy for Children, Cognitive Acceleration). Additionally, different disciplinary communities have a stake in this: is productive math talk different from productive science talk, or talk in ELA or history?

The challenge with so many different terms, programmatic brands (some of which are actually trademarked), and divergent criteria for documentation is significant: are we really talking about the same thing? How would we know? Can we build on one another’s findings or generalize from them? Some might well see the diversity in this work as a strength (and to some extent, we do). Scholars and practitioners bring many different perspectives, contexts, intellectual domains, grade levels, and ways of analyzing talk to the table, which gives us a broad base to work with. But this diversity poses challenges for developing a shared meta-language, shared research tools and protocols, and the chance to build a cumulative knowledge base by standing on one another’s shoulders. Without shared frameworks or conceptualizations of what counts as “dialogic” discourse, it’s difficult to come to consensus about criteria for what counts as appropriate discourse data, how much data is sufficient to warrant claims, what units of analysis are appropriate for what questions, what kinds of discourse coding is appropriate, tensions between the need for particularity and generalizations, and even criteria for what counts as cogent analyses or credible findings.

Commentary on Finding 2: Why Might It Be Difficult to Develop a Shared Meta-Language and Shared Conceptualizations of Productive Talk?

One of the underexamined obstacles in sharing a framework or conceptualization around classroom talk is that talk itself is very hard to get a handle on. One of the key challenges is what we might think about as the “form/function conundrum,” a problem that linguists write about and most people are intuitively aware of, but it is often not grappled with sufficiently in research on classroom talk. The problem, simply stated, is that there is no one-to-one mapping between form and function in language in action, as it plays out in the real world. That is, there are many ways to accomplish a particular goal or purpose or meaning (many forms can be used to accomplish a particular function), and similarly, there are many different meanings or effects or purposes that can be communicated by the exact same words (same form can have multiple meanings). Moreover, what a particular utterance “means” depends on context—what came before, what comes after, and the history of the participants in interaction. A similar confusion exists in the conundrum between form and pedagogical stance. We often hear about “dialogic” pedagogy, but what does “dialogic” mean? An example can help demonstrate this problem.

Consider the scenario in a middle-school science classroom: the teacher has put two volleyballs on a Harvard pan balance, and shown all the students (seated in a circle) that they balance. She then removes one of the volleyballs, hooks it up to a bicycle pump, and pumps an additional 10 pumps of air into it.

Traditions, Research, and Practice Supporting Academically Productive Classroom DiscourseClick to view larger

Figure 2: Two balanced volleyballs (demonstrating equal weight/mass) on a Harvard Pan Balance.

Traditions, Research, and Practice Supporting Academically Productive Classroom DiscourseClick to view larger

Figure 3: Adding 10 pumps of air to one of the volleyballs, before putting it back on the Harvard Pan Balance.

She then asks a question and a student responds:

Teacher: When I put this volleyball back on the scale, with 10 extra pumps of air in it, will the volleyball weigh more, less, or stay the same?

Student: I think, um, it will weigh more, because you’re like adding stuff to it.

Consider either one of two different responses the teacher might make:

Table 1. Two Different Possible Responses from a Teacher

Example 1

Example 2

Teacher: When I put this volleyball back on the scale, with 10 extra pumps of air in it, with the volleyball weigh more, less, or stay the same?

Teacher: When I put this volleyball back on the scale, with 10 extra pumps of air in it, with the volleyball weigh more, less, or stay the same?

Student: I think, um, it will weigh more, because you’re like adding stuff to it.

Student: I think, um, it will weigh more, because you’re like adding stuff to it.

Teacher: Good, that’s right. Air has mass and makes things heavier.

Teacher: So, are you saying that air has mass and makes things heavier?

In the second case, an example that actually happened, the conversation continued with the first student saying:

Student: Yeah, I mean, um, well, you’re adding stuff, but maybe air is so light that the scale can’t pick it up, so um, now I think that it’ll still weigh the same and the scale will balance.

Following this actual comment, the conversation continued, with other students putting forward a range of different ideas, that air will make the volleyball lighter, like a balloon, or that air doesn’t have weight, or that air has weight and will make the scale go down. After 18 minutes, with multiple positions on the table, each argued for by several students with analogies and evidence from their own lives, only then did the teacher actually put the volleyball back on the scale, and the effects were seen by all (We will not tell you what actually happened, but give you a chance to reason through this yourself).

In our two scenarios, the same three turns by teacher and student seem very similar—Teacher Question, Student Response, Teacher Follow Up. Are both cases (example 1 and example 2) examples of dialogic discourse? In each case, is the teacher asking an “open” or a “closed” question? Is the third turn move in both examples (similar in form and yet quite different in function) to be coded similarly or differently? Does the third turn by the teacher—retroactively—change the meaning of the question, or the status of the student’s response in Turn 2?

We suggest that both of these examples are structurally dialogic, in that they involve a back-and-forth between teacher and student, but the first is an example of a very traditional exchange between teacher and student, often referred to as the IRE (Initiation—Response—Evaluation) (Mehan, 1979) or IRF (Initiation—Response—Feedback) (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975), with the teacher positioning the student as a “getter of the answer.” Typically, this tripartite structure of turns takes the form of a teacher question (typically one with a single right answer the teacher is looking for), a student response (typically a short answer), followed by a teacher turn that often evaluates the student contribution as correct or incorrect (“Good.” “Right.” or “Not quite, anyone else have an idea?”), and then the pattern repeats.1

In the IRE, by evaluating the student’s contribution, the third turn ratifies the teacher’s authority as the holder of accurate knowledge in science. Indeed, the first example might be considered “monologic” in function, with the teacher “telling” the students the correct answer to a very closed question, with one right answer, in the guise (form) of a dialogue. The second example might be considered a far more “dialogic” exchange, where the teacher, by virtue of her third-turn “revoicing” move (So, are you saying …?) does not evaluate the student’s contribution but rephrases it, and asks the student to verify her formulation, while crediting the student as the originator of the idea. Notice that the relationship between the teacher and student in the third turn is dramatically different. In one case, the teacher is the expert knower. In the second case, the student is positioned as the expert, able to affirm or reject the teacher’s reformulation. And as it turns out, in the second example, the teacher’s third turn revoicing move opens up the conversation, prompting the student to think again and further explicate her idea. In her response, she ratifies the content of the teacher’s revoicing, but reconsiders her original idea, puts forward a different position, and the new position becomes something that others in the group consider and think with (even though it turns out, ultimately, to be incorrect).

How to code utterances (as open or closed, or as dialogic or monologic in function) turns out to be extremely complex, and not at all trivial. The two different third-turn moves (one an evaluation, the other a revoicing move) function very differently, and do very different kinds of positioning work—with respect to the student and teacher, but also with respect to the student and peers, as well as with respect to the student and the intellectual content on the table. It matters how we work with both form and function in coding classroom talk, and supporting teachers to think about and try out different discursive forms and functions in our work together. Both particularities and general categories of talk matter in the real world. And a small set of “productive talk moves”—such as the revoicing move mentioned above—are interesting amalgams of both form and function.

The Challenge of Doing Credible Discourse Analysis

These challenges relating to the form/function conundrum highlight a second reason that developing shared conceptions and cumulative research findings is difficult. And that, simply put, is the complexity of doing credible, compelling, rigorous classroom discourse analysis.

Anyone who has attempted to analyze classroom talk knows in their bones how challenging this work is. But we rarely speak openly about the complexities of doing “good” classroom discourse analysis. What are the best, most appropriate, or most productive ways to analyze or code classroom talk, so that new knowledge is produced (either for the field or for oneself or one’s students or colleagues)? Here are just a few mentions of some of the complexities that are rarely mentioned or grappled with:

  • When and why are high-inference or low-inference coding approaches more appropriate in particular contexts given particular questions—and what are the trade-offs?

  • How do you identify the best unit of analysis for a given purpose—speech events, “telling” cases (and what would a case be a case of?), thematically linked exchanges, turns, idea units, or utterances—and what are the differences or boundaries between them?

  • How do you determine (and who gets to decide) whether or not a particular exchange is productive, not needed, or evidence of a missed opportunity, and how do you know what a missed opportunity is?

  • How do you code for silence or the absence of a contribution?

A related issue is the following: How do you support teachers and beginning language researchers to do this kind of work—generalizing from the particular, and systematically studying problems of practice in order to advance empirical work and create usable knowledge?

We don’t suggest that there are simple answers to these questions, and there are many more questions like these, but the good news is that many in the field recognize and address them (with helpful “how to” manuals such as Ballenger, 2009; Bloome, Carter, Christian, Madrid, Otto, & Smith, 2008; Fairclough, 2003; Gee, 2014; Rymes, 2016; Rogers, 2011; Wortham & Reyes, 2015; as well as several handbooks on discourse analysis, such as Gee & Handford, 2012; Schiffrin, Tannen, & Hamilton, 2008).

We raise these questions, rather, to promote more collaborative attempts to create shared tools and analytic protocols. With shared frames of reference, terms, and tools, researchers and practitioners can more easily work together, compare notes, and accumulate knowledge by standing on one another’s shoulders. We propose a set of shared tools such as “talk moves” and approaches that can guide the work of researchers and practitioners in a later section, but first let’s turn to our third finding. However you characterize the talk that seems to be more effective than others in opening up the classroom conversation; recruiting students’ social, linguistic, and cultural assets; and promoting robust learning—it’s not happening much in classrooms throughout the world.

Finding 3: The Kind of Dialogic Discourse That Is Called for in Standards Documents and Shown to Work in the Research Literature Is Exceedingly Rare in Classrooms—at All Grade Levels, and Across All Domains

There’s a much larger and long-standing literature that suggests that this kind of discussion-based pedagogy is not typical in most classrooms (Cazden, 2001; Lemke, 1990; Resnick et al., 2015), often lasting no more than one or two minutes per class, and often occurring, if at all, only with more privileged or high-track students (Applebee et al., 2003). Alvermann, O’Brien, and Dillon (1990) showed that teachers claiming to engage in discussion were largely relying on recitation.

As previously mentioned, Mehan (1979) describes recitation as the tripartite “default pattern of classroom talk,” the IRE (teacher Initiation, student Response, teacher Evaluation). This pattern has been noted in the research literature since the 1970s (Mehan, 1979; Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). Alexander’s (2008) work examining classroom talk and dialogic pedagogies, in countries across the globe, confirms the prevalence of recitation globally as the dominant pattern in classroom talk. While the IRE has been shown to work well for quizzing students or checking on recall, it has been shown largely not to support reasoning or collaborative knowledge-building among students. Instead, the teacher can be thought of as doing the “heavy lifting” of guiding the conversation, asking questions with a particular answer in mind, and the students are positioned as “getters of the answer” rather than as thinkers, reasoners, holders of positions—in short, epistemic agents capable of building and weighing arguments with evidence.

Commentary on Finding 3: Why the Disjunct Between Research and Practice? Why Should Dialogic Discourse or Whole-Class Discussions That Position Students as Reasoner Be so Rare in Classrooms?

Many scholars have noted that the shift from recitation to reasoning is daunting and challenging for teachers. The obstacles facing teachers in leading coherent, reasoning-based discussions are many and complex (Alexander, 2008; Bloome et al., 2008; Cazden, 2001; Lefstein & Snell, 2014; Wells, 2007). Why should this be?

Factor 1: The Social and Intellectual Work that Teachers Have to Manage Through Talk Is Complex

While both researchers and practitioners understand that classrooms are complex social and discursive arenas as well as high-stakes environments where social futures are in part made or broken, we rarely problematize just how complex the teacher’s role is in what we might think of as “managing the intermental,” a phrase coined by O’Connor (1996). Teachers have to manage at one and the same time:

  1. (1) intelligibility (making sure that everyone can hear what is being said);

  2. (2) coherence (ensuring that the conversation moves in a productive direction so that learning takes place);

  3. (3) motivation (so that students are willing to go public with their ideas and feel as if they have a stake in the conversation);

  4. (4) equity (so that the classroom conversation is for all of the students, not just the few who participate actively, always raise their hands, and speak with confidence and fluency); and

  5. (5) time (always a struggle for teachers, and particularly so in the era of high-stakes testing regimes).

Moreover, a teacher has to manage all of these considerations at once, and there are often inherent conflicts among these goals. What if someone who has not spoken much and lacks confidence makes a long contribution that is off track or confusing? Which facets in the list above do you prioritize?

And, as an additional lens on the complexities teachers face, there are several recurring challenges which must be addressed in any discussion—if the discussion is to support learning (assuming we could agree on what we meant by “learning”), and not just take up classroom air time. We can frame these as challenges or goals—recognizing that we are always working on them. A teacher must help all students to:

  • Go public with their own ideas (if only a few students speak, you don’t have a discussion)

  • Listen carefully to the thinking of their peers (perhaps the most underdeveloped of all of these goals in most classrooms in the United States)

  • Dig deeper into one’s own (and others’) reasoning, evidence, models, texts, data, etc.

  • Think with others, engaging with, building on or critiquing the thinking of one’s peers

These are not steps to be worked on in sequence, but rather goals that must all be worked on over time, and iteratively returned to and reinforced when there are lapses. They must all be interactionally achieved (and it is ultimately the teacher’s responsible to manage this) if the classroom talk or discussion is to produce collaborative reasoning, argument, and robust learning. No small task—and all carried in talk.

Based on our collective work with teachers in many different settings, we would argue that much of the complexity of teaching with whole-group discussion comes from the difficulty of continually balancing this set of requirements: clarity, rigor, and coherence; adequate representation of content; equitable participation; and time. It also requires good and broad knowledge of the subject matter—the sort of knowledge that allows one to follow the conversation down unfamiliar paths, and tie it all back together.2 In trying to manage this multifaceted set of demands, many teachers may revert to the more manageable IRE format, where the teacher controls content, thus managing clarity, coherence, and time while being able to apportion short turns in what may feel like a more equitable fashion.

Factor 2: It’s Possible That Some Teachers Don’t Think Their Students are Capable Enough of Engaging in Intellectually Challenging Discussions

Numerous scholars have suggested that you have to believe that kids are “smart” in order to help them get smarter (Michaels, 2013; Resnick & Nelson Le-Gall, 1997; Sohmer, 2012). Teachers who don’t believe their students are capable of complex linguistic tasks, extended discourse, or sophisticated reasoning might tend to revert to the IRE to scaffold students’ participation in classroom conversations.

Here some particular scholarship focused on poverty and its impact on language and schooling bears some responsibility. In the first decades of the 21st century, we’re witnessing the return of a deficit perspective with respect to students’ language capacities (Blommaert, Collins, & Slembrouck, 2005; Michaels, 2013; Miller & Sperry, 2012). Research on language use in the families of young children (Colker, 2014; Hart & Risley, 1995), neuro- and psycholinguistic studies of young children (Fernald, Marchman, & Weisleder, 2013), and work in sociology of education (Rothstein, 2004) suggest that poor children are at risk due to their early home environments and language socialization. In some cases, literature is interpreted by teachers to suggest the “brokenness” of children as language users and learners by the time they get to school. Some teachers refer to the “30-million-word gap” between children of different social classes (based on the problematic work of Hart & Risely, 1995, cf. Michaels, 2013, or nonacademic work on the culture of poverty, Payne, 2004), while others talk about the implications for “executive functioning” or “processing speeds”—due to the number, kind, and nature of the words one hears at home or the quantity of linguistic interactions that children are directly privy to (Colker, 2014; Fernald, Marchman, & Weisleder, 2013). This literature contrasting the homes of children from different backgrounds often licenses teachers to have lower expectations for children who come from low-SES families, from minoritized backgrounds, or whose families speak a language at home other than English.

This message about the impact of early language in the home—and its detrimental impact on students’ ability to learn language and learn through language—seems to ignore decades of linguistic anthropology and ethnographic studies of language socialization around the world that provides us with extensive and principled knowledge about the resources students as language makers and language users bring to the classroom.

What does this earlier work show? Regardless of children’s race, culture, socioeconomic, or English-learner status, all biologically intact children have well-developed “ways with words”: ways of telling stories, giving accounts, and providing reasons, abstract arguments, and evidence. This has been robustly documented in the classic and more recent research literature on children’s language and culture, in the fields of linguistics, literacy studies, sociolinguistics, anthropology, developmental psychology, and cognitive science (Ballenger, 1999; Cazden, 2001; Collins, 2000; Cook-Gumperz, 2006; Delpit, 1995; Edwards & Westgate, 1987; Gee, 1996; Gumperz, 1982; Heath, 1983; Hymes, 1996; John-Steiner, Panofsky, & Smith, 1994; Lefstein & Snell, 2014; Miller, 1982; Orellana, 2009; Park, 2013; Park, Simpson, Bicknell, & Michaels, 2015; Resnick & Nelson-Le Gall, 1997; Rosebery, Warren, & Conant, 1992; Taylor, 1983; Uccelli, Barr, Dobbs, Phillips Galloway, Meneses, & Sánchez, 2015; Valdés, 2014, 1996; Wells, 1993). Linguists have shown—definitively—that all biologically intact children are grammatical speakers of their home language, that is, they use language in consistent and rule-governed ways (Labov, 1969; Pinker, 1994). While their dialects may be different from Standard English, all children speak their home dialects as native speakers, with fluency and correctness. Many children even bring a second language to the classroom—at a level of sophistication and fluency that few of their teachers can match. Whatever the home “talk culture,” students come to school as remarkable language learners, and with the innate tools to reason and acquire new vocabulary and new ways with words in meaningful contexts. Students, regardless of dialect or their status as English learners, bring “good enough” language and linguistic capacities to school—to make it possible to include them in well-guided, reasoning-oriented academic conversations, and to recruit and build on the “languaging” resources they bring from home.

Factor 3: Even Teachers Who Don’t Have a Deficit Perspective May Resort to IRE, Because They Don’t Have Alternative Tools or Practices

Many teachers have never experienced anything other than the IRE as the dominant form of classroom talk, in their own “apprenticeship through observation” (Lortie, 1975) and even in their higher education. Many don’t believe that discussion is appropriate in order to “deliver” content—due to their theories of learning emphasizing transmission of academic content and coverage rather than collaborative knowledge-building (though when pressed, nearly everyone agrees that both overt instruction and dialogic learning have their place). Without better tools (and the theories that call on those tools), teachers revert to the most familiar/default tools in their toolkit. This leads us directly to Finding 4—a helpful turn.

Finding 4: A Helpful Way Forward in Shifting from Recitation to Reasoning: Conceptualizing Talk Moves as Tools

One linguistic and at the same time pedagogical notion (or unit of analysis) has shown up in many recent research and practitioner documents that offers a helpful way forward. This is the notion of the “moves” that teachers make—such as “question” moves, “uptake” moves, or “rejoinder” moves. Many of the “productive talk moves” that have been identified in the literature—such as the revoicing move described above (in contrast to the “Evaluation” move of the IRE)—are micro-level moves that can help open up a conversational slot for students to say more, and in turn help teachers build a classroom culture of public reasoning. These moves are simple questions and statements that build on what came before and set up what comes next. A particular set of identified moves, we suggest, create a discursive space and some framing or guidance to further explicate or build on students’ own ideas and those of others. Interestingly, many of these moves occur in what we’ll call the “third turn” (or “third position”) in a sequence (typically Teacher—Student—Teacher). In this section, we explore this third turn—its structural and socio-cognitive affordances—in teacher-guided whole group discussions. We explore a particular set of third turn “talk moves” as tools—that research suggests are well designed to promote collaborative knowledge building and sense-making, and explore how these third turn moves work to socialize students as thinkers, reasoners, and builders of ideas with others. In examining the third turn, we explain the interactional processes by which students are guided and socialized (through talk) into particular kinds of reasoning practices, and thus how teachers and students interactively build a classroom culture of public reasoning.

Commentary on Finding 4: Reconceptualizing the Third Turn in Classroom Talk

Over the past quarter century, in sociolinguistics and sociology (through the subfields of conversation analysis and ethnomethodology), there’s been a great deal of work on the structural and organizational affordances built into human conversation, often outside of our awareness. This work suggests that the sequencing of turns, and the ways that moves (or turns at talk) affect what comes next, and retroactively what came before, both constrain participants and open up possibilities for meaning making. Think for a moment about the ways in which a particular kind of move—say a question—has implications for what happens next in a conversation. It opens up a “next slot” that requires the interlocutor to make a move, and moreover, anything in that next slot is automatically heard as an attempt at an answer.

Why Focus on the Utterance Level, and the Third Turn in Particular in Classroom Talk?

Why not focus on the teacher’s first turn, and the quality of teachers’ questions in starting a conversational sequence? Or, why not focus on the second turn, exploring in detail what a student says that was prompted by the first turn? Why not focus on an interactive episode as a whole, instead of an utterance? The reason is that the third turn has a special status—both in normal conversations and, we suggest, in classroom conversations in particular. Moreover, focusing on the utterance level has particular value when working with teachers who are attempting to change their traditional discourse patterns (Michaels & O’Connor, 2015).

The third turn in everyday conversation or the classroom looks both backwards and forward in a unique way—doing specific conversational work to create a shared world, or what is often called “intersubjectivity” through talk (Rommetveit, 1985; Sohmer, 2012; Wells, 1993; Wertsch, 1985). The third turn relates back to the first (or initiating) turn (as the second turn was prompted by the first turn) and simultaneously, retroactively, positions the speaker in the second turn as a particular kind of person/interlocutor. Thus, the third turn positions the interlocutor in very particular ways, and shapes what will follow. In classroom talk, it turns out that the third turn is where a lot of interesting things happen, things that can position students very differently, with respect to the teacher, their peers, and the academic content under consideration.

There are thus both theoretical reasons and pragmatic reasons for our focus on the utterance (rather than say, an episode of talk, or an entire speech event), and on the third position turn in particular (though we think that all of these levels have value and should be examined). We assume, along with many others, that utterance types have interactional, identity-related, and cognitive or intellectual consequences (Ford & Forman, 2006; Haroutunian-Gordon, 2010; Mayer, 2012; Sfard, 2008; Wells, 2007). Thus when we look at utterances in classrooms, those of teachers or students, we must take note of several things:

  • An utterance has a particular interactional function—both local and global: in terms of the positioning of the previous and next speaker, and in terms of the structure of the conversation overall.

  • An utterance may potentially have a particular socializing or intellectual function—helping students to externalize their thinking, listen to others, dig deeper into their reasoning with evidence, or reason with the ideas of others.

  • An utterance positions specific academic content, and makes certain reasoning experiences available.

  • Finally, an utterance has a particular linguistic form, and in some cases this form may have major consequences for the functions listed above.

Because of the semiotic potentials of the utterance, it makes sense to attend to this level. But these are theoretical observations. Practically speaking, we know that the work of teaching is complex, and the moment-to-moment orchestration of talk is challenging: the metaphors of spinning multiple plates or juggling are common in talk about teaching with discussion. An utterance-level tool, a talk move as a unique kind of form/function amalgam, can be easy to remember and implement with practice. There are a small number of them. And note that these are tools, and all tools are designed to solve problems. These particular talk tools address a set of goals or challenges (mentioned earlier) that all teachers face in orchestrating productive meaning-making conversation.

Below is a set of what we and others have termed “productive talk moves” (all third-turn moves) that have been identified as recurring moves in classrooms of teachers who have been successful in supporting and guiding extended sense-making discussions that are both equitable and rigorous.3 We present them here as linked to the goals (or challenges) that teachers routinely face in orchestrating whole-group, teacher-guided talk that supports reasoning and robust learning. These third-turn moves open up the floor (providing different kinds of guidance depending on the kind of third turn move selected) to further explication, evidence, reasoning, argumentation, or student-generated evaluation.

Note that no one is suggesting that these talk moves do everything that needs to be done. Rather, they are tools, like a knife, a whisk, a ladle, or a can opener. They have to be used with good food (content) and with others (students)—with skill—to create a nourishing and delicious meal (an ambitious, rigorous, and equitable discussion—always an interactional achievement).

Traditions, Research, and Practice Supporting Academically Productive Classroom DiscourseClick to view larger

Figure 4: Four goals for productive discussion and nine talk moves, adapted from Michaels and O’Connor (2012).

Why might these “talk move” tools work to support the identified key goals for productive discussion? These talk moves often produce a response that is highly reinforcing: the student, for example, in response to a “say more” move often does say more; a teacher can see what this student does (or doesn’t) understand, or that the student indeed had a good idea to contribute to the group, or wants to connect with a peer’s contribution. The “say more” move can give the teacher, and the rest of the students, more to work with. Note that all of these moves position students as thinkers and holders of positions.

Note also that these so-called “productive” third turn moves differ structurally and instructionally from the other “third turn” move, the teacher “evaluation” move that we discussed earlier as part of the Initiation, Response, Evaluation (or IRE) pattern, and referred to by others, as the IRF (Initiation, Response, Follow-Up). All of the so-called productive moves forestall the “evaluation” move, and even, in some cases, position students to take up that intellectual role as adjudicators of the arguments of their peers.

Focus on the Third Turn as Talk Move Tool

Recently, more systematic work has been done on these third-turn moves—sometimes called “uptake” moves (Collins, 1982; Correnti et al., 2015; Wilkinson et al., 2015), and sometimes referred to simply as a set of productive talk moves (Forman, Ramirez-DelToro, Brown, & Passmore, 2017; Greeno, 2015; Michaels & O’Connor, 2015). We think it makes sense to examine more generally all of the different third turn moves, contrasting the most common Evaluation move with other kinds of moves that appear in the third position (thus in each case following a student response).

A focus on the “third turn” comes from a long tradition of work in conversation analysis, where analysts have focused on the structural and organizational features of ordinary conversation. Emanuel Schegloff (1992) wrote specifically about the third turn in dyadic and multi-party conversation, calling it “the last structurally provided defense of intersubjectivity” (p. 1295). What does this mean? It means that when a speaker says something (Turn 1) and it is replied to (“next turn,” or Turn 2), the first speaker can tell by what was said in response whether the interlocutor has understood his/her idea—that is, whether they are on the same page so to speak. If they are not, if the original speaker wants to clarify or correct what the interlocutor seems to be thinking, the following turn (Turn 3, the turn after the “next turn”) is the structurally provided slot to do so. It is in this turn that the original speaker can indicate what they intended or how they want their interlocutor to understand their intent in Turn 1. So it is a turn where the original speaker can repair (or clarify or refocus) the original idea in Turn 1. And if they do not take up this structurally provided opportunity, they in a sense have communicated to their interlocutor an important message about intersubjectivity—“You have interpreted my contribution correctly. You and I are on track. We’re on the same page. You’re taking me up precisely as I intended.” Simply by NOT taking advantage of this third-turn opportunity, the first speaker is actually communicating something—as if implicitly “saying” or acknowledging that the two of them have established conversational common ground. Thus, if you don’t take advantage of this structurally provided opportunity, you have actually made a significant conversational move (by default). The third turn is your last structurally provided slot for repair, clarification, or redirection of your first position turn, and if you don’t use it, you communicate that you didn’t need it.

It thus makes sense that the IRE/IRF has been shown to be such a common sequence in school. Newman, Griffin, and Cole (1989) even suggest that the tripartite IRE structure is particularly well suited for the collaborative construction of ideas with “a built-in repair structure in the teacher’s last turn so that incorrect information can be replaced with the right answers.” The structure of the IRE sequence allows the teacher to maintain the necessary control over the flow of information and advancement of the academic content. Both the topic of the Initiation move (the teacher’s questions) and the content of the Evaluation move allow the teacher to advance the intended topic of discussion or learning. In addition, they allow the teacher to check on the status of knowledge, awareness, and attention of students by calling on individuals and positing particular questions.

The IRE turns what is typically a two-part structure in everyday conversation AB (one person speaks and then their interlocutor responds) and creates a tripartite structure ABA—where the teacher typically begins with a question, a student responds, and the teacher takes the next turn. And then the sequence begins again, with a teacher initiation. This widespread use of the ABA structure in classrooms is likely because of the situational requirements and socio-historical development of formal education. A primary (and reasonable) goal on the part of teachers is to maintain their control over the academic agenda. However, the problem with the evaluation move is that it prematurely closes down the conversation—ending the sequence with an indication of the correct answer. It emphasizes correctness over reasoning. And while it has some value, for example in settings where teachers simply want to check their students’ knowledge (or prior knowledge) on a topic, the problem is that in most classrooms it’s the ONLY or default structure.

But, as shown in the list of goals and productive talk moves above, the good news is that the “evaluation” move is not by any means the only option for the third position turn, even though it happens to be the default pattern in most classrooms around the world (Alexander, 2012). These and other third-turn moves have been shown to support extended discussions that achieve genuine intersubjectivity between the curricular meaning and the students' understanding (Forman et al., 2017; O’Connor, Michaels, & Chapin, 2015; Resnick et al., 2015; Wilkinson et al., 2015, among others). And at the same time, understanding the placement of these third-turn moves as a substitution for the more familiar “evaluation” move should make teachers less anxious about losing topic control.4

What do these productive third-turn moves have in common, and how are they different? They all replace the Teacher Evaluation third-turn move (in the IRE). They forestall the evaluation move, and instead open up a conversational slot for further explication of students’ ideas—either the original student (from Turn 2) or other students in the group. All of the moves are either questions (“Why do you think that?” “Do you agree or disagree with what Jon said, and why?”) or directives (“Say more about that”) that call for elaboration, clarification, justification of one’s own ideas, or engaging with (weighing in on or evaluating or arguing with) the ideas of others. They forestall the teacher’s evaluation (premature evaluation, in many cases, we would suggest) and open up the conversation for students to do the heavy lifting of elaborating, clarifying, adjudicating, evaluating, arguing, challenging, or critiquing ideas of the students.

How are these moves linked to socialization of students into reasoning practices? Each one, by virtue of its structure, opens up a “next turn” for students—following the third turn—and positioning students are thinkers, holders of positions, and reasoners among their peers. These third-turn moves transform the traditional ABA (e.g., IRE) pattern into something quite different: ABAB. In other words, a next turn is automatically opened up after the third position move, and by virtue of the kind of move it is, creates a slot for a student to provide extended reasoning or further explication of an idea, or provides a slot for another student to repeat or rephrase an idea or to weigh in on an idea (evaluate/critique, build on, or challenge). As mentioned above, the traditional ABA (IRE) pattern gives the teacher quite a bit of control over the direction and the content of the exchange. In contrast, the ABAB inherently represents a loosening of control over the lesson content (as constructed in the teacher’s mind) in favor of opening toward teacher-student intersubjectivity and so, ultimately, an intersubjective understanding of content. It’s worth noting that the third turn in the IRE framework operates as a third-turn repair of what has been hoped for and intended by A (the teacher, typically), whereas the revoicing move provides an opportunity for the repair of what has been intended by B (the student). That is, according to Schegloff’s notion of the third position serving as the last structurally provided defense of intersubjectivity, the ABAB structure that is created by these productive third-turn moves creates a new third position turn, in this case, available to the student, and positioning the student as having an opportunity to “repair” or say more, clarify, challenge, etc.5 See the example sequence below.

Traditions, Research, and Practice Supporting Academically Productive Classroom DiscourseClick to view larger

Figure 5: Example sequence of turns and positions.

Students don’t become thinkers and reasoners without a participant framework that enables and licenses certain kinds of positioning, participation, and intellectual work. Goffman (1974, 1981) offered the construct of a participant framework, to theorize the ways that a given utterance could be used to “shift footing” in face-to-face interaction, by configuring or reconfiguring the roles and relationships of participants with respect to one another.

We know from extensive work in sociocultural studies (Vygotsky, Wertsch, Wells, Matusov, Hall, Rogoff, and others) that humans are fundamentally tool users, and that tools are “meditational means,” extending the interactional and cognitive work of tool users. These productive third-turn moves can be seen as discursive tools that do social, intellectual, and identity work in classrooms. Moreover, like all tools, they can change both the tool user (teachers, who can see and hear more of the thinking of their students) and affect the material the tool engages with—in this case, the identity of participants in a conversation (by positioning them as thinkers and contributors to others’ thinking). Such a shift in positioning of students—by virtue of the linguistic design and structural affordances of these utterances—can lead to a significant shift in the overall culture of the classroom—affecting the roles and relationships between student and teacher, among students, and between students and ideas.

All tools (such as a hammer or a chisel) make certain things possible and other things harder, with both affordances and constraints, and take practice in order to use well. In this case, we are talking about cultural and linguistic tools—talk moves, discourse analysis, transcripts, protocols). These tools, like all tools, transform the tool users as well as those impacted by those tools. They affect the participant frameworks enacted through talk, in terms of the ways participants see themselves and others, and in terms of the intellectual work participants do together.

Though this work is new, there is increasing evidence that these tools are relatively easy for teachers to pick up and get started using (Michaels & O’Connor, 2015) and that, if used strategically in the context of a rich task by a teacher knowledgeable about the content in question, they are associated with significant learning gains (O’Connor et al., 2015; Resnick et al., 2015). As an example, van der Veen et al. (2016) found that the use of these talk tools in early childhood classrooms resulted in gains (with moderate to large effect sizes) in a broad range of children’s communicative abilities.

Promising Spaces or Approaches

  • Curricular Programs and Instructional Approaches

  • Practice-Based Teacher Education and Teacher Professional Development

  • Teacher Research Communities and Intergenerational Communities of Inquiry

As stated previously, we set out to offer a prescriptive review of the literature on classroom discourse. In other words, in addition to describing what we know about classroom talk from extant scholarship, we put forward promising frameworks and approaches to developing productive talk. We do this because we believe that much is at stake for the practitioners who must teach with, and learn from, talk. This is especially true in these times as teachers across the United States face a new set of challenges as they relate to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The rapidly changing context for teachers requires new pedagogical practices and a new “conception of good teaching” (Donovan, 2015, p. 2), as the standards push teachers to build and sustain a classroom culture of public reasoning. In a classroom culture of public reasoning, students explicate and go public with their ideas; elaborate using evidence, data, and reasoning; and build on and critique the thinking of their peers. These are intellectual and social practices that students have to participate in, not learn about. In order to apprentice students into these disciplinary practices, teachers have to build a classroom culture of public reasoning—primarily carried through discourse (talk) in making thinking visible and public (Michaels & O’Connor, 2015; O’Connor & Michaels, 1996).

In this section, we review several promising approaches or frameworks in which preservice, inservice teachers, and youth are positioned not only as participants and orchestrators of classroom talk, but also critical inquirers and knowledge-generators about classroom language. The approaches represents efforts, over time, and at different levels—from teacher education programs, university-based researchers, classroom teachers, and grassroots inquiry communities—to understand, build on, and leverage the potential of classroom talk, and shift away from the prevailing instructional model in which teachers recite or deliver knowledge to students. This section is divided into curricular programs and innovations, teacher education and professional development initiatives, and communities of inquiry.

Curricular Programs and Instructional Approaches

We would like to highlight several curricular programs for language instruction. These programs work to build communicative competence and academic literacy through 1) the selection and use of interesting, relevant, and complex texts which invite students to wrestle with language and meaning, and 2) dedicated time and support for students to engage in academically productive conversations and position-driven discussions.

“Discussions for Learning” is an academic language and vocabulary curriculum (for a description of the curriculum, see It was highlighted in the vignette which featured Lori Simpson and Elvis, discussing the image of the floor cone and wrestling with what is real and what is representational. There are several distinguishing features that characterize Discussions for Learning. First, the curriculum uses fine-art images and real world photographs as “texts.” The fine-art images and photographs serve as both a scaffold and a context for learning vocabulary. Second, the curriculum encourages rich discussions about the images. Designed to be a whole-group experience, each lesson often begins with the teacher asking students, “What do you see [in the artwork or photograph]?” Third, the curriculum is partly scripted, and where the conversation is open-ended, the curriculum provides discussion tips and strategies (i.e., talk move suggestions). This makes the curriculum easy to use, and supports teachers in not only modeling the use of academic vocabulary, but also creating a rich language environment where students practice discussion, learn vocabulary in context, and make observations about the texts. The vocabulary words are explicitly repeated and reintroduced through subsequent lessons, reflecting the research that shows the importance of structuring frequent oral language experiences for developing vocabulary and word consciousness (Scott & Nagy, 2004). Lastly, the curriculum is organized around four cross-curricular themes, which focus what and how students “see” their worlds. A premise underlying the curriculum is that all language learners are curious and perceptive beings.

“Juicy Sentence” work is a discussion-based, instructional approach developed by Lily Wong-Fillmore (Wong-Fillmore & Fillmore, 2012). In Juicy Sentence work, teachers guide students through discussions of one or two complex sentences drawn from class texts in science, history, or literature. Central to the Juicy Sentence strategy is the careful selection of texts—according to Fillmore (2014), the texts themselves have to be interesting and informative enough to work on, and aligned with curricular standards. Once teachers have selected the text, they identify one or two sentences which students discuss. In preparation for facilitating the discussion, teachers study the sentences in advance, figuring out what makes the sentence complex, deciding how to “break the sentence into chunks for discussion,” and developing questions for each chunk. After reading the sentence for the students, teachers might ask questions like, “What is this sentence about?” “Take a look at this part. Who can tell me something about it? What could this sentence mean? Can anyone paraphrase that or put it in their own words?” (p. 630). The academically productive conversations involving not only what a sentence means and how students understand a sentence (or parts of it), but also how things are said, happen every day and last about 15 minutes. This approach is used by teachers in Boston, Denver, Sacramento, and New York, with indicators that it is supporting English-language learners to access complex texts and develop academic literacy skills such as focusing on and unpacking complex language for meaning.

“Word Generation” is a middle-school, academic vocabulary program, developed in collaboration with Boston Public Schools and the Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) ( The program fosters academic language and vocabulary development by embedding what Snow, Lawrence, and White (2009) refer to as “all purpose academic words” in interesting topics and discipline-specific activities (math, science, social studies, and English language arts). In Word Generation, students are introduced to five words a week, through reading and discussing a high-interest text involving a dilemma or issue (e.g., steroid use among athletes or legalization of marijuana). This is usually done at the beginning of the week, in the students’ English language arts class. Over the next three days, students read and write about and use the five words in their math, science, and social studies classrooms. On Friday, they are asked to write a “Taking a Stand” essay about the dilemma. Studying the effectiveness of the program on middle-school students, Snow and colleagues determined that “in addition to teaching vocabulary, the program provides opportunities for students to develop and practice oral language skills, argumentation strategies, and writing skills” (p. 326) in the semantically rich contexts, with motivating texts and highly relevant issues.

Practice-Based Teacher Education and Teacher Professional Development

In order to orchestrate and sustain productive classroom discussions, teachers (experienced and novice teachers alike) need to be supported with tools, routines, recurring practices, and opportunities to rehearse and practice with colleagues and mentors. The field of teacher education has responded to the rapidly changing context by turning away from “knowledge for teaching” toward specifying core practices (McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanagh, 2013)—by which is meant practices that occur with high frequency in teaching, that novice teachers can enact across different instructional programs and disciplines, and that allow beginning teachers to learn deeply about their students and about teaching (Grossman, Hammerness, & McDonald, 2009). Eliciting and responding to students’ ideas is an example of a core practice focused on classroom talk. In The Learning to Teach in, from, and through Practice Project, or LPT (Lampert et al., 2013), and in the Ambitious Teaching in Science and Math programs at the University of Washington, preservice teachers learn to elicit students’ thinking and prompt students to expand on their ideas through talk. In the context of an elementary math instruction, rather than direct students to the right answer, teacher candidates work to elicit and respond to students’ ideas through the use of specific talk moves such as “How did you get that?” “Did anyone have a different idea?” or “Let’s hear how you figured that out” (McDonald et al., 2013). According to Lampert and colleagues, when teachers elicit and respond to students’ ideas, they create a classroom culture of reasoning and justification. For more information on the University of Washington work, see

In the realm of professional development, for the past three years the Next Generation Science Exemplar (NGSX) Project has been developing an innovative model of professional development (PD) in science for K–12 teachers. NGSX is a blended learning environment consisting of an online, web-based platform in which video-based cases, learning tasks, and tools for engaging with both cases and tasks are embedded. The system is designed to support K–12 teachers and science teacher leaders to get introduced to the new vision of science teaching and learning, and take that learning back into their own practice. The central design tenet of NGSX is that teachers need to experience knowledge-building discourse in professional development contexts if they are to shift their own discourse in the classrooms towards creating a culture of public reasoning by students. But most PD providers, teacher leaders, and classroom teachers have never experienced this kind of discourse-intensive, knowledge-building PD. Our challenge, and by extension a challenge to the field of science education, is to ensure that teachers become effective knowledge-building facilitators, in robust enough ways that they can take these knowledge-building practices into their own classrooms with their own students. NGSX sessions are conducted with face-to face study groups of science educators (typically 12–20 per cohort), using the NGSX web-based resources, and with the guidance of an expert facilitator (Moon, Passmore, Reiser, & Michaels, 2014). NGXS has been piloted in 10 states, and is used statewide as the primary science PD system in the states of VT, CT, MI, and IL.

In the examples we’ve provided, LPT, Ambitious Math and Science Teaching, and NGSX, teachers and teacher candidates not only experience these new discourse-intensive tools (e.g., talk moves) so that they can use these new practices and tools with their students, but they learn to analyze and investigate their own practice through transcript analysis and video analysis. McDonald et al. (2013) propose a cycle in which preservice teachers move from learning about a practice, to preparing and rehearsing for the practice and enacting it with students. While enacting the practice, preservice teachers might take a video of their teaching or analyze artifacts of their students’ learning. Finally, preservice teachers engage in an analysis of a specific enactment—“focused on supporting teacher candidates to learn from their own practice—a skill that will likely help them as they continue to develop their practice” (p. 382). In NGSX, participants engage in an activity centered on a three-minute video featuring a group of fourth graders who have just completed an experiment that is designed to help them explore whether the weight or volume of an object determines how much water it will displace when submerged in a container. NGSX participants are carefully guided through a descriptive review process (Himley & Carini, 2000). A descriptive review process is a carefully structured way to engage a group of participants in a nonjudgmental, rich description of a child/youth’s work and thinking, which leads to new insights for classroom practice and student support. In a descriptive review, participants first describe what they notice in the data in terms of what the student (and/or teacher) is saying and doing. Then, from the descriptions, participants generate claims about what the student is working to understand or accomplish. The last round of the descriptive review process focuses on identifying pedagogical implications from the data. This is an approach to data analysis that leverages the collective insights of the group, beginning with the assumption that children/youth are always engaged in rich sense-making (even if we can’t always see it right away). It is also a process that helps participants move from descriptions of a child/youth to reasoned inferences about their thinking. In addition to helping teacher candidates learn from their own practice, analysis of one’s own practice pushes teacher candidates to examine their assumptions and beliefs about children and about teaching and learning. LPT, Ambitious Math and Science Teaching, and NGSX are clear that instead of a mechanistic view of teaching, they view teaching as a complex professional activity that takes place in a sociopolitical context. By supporting teachers and teacher candidates in analyzing their own practice, programs like LTP, Ambitious Math and Science Teaching, and NGSX foster a critical stance where participants come to interrogate the “meanings and principles that guide how they view children, the relationships they build with children, how they draw on children’s cultural knowledge, and the stance they take on the work of teaching” (McDonald et al., 2013, p. 383).

Teacher Research Communities and Intergenerational Communities of Inquiry

Although not directly cited, NGSX and LPT’s emphasis on inquiry and investigation can be credited to the work of individual teacher researchers and grassroots inquiry communities made up of teachers, students, and university-based researchers. An example is the Brookline Teacher Research Seminar (BTRS), a group of teacher researchers who met for a number of years, supporting each other in documenting and learning from children’s talk in school. According to members of BTRS, they “use talk as a way to study issues of language and literacy” (Gallas et al., 1996). This involves knowing the students in each encounter or event, and understanding the meanings they bring to the encounter. It also involves examining and interrogating the intentions of the teacher, the teacher’s assumptions about language, and their “governing gaze” in the classroom. Teacher-researchers whose work have been supported by BTRS include Cindy Ballenger (1999, 2009) and Karen Gallas (1994, 2003), best-selling authors in the Teachers College Press Practitioner Inquiry Series. Ballenger, whose earlier work focused on studying the language practices of four-year-old Haitian children and their Haitian teachers in Boston, noted how she learned with and from BTRS how to document and make sense of not only the language of instruction, but also children’s language in different situations. She also writes about how BTRS members learned to take seriously where their research questions came from and how it might be valuable to the teacher researcher—a process that involves interrogating one’s own autobiography and socialization.

The teacher researchers of BTRS were apprenticed to the tools of sociolinguistics, working together with academic researchers to develop common frameworks, approaches, and tools to studying classroom life through language. Members of BTRS and other inquiry communities, such as the Santa Barbara Discourse Group (Greene & Dixon, 1993), are helped to “generate local knowledge, envision and theorize their practice, and interpret and interrogate theory and research of other” (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1999, p. 289). Teacher research not only shifts the locus of knowledge-production, but also transforms practice and enhances students’ learning. In other words, teacher research is committed not to “Knowledge” with a capital K, but rather, to understanding and taking action—intentionally and systematically—to improve the day-to-day lives and futures of their students and engage critically complex problems of practice.

Some have argued that teacher-research epistemologies and tools (e.g., video or transcript analysis using sociolinguistics approaches, descriptive review processes) need to be fostered in teacher-education students, catalyzing efforts in teacher education programs to incorporate tools like critical discourse analysis in their work with preservice teachers. For example, grounded in their work as literacy teacher educators and critical discourse analysts, Rogers and Mosley (2014) helped their teacher-education students to engage in critical discourse analysis. They provide rich examples of how their preservice teachers used critical discourse analysis, including how they drew on narrative analysis as a way to inquire into their culture, race, levels of power, and language; they studied how their discourse practices shape students’ learning, and how to “integrate discourse analysis into their teaching lives” (Rogers & Mosley, 2014, p. 17).

Lastly, in this section on promising approaches or spaces for fostering deliberative discourse, we want to highlight language-focused research conducted by middle and high school students in both school and out-of-school settings (see Egan-Robertson & Bloome, 1998; Fecho, 2004; Park et al., 2017). Adults work alongside the young people, teaching them different ways to document language and literacies in multiple contexts, collect artifacts, and examine transcripts of talk. In studying language-use, youth learn to use language more effectively in their written and oral communication, but also come to cultivate a meta-language as well as metalinguistic awareness, exploring issues of language, culture, and power and developing heightened awareness of the social, cultural, and even ideological aspects of language. Youth researchers can also generate knowledge that expands what counts as data and knowledge, and what we accept as frameworks and categories for classroom discourse. For example, a group of youth researchers working with Park et al. (2017) have identified the centrality of listening in cultures of deliberative discourse —this kind of listening requires listening with ears, eyes, mind, one’s history, culture, and languages, and actively and interactively trying to see “behind” what the person is saying. It is a collaborative, interpretive, and generous kind of listening where participants take each other’s ideas very seriously. It is also an interested kind of listening where participants bring their own ideas, and want to grow them and develop them further by listening to others. These youth researchers’ findings both complicate and extend traditional analytic categories separating speakers and listeners (which Goffman critiques in a more limited way in his work on participation frameworks) or the emphasis of “within the head” thinking that is dominant in much academic writing on reasoning.

What ties these promising approaches together is repositioning practitioners (teachers and students) as not just tool users, but researchers and knowledge generators about classroom discourse. Unless university-based academics engage more directly with teachers’ and students’ epistemologies and the real challenges they face (which these promising approaches aim to do), we will not make progress together in understanding “what is going on” in classrooms through talk, and what counts as productive talk. Moreover, without presuming and creating more “intersubjectivity” (Rommetveit, 1985) among all of the stakeholders—shared terms, shared problem spaces, and shared tools—we will not be able to build productive bridges between the world of the academy and the world of practice, where students’ and teachers’ social futures are made or undermined, in large part through the power of talk.

Conclusion and Implications

  • Circling back to the transcript with Lori and Elvis

  • Towards an assets-oriented stance

  • Expanding the conversation

In closing, we want to return to our initial transcript with Lori and Elvis. There is more context than we presented at the outset. Even before our first meeting with Lori—well before this episode was recorded—she was highly regarded by her colleagues and well loved by her students. But she told us she was struggling with getting her newcomers to take risks and externalize their thinking, and getting them to listen to one another. It was an ongoing source of concern to her that her students were required to take and pass the state’s high-stakes assessments when they had only been in the country a year or two. When she first began recording her classroom discussions, she reported being amazed at what she heard and had been missing or misunderstanding all around her. She reported being struck by how much IRE was present in her classroom discussions, and how inequitable her classroom talk was (with some students staying silent, and others dominating the conversation). She started taking seriously and questioning all of these noticings around her students’ talk as well as her own.

By the time the exchange about Claes Oldenberg’s ice cream cone sculpture occurred, she had learned about talk moves, and had been encouraged and supported in the productive use of talk moves in her classrooms. She had been part of several teacher-research communities where it was standard practice to audio record, to transcribe segments of talk, and to make sense of them in the company of others. And even then it wasn’t easy to achieve intersubjectivity, where Elvis’ use of “real” was understood as meaningful though perhaps not the same as hers, or where Elvis was able to see Lori deeply understand his understanding.

In this case, the transcript and audio file—as a complex amalgam of tools—traveled as inscriptions—“immutable mobiles” in Bruno Latour’s (1986) terms—moving from the classroom to a university/school teacher research seminar to this article. Lori brought the transcript and recording to a group of colleagues and reviewed it with them systematically, using a descriptive review protocol. She also brought with her a shared set of discourse analytic tools, emphasizing talk moves and indicators of student reasoning. The session in which she played her tape and the group worked with her on it was also recorded. Reviewing it, the descriptive review produced a wealth of “noticings” and prompted Lori to want to understand Elvis better, rather than simply assume (as she originally did) that he was confused.

First Lori went back to Elvis and re-interviewed him about what he meant by “real.” This episode was also recorded. She used a wide range of talk moves to elicit Elvis’ understanding. That didn’t resolve the situation, however, and indeed, students overheard this interview and suggested that Lori was confusing Elvis further and should let up on him. There are no magic bullets here, no quick fixes. But several things were beginning to be put in place. Lori was seeing her classroom as a complex social and linguistic arena, which helped her to go public in the teacher research group with her questions and concerns. In the company of others who shared her challenges, she used a set of tools and protocols for looking more closely at classroom talk—which led her to go back and take a second look at Elvis. Lori tells us that when she uses productive follow-up talk moves in her classroom in response to what her students say, she’s able to know her students differently and more deeply.

But talk moves alone, in isolation, are not in and of themselves necessarily transformative. The important point is that the tools help teachers enact an assets-oriented stance. It’s not enough to say you have a belief in students as powerful linguistic beings. The stance has to be enacted. In order to actually believe that students are powerful thinkers, you have to open up the conversation and hear their thinking, even if not fully fluent or organized in ways you are expecting. Thus talk tools have to be coordinated with, or animated by, or integrated with an assets-oriented stance, and because of the way talk works in action, they are inextricably linked to the participants and the social and intellectual work of the moment.

We know from our on-the-ground work with teachers like Lori and students like Elvis that an assets-oriented stance has to be grounded in real belief, but this gets tested every day by the challenges—the moment-to-moment interactional exchanges where there’s confusion, where intersubjectivity breaks down, where teachers feel like they have failed at creating a shared and meaningful world with their students. This is messy and intimately human work, where frameworks and notions about classroom discourse conflict and collide with the realities of classroom life in the contexts of particular communities and societies. Recognizing the complexity of voices and experiences, we’ve written this article in an unusual way, attempting to interweave others’ research with the perspectives of teachers and students, as well as our own perspectives and values.

We recognize that there is not just one narrative on classroom discourse; we acknowledge many voices and traditions that have been part of this long-standing conversation on classroom discourse, but also invite new participants into the “parlor.” We imagine that this piece will be read by a diversity of thinkers—some who will share our governing gaze and epistemologies (already full-fledged members of our parlor), and others who are new to the conversation or have been apprenticed into different methodological and theoretical traditions. To this end, we’ve taken a more dialogic and transparently ideological stance, so that all can critically engage with what we understand to be the salient issues, key research findings, and promising directions in scholarship and practice.

Our goal has been to expand the conversation, by reviewing (synoptically) a large body of research but also by highlighting discursive and cultural tools (talk moves, discourse analysis, transcript protocols, curricula, and instructional programs) that do real work in the world. These tools, in the hands of differently positioned practitioners, students, and academics, can become the basis for disrupting, reconfiguring, and transforming classrooms into sites where new visions and more equitable social futures are forged.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (1.) The IRE, as the default format in direct instruction or recitation, has come under intense scrutiny of late. Many recent articles and books caution teachers not to use the IRE as the dominant format, and to ask more open-ended or non-test questions in the first position (Bloome, Carter, Christian, Madrid, Otto, & Smith, 2008; Cazden, 2001; Kazemi & Hintz, 2014; Lefstein & Snell, 2014; Strachota, 1995; Wells, 1993, 2007). Nonetheless, there is no consensus about the affordances and constraints of the IRE talk sequence. Some researchers have mentioned specific affordances of this tripartite pattern. Some note that this structure is ideal for certain purposes, such as reviewing, quizzing, or checking to see if there is common understanding in the group. Edwards and Westgate point out that there are many times that “such direct instruction is necessary and appropriate and indeed unavoidable” (1987, p. 175).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (2.) We owe this point to Adam Lefstein (personal communication).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (3.) In early work on Accountable Talk (Michaels, O’Connor, & Resnick, 2002), teachers were simply presented the talk moves as a list. Some teachers picked them up easily, while others resisted, saying things like “I already do this” (when they didn’t), or “I don’t like the ‘Who can repeat?’ move. It just doesn’t feel comfortable to me.” In later work by Chapin, O’Connor, and Anderson (2013) and Michaels and O’Connor (2012), the goals were added, based on the recognition that all tools make sense only in light of a problem or challenge that they help to solve and in light of the other tools in the toolkit. The four goals (as simple as they might seem) have great face-value appeal to teachers, who easily recognize that some of these goals are more in place and some less in place in their own classrooms, and feel motivated to try out moves that support the goals they struggle with.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (4.) We owe this point to Courtney Cazden (personal communication).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    (5.) We owe this point to Susan Mayer (personal communication).