Managing Classroom Talk


Many classrooms follow a pattern when it comes to classroom talk, the teacher initiates the talk by asking a question, students answer the question, and then the teacher evaluates the answer. While this Initiate-Respond-Evaluate (IRE) process is common and has its place within the classroom, it should not be the only type of talk that takes place. Here we will use the lens of purpose when discussing when and what types of talk should be implemented within a lesson.

Consider the following quote by psychiatrist William Glasser:

We Learn:
10% of what we read
20% of what we hear
30% of what we see
50% of what we hear and see
70% of what we discuss with others
80% of what we experience
95% of what we teach to someone else

The purpose of examining this quote is to not simply say that we should always engage students in activities and conversations in which they are expected to teach someone else, because all of these have a place in the classroom. What we want to focus on is balance and the understanding that how you have students engage should be driven by the purpose of your assignments as they are aligned to the learning goals.

Productive Classroom Conversations

When we talk about creating opportunities for students to engage in academic discourse during a lesson, we have to consider each of the following as they are key ingredients in those opportunities:

Create an environment conducive for productive conversations

For students to open up and share ideas, right or wrong, flawed or valid, as well as critique the ideas of their peers, and provided each other with feedback, students must feel that they are safe to do so. Productive conversations require students to take risks, and therefore they need to know that their ideas will not be ridiculed and that you, and their peers, value what they have to say.

“Priming” yourself for classroom conversations

Opening up your lessons for more student discourse means that you are shifting some of the responsibility for engagement and learning to the students. This can be challenging because we are often concerned about questions being raised and/or topics bring brought into the discussions that we are sometimes not comfortable with. This is where it becomes a vital part of the preparation process to ‘pre-think’, or ‘prime’ yourself for the conversations, by determining where you want the learning to be at the end of any classroom discussions.

Think about these three common types of conversations in which you may want your students to engage:

1. Eliciting students’ initial thoughts, understandings, and solution strategies.
2. Connecting new ideas to past learning.
3. Pressing students for the justification and mathematical reasoning behind their responses.

As you think through each of these three, you have to consider: when you will engage your students in these types of conversations, how you will set up this engagement, what you want to see as the outcome of these conversations, and how you will explicitly assist students in understanding how to engage in these conversations (i.e. will you provide a model, will you create a name for each type of conversation and create a student friendly process around each one, will you provide sentence starters, etc.). Remember, academic discourse is not an intuitive process for many students, so guidance on not only the content, but also the process involved in having these conversations, may be needed.

Managing Noise

Many children find it difficult to concentrate on the learning at hand when the conversations grow too loud. Much of the problem, can be attributed to students not having much experience at individually and jointly modulating noise levels, leaving it to the teacher.

Using a visual representation of the volume can be very helpful in having students to better understand how to self-regulate their voices. We recommend the use of the following noise meter app called Too Noisy App.

Here is an example of an activity that you can do with your students. Take a large piece of corrugated cardboard poster with the terms silent, quiet, moderate, elevated, and outdoor voice. An Arrow is attached using two-sided tape, tac or Velcro.

Use a lamp with a dimmer switch as another visual to represent classroom noise levels —the lower the light, the quieter the class is expected to be.

Practice being silent for 56 seconds, or working quietly for 24 seconds, or speaking moderately for 38 seconds, so that students gain tangible experience with understanding the relative levels of sound.

We then tell our students that we will use these noise levels through our school year: silent when we are taking tests, quiet when working or reading independently, moderate—defined as loud enough to be heard by your partner but quiet enough not to interfere with another pair’s conversation—when engaged in partner talk, and elevated only during small-group work. Of course, we never use an outdoor voice inside the classroom!

The noise meter is introduced on the first day of school and is revisited each time we move into independent work, collaborative learning, and guided instruction. Before long, the visual cue is no longer needed, and the verbal direction alone suffices. When the noise level does get too loud, we stop the class and redirect attention to the noise meter.

We have seen other colleagues use variations of the noise meter, like a traffic light or a large “noise thermometer” with a red ribbon representing the mercury inside the tube. One of our secondary science colleagues begins the year by teaching students about the science of acoustics and the effects of noise on learning. The common denominator in all of these examples is drawing students’ attention to sound levels in the classroom and giving them an active role in monitoring it.