Let's Talk about Talk! Six steps to quality classroom discussions.

One of my most favorite principals would constantly ask a powerful question:

"Who's doing the work?"

It was a keystone of conversations with her - at staff meetings, after walkthroughs, or just in casual chat about teaching.

"Who is doing the work?" 

What she meant by this was, "Who is doing the talking? Who is doing the learning?" Because she believes that the one in the classroom who is doing the talking is the one who is doing the thinking.  And the one who is doing the thinking is the one who is doing the learning.

So then why is it that we teachers spend SO much time talking?

Maybe it's because we've got content to cover and time is precious so we just get 'er done. Maybe it's because teachers are usually extroverts and well, we just love talking! (I know I'm definitely guilty of hijacking a conversation or two!)

Who knows, really.  What's important is that classroom discussions are a huge part of learning. And how can they do this with us talking so much?  And how do we stop?  How do we create a classroom where the kids are the ones doing the talking - where the kids are the ones doing the thinking and learning?

This is something I've been working on tirelessly.  So I've narrowed down some key steps that I think help support discussions.

Six Steps for Quality Classroom Discussions

1. Set the expectation of a true discussion.  Students need to know what a real discussion looks like, sounds like, and feels like.  Creating anchor charts with expectations sets the tone for the work you'll be doing.  For example, students need to know that when they're having a discussion they must listen and think about what others are saying.  They must make eye contact with the person who is speaking. The point here is that students need clarity about what a discussion is before they can engage in one.

2. Set the expectation of the language of a true discussion.  Students need to understand what words are appropriate during a discussion.  Accountable Talk strategies are a great example of this, although I'd caution you to not overuse them as they can lesson the authenticity of the discussion.  But simple phrases such as "I agree with" or "I don't agree with that idea because" are a great place to start.  Once students are in the habit of responding to each other and not just the teacher, they will need the discussions stems less.  

3. You need something easy to talk about at first.  Later on, you'll be talking all about poetry, characters, mathematical strategies, and literature themes. But in the beginning, you need a vehicle for teaching kids how to have a discussion - a vehicle that's not academically scary.  Something that doesn't need a lot of background knowledge to be successful at it. My favorite way of building this environment is by using something called Visual Thinking Strategies but the truth is, any thought-provoking painting or picture would work well.  Simply search for thought-provoking artwork on Google and you're sure to find something you think will interest your class.  The key here is just to practice having a discussion using something that is accessible to every student.

4. Your greatest tools are your questions.  Questions that don't have one answer are vital for a quality discussion as are questions that require students to back up their thinking with evidence, especially when discussing text.  Strong questions keep students engaged covertly!

One of the most powerful questions I've learned from my principal (which is so easy to add to your discussions) is:

What do you think about what __________ is saying?

Think about that question for a minute.  It really requires students to listen and respond to the ideas of others.  It also lets them know you expect them to do that.  It's one of my go-to questions, especially if I am at a stand still in the discussion. Try it! You'll love it!

5. You really, really need to listen.  This is incredibly hard for us teachers. And it actually might be the greatest challenge to creating a quality discussion.  We often already know what we want to hear when we ask a question that we don't fully process ideas that don't hit our mark.  When I was a first year teacher, I was SO good at pretending to listen.  I'd nod when a student shared a 'connection' and then I'd move onto another student who shared a totally unrelated idea.  I rarely asked follow up questions or got into a brief conversation with the student who was sharing.  Did I really listen? No.  I acted like a listener.  But I wasn't truly listening or taking in what was being said.  I wasn't thinking hard about it.  But if we want our students to do that, we must do it also.  We must if we want to take our class discussions beyond the surface.

6. Be patient with your students and with yourself.  Discussions that are meaningful cannot be created in a day or even a week.  It takes a lot of time for the students to become comfortable with sharing ideas, listening to each other, and responding in a way that's deep.  It takes a lot of time for teachers to practice shutting up and really listening.  There's bound to be times when there are crickets.  You must be patient with your students and yourself, especially in the beginning.

Ready to get started?

Set aside just 10-15 minutes a day to practice having discussions.  Use the artwork at first to get the students comfortable.  At first, a discussion might only have two or three participants.  Everyone else might stare at you like you have six heads.  There will be A LOT of silence.


You'll be modeling the language and asking great questions and you'll feel like an idiot because no one will know what the heck to say.  They won't know what you want from them!  That's okay! You need to give it time.  As you practice having discussions as a class, everyone will get better at it! You'll know when it's time to take the discussion into an academic area.  And once you do, you'll see that your kids really will know what to do!

Then pretty soon, the kids will be doing ALL the talking and you won't be able to stop them (and you won't want to!) 


  1. This was a great post- I love the way your principal asks "Who does the work." It's something I think about in my own classroom all the time- students need to be held accountable for participating and doing their own thinking, and I feel like a lot of teachers (at least many that I know!) are so quick to jump in and supply the answer for them.

    Everyone deServes to Learn

  2. I love this post! I am so glad that I got to link to you! (I told people to look for baby pics!) :)
    And now I am THRILLED that you'll be a sixth grade teacher. Can't wait to hear about everything you are doing with your new "big kids"!

    Finding JOY in 6th Grade

  3. I am SO glad that I hopped on over to your post! I have been trying to incorporate more of the 16 Habits of Mind in my classroom recently, and was trying to find a way to practice active listening skills. This is perfect! Thanks for sharing your BRIGHT idea! :o)

    Fourth Grade Shenanigans

    1. Thanks Stephanie! That's a great book! So glad you hopped over, too. :-) Thanks for leaving a comment!


  4. What a great post! It really made me think about discussions in my classroom. Thanks so much.



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