Instructional Conversation


Teaching Through Conversation

Engage students through dialogue, especially the Instructional Conversation.

Thinking, and the abilities to form, express, and exchange ideas are best taught through dialogue, through questioning and sharing ideas and knowledge. In the Instructional Conversation (IC), the teacher listens carefully, makes guesses about intended meaning, and adjusts responses to assist students’ efforts–just as in graduate seminars, or between mothers and toddlers. Here the teacher relates formal, school knowledge to the student’s individual, family, and community knowledge. The IC provides opportunities for the development of the languages of instruction and subject matter. IC is a supportive and collaborative event that builds intersubjectivity and a sense of community. IC achieves individualization of instruction; is best practiced during joint productive activity; is an ideal setting for language development; and allows sensitive contextualization, and precise, stimulating cognitive challenge.

This concept may appear to be a paradox; instruction implies authority and planning, while conversation implies equality and responsiveness. But the instructional conversation is based on assumptions that are fundamentally different from those of traditional lessons. Teachers who use it, like parents in natural teaching, assume that the student has something to say beyond the known answers in the head of the adult. The adult listens carefully, makes guesses about the intended meaning, and adjusts responses to assist the student’s efforts – in other words, engages in conversation. Such conversation reveals the knowledge, skills, and values – the culture – of the learner, enabling the teacher to contextualize teaching to fit the learner’s experience base.

In U.S. schools the instructional conversation is rare. More often, teaching is through the recitation script, in which the teacher repeatedly assigns and assesses. Classrooms and schools are transformed into communities of learners through such dialogic teaching, and when teachers reduce the distance between themselves and their students by constructing lessons from common understanding of each others’ experience and ideas and make teaching a warm, interpersonal and collaborative activity.

Indicators of Instructional Conversation

The teacher:

  • arranges the classroom to accommodate conversation between the teacher and a small group of students on a regular and frequent basis.
  • has a clear academic goal that guides conversation with students.
  • ensures that student talk occurs at higher rates than teacher talk.
  • guides conversation to include students’ views, judgments, and rationales using text evidence and other substantive support.
  • ensures that all students are included in the conversation according to their preferences.
  • listens carefully to assess levels of students’ understanding.
  • assists students’ learning throughout the conversation by questioning, restating, praising, encouraging, etc.
  • guides the students to prepare a product that indicates the Instructional Conversation’s goal was achieved.