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Under, Over and Beyond Words: Strategies for Observing Talk in Classrooms

Brenda Power

In the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning, Peter Johnston writes about the importance of the ways teachers talk with students. He notes, "Teachers have very different ways of thinking about who they are, who their students are, and what they think they are doing, and these ways of thinking strongly influence the language they use automatically" (p. 82).

Talk is the engine that drives learning in any classroom. By focusing on conversation, colleagues and coaches can assist their peers by teasing out some of those patterns that are most helpful to (or most inhibit) the growth of the learning community. 

Observing talk in classrooms is the first step toward helping teachers understand the language they use automatically. It's one thing to acknowledge talk is crucial in classrooms; far harder to analyze, reflect upon, and move toward changing talk patterns. 

Here are some possibilities for classroom observations focused on talk. You can start by asking the teacher what he or she is noticing about talk in her classroom before the observation:

  • What kinds of talk does he or she encourage?
  • When is talk encouraged?
  • What is he or she working on in her own language with students? (i.e., more open-ended questions, longer wait time)
  • What does he or she want you to observe and note in the classroom?
  • Is there a particular student or group of students he or she would like you to focus on?
  • Is there a specific time he or she wants talk observed?

Once you have a sense of the teacher's interests, you might try some of these alternatives to traditional notes during classroom observations, and see how they affect your view of talk among teachers and students. It's a good idea to ask the teacher who will be observed to pick the focus in advance. That way, he or she has more interest and investment in your findings: 

  • Who talks? You can briefly sketch out who is sitting where in the class, and then put checks next each student each time they talk. You might also want to note if it is a boy (b) or girl (g), to get a sense of gender patterns.
  • Traffic patterns. Sketch the class, and then draw arrows to and from where students travel in class.
  • Teacher questions. Note each time the teacher asks a "yes/no", short answer, or open-ended question.
  • Talk sketch close-up. Sketch out one small portion of the classroom (a center with multiple use, one table of students) and note how many times each student talks.
  • Chart length of utterances in the class. Sketch out the classroom, and then put a - next to one word or very brief responses, * next to typical class responses, and + next to the longest responses.
  • Note every time there is silence in the class. What are the purposes of these silences?
  • Peer talk. What opportunities for students to talk to one another for specific purposes were actually set up by the teacher during the lesson?
  • Feedback. Who gave whom feedback during the lesson?
  • Talk as scaffold. Can you find examples of teacher or peer talk which acts as a temporary support for student learning?

After you've completed the observation, share your notes by asking questions about your findings in a way that doesn't judge or criticize. For example, it isn't necessarily good or bad that girls talk more during a certain session, but it can reveal something about the dynamics of the class. If your colleague senses a genuine openness to understand first, without any judgment involved, you will likely provoke a deeper reflection and analysis of the classroom events. 

Reference:

Johnston, Peter. 2004. Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children's Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Brenda Power

Brenda Power is the founder of Choice Literacy. She worked for many years as a professor at the University of Maine and an editor at Stenhouse Publishers. Her publications as an author include Living the Questions and The Art of Classroom Inquiry. She has worked as a book editor and video producer for many of the authors featured at this site.