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Improving the Quality of Middle-School Classroom Discussions

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
In this article in American Educational Research Journal, Joshua Lawrence (University of California/Irvine), Amy Crosson (University of Pittsburgh), Juliana Paré-Blagoev (George Washington University), and Catherine Snow (Harvard University) report on their study of Word Generation, a cross-disciplinary middle-school program.
Developed by Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) and the Boston Public Schools, Word Generation introduces target academic vocabulary words (e.g., relevant, presume, indicate) in brief texts, highlights them by providing student-friendly definitions, and gets students involved in discussions of civic and moral dilemmas in which the words are used for a week in ELA, math, science, and social studies classes, culminating in a writing activity on Friday in which students argue their position on the dilemma of the week.
Some sample dilemmas: Should you be able to rent a pet? Should there be federal funding for stem cell research? Should students attend all-boy and all-girl classes? (See for more information and free downloads of materials.)
Although the program didn’t have a large impact on students’ learning of the target words (effect size .25), it brought about dramatic improvements in students’ discussion skills, which the authors believe will pay off in reading comprehension and general academic achievement. This is important since there is so little high-quality discussion in the average U.S. classroom – less than two minutes per hour, according to one study.
“The low incidence of discussion is alarming,” say the authors, “in light of its strong relation to desirable academic outcomes, the importance of authentic language experience for English language learners, and the focus in the Common Core State Standards on oral language and discussion skills as domains in which there are high expectations for student performance. A formidable challenge, then, is to develop procedures for expanding the amount and improving the quality of classroom discussion.”
Lawrence, Crosson, Paré-Blagoev, and Snow deconstruct what’s going on in good classroom discussions (a.k.a. exploratory talk, accountable talk, or instructional dialogue):
- Distinct from teacher monologues and the pervasive initiate-response-evaluate sequence;
- A high ratio of student-to-teacher talk;
- High student engagement – attentive listening and eagerness to contribute;
- Students responding directly to one another;
- Peer perspective-taking and responding to each others’ reasoning;
- Students embracing newly introduced ideas and making connections to their own experiences and prior learning;
- Claims, warrants, and conclusions related to a topic or question;
- Developing strong reasoning skills and connecting factual knowledge to the topic.
Discussions are most successful when teachers pose authentic, open questions that require reasoning because there is no simple, straightforward answer. Students and teacher are positioned as “co-inquirers” and there is a respectful, collaborative environment that enables engagement with rigorous content.
Why is there so little high-quality discussion in our schools? Lawrence, Crosson, Paré-Blagoev, and Snow believe it’s because:
- Teachers worry about losing control of the classroom;
- They worry about students who talk too much and those who talk too little;
- Teachers worry about taking too much time and not covering the curriculum;
- Some teachers haven’t acquired the skills to facilitate productive discussions;
- Many students lack the norms and skills to participate productively.
In short, teachers need considerable support to launch and manage good discussions. The good news from this study is that with relatively little professional development, teachers were able to use the Word Generation materials to bring about dramatic improvements in their classroom discussions. The authors also believe that the students’ vocabulary knowledge improved more than indicated by the multiple-choice test they used.
The article: “Word Generation Randomized Trial: Discussion Mediates the Impact of Program Treatment on Academic Word Learning” by Joshua Lawrence, Amy Crosson, Juliana Paré-Blagoev, and Catherine Snow in American Educational Research Journal, August 2015 (Vol. 52, #4, p. 750-786), available for purchase at; Lawrence can be reached at

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