Classrooms have changed throughout the years, and rightfully so. In this post, I am referring to conversations. Who owns the talk in our classrooms today? Is it teachers or students? Traditionally, it’s been the teacher asking questions and dominating conversations. While some students might have only responded to a question in as few words as possible. Maybe there was one student, possibly two, who gave a long-drawn-out answer. Others didn’t utter a word. You see, I think today’s classrooms show a marked difference in what I have just described, or I believe they should. I also think we as educators understand that students should be active learners. We recognize that each learner must have opportunities to engage and have a voice in learning. In other words, in our classrooms today, the teacher and students must both share responsibility in the learning process.

Encourage Discourse

Rather than ask questions that require students to recall simple facts, we want them to stretch beyond surface-level knowledge. We must move students to where they deeply engage with what they are learning. A strategy that can help teachers facilitate deeper engagement is collaborative discourse, as noted by author and national consultant Dr. Karin Hess. In her article Deepening Student Understanding with Collaborative Discourse, she is firm in her beliefs that students can deepen their understanding when teachers successfully implement this strategy. Dr. Hess further stated that intentionally focused and designed collaborative activities can positively impact student learning. She offers examples and suggestions for teachers who want to deepen learning by planning and constructing opportunities that guide students to actively participate in small-group collaboration with discourse.

Engage Critical Thinking

Purposeful talk or collaborative discourse can create an environment that encourages students to exhibit The 9 Traits of Critical Thinking™ by Mentoring Minds. Although other traits can surface, two traits that are noticeably evidenced in collaborative discourse are Collaborate and Communicate. As students participate in discussion-based lessons, they have many opportunities to think critically and deepen their understanding by working together with peers. Those interactions can be face-to-face or online in Zoom conversations.

Both oral and written language along with body language can promote communication as students explain, create, question, and reflect on concepts they are developing. Collaboration improves and increases meaning in academic conversations as students work with peers to discuss, develop, and adjust concepts for the purpose of producing better outcomes. When students engage in collaborative discussions, they interact with content and make connections to prior knowledge and experiences—even if it challenges what they know. Display the Link critical thinking trait as students form connections to help make their learning relevant and useful.


This is a photo of four students engaged in conversation.

Ignite Interaction

The depth of student interaction will be determined by the levels of thinking required and applied by the students. As small-group discourse is facilitated, here are a few tips to teachers for igniting discussions and modeling behaviors that collaboratively engage students.

1. Use Real-world Contexts

Pose problems in real-world contexts that have no easy solutions. Doing so prevents students from being misled about how life really is. Helping students struggle is part of the process of learning, rather than presenting problems or asking questions they know how to readily solve.

2. Encourage Participation

Use the Think-Pair-Share and Partner Again strategy to give students a voice and to encourage all to participate. In other words, teach students to think first, then work in pairs to talk about solutions to challenges. Next, invite two sets of pairs to share, collaborate, and adjust solutions prior to discussing as a whole class.

3. Structure Productive Talk

Structure productive talk for students by modeling “talk moves,” an adapted idea from Sarah Michaels and Cathy O’Connor’s Talk Science Primer, a lesson video featured on the Teaching Channel, and the article What Productive Talk Looks Like in the Elementary Grades by Susan O’Brien. The following prompts are associated with talk moves and can be taught to students to improve participation by listening, speaking, and building upon ideas of peers.

  • Students use their own words and say what was heard: So, what I think __ is saying is __.
  • Add on. Students share their thoughts and add to what another said: I want to add on to what __ said.
  • Students determine if they agree or disagree and share reasoning or evidence for why or why not: I agree/respectfully disagree with __ because __.
  • Students can change their minds with new information when they consider the thoughts or ideas of others: After listening to __, I think__.

4. Assess Questions

Assess questions asked to determine if questions result in a single answer or if questions challenge students’ thinking and require explanations to be given.

  • What is another way of looking at this situation?
  • How can we look at this differently?
  • What would be possible if we chose this solution?
  • That’s interesting. Who has a different opinion about what we have been discussing so far?
  • What’s a better alternative?
  • Give me an example.
  • What does the evidence say to support/contradict __?
  • How might __ change/influence the outcome?
  • How can this be interpreted differently?

5. Empower Student Ownership

Empower students to own their learning by creating opportunities that encourage and allow students to ask questions. This shift in teacher-student roles invites students to become active participants and drive their own learning. Students learn how to ask and answer questions that promote deeper conversations from teacher modeling.


While there is much to know about what collaborative discourse looks like and sounds like, perhaps this communication inspires you to further explore this topic. Remember that collaboration alone does not guarantee deeper thinking; however, collaborative discourse can have a favorable impact on student understanding.