3 Strategies to Create a Culture of Conversation in Your Classroom

November 09, 2022
Rachel Fuhrman

When it comes to classroom conversations, it can be difficult to get every student to speak up. For some students, anxiety and shyness can hold them back from fully participating. For others, they may not feel confident enough with the material to participate aloud. Teachers might find it easier to allow those students that want to speak up to dominate the conversation and hope that the remaining students learn along the way. However, this strategy does not create an equitable classroom, prioritizes only a few voices, and can leave many students feeling uncomfortable in the classroom. 

To ensure that every student has an opportunity to confidently speak up in class, teachers can use three strategies to set the foundation for a culture of conversation in the classroom. Maintaining this culture is a continuous process and teachers should always be looking for opportunities to further engage every student, but these three strategies offer a strong starting point. 


1. Set Expectations for Participation

When it comes to classroom participation, there will always be some students more eager to jump in and some students that would rather opt out of speaking up. When I was in school, I was always the shyest student in the room and can hardly remember the times I was actually eager to participate. A huge reason I was so hesitant was because the expectations for participation were never clear to me. Some students would just start sharing out, without being called on, and other students would continue to build upon their answers. The idea of just speaking into the silence was terrifying to me! Instead, it was easier to just listen and never share my own voice. 

Other teachers would strictly rely on cold-calling and I would spend the entire class willing myself to become invisible for fear that I’d be called on to answer a question I wasn’t sure about. Let me tell you, I don’t think I would’ve been ready to answer anything; I barely listened to the questions being asked because I was so nervous about being called on! 

To help students like myself that get worried about being cold called or can’t stomach the idea of just speaking into the void, you can set clear expectations about how you want students to participate and what it looks like for each part of your lesson. 

If you want students to speak into the silence or you want them to raise their hands before speaking, name that. Tell students, as you are asking the question, how you expect them to respond. By ensuring every student understands how to participate, you are creating an opportunity for any student to do so.

If you are going to cold-call a student, start by naming that person before asking the question to give them an opportunity to focus on what is being asked. Further, frame these cold-called questions as opportunities to start a conversation rather than an expectation of a perfect answer. 

For example, you might say, “Rachel, can you start us off by sharing what you think Lois Lowry wanted us to take away from this chapter?” By setting the expectation that a student is participating in a conversation rather than naming one singular answer, you encourage students to more openly participate with less anxiety. This relies on the ability to ask questions worth diving into for an extended conversation. It is difficult to engage multiple voices if you are asking students a simple yes or no question. 

In both Fishtank ELA and Fishtank Math lessons, there are meaty questions designed to allow for genuine discussion in which multiple students can participate. In ELA, this includes the unit Essential Questions and lesson Key Questions. In Math, the guiding questions and sample student responses for each Anchor Task/Problem offer opportunities to create classroom conversations. During your intellectual prep, you can identify these conversation starting questions and begin to plan out how you will engage students during the lesson. 

Because speaking into the silence and cold-calling can continue to be stress inducing for many students, there are a number of other participation expectations you can set in your classroom. One of my favorite participation strategies is non-verbal participation. You can ask students to use a non-verbal signal to show that they agree or disagree with a certain point or are confused about something in the text. By setting the expectation that every student participates by using the non-verbal signal, all students are engaged at the same time, alleviating any of the stress that comes with being the center of attention. 

Beyond these whole group opportunities for participation, you can also set expectations for partner and small group discussions to further elevate as many voices as possible. When setting the expectations for partner and small group participation, it is important that students know who they are speaking to, what they are speaking about, and how they are going to share out when the discussion time is over. In many classrooms, Turn and Talks are used in which students have a set partner that they can discuss with. There are many variations on this strategy including options that encourage students to take turns speaking, share what their partner said, or write their thoughts on paper before beginning the discussion. 

Clearly outlining how you expect students to engage with their partner is crucial to the success of the discussion as you don’t want one person to speak the whole time or both students to stare into space rather than discuss. 

Regardless of how you plan to engage student voices, you have to be clear about what you expect from students to ensure they feel comfortable and confident about engaging. 


2. Encourage Academic Risk Taking

So you’ve addressed the expectations and hopefully, this allows more students to actively participate in classroom discussions. The next thing you need to focus on is encouraging academic risk-taking. Even if students know your expectations, some will still be too nervous about being wrong to want to speak up. Not only does this fear of failure hold students back from fully participating, but it allows them to miss out on key learning opportunities borne from assessing others’ ideas. 

Academic risk-taking means that students feel comfortable speaking up and sharing their thoughts, even if they aren’t absolutely sure they are right. In this classroom, such academic risks can help you understand where students are getting stuck, identify common trends in student thinking, and encourage students to respectfully analyze one another’s thinking. 

To encourage students to take these academic risks that can ultimately spark high-level thinking and critical conversations, you can focus on two things: Emphasizing the importance of the learning process rather than correct answers and modeling how to make and address mistakes yourself. 

Within both Fishtank ELA and Fishtank Math, we aim to create questions that prompt students to think deeply about concepts rather than focus on a single correct answer. By approaching lesson plans with a focus on the process of learning, we offer teachers an opportunity to directly emphasize the importance of that process. You can explicitly narrate for students how they are moving through a conversation based on the new ideas they uncover along the way rather than focus on just the end goal. This provides more students an opportunity to share things that they might have thought at first, but now think differently about, or, share things that they thought were right but now aren’t sure what to think about. From there, students can help one another analyze thoughts and work towards a consensus as they address key questions. 

To further encourage students to share things they may have thought at first but now realize are not correct, you can directly model that for students. In my own classroom, there have been many times where I have made an error and openly admitted it, explained where I went wrong, and encouraged students to help me come up with a strategy to avoid that mistake in the future. While some of these mistakes were pre-planned for the purpose of modeling, some were definitely not! 

As my students saw me own up to mistakes and focus on the opportunity to learn from a mistake rather than let it stop me from trying, my students were able to do the same. As more students recognize that mistakes are a critical part of the learning process, they begin to shed some of their nervousness about being wrong. When incorrect answers are just as important to learning as correct answers, students can engage in conversation knowing they are adding something important no matter what.


3. Ensure All Students Have Access to Class Discussions

Now that we have established expectations for participation and created an environment that welcomes and honors academic risk taking, we have to focus on those students that weren’t just shying away from speaking up. We want to think about the students that need additional support accessing the material and engaging in conversation. Whether these students are your multilingual learners or students with exceptionalities, you want to load up your teacher toolkit with strategies to provide access to classroom discussions. 

Beyond offering Teacher Tools focused on Academic Discourse, Fishtank offers comprehensive Teacher Tools for supporting multilingual learners and students in special populations. All of these tools are available to help you expand upon your ability to support all students. 

Our Preparing for Academic Discourse Teacher Tool outlines strategies to set students up for success before diving into a discussion. One strategy is to provide ample opportunities for students to gather and organize their thoughts before engaging in discourse. This might look like a graphic organizer for students to use during guided instruction or while reading a particular passage to ensure they identify and remember key concepts. You can also direct students to a particular part of a text or problem to ensure that they have a jumping off point for gathering their thoughts.

Additionally, setting students up for success could look like a partner discussion during which students can try out their ideas before sharing whole group. You can prompt students to focus on specific ideas in their partner discussions and then circulate to offer feedback and guidance to individual students. 

Once you are ready to get started with a whole class discussion, you can provide specific students with additional supports and scaffolds. For some students, especially those for whom English is not their first language, sentence starters can be incredibly helpful. Offering students a variety of sentence starters ensures that they have options for engaging with the group. Additionally, asking scaffolding questions can help guide students as they work through their answers and allow for deeper understanding and engagement.  

If you are planning to verbally ask your discussion questions, it can be helpful to also offer students a written version of those discussion questions. Students can continually return to the question to ground their thinking and ensure they are on the right track. Further, as you engage in the discussion, you can visually record student answers and encourage students to take notes themselves. By providing a record of what has been said, students can more easily add on to previous students, agree or disagree with things that have been said, and confidently share how their thinking about changed over the course of the discussion. 


Ready to get started? Create your Fishtank account today to access our Academic Discourse tools for free! Want to dig deeper? Upgrade to Fishtank Plus to unlock more in-lesson features for both math and ELA to help you spark conversations and to access our Plus only Teacher Tools! 


Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.


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