Talk and Engagement: focusing on quality discussions in grade 5

Presently I am developing the Talk and Engagement course for SPELTAC. One of the things that appears in this course, is the importance of explicitly teaching students what effective talk looks like, and what its purpose is for learning. Often it’s not as straight-forward for students to know exactly what’s expected- as talk comes so natural to us as educators, we often forget students don’t necessarily have the skills to carry out effective discussions.

Last year, in an effort to improve the quality of discussions that were taking place during Literature Circles, the grade 5 team set up a series of walk-throughs to see how each team member was going about Literature Circles. Initially, all team members used assigned roles (connector, discussion director, illustrator), and set up routines for students to read and then carry out their discussions. A finding of the walk-throughs was that it seemed as if the assigned roles were keeping the students from having a quality literature discussion- they methodically carried out their role, sometimes without really being engaged with the text. In an effort to get the students to focus on effective discussion behaviours and quality discussions, the team decided to ditch the roles and get the kids to inquire into what a good literature discussion really looks like.

Ms Emily and Ms Marcelle recorded themselves having a discussion so the students had a model.

The students were then asked to come up with a set of criteria themselves, which they could then refer to and use for self and peer-assessment.

Over the course of the first term,  the checklist was used to give students feedback on their discussions. They then wrote reflections on what they needed to improve for the next discussion.  Observing students and giving them immediate feedback on their own criteria allowed them to make real improvement over time.

As a form of peer-assessment, fishbowl discussions were held and the class filled out the student-created feedback sheets.   


Involving students in what a good discussion looks like by having them set their own criteria is really valuable. Through this inquiry-based approach, I saw that language and its function became part of classroom dialogue and this is one of the six SPELTAC practices: Understanding Language.



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