Talk Cue Cards to Facilitate Discussion

I am working with a Grade 9 Language and Literature class in preparation for an upcoming summative in which they will select two adaptations of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet to compare and contrast the ways in which they create dramatic tension. We have read the scene, watched the entire Baz Luhrmann adaptation, and collaboratively made observational notes on two other adaptations of the scene.

Throughout the learning thus far we have taken time for whole class, small group, and one-to-one discussion. Today’s objective was to have a structured small group discussion in which all students contributed using the type of language they will need for their summative.

I prepared these talk cue cards which I found the idea for in Cambridge’s ‘Thinking Together‘ website. In order to make the cards, I went to the assignment exemplar and copied sentences, removing the specific details. For example: Conflict between _______ is made more / less powerful in the ____ adaptation because of the use of _______.

I shared the cue cards with the students via Google Drive a few days in advance so that they could become familiar with them. In the discussion class, I printed five sets of the cue cards, put the students in mixed groups, and gave each group a set of cards.

  1. Groups distribute cards among members
  2. (5-10 minutes) Students gather their thoughts and review their notes on the adaptations of the play (I had not planned for this, but it quickly became evident that it was necessary).
  3. (15 minutes) Students discuss using the cards without their computers. Teacher goes around the room to support discussions.
  4. (15 minutes) Students continue discussion, but begin taking notes in a Google Document that is shared with the whole class, with a table section for each group to use. There are a few advantages to using a Google Doc:
    1. While students are completing their shared notes, the teacher can review the document and add questions to facilitate further discussion and address any common misunderstandings that emerge: without interrupting discussions!
    2. Students can see what other groups are coming up with
    3. Students will have access to the notes for review when they are preparing their for their summative task.

Here is a copy of the notes they created. My questions are in blue text, and in most cases the students added detail based on the questions.

After students had completed their discussion and notes, I had them choose a card and walk around the room while I played music. When I paused the music, they would find someone near them and each would share their thoughts. This was important mostly because they needed to move, and also because it allowed 1:1 discussions. It may have been more useful to add this mid-discussion rather than at the end of the discussions.

In the end, I had students complete a survey on using cue cards to facilitate discussion. Here were the results. It was a class of 20 students with one absent student, but I only got 17 responses, which means two students did not submit theirs. I did rush this and in the future will try to remember to give more time for reflection on learning experiences.

The first question was about how they feel about small group discussions -irregardless of cue cards. This is what they said, and it is nice to see that none of them dread small group discussions: 3/17 (approximately 1 in 6) LOVE class group discussion, and 9/17 ((more than 50%) find them helpful.

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The second question was about the impact of cue cards. As you can see not all students selected anything, which makes me think that either I did not give enough time for form completion, or 30% of the students had no opinion on the impact of the cards. 12/17 said it helped keep the discussion on track, and 10/17 said it helped them contribute and improved the discussion. One student said it did not affect the discussion. No students said that it made the discussion worse.

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 10.47.17 AMScreen Shot 2017-01-31 at 10.46.05 AM


In the optional open ended comment section, 9/17 wrote comments. One commented that they had nothing to say, one made the interesting point that the cards may “disturb the flow” of the discussion, and the other 7 discussed ways in which the cards were helpful.

The cue cards helped guide the discussion more, we stayed a lot more focus instead of getting side tracked.
For some people it may help them, but for me it didn’t really affect how I talked. Sometimes I felt like they could pressure the students into talking about a particular topic, which would stop or disturb the flow of the discussion.
don’t have one.
I think that the cards really helped me put my thoughts into different parts almost. For example if we were to have this discussion with no cards then I feel that my thoughts would be all mixed up and I wouldn’t know what to say. But the cards really helped my put my thoughts into different sections.
It helps us form a sentence using our idea.
It gave us a very good scaffold which helped us keep on track.
Using the cue cards makes sure everyone has something to say, and if you are short on coming up with something, the cue card is there to help you. It helps keep the conversation going and varied. If you are working with people you don’t really work with before, the cue cards are a really good way of breaking the ice and starting conversations. Making the cue cards with words and phrases we will be using in our summative assignment helps us get into the spirit of it. Maybe also just writing down the main ideas on a cue card could help start a conversation.
It also remind us the topic to talk about that we might missed during the discussion.
The cue cards, gave us an idea of what to talk about, and how we are supposed to write it in the summative
I am definitely interested in using Talk Cue Cards again, and am curious about collaborating with other teachers to make talk cue card banks. I have been thinking about what sentence structures to use and toyed with the idea of using famous speeches to create them.


A little side note on sharing documents with students and giving them editing rights: I had pasted in the quote below from the task sheet in plain text, and a student added the bold and underline: “Your scene comparison should: ‘compare and contrast the way in which they create dramatic tension.‘” Another student added the screenshot of the definition of dramatic tension you can see in the linked document above.

Update Feb 2017: I made Talk Cue Cards to facilitate reflection after the summative assignment was complete. I even managed to work in gratitude practice with “I am grateful for this assignment because…”. As I circulated I noticed that sometimes students were sharing a sentence and then moving on for the next student to share. We had previously practiced an activity I learned from Kath Murdhoch called 5 Whys, where students answer a question and a partner asks ‘why’ for five consecutive developments on the answer. I told the students to use their 5 whys and the conversations got deeper.

Afterwards, I had the students write in a document shared only with me called “What I think” to tell me their thoughts on the assignment using the Talk Cue Card discussions to give them ideas. No grade, no grammar, no structure, no word count. These reflections will help me understand the students as individual learners and give me ideas for supporting future assignments.

“Resources for Teachers.” Thinking Together, University of Cambridge » Resources for Teachers. Faculty of Education, 2017, Web. 30 Jan. 2017.

The role of discussion in engagement

I had the pleasure of covering two Grade 9 Language and Literature classes in a row -with Romeo and Juliet for content! ‘My bounty is as boundless as the sea.’ 🙂

In the first class, we watched the end of the Claire Danes version, and then I asked the students to individually or in groups summarize the story. They set to creating Google Docs and tip tap typing away, looking in print versions of the book and on the Internet for clues. Some students were engaged, but many had a flat energy about them. Most were writing in prose: paragraphs that lacked meaning and bore no connection to the complexity and tragedy of the human experiences they were describing.

In the second class, I came with big huge pieces of paper. I asked the students to hold up fingers on a hand to show to what extent they felt familiar with the plot of the play and I got a lot of ones and twos, which confirmed my suspicion. Writing a summary of the play was not helping them understand the plot of the play.

So I spoke for 15 minutes trying to inspire them to engage with the content, doing everything I could do to draw connections between our human existence and the play: our ridiculous dramas and the unchanging similar nature of our more base and emotional capitulations. I illustrated these by marching around in character recounting personal teenage experiences, covering my ears and mouthing silent screams to block out my uncomprehending father. I pretended to be a tough guy and strutted across the class biting my thumb at invisible tough guys I was passing, and then became one of the invisible tough guys and said, ‘do you bite your thumb at me!?’ I drew ideas from the crowd including a great comment by a student who said that the play was like a portrait of humanity, which drew me to talk about the difference between being trapped blindly inside of our experiences and stepping outside our experiences to view them out of character and without emotional attachment and degradation. To be able to get perspective so that we can see that we are always making choices, that our choices are infinite, and that we do not need to drown in our moments of despair.

I fought tirelessly to gather eye contact and recognition, to win laughter and self-recognition. To ignite motivation to read and engage with this text that so beautifully captures in an ornate frame a wide array of human folly and subordination.

Then I pulled out the big pieces of paper, which brings me to the point of this post. I had observed that when working on their own to create a summary of the play for personal use, they were walking a thin line of perception. They were not engaging in discussion, they were not processing the play. So I asked each table grouping (of which there were conveniently 5) to choose an act of the play to summarize. I asked them to use quotes and icons and words, connected by arrows and lines, to create a summary of the act that would communicate the humanly significant elements of the scenes of the act to an audience of peers.

There were varying amounts of labour dividing -students jumping in to be illustrators, one group instantly divided the scenes of their act among themselves and created their summaries silently. But in all groups there were discussions about events to include, the significance of said events, the best quotes to summarize them, and what icons could be used to capture the meaning Shakespeare was trying to portray. I was able to circulate and learn about what the students perceived as significant and got to be blown away by the depth of their perceptions.

At the end of the class when all but one large piece of paper had complete details of an act, I asked the students to hold up fingers on a hand to show to what extent the activity helped them understand the act. 3s, 4s, and 5s except for one 2. He said it was because he already understood the act he was working on.

This is an example of the relationship between Talk and Engagement and how they bring meaning to learning. As Professor Debra Myhill said: “You can’t give students simply what you know. Learners have to take it and make it their own and discussion is central to that.”

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Language learning and mainstream context

I continue to find myself thinking of all of our language learners including students acquiring languages other than English as an additional language -we only teach three: French, Spanish, and Mandarin. How can we promote the acquisition of these languages in addition to our many parent tongue languages and English?

Gibbons (2009) states that “in language-only classes, there may be little relationship between the language being presented in the class and the language required for participation in mainstream contexts,” (p 10), with the recommendation that we need to teach language content that will be used in a mainstream context in order for language learning to be meaningful and relevant. Do we need to make more connections between the language taught in language acquisition classes and our other subjects?

2016-10-05-14-58-44 Language Acquisition being taught as an isolated subject.

2016-10-05-14-57-17 Language Acquisition being integrated across subjects.

I have not had anyone use my Google Doc for collaborative multilingual keyword research, perhaps it is just too much to think about for subject teachers struggling to get through their own content. I think if we apply what we are learning about ELL to our efforts to teach other second (third, fourth) languages, we can transform the way we teach and student learning will deepen in both their non-language and their language classes.

Gibbons, Pauline. English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2009. Web.


Multilingualism for all!

I went to French Immersion school when I was growing up in Canada, and I am a child of two English speakers. I loved the immersion experience, and I had always intended that my children would also go to French Immersion school. I did try to speak French with my daughter when she was a baby, knowing that bilingualism was an advantage for development, but English was so much easier for me that I took the shortcut to deeper more fluent communication in English and gave up on French, telling myself that she would learn French in school. Then we moved overseas, and both of my children have now missed out on the Canadian opportunity to go to French Immersion school. Although they each take Language Acquisition classes, the opportunity to become bilingual is uncertain given the current reinforcement of their target languages across the curriculum.

There are some great readings in Course 1, week 1 on multilingualism and the importance of bilingualism. For example: “Research has clearly demonstrated that bilingualism has a significant positive effect in terms of cognitive flexibility, intercultural skills and identity development.” (See Creating a Multilingual Environment, Week 1, Course 1). This brings me to question why we are talking about English Language Learners separately from learners of other additional languages. Should the conversation be about how we can help all of our students to be bilingual, regardless of whether their parent tongue is English?

Our English language learners require special consideration and treatment because they are in a situation that mirrors that of our learners of other additional languages. English language learners struggle because they are immersed in the target language, while our learners of other languages struggle because they are not immersed in the target language. Perhaps we can marry the needs of each group to create a more balanced and equitable approach to language acquisition with the objective of developing multilingualism for all.

 With the mindset of wanting all students to be multilingual, curriculum content could be developed with the intent of providing access to content in two languages for each student, not only for students for whom English is an additional language.

I have developed a Google Document designed to support collaborative multilingual keyword research. The idea is that the whole class would collaborate to complete the keyword definitions for English, and then different language learner groups would collaborate on the section for their additional target language, be it parent tongue or otherwise. While this will take more time than only completing the research in English, there are several immediately foreseeable advantages:

  • we would be developing teaching practice based on language fluency research
  • the learning involved in translating to an additional language is not reserved for english language learners
  • the target Language Acquisition language is supported across the curriculum in addition to parent tongues being supported across the curriculum
  • the completion of the tables in the document can be modified based on student needs: for example, they could only include the translated word, and skip the definition in the target language
  • students could work on the document in their additional language classes -even if they only had time to look at one word in translation, or to check with the teacher on the reliability of Google Translate or other translation tools used
  • students would be exposed to multiple languages: seeing words, alphabets, and associated images in as many languages as are spoken or being acquired in the classroom
  • students would be given an opportunity to shine for their fluency in languages
  • there is a section in the table to identify number of results for google searches and wikipedia searches. This can help students and teachers reflect on what information is available online in different languages
  • students are encouraged to share a favorite resource: students may end up viewing a source in an additional additional language

If you are using this or other multilingual research templates, I would love to hear about your experiences!

Thinking about student literacy

I am interested in developing awareness of literacy for our students so that literacy is viewed with a wider lens and is more inclusive of the many forms of literacy that our students are exposed to daily. I would like this expanded perception of literacy to support the development of more types of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ in the way that we teach language.

What are our students ‘reading’?

My now 11 year old son has talked to me for years about the YouTubers he watches in much the same way that a person would talk about an author. One favourite has been Barnacles Nerdgasm, another Good Mythical Morning, and another is Casey Neistat, whom his sister also admires. The two discuss him regularly when talking about their own growth as videographers and human beings. I engage in these conversations and we discuss the quality of character and the reliability and interpretation of the information being shared. Does Morgan’s ‘reading’ of these YouTube channels belong in his school reading logs? Should he be writing reviews of these channels the way he would write a review of a book?

Students are also ‘reading’ Instagram posts, memes, vines, Snapchat stories, Skype chats, and Facebook posts. How can we support students as they develop their ability to interpret and analyse this independent reading? Are they doing this reading in multiple languages? Are they noticing similarities and differences between the posts in their different languages?

What are our students ‘writing’?

Developing literacy involves creation as well as consumption: ‘writing’ as well as ‘reading’. Not only are both of my children YouTube consumers, they are also YouTube creators or ‘writers’. I like that they have a creation/consumption balance because I find that people can get stuck in a consumption rut and it concerns me when that happens. There can be so much fear about sharing our creations (just look at our reaction to having to write a post in a blog!), and I don’t want my children to be afraid to develop their self-expression by contributing to the global conversations that are taking place around us -even if it means risking being mocked and treated with disrespect, finding out the reality that they aren’t ‘perfect’ by all standards, and discovering that people will disagree with them and dislike their taste.

How can we encourage our students to ‘write’?

We need to protect the privacy of our students, and for that reason we have ways that students can participate in discussions and share their many creations / forms of self-expression in a sheltered global community. Private Google+ communities for 13 year olds and up, blogs for Grade 2 and up, TEDxISPP, various school YouTube channels, school plays, the Loop, Innovasia, and much more. What else can we do?

A peek at Grade 7 and 8 students

In sessions with Grade 7 and 8 students, I had students complete a survey and asked them about their participation in online communities including Skype, FaceBook, Snapchat, Instagram, Steam, and blogs. I forgot to include YouTube and other chat applications, which students made me aware of. Here is a summary of findings for those questions:

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I then asked them how often their online footprint shows the following qualities: [I am thoughtful], [I respect diversity], [I am caring], [I am a responsible global citizen], [I strive to effect positive change], [I am a learner], and [I am balanced]. Many were confused by the idea that their online footprint / participation in online communities says anything about them at all.

Here is what grade 7 and 8 said about appearing caring online:

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Our students are developing their literacy in our classes while simultaneously developing literacy outside of class. Is their classroom literacy transferring to their personal literacy?  Is their personal literacy valued and nurtured in the classroom? Are they developing their personal literacy in their additional languages?