How to cultivate a classroom culture that supports constructive conversation

At its core, the United States is a nation of immigrants - a society comprised of people with deep familial roots in other countries. Nearly one-quarter of the children in the U.S. - more than 12 million individuals - speak a language other than English at home.

The rise of bilingualism presents challenges for K-12 educators and students alike, as English-focused curriculum can be difficult for non-native speakers to absorb, and communication breakdowns impede teaching efforts.

To overcome these obstacles, educators must reconsider their classroom culture and how it can be improved upon to cultivate constructive conversation between students as well as their teachers. The benefits of this approach will not only help English-as-a-second-language students and English-language learners, but all students equally regardless of their native tongue.

ELL challenges by the numbers

The number of ELL students in the U.S. is at an all-time high and continues to grow. Over the past decade, the number of children who spoke a different language at home than in their classroom rose 2 percent. From state to state, ELL rates vary immensely based on demographics - in California, for instance, 44 percent of students do not primarily speak English with their families, while in West Virginia that rate is only 2 percent.

The largest growth rates in ELL numbers over the past decade have been seen in the District of Columbia (6 percent increase), Maryland (5 percent) and New Jersey (5 percent).

Although bilingualism or multilingualism has many benefits - increased problem-solving skills, concentration and mental flexibility, to name a few - the U.S. education system continues to struggle to create learning environments tailored to these individuals. In fact, 2.4 million ELL students say they have difficulty speaking English.

Breaking down communication barriers and providing ELL students with the tools to not only become proficient English speakers, but succeed academically requires a more supportive educational culture that promotes constructive conversation and classroom communication.

What is constructive conversation?

Often, ELL curriculum is focused around the building blocks of language - vocabulary, grammar, syntax, etc. - with the teacher leading the classroom and students dutifully absorbing the material and ostensibly building knowledge. But is this the most effective way for students to learn?

Many K-12 curriculums neglect to prioritize peer-to-peer conversation and the important role those interactions have on language development, collaboration skills and communication abilities. Common exercises like group discussions that involve the entire class leave plenty of room for improvement, as a handful of students can easily dominate the conversation, leaving those students who could benefit most from these interactions to shrink away from the spotlight.

The bedrock principle of constructive conversation is that peer-to-peer discussions are incredibly valuable for students to develop critical communication and language skills, while also providing plenty of leeway for them to work out new ideas, make mistakes and think more critically about the subject matter.

Unlike traditional teaching methods, which center on rote memorization and repetition, constructive conversation builds knowledge and language proficiency by promoting interactions between students that allow for spontaneous, critical thinking.

Benefits of constructive conversation

Peer-to-peer constructive conversation engages students in ways that other exercises simply cannot match. When executed correctly, this approach provides numerous advantages that ultimately help students learn and develop their language, communication and critical thinking skills.

Wired to interact
Many classroom discussion exercises allow for passive participation - that is, students can ultimately decide whether they want to engage with the material. Constructive conversation encourages each student to freely share their thoughts with another. They are actively engaged and using the language skills they have to communicate their ideas and building upon that foundation as they go.

Encouraged to think on their feet
While a typical language lesson may involve rote memorization or repeating sentences out loud back to the teacher, constructive conversation forces students to react and respond to their peers' viewpoints and comments.

Try out new ideas
The back-and-forth between students encourages spontaneity, empowering children to give voice to ideas that may not yet be fully formed. Students who may otherwise feel too intimidated to freely share their thoughts can explore kernels of internalized ideas without fear of criticism or reprisal.

Work on clarifying their ideas
Peer-to-peer discussions encourage students to ask each other questions and explain their views in more detail and clarity. These interactions help students get real-world feedback on their conversation and language skills. The seemingly simple act of paraphrasing ideas in the most concise terms available to a speaker helps them further develop English proficiency.

Support those ideas
During these conversations, students are likely to have their ideas questioned or scrutinized by their peers, pushing them to think critically about their own conclusions and support their viewpoints with logic, reasoning and persuasive arguments. This is beneficial for both language development and building critical thinking skills.

Setting the right classroom culture for constructive conversation

Many classroom settings focus more on getting the right answer to a problem and less on how students arrived at that answer. With constructive conversation, the journey is as important as the destination. Teachers should cultivate a classroom culture that is less centered around individual achievement in terms of binary right or wrong questions and instead geared toward collaboration, communication and developing new ideas and skills together.

A big part of that is encouraging students to make mistakes and not punish them for exploring ideas that lack polish or taking stances that may be controversial. Knowledge must be built over time, and reprimanding students for getting something wrong right out of the gate can be counterproductive.

Another important aspect to promoting constructive conversation is selecting discussion prompts that have a clear educational purpose, require critical thinking to unpack and encourage students to voice divergent thoughts and viewpoints.

One of the challenges that teachers must contend with when employing the constructive conversation model is how to fairly and accurately assess student performance. Stanford University has developed a "Formative Assessment of Conversations" method to help teachers track the development of students' communication, language and thinking skills from grade to grade.

The Stanford Center for Professional Development also offers online courses to learn more about classroom conversation strategies and further hone your teaching skills. If you are interested in earning an online teaching certification and learning directly from the leading minds in education, enroll today.
Receive more information on our Constructive Classroom Conversations online course