HM - Jan. 2016 - Brugar

Classroom Applications


Getting Students Talking

By Kristy Brugar
University of Oklahoma,
Norman, OK

In working with pre-service and in-service teachers, I often ask, “Why do we want students talking?”  In response to this question, many teachers take a deep breath or look skeptically to their colleagues while someone inevitably says, “We don’t want them talking,” and the group begins to giggle.  While the idea of a quiet classroom implies learning to some, many of the teachers with whom I have worked understand that classrooms in which students are engaged in academic conversations are places of learning where students want to be involved because their voices are heard.

As a former middle school history teacher and a current teacher educator, I believe it is essential that my students are talking during class.  We know that classroom conversations allow students to elaborate and clarify their ideas, synthesize their understandings, paraphrase others’ contributions, and question or challenge notions presented  (Zwiers and Crawford 2011, 2).  In other words, students can demonstrate higher order thinking skills through classroom conversations.  Below are three discussion strategies that further these goals.

Roll the Dice
Roll the Dice is a quick and easy strategy to get many, if not all, students involved in a content-based conversation.  To enact this strategy, students should be organized in groups of three or four to maximize opportunities to contribute to the conversation.  Once in small groups, each group is given a die and a series of six inter-related questions about a concept or the topic that is being studied (see Figure 1).  The questions are dependent on some knowledge of concepts or content but are open-ended so that students have the chance to continue to develop their understandings - to think more deeply and be presented with varied perspectives. 

To begin, each student is prompted to roll the die and answer the corresponding question.   After the student shares what she knows (or what she does not know), others in the group may comment or ask questions before moving on to the next student.  If students roll a number that has been previously rolled and answered, they should answer the question again.  This is an occasion to re-visit what they know and what they have heard from others. This process continues for a set period of time (e.g., seven minutes) to ensure each student has had the opportunity to roll and answer at least one time.  Thus all students have a voice within the classroom and around this content.  Finally, because the questions are inter-related, it is not essential for all numbers to be rolled; the “big ideas” associated with the collection of questions can be addressed by simply answering one or two of the questions.   

Concept Example:  Citizen
1. Who is a citizen/are citizens?
2. What are the rights of citizens?
3. What are the responsibilities of citizens?
4. How are rights and responsibilities granted to citizens?
5. In what ways is citizenship similar across time and place?
6. In what ways is citizenship different across time and place?
Content Example:  The American Revolution
1. What is a revolution/to be revolutionary?
2. Why did Americans risk everything for revolution?
3. Why did the British lose the American Revolution?
4. Why did the Americans win the American Revolution?
5. Was the American Revolution revolutionary?  Explain.
6. What three things do you think we should all know about the American Revolution?

Figure 1: Examples

Say Something!
Say Something is a strategy designed to help students better understand text through conversation (Burke, Harste, and Short 1996).  As with Roll the Dice, students are organized into groups of two or three, and for this strategy students are given a text to read together.  This could be a chapter or section from their textbook or a primary source.  Depending on the grade level of the students and the length of the reading, students are directed to read a few sentences or a paragraph before stopping and summarizing what they have read.  To begin, one student reads her assigned section to her group members, after which she stops reading to “say something.” The student may ask a question, clarify information, comment on the text, develop a prediction, or make connections beyond the text. For example, students may be reading The Declaration of Sentiments and as one student reads, “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.”  When the student stops reading, she may say something like, “This sounds familiar; have we read this before?”  To which a peer might comment, “It sounds a lot like the Declaration of Independence that we read earlier this year.  Why would they use the same words?”  And the conversation would unfold from there as the members of the group respond to readers’ comments.  Students are encouraged to record this information (e.g., questions, comments) in the margins of their reading or as part of their class notes.

Ochoa-Becker (2007) claims students are motivated by a desire to resolve contradictions and to justify their own beliefs. In order to help students to be thoughtful and reflective about historical issues and content, teachers use questions to explore students’ positions/perspectives on various issues. The teacher may pose a variety of questions from evidence-based to value-based. Fishbowl is a discussion strategy in which students participate in, as well as observe, small conversations (Maxwell and Meiser 2001). Prior to the discussion, students are given the question(s)/prompt(s) in order to think about what they know, understand, have questions about, and are willing to share.  The most effective prompts are open-ended to allow for multiple perspectives and opinions.   For example, “In your opinion, what was/is the most significant event of the Civil Rights Movement?” In response to this prompt, students may use evidence or feelings, and make predictions or inferences in order to respond.

For a Fishbowl discussion, the classroom is organized with a center table where four to six students (or “fish”) sit, and there is a space for the remaining members of the class to gather around them (they become the “bowl”).  The teacher may ask for volunteers to serve as the first “fish” or the teacher may assign students to play this role.  Those four to six students serving as fish are the only students who can speak during the discussion. When a student who is serving as part of the fishbowl is ready to contribute to the conversation, she moves from the bowl and taps one of the fish on the shoulder to let that student know she would like to take the seat.   Students are encouraged to address the question(s) provided by the teacher, as well as question one another, re-visit ideas, and make connections to things previously learned or to current events.  It is important for students to share their ideas but it is equally important for students to listen to and try to make sense of others’ ideas and perspectives.  

Fishbowl discussions range from 10-15 minutes; thus, after the discussion it is important to de-brief with students.   Students are encouraged to think about what they learned from the discussion, the ways in which they contributed to the conversation, and what questions they still have about the content.  This can be done verbally or in writing. 

As we think about dynamic, engaging history classrooms, they often involve student conversations and discussions.  As teachers, it is important to have a goal for these discussions (i.e., content and skills), be able to assess the discussions, and have rich guiding questions.


Burke, Carolyn, Jerome Harste, and Kathy Short. 1996. Creating Classrooms for Authors and Inquirers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Maxwell, Rhoda J., and Mary Meiser. 2001 Teaching English in Middle and Secondary Schools. 3rd Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Ochoa-Becker, Anna. S. 2007. Democratic Education for Social Studies: An Issues-Centered Curriculum. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Zwiers, Jeff, and Mary Crawford. 2011.  Academic Conversations:  Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. Portland, ME:  Stenhouse Publishers.