An excellent summary of how our research team defined Instructional Conversation (or ICs) was published by Claude Goldenberg. See PDF For more on instructional conversation, see the book Rousing Minds to Life where we first started using this description of classroom discourse that teaches through a conversational form. A substantial body of work on ICs was carried out by Roland Tharp and his colleagues after the KEEP project ended (link to a page on that work here).
Bill Saunders and Claude Goldenberg late in the 1990s carried out some small scale experimental studies of the specific effects of ICs on reading comprehension. A link to their article is here. Their studies suggest that ICs and conventional comprehension instruction yield similar levels of literal comprehension. However, IC lessons resulted in post-lesson essays that reflected higher order comprehension.
Getting young students engaged in a conversation that has instructional value is not always a simple matter. One study suggested reading and talking about stories that engaged students in a moral dilemma that is challenging for their developmental level. For example, students around 8 or 9 are outraged to learn that the farmer intends to butcher Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web. Most are not developmentally prepared to deal with the moral ambiguity the story presents. Skillfully guiding students to work through this challenge often produces learning opportunities that go beyond literal comprehension of story details to higher levels of thinking and understanding.
A Description of Instructional Conversations
On the surface, a good instructional conversation might appear as "simply" an excellent discussion conducted by a teacher who treats students as genuine conversational partners. Strategically, the teacher (or discussion leader) presents provocative ideas or experiences, then questions, prods, challenges, coaxes--or keeps quiet. He or she clarifies and instructs when necessary, but does so efficiently, without wasting time or words. The teacher knows when to bear down to draw out a student's ideas, but also knows when to ease up, allowing thought and reflection to take over. The teacher also knows when to step into the discussion and when to butt out. Most important, though, he or she manages to keep everyone engaged in a substantive and extended discussion around ideas that matter to the participants (Goldenberg & Gallimore, 1991).
Such exchanges represent the external, socially mediated precursors of what ultimately is internalized and controlled by the mature reader. What is done with others, and with the help of others, ultimately becomes tools of the literate mind. These instructional conversations are essential to the development of mature readers, an idea which is an extension of the principle that higher order mental functions have their origins in the interpersonal plane of joint productive activity (Vygotsky, 1978). Tharp and Gallimore (1988) used a "weaving" metaphor to describe this extension of Vygotsky's famous principle that what is internal and psychological was once external and social. Weaving describes is the cognitive work done in instructional conversation, which will be internalized as those higher mental functions required by the literate mind: By comprehension, we mean the weaving of new information into existing mental structures. To comprehend text--whether to read it, to write it, or to listen to it--involves the weaving of new and old information...... In the instruction of comprehension, the teacher herself is weaving a "text" composed of written and memorial materials. What we study, as researchers and students of the process, is that text created by the teacher-child interchange. That instructional conversation--the text-that-is-continually-becoming--the fabric of book, memory, talk and imagination that is being woven: that instructional conversation is the medium, the occasion, the instrument for cognitive development....... (excerpted from Tharp & Gallimore, 1988, Chapter 5).
Discourse in which teacher and students weave together spoken and written language with previous understanding is the principle feature of instructional conversation. What are the constituent elements of conversations that instruct? What must teachers know and do in order to implement ICs, successfully and reliably, in a fashion that creates student learning opportunities?
Defining the Elements of Instructional Conversation
Over the course of a year, Claude Goldenberg (1992-1993) worked with a small group of teachers who agreed to collaborate in the identification and development of alternative teaching practices. Claude and the teachers eventually developed a ten-element definition of instructional conversations.
One of the principal reasons for developing the definition was to combine what they'd read with their experiences and develop a list of things they would try to do. They wanted to learn how to go beyond low-level, factually oriented discussions, particularly with younger children. "Discussion that's not about 'What color is his hat?' is hard," one of the teachers commented at their first meeting. What they came to mean by such discussions is the list of ten IC elements in Table 1.
In the early meetings, the Team discussed issues and problems related to language arts instruction the teachers faced in their own classrooms. While the meetings revolved largely around issues in teachers' own classrooms, the Team read articles that also formed the basis of their discussions. After two months of readings and discussions, the Team decided to work actively toward conceptualizing and implementing new modes of instruction that would teach deeper understanding, richer uses of language, etc.
To accomplish this, the teachers began to videotape their lessons and, during the weekly meetings, watch, analyze, and discuss the tapes. This allowed each teacher to observe her own lessons, while providing all participants with an opportunity to see what others were doing and to offer feedback and suggestions.
Over the next few months, from November to May, the Team refined and sharpened their operational definition of "instructional conversations." The elements underwent numerous revisions as the Team taped, analyzed, and taped again and again. By May, the Team had developed a list that captured the essence of this mode of instruction that in the fall was only vaguely understood. Table 1 presents this list.
The elements in [Table 1] are divided into two groups, instructional (#1-5) and conversational (#6-10), reflecting the two major dimensions of the IC. Although conversational in tone and character, teaching through conversation requires a deliberate and self-controlled agenda in the mind of the teacher, which the first five elements reflect. But while having specific curricular, cognitive, and conceptual goals, the teacher also tries to maintain a high degree of responsiveness and dynamic interaction with students, as the second five suggest (Goldenberg, 1991).
Table 1: Elements of the Instructional Conversation*
1. Thematic focus. The teacher selects a theme or idea to serve as a starting point for focussing the discussion and has a general plan for how the theme will unfold, including how to "chunk" the text to permit optimal exploration of the theme.
2. Activation and use of background and relevant schemata. The teacher either "hooks into" or provides students with pertinent background knowledge and relevant schemata necessary for understanding a text. Background knowledge and schemata are then woven into the discussion that follows.
3. Direct teaching. When necessary, the teacher provides direct teaching of a skill or concept.
4. Promoting more complex language and expression. The teacher elicits more extended student contributions by using a variety of elicitation techniques--e.g., invitations to expand ("tell me more about that"), questions ("what do you mean?"), restatements ("in other words, ___"), and pauses.
5. Promoting bases for statements or positions. The teacher promotes students' use of text, pictures, and reasoning to support an argument or position. Without overwhelming students, the teacher probes for the bases of students' statements--e.g., "how do you know?" "what makes you think that?" "show us where it says__."
6. Fewer "known-answer" questions. Much of the discussion centers on questions and answers for which there might be more than one correct answer.
7. Responsivity to student contributions. While having an initial plan and maintaining the focus and coherence of the discussion, the teacher is also responsive to students' statements and the opportunities they provide.
8. Connected discourse. The discussion is characterized by multiple, interactive, connected turns; succeeding utterances build upon and extend previous ones.
9. A challenging, but non-threatening, atmosphere. The teacher creates a "zone of proximal development," where a challenging atmosphere is balanced by a positive affective climate. The teacher is more collaborator than evaluator and creates an atmosphere that challenges students and allows them to negotiate and construct the meaning of the text.
10. General participation, including self-selected turns. The teacher encourages general participation among students. The teacher does not hold exclusive right to determine who talks, and students are encouraged to volunteer or otherwise influence the selection of speaking turns.
* Adapted from Goldenberg (1992-1993)