CSTA Classroom Science

Science Classrooms Enriched by Productive Talk

Talking is an integral part of the human world which allows us to engage with each other. Our students come to our classrooms with a wide range of speaking and listening skills that they have acquired through social interaction. Their understanding and use of words are developed through their experiences. To bridge the gap between talk outside the classroom and productive talk in the classroom teachers commonly ask the following questions: “how can I foster curiosity and learning in my classroom,” “how can I get my students to learn science by productively talking with each other,” and “how can I guide classroom conversations to support students’ science learning?”

Prior to NGSS, a large part of student talk consisted of discussing reading or lab questions. Student talk was based on finding and giving the right answer and not necessarily on why the answer was correct. The heavy cognitive lift was missing. Students were only scratching the surface of critical thinking. To help facilitate student talk, teachers would ask questions to try and get students to think deeper. Although usually not the intention, questions and answers always seemed to become a teacher-student conversation. Research shows that most classroom talk follows the Initiation-Response-Evaluation (I-R-E) pattern [e.g., Lemke, J.L. (1990). Talking science: Language, learning, and values. Norwood, NJ: Ablex]. Initiation is where the teacher poses a question, typically one that is closed and requires students to recall a “right” answer or perform a quick calculation. Response refers to the first student to volunteer or call out one word or sentence response. Evaluation involves the teacher reacting to a comment indicating whether the student’s response is correct. The problem with this method is that answers are valued over thinking, few students, and only certain types of students, participate and I-R-E encourages only the lowest levels of thinking.

The new science standards push for higher level thinking in the classrooms. To ensure academic rigor the Science Framework for California Public Schools,  Kindergarten through Grade Twelve provides us with a list of instructional strategies that are based on current and confirmed research that supports student engagement in the science curriculum and incorporates science inquiry skills. These strategies include the use of sense-making science notebooks, scientific discourse, argument, evidence, and scientific debate, and the 5E Learning Cycle.


NGSS promotes learning in three dimensions in which each dimension relies on each other to help students think like scientists and act like engineers and develop the habits and skills that scientists and engineers use in day-to-day life. When students engage in the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs) it provides us with a clear picture of what inquiry instruction and science productive talk in a classroom should look like. Students who participate in productive talk through the SEPs like Asking Questions, Engaging in Argumentation from Evidence, and Obtaining Evaluating and Communicating Information are engaging in the communication skills that scientists need and use on a daily basis. These practices emphasize the importance of students learning to process, evaluate, and articulate information.

These SEPs allow student discussions to be based on classroom experiences that they have engaged in. Students are invested in the dialogue when they have to use evidence that they have collected to support their claim and demonstrate their understanding. As groups communicate their findings, their peers are actively listening to determine if the information presented makes sense or is convincing. Critical thinking and rich discussions are prompted when students are defending their findings. Science talk allows students to evaluate their own understanding of science concepts. Grappling with the information permits students to identify and discard ideas that don’t make sense. Students can self-identify and correct their misconceptions when faced with evidence that contradicts.

Example of students engaging in productive student talk:
After collecting data during classroom hands-on activities and obtaining information via video and reading, students made a group model to explain why we only see one side of the moon from Earth. Groups presented their models, discussed if the model answered the question with detailed and clear evidence and gave feedback on how to improve the models.

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Some of the science talk that the teacher overheard included:
Student 1: “You have rotation written, but there aren’t any arrows or clear picture showing that you know what that word means and how it’s important to the model.
Student 2: It’s written next to the moon. The moon spins and that’s rotation.
Student 1: “But it’s not clear on your model and a model is supposed to show what you know.
Student 3: “Yes, it’s supposed to be a visual representation of your understanding.” (Student referenced their notebook)
Student 4: “Your model answers the question but the detail about how long the moon’s rotation and revolution are is missing.”
Student 5: “In the reading, it says that the length of a day and a year on the moon is 27.3 days. That is evidence that needs to be included.”
Student 2: “I see how your model shows rotation of the moon with the arrows.
Student 4. You shaded the far side of the moon at the different positions. This makes it seem like the far side is always dark but we know that’s not true ‘cause the moon rotates.

Rich science talk leads to rich science writing. Students who engage in productive talk are able to organize their thoughts and convey their understanding. The writing that they produce helps them to construct strong arguments that include reasons and evidence. Students who actively participate in daily science centered small group discussions are able to create rich explanatory models for the phenomena they are investigating. To support their models, these small group discussions also provide the tools for students to build strong arguments that support their claims about their model.

Argumentation is critical thinking which also supports higher level thinking (specifically levels 3 and 4 in the Depth of Knowledge wheel) in the classrooms and promotes relevant discussion and bridges real-world importance and application. The NGSS standards highlight the cross-curricular overlap of practices and show how science builds these student skills that are used in both ELA and math. With a solid foundation of listening, speaking, and writing being built in ELA and science classroom, students are finding the common threads of constructing an argument with reasoning in both disciplines. The claims-evidence-reasoning writing can be a form of collaboration among English, math, and science teachers because argumentation is embedded throughout each content standards.

Susheela Nath works for Aspire Public Schools as the multi-regional science director, is a project director for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation, and a member of CSTA. Her e-mail address is susheela.nath@aspirepublicschools.org

Huda Ali Gubary works for Aspire’s secondary school, Vanguard College Preparatory Academy and teaches integrated science-8 and High School Chemistry, a teacher leader for the CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative, and a member of CSTA. Her e-mail address is ali.gubary@aspirepublicschools.org



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