Stanford Created A Course About Better Classroom Conversation

by Kenji Hakuta, Stanford University 

By now we’ve all heard how essential communication skills are for college and career readiness, not to mention personal relationships and general learning. Students who can communicate effectively across various means of communication and with diverse partners are said to be more likely to succeed. But how do we move beyond teaching reading, writing and listening to truly equipping our students with the communication skills they need in life?

The new College-and-Career Readiness Standards and Framework for 21st Learning have set a foundation for teachers by highlighting collaboration and communication as critical skills that students need to obtain. The standards stress the importance of students engaging meaningful conversations where reasoning and critical thinking are applied. Yet this type of peer-to-peer interaction is actually quite rare in the classroom. Common classroom teaching activities such as whole class discussions, jigsaws, and think-pair-shares can produce the appearance of constructive interactions, but they often do not provide enough substantial opportunities for students to engage in back-and-forth dialog. This is especially true for students whose first language is not English.

Here at Stanford we have launched a short online course designed specifically to help K-12 educators create meaningful conversations among students. The course, “Effective Conversation in the Classroom” is being delivered this August in three sessions over three weeks. (More information and registration is available at

One of our findings, which we explore in the course, is that to effectively engage students in peer-to-peer interaction, educators need to model and build activities that cultivate constructive conversations and conversational opportunities within lesson plans. Our educational team created a Conversation Analysis Tool that focuses on language functions (that is, what students do with language as they engage with content and interact with others) rather than language forms (i.e. grammar and vocabulary). We aligned the tool with the shift in contemporary English Language Proficiency standards. Using this language tool can produce big a-ha! teaching moments.

For example, it helps you examine whether conversational turns are building up previous turns to expand upon an idea, and even more importantly, whether the conversational turns focus on content or skills related to lesson objectives. As one teacher we worked with explained, “I find that I am listening to students’ conversations more closely and am also thinking more carefully about the prompts I use. I see the value of paired conversations and now know ways to analyze them and then scaffold for the skills I want students to learn and master.” Another educator shared, “I think longer and harder about how my question to the students will be constructed and the pre-teaching that will be required in order for the students to be prepared and able to have a constructive conversation.”

Language tools can also help teachers evaluate teaching and student learning and receive and offer feedback on a daily and weekly basis. Our short online course is good preparation for the quarter-long Constructive Classroom Conversations course offered in the fall. Participants can build on and put into practice what they have learned over the summer and collect, analyze and act on conversations between their own students.

The first month of school is a vital time for establishing norms and fostering a culture of productive communication within the classroom. Developing strong language skills among students is not only a means of strengthening communication but also a path towards intellectual development and career readiness. High-quality, constructive academic conversations help improve students’ oral, critical-thinking, and literacy skills – skills that will help students succeed in subsequent years of school as well as in life.

About the Course

The course has been developed by Understanding Language/SCALE, a recently merged research and practice center based at Stanford University that focuses on both language and performance assessment in K-16 settings. The mission of UL/SCALE is to support educators and policymakers in transforming systems to advance equity and learning for students—particularly for English Language Learners (ELLs)—by illuminating the symbiotic ways students learn language and academic content, and through the development and use of curriculum-embedded performance assessments. Classroom teachers and instructional coaches from grades K to 12 and in all subject areas are welcome and encouraged to take this course together with their colleagues.

The teaching team consists of Professor Kenji Hakuta, Dr. Jeff Zwiers, and Dr. Sara Rutherford-Quach, who together have been designing and offering online professional development courses for educators for four years.

Kenji Hakuta, Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus, at Stanford University, is active in education policy.  He has testified to Congress and courts on language policy, the education of language minority students, affirmative action in higher education, and improvement of quality in educational research. Hakuta is an elected Member of the National Academy of Education, a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association, and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recognized for his accomplishments in Linguistics and Language Sciences. He has served on the board of various organizations, including the Educational Testing Service, the Spencer Foundation, and the New Teacher Center.

Jeff Zwiers, senior researcher at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, has worked for more than fifteen years as a professional developer and instructional mentor in urban school settings, emphasizing the development of literacy, thinking, and academic language for linguistically and culturally diverse students. He has published books and articles on reading, thinking, and academic language. His most recent book is Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. His current work at the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching focuses on developing teachers’ core practices for teaching academic language, comprehension of complex texts, and oral communication skills across subject areas.

Sara Rutherford-Quach, lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a former bilingual elementary teacher, has more than 13 years of experience working with linguistically diverse students and their teachers and has conducted extensive research on instructional practices for English learners. Sara was previously awarded a National Academy of Education Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for her work on the role of silence and speech in an elementary classroom serving language-minority students. Her areas of interest include classroom discourse and interaction analysis; language, culture, and instruction in multilingual and multicultural educational environments; institutional, policy, and curricular change; and educational equity. Sara has been involved with the design and teaching of more than 20 MOOC offerings since 2013 and she also directed the development of many learning modules with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the ELPA 21 Consortium.