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Talk Science Primer

Sarah Michaels and Cathy O’Connor

An Education Research and Development Organization

Cathy O’Connor is a professor in the School of Education at Boston University.
She is chair of the Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership and
Counseling, and Director of the Program in Applied Linguistics in the Graduate
School of Arts and Sciences. Since 1990, she has conducted research on classroom
discourse, particularly in middle school mathematics classrooms.
Sarah Michaels is a Professor of Education and Senior Research Scholar at the
Hiatt Center for Urban Education at Clark University. A sociolinguist by
training, her work emphasizes the ways that teachers can support academically
productive talk in the classroom, as a tool for promoting powerful learning for
students. Her work includes research on science talk, as well as on discussion in
English Language Arts and mathematics.
This work has benefited from our collaboration with remarkable classroom teachers,
input from our long-term colleagues, and, more recently, our partners in the
Talk Science Project at TERC.

The work was partially funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under
grant number DRK12-0918435 awarded to TERC. The opinions expressed here
are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of NSF.

Copyright © 2012 by TERC

2067 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02140
Part 1: What is Academically Productive There is solid research evidence and wide-
Talk? spread agreement that academically produc-
tive talk is critical for learning in science
The Vision (NRC Consensus Report Taking Science to
Imagine a classroom where students have School (2007).
just completed a science investigation and a
whole class discussion is underway. Students Isn’t all classroom talk productive?
put forth competing ideas in their clearest This is the vision, and yet we know that much
and strongest form, even though some ideas of the talk typically occurring in classrooms
may turn out to be more correct than others. is not academically productive. Teachers at
Students explain their ideas in detail with evi- all grade levels often fall back on the kinds
dence. They listen carefully to each other with of discussions we experienced in our own
respect. Students take seriously and evaluate learning. These discussions were something
their own and others’ competing ideas. In more like recitation, where the teacher asks
other words, they are intellectually engaged. a question with a single right answer, calls on
What are the hallmarks of a productive a student to respond, indicates whether the
discussion such as this one? answer is correct, and moves on to another
question. While this is often helpful for
• Everyone can hear and understand what review or for checking what students remem-
is being said, so that every single student ber, it fails to create a culture where students
is part of the conversation. take each other seriously, take risks, and build
• The conversation is focused, coherent, complex arguments together.
rigorous, and leads to deep conceptual How do we break away from this conventional
understanding. pattern and facilitate discussions that support
• Students are motivated to participate and reasoning and deepen student understand-
want to go public with their thinking, ing of complex material? Making the break
feeling like they have a stake in may require a shift in classroom culture, new
the conversation. norms and practices, as well as a belief that
students learn more when they do the
• Conversation is not just for good talkers;
“heavy lifting.”
everyone has a right and responsibility
to contribute. Orchestrating talk that is focused on key
content, where every student is motivated
• The teacher guides students in practicing
and willing to participate, can indeed be
new ways of talking, reasoning, and
challenging. However, there is a set of key
collaborating with one another.
elements of academically productive talk that
In the context of the classroom, talk is not an makes this doable.
add-on. It addresses important academic con-
tent and is a critical component of the lesson, What are the elements of academically
including whole class, small group, or pair or productive talk?
partner discussions. Through talk, teachers 1. A belief that students can do it
and students explore ideas and use evidence
to build and critique academic arguments. 2. Well-established ground rules

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 1

3. Clear academic purposes 2) Well-established ground rules for talk.
4. Deep understanding of the academic Before you can use talk reliably to promote
content learning, you must lay the foundations for it
5. A framing question and follow-up by establishing a set of clear norms or ground
questions rules for class discussions. Most important
are the norms that students will listen to one
6. An appropriate talk format
another attentively and respond respectfully.
7. A set of strategic “talk moves” Students have to feel a sense of trust that
their ideas will be taken seriously and that
1) A belief in the possibility and efficacy
disagreements will be handled respectfully, so
of this kind of talk.
that ideas—not individuals—are challenged.
The first key element is a belief from the outset Students have to speak loudly enough so
that all students can learn from participating that everyone can hear (which is not easy for
in well-structured discussions, and that all many students to do at first), and all students
students are smart and capable of doing this. have to be on notice that if they cannot hear

or understand what someone has
said, they have to speak up and ask

S tudents have to feel a sense of trust that their

ideas will be taken seriously and that disagree-
ments will be handled respectfully, so that ideas—
“ for clarification. Students need to
understand that this kind of talk is
expected of everyone, and everyone
will have a chance to participate
and express their ideas, perhaps not
in every discussion, but certainly
over the course of several days.
There are a number of ways that
not individuals—are challenged.­ teachers establish these norms and
many helpful strategies for hold-
ing students accountable for them,
In addition, a teacher must be committed to which are discussed more fully in Part 3:
two major learning objectives: deep under- Establishing a Culture of Productive Talk.
standing of concepts (as contrasted to famil-
3) Clear academic purposes for
iarity with concepts), and students’ ability to
the discussion
learn with increasing independence. Teachers
who orchestrate productive talk believe that Teachers who orchestrate academically pro-
even very young children can tackle challeng- ductive talk take the time to plan and prepare
ing, rich, and ambiguous problems, and reason for discussions. They make sure that they
about them with evidence. They believe that truly understand the key science concepts in
if their students work hard at explaining their play, and how they relate to other concepts
own ideas and think through the ideas of their that students have learned or will learn later.
classmates, they will become strong reasoners. But most important, they take the time to get
They believe that all their students—even clear on the specific academic purposes of
struggling ones—are smart and have some- each discussion.
thing to contribute to discussions.

2 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

The Inquiry Project investigations incorporate essays on Key Science Concepts in the Inquiry
four discussion types, each with a unique Curriculum address the essential science ideas
purpose: highlighted in each section of the curriculum
for each grade. Additionally, Carol Smith’s
• Elicitation discussions uncover students’
essays on Children’s Understanding of these
prior experience or knowledge about a
concepts will help you to anticipate how your
phenomenon or topic, provide insight
students are likely to think about these very
into their thinking, and pique students’
same science topics. Understanding the core
interest in new learning.
science concepts, scientific processes and
• Consolidation discussions help students habits of mind, and students’ common ideas
solidify their understanding of the steps will help you recognize which ideas to bring
they took during an investigation, as well forward for further discussion and debate.
as the underlying science concepts.
5) A well-thought out question to frame
• Data discussions help students focus on the discussion, and a few follow-up
the dimensions of the data set that are questions.
most relevant to the investigation; for
example, interpreting data or evaluating The teacher starts the discussion with an
different data representations. open, clear, framing question. It should be
designed to spark multiple positions, perspec-
• Explanation discussions help students
tives, or solution paths that can be taken,
learn how to make claims, provide evi-
explicated, and argued for with evidence.
dence to support their claims, and explain
Often, this launching question is suggested
why they think the evidence and claims
in the curriculum materials. Sometimes the
are tied together.
teacher has to invent or adapt it from the
Part of the planning process for a productive curriculum guide. Crafting a good framing
discussion includes teachers anticipating how question is key to a yeasty and rich discussion.
the discussion might unfold. It is helpful to
In addition to having a good framing ques-
articulate to yourself the key ideas you hope
tion, it is helpful to prepare a few follow-up
to bring forward, to be aware of what children
questions that will help keep the discussion
typically think about a concept, and to have
focused. Developing a set of questions helps
strategies for dealing with challenging content.
the teacher to anticipate or prepare for dis-
And it helps for teachers to think about their
cussion and be better able to listen hard to
particular students. Who has been quiet lately
the students’ ideas, hear connections among
and might be brought into this discussion?
them, and support their development.
Might there be an opportunity for partner
talk, and what partner talk question will help 6) An appropriate talk format or set of
me achieve the goals of my discussion? formats to guide and scaffold academi-
cally productive talk.
4) Deep understanding of the
academic content There are different ways to organize groups
for talk—whole group discussion, small group
The better you understand the science, the
work, and partner talk. Each talk format
better you will facilitate discussions. The
creates different opportunities for talk and
Scientist Video Cases and Roger Tobin’s
allows students to participate in a number of

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 3

ways with different levels of support. talk? How does talk promote learning? And why
is it particularly critical in science?
We can think of these formats as tools teachers
can use strategically to support productive talk. 1. Talk provides a window into student think-
The talk formats are discussed in more detail ing, revealing understanding and misunder-
later in this document. standing. If students talk about the content
they are studying, teachers can see more clearly
7) A set of strategic “talk moves” to help
what they do not understand and what they do
maintain a rigorous, coherent, engaging,
understand. Students themselves may realize
and equitable discussion.
what they do not and do understand. In this
The final element is a set of general all-purpose way, talk about academic content helps teachers
moves that can be used at any point in any and students take stock of where they are and
kind of discussion (elicitation, data, explana- assess ongoing learning, so that instruction can
tion, or consolidation) and can be used at any build on students’ current understandings and
grade level. These moves support the essential advance their thinking in productive ways. This
goals of academically productive discussions. is formative assessment at its best.
The goals are discussed in more detail below 2. Talk supports robust learning by boosting
in Part 4: How can teachers support produc- memory, providing richer associations, and
tive talk? Facilitating a group discussion takes supporting language development. Talk is a
work, but there is good news here. These talk fertile source of information. By hearing and
moves are remarkably helpful tools for mak- talking about concepts, procedures, representa-
ing discussions effective. You can keep them tions, and data, our minds have more to work
in your back pocket, so to speak, or better yet, with. Talk provides food for thought. By talking
on a clipboard in front of you, and they are about academic content with others, students
especially well-designed tools for talk in busy begin to see ideas from more angles, and make
and heterogeneous classroom settings. You will links to other concepts and meanings they
learn more about talk moves in Part 4. In addi- already have. This helps them remember new
tion, the Talk Science program includes videos ideas and develop a richer set of associations
that describe each of nine talk moves and show with them, so that they can use them in new
teachers using the moves to facilitate productive contexts. Students gain a deeper sense of what
discussions in real classrooms. words and expressions mean and how to use
them. By using scientific vocabulary, they build
Part 2: Why is talk important? their ability to use this vocabulary effectively.
In the U.S., we have achieved a national con- Talk supports language acquisition, vocabulary
sensus that it is critical to promote talk in all development, and the acquisition of the par-
instructional subject areas and at all grade ticular ways of speaking and writing that are val-
levels. All major teacher organizations and all ued in science. In science and other disciplines,
recent National Research Council consensus it can be said that “talk builds the mind.”
reports emphasize the need to involve students
3. Talk supports deeper reasoning and
actively in “communication” about their think-
encourages students to reason with evidence.
ing and investigations, and to encourage them
All students are adept language users, able to
to use evidence to support their claims, conjec-
think abstractly and argue for what they think
tures, predictions, and explanations (NCTM,
is right. But not all have been exposed to the
NSTA, NRC reports). Why this emphasis on

4 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

kind of reasoning and explaining that is val- the Internet, and in books and other media.
ued in school and later in public life. Such For evidence to have weight in these profes-
talk requires that speakers explicate their sional communities, it has to be explicated,
thinking clearly so that others can understand argued for, and made public, so that others
their ideas, and that they use evidence to can evaluate and think about it. This requires
support their claims. Students practice doing dedicated and disciplined approaches to the
this when they are encouraged to explain explication and sharing of evidence, and
their ideas and support them with evidence agreed-upon ways of challenging or critiquing
and link their claims and evidence so that evidence in the effort to advance knowledge
others see that their evidence is relevant and and understanding. Through well-structured
credible. With guided practice, students’ talk, students are guided—or apprenticed—
evidence-based reasoning improves, which into the fundamental practices of science.

shows up in their writing and performance
on standardized tests.
Research in a variety of fields
relating to education, such as
cognitive science, learning
sciences, and discipline-specific
investigations of curriculum
and pedagogy, has begun to

hrough well-structured talk, students are guided—or
apprenticed—into fundamental practices of science.

converge on the fact that when

teachers “open up the conver-
sation” and engage students
actively in reasoning with
evidence and building and
critiquing academic arguments, 5. Talk supports the development of social
students make dramatic learning gains. skills and encourages risk-taking with huge
This is the case for students from a range of payoffs for learning. When students believe
socioeconomic and linguistic backgrounds that others are interested in their ideas, and
in mathematics, science, history, and English believe that reasoning with evidence is more
and English language arts. important than simply having the correct
answer, they become motivated to engage in
4. Talk apprentices students into the
exploratory reasoning talk. They are willing
social and intellectual practices of science.
to try out ideas before they are fully formed,
Experienced scientific thinkers (profession-
so that others can hear them and think with
als working in science-related fields) typically
them. They become motivated to hear oth-
work in groups or teams, and they populate
ers’ views so that they can, in turn, think with
larger networks or communities where com-
them. This promotes a classroom culture that
munication of their ideas, findings, and data
values effort over ability.
is essential for advancing knowledge in their
fields. They communicate their thinking infor- Students begin to realize that everyone
mally and formally, in face-to-face meetings, in can learn more with effort, and they begin
e-mail communications, in formal conference to speak up when they do not understand
presentations, in peer-reviewed journals, on something. This, in turn, motivates others to

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 5

explain their thinking more clearly, so there not to say that well-established claims or “laws”
is a spiraling effect in which greater effort are up for grabs, using the argument that “It’s
increases everyone’s motivation to participate, just a theory!” Well-accepted and widely vali-
think hard, and take risks. They take one dated Theories—those labeled with a capital
another seriously as thinkers, and evaluate the T (Theory of Relativity, for example)—take
content of others’ contributions, challenging on a special status among scientists, and are
ideas, not people. They gain confidence in rarely undermined. Their status rests not on
expressing their ideas. These social skills are, their having been proved true beyond doubt
of course, also intricately related to learning. and for all time, but on the fact that they are,
A group of skillful, engaged, and respectful at present, the most useful and widely-validated
communicators becomes better learners over tools for thinking about, exploring, and
time. It takes time, practice, and effort to explaining the natural world. Each scientist
induct students into this kind of “talk culture,” has his or her own limited perspective, but the
but once developed, the entire group learns goal of science is to converge on the central
more effectively and efficiently. “small-t truth” underlying and integrating all
these different perceptions of reality.
What is unique about science talk?
Talk in science is similar in many respects to Part 3: Establishing a Culture of
talk in other subject areas, but has certain Productive Talk
unique characteristics that focus on generat- A culture of talk is more likely to take hold
ing community-validated explanations of the when teachers develop a common set of dis-
natural world, based on data and models as cussion norms across classrooms, and limit
evidence or tools in developing explanations. the list to just three to five important ground
Primacy is given to the use of logical reason- rules. While teachers may want to develop
ing; anyone proposing a credible theory must the set with their students, this may result in
be concerned about and grapple with con- a list that is too long and omits important
tradictory evidence. Science requires that we expectations Instead, teachers can gain that
change our ideas when new evidence emerges. same sense of buy-in by setting aside time to
We can challenge the credibility or value of introduce and talk about the importance of
new evidence—that is, its status as evidence— the norms with their students. Teachers imple-
but once it is accepted as valid and relevant, menting a culture of productive talk often
we must accede to it and be willing to change have an all-class discussion in which students
our views. While science is grounded in par- explain how the expectations will benefit their
ticulars of data, the goal is always to generalize discussions. Teachers report that this norm
and construct increasingly broad explanations setting is best done at the beginning of the
or theories. school year, when possible.
Although scientists can never prove that Once the expectations are introduced, they
something is true for all time, they are con- need to be reinforced until they become an
cerned about converging toward accurate established part of the school culture. Keep
and generalizable claims, or truth. They stay in mind that you may be changing the way
alert to considering new ideas or evidence, school works for your students, so this will
and are intent on converging on common take vigilant reinforcement for a while. It
representations or understandings. This is helps to revisit the norms at the beginning

6 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

of each discussion and to take a minute or and make use of body language to show that
two to take stock after a discussion. Teachers they are listening.
sometimes identify one of the norms to work
Not only can whole-group discussions be excit-
on prior to the start of the discussion. Posting
ing intellectually (for students and teachers
the norms in the classroom will help you and
alike), they can be highly productive academi-
the students’ keep them in mind. And finally,
cally. Everyone is together and benefits from
expect these norms to become the established
access to the thinking of the entire group.
way that all your discussions work—everyone
The teacher is both participant and guide,
listening, everyone contributing, everyone
able to support the students to think produc-
speaking loud enough for all to hear, and
tively with one another, ensure that talk is
everyone respecting and building on each
respectful and equitable, and make sure that
others’ ideas.
everyone can hear and understand each other
(something students rarely do on their own).
Part 4: How can teachers support The teacher uses her understanding of the
productive talk? science content and pedagogical knowledge
Teachers have a number of different tools to to maintain a high level of focus and rigor.
support academically productive talk. The
Teachers do this by supporting students as
tools fall into two categories:
they explicate their ideas, make their think-
• Talk formats – participation structures ing public and accessible to the group, use
(ways to group your students) that guide evidence, coordinate claims and evidence,
student talk and build on and critique one another’s ideas.
Teachers guide students to reason their way to

• Talk moves – strategic teacher moves
designed to open up the
conversation and support
student participation,
explication, and reasoning.

Talk Formats
Different talk formats create
deep understanding of complex problems

Not only can whole-group discussions be exciting

intellectually (for students and teachers alike), they

opportunities for students to can be highly productive academically.
talk and allow for different kinds
of participation and practice.
Three formats are particularly
productive within the Inquiry
Curriculum: whole group, small group, and
through collective exploration of explana-
partner talk.
tions, data, or natural phenomena. They
Teacher-guided whole group discussion support and guide rather than tell or ask
students to recite.
In this format, the entire class focuses on mak-
ing sense around a shared problem or task. The benefits of whole-class discussions are
Students gather in a circle so that everyone many. It is worth the effort to establish class-
can see everyone else to maximize listening, room norms for discussion, incorporate the

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 7

key elements into discussion planning, and ticular question with the person next to them
use the strategic tools to help students engage or a pre-designated “talk partner.” Partner
in productive discussion. talk is usually brief—no more than a minute
or two. This format produces a very focused
Small group work
kind of exploratory talk in a low-stakes envi-
In this format, students work in groups of ronment. It serves as a practice ground, prim-
three or four, or even partnerships of two, ing the pump for more formal talk to follow.
sharing materials and ideas, and coming up The teacher typically listens in on different
with shared solutions. The teacher circulates talk partnerships, sometimes with a clipboard
among the groups, listening in and occasion- in hand to note interesting comments that
ally interacting with students if they need sup- she can refer to with the whole group. This
port or guidance to advance their collaborative kind of exploratory talk has many benefits.
work. Much of the group discussion is out of Students who may be shy or afraid to go pub-
the earshot of the teacher, however, and this lic with an idea in front of the entire class get
can be problematic. For small group work to to practice it with a classmate. For English
be productive, tasks need to be designed for Language Learners (ELL) paired with a native
group work (not tasks that an individual could speaker of English, this practice ground can
do by him- or herself). The teacher establishes be helpful for both hearing and rehearsing
clear expectations for the intellectual work the their ideas in English. Partner talk can be a
groups will carry out, a time limit for small time to use their native language to deepen
group activity, and some kind of accountability. their thinking before attempting to try their
Students often reassemble as a class to make ideas in English.
public what went on in each group and build Because the teacher is present, the task is
toward collective understanding. clear, and the time is short, students tend to
When norms are in place for listening, partici- stay on task and treat each other respectfully.
pating equitably, and collaborating in small There is 100% participation. The classroom is
groups, this format allows more air time for noisy but everyone is thinking and preparing
students to voice their ideas. Students may be to explain their ideas in public.
more comfortable making their ideas public Teachers use partner talk strategically in
to a small group of peers rather than the two ways. They may plan for partner talk in
whole class. When students have time to pull advance, coming up with a perfect question,
their ideas together in a small group before- posed at the perfect time, to get every student
hand, the whole-class discussion that follows involved. Once everyone has had a chance
is typically richer and deeper and students are to explain their thinking with a partner, the
more eager to contribute. teacher then strategically recruits several of
Partner Talk these ideas into the whole group discussion
that follows to advance everyone’s thinking.
While gaining in popularity, this is the most Alternatively, it sometimes happens that a
underused of the three effective talk formats question arises that puzzles the group and no
but one that can be deployed to very good one knows what to say (the teacher includ-
effect before or in the midst of a whole group ed). This can be a wonderful, spontaneous
discussion. In partner talk, the teacher simply moment to launch a partner talk. Take the fol-
pauses and asks students to consider a par- lowing scenario for example:

8 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

you have a monologue or, at best, a dialogue
Teacher: (after something unexpected happened in a between the teacher and a student.
science lesson on water displacement)
Goal Two: Help Students Listen Carefully
So, why do you think that happened? What’s your
to One Another

[No hands, no responses, 25 blank faces.] Students need to listen to others and try to
[The teacher waits 10 seconds, still nothing.] understand them in order to contribute to the
discussion. Your ultimate goal involves helping
Teacher: Okay, turn and talk to the person next to
students to share ideas and reasoning. It is
you for a minute. Then I’ll ask the question again.
not enough to hear a series of students giving
After 30-60 seconds, many students will have some-
their own unconnected thoughts one by one.
thing to say. Now, the teacher can be strategic about
Students need to hear and understand the
selecting which students are to talk. Perhaps a shy
student or an ELL student has something to say, and ideas of others.
because everyone has been thinking about this Goal Three: Help Students Deepen
question, all are interested and primed to hear it.
Their Reasoning

Even if students express their thoughts and

listen to others’ ideas, the discussion can
Goals for Productive Discussion fail to be academically productive if it lacks
solid and sustained scientific reasoning.
“Some of my students won’t talk. It seems like the
Most students are not skilled at pushing to
same few always dominate.”
understand and deepen their own reasoning.
“My students love to talk, but don’t listen Therefore, a key role of the teacher is to
to each other.” continuously and skillfully press the students
Productive discussions do not just happen. for reasoning and evidence.
Teachers need to guide students in practicing Goal Four: Help Students Engage with
new ways of talking, reasoning, and collabo- Others’ Reasoning
rating with one another. Many students are
unaccustomed to explaining their ideas in The final step involves students actually taking
detail and depth with evidence. Many are not up the ideas and reasoning of other students
accustomed to listening carefully, with inter- and responding to them. This is when the dis-
est and respect, to the thinking of their peers. cussion can take off and become exhilarating
for students and teachers alike.
Four necessary and foundational goals
underpin academically productive discussions: These four goals are critical in promoting dis-
cussions that lead to greater learning. Unless
Goal One: Help Individual Students students are developing new and expanded
Share, Expand, and Clarify ways of talking and arguing, and new ways
Their Own Thoughts of listening and attending to the thinking of
If a student is going to participate in the their peers, using evidence and data to
discussion, he or she has to share thoughts support their claims, the talk may remain
and responses out loud in a way that is under- superficial and fail to lead to robust learning.
standable to others. If only one or two students
can do this, you do not have a discussion––

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 9

Talk Moves
Orchestrating talk that focuses on key con-
tent, where each student is motivated and
willing to participate, everyone can hear and
understand what is said, and students are
guided to talk and argue in new ways can be
challenging. Research over the past 20 years
and documentation of teachers who facilitate
productive discussions has led to the iden-
tification of a small number of general talk
moves that are remarkably helpful tools for
making discussions work. These talk moves
can be used at any point in a discussion, in
any subject domain, and are especially help-
ful in classroom settings. They strategically
set students up to think, reason, and collabo-
rate in academically productive ways.
Different talk moves do different kinds
of work in achieving the four goals. Some
prompt students to share and expand upon
their ideas, others help them listen carefully
to one another. Still others help students dig
deeper as they provide evidence to support
their claims, and some help students think
with the reasoning of others to build on,
elaborate, and improve the thinking of the
group. The goals and supporting talk moves
are summarized in the following table.

10 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

Goals for Productive Discussions and Nine Talk Moves

Goal: Individual students share, expand and clarify their own thinking
1. Time to Think:
Partner Talk
Writing as Think Time
Wait Time
2. Say More:
“Can you say more about that?” “What do you mean by that?” “Can you give an example?”
3. So, Are You Saying…?:
“So, let me see if I’ve got what you’re saying. Are you saying…?” (always leaving space for the original student
to agree or disagree and say more)

Goal: Students listen carefully to one another

4. Who Can Rephrase or Repeat?
“Who can repeat what Javon just said or put it into their own words?” (After a partner talk) “What did your
partner say?”

Goal: Students deepen their reasoning

5. Asking for Evidence or Reasoning:
“Why do you think that?” “What’s your evidence?” “How did you arrive at that conclusion?”
“Is there anything in the text that made you think that?”
6. Challenge or Counterexample:
“Does it always work that way?” “How does that idea square with Sonia’s example?”
“What if it had been a copper cube instead?”

Goal: Students think with others

7. Agree/Disagree and Why?:
“Do you agree/disagree? (And why?)” “Are you saying the same thing as Jelya or something different, and
if it’s different, how is it different?” “What do people think about what Vannia said?”
“Does anyone want to respond to that idea?”
8. Add On:
“Who can add onto the idea that Jamal is building?”
“Can anyone take that suggestion and push it a little further?”
9. Explaining What Someone Else Means:
“Who can explain what Aisha means when she says that?” “Who thinks they could explain in their words why
Simon came up with that answer?” “Why do you think he said that?”

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 11

You will find each of these talk moves helpful into the water and sinks. In the beginning of
in achieving the overarching aim of support- the session, the teacher, Ms. B., has her stu-
ing scientific reasoning, argument, and learn- dents sit around her in a circle so everyone
ing through talk. could see one another, and poses the guiding
question for the investigation:
Ms. B.: All right, over the past several days,
we’ve been investigating a lot about volume and
weight. Who can remind us of some things we’ve
learned together?
[Several exchanges follow where students
summarize some of the group’s understand-
ings. Luis says, “Volume and weight aren’t the
same.” Jayla adds, “If two materials have the
same volume, they can have like, um, a dif-
ferent weight?” Frank says, “Yeah, we learned
that volume doesn’t depend on weight and
weight doesn’t depend on volume.”]
Ms. B.: Well, today we are going to take those
ideas of what we’ve learned about volume and
An Example of a Productive Science weight and think about them a different way.
Discussion So our big question for today is, what causes the
Below we explore these four goals and the water level to rise? When you put an object in
small set of talk moves that support each one water, like this rock, what causes the water level
in the context of an actual example. This is to rise? Is it weight or volume? Take a minute
a constructed, composite example but it is and think about that question.
based on videotapes of Inquiry Project lessons, After a long pause, Ms. B. has students
using the actual words of students. (You can rephrase the question in their own words and
see a video of an extended segment of this dis- asks for their ideas. Nearly all think that it is
cussion on the website.) weight, rather than volume that makes the
Through the example, you will see how talk water rise (a misconception widely shared by
moves are used and the work they do for both both children and adults). They reasoned
teacher and students. First some background
about the investigation students were engaged
in so you have a sense of the role of the dis-
cussion within the investigation.

Fourth graders are investigating water dis-

placement (Investigation 4.1 in the Inquiry
Curriculum). They are attempting to figure
out whether it is weight or volume that makes
the water level rise when an object is dropped

12 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

For the next 20 minutes, the students in
groups of four carried out their investiga-
tions (see photos) and then regrouped in a
circle, their science notebooks in hand, to
discuss their findings.
Talk Moves in Action

Talk moves that help individual students

share, expand, and clarify their own
thinking (Goal One)
• “Say More” (asking a student to expand
that heavier things would make the water rise
on what he or she said)
more because they have more force to push
the water out of the way. Ms. B. was careful Students often assume that their perspective is
in this discussion not to tell the students the shared by everyone. So a student’s response to
correct answer, but to elicit a number of dif- a question is often very condensed and does
ferent viewpoints. not fully spell out his or her thinking. When a
student does not say much, it is hard to under-
Ms. B. then explained the investigation for the
stand their thinking. When this happens you
day—the students will return to their tables
can ask the student to expand: “Can you say
in groups of four and explore what happens
more about that?” or “Tell us more about your
when they immerse in water two metal cubes
thinking.” or “Can you expand on that? or
that have the same volume: 1) a copper cube
“Can you give us an example?”
(weighing 147 gm.) and 2) an aluminum cube
(weighing 44 gm.). They also have a cube of • Wait Time (silence or “Take your time.
plasticine that was slightly larger in volume We’ll Wait.”)
than the two metal cubes, but also weighed This is perhaps an odd talk move because it
44 gm. They were to write their predictions is actually silence, a pause in the talking. But
(about what would happen to the water level providing time (3-5 seconds or more) after
in each case) and then record their results. asking a question, as well as after a student has

44 gm

147 gm

44 gm

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 13

spoken, has been shown to help all students, expression. Therefore, teachers need talk
particularly English Language Learners, moves that can help them interact with the
expand, explain, and clarify their ideas. This student (without putting the student on the
talk move sends the message that the teacher spot) in a way that will encourage a student to
wants to understand the student’s thinking clarify his or her own reasoning.
and seeks more than just a nominally cor-
One such tool is “So, are you saying?” Here
rect answer. It also gives the student time
the teacher essentially tries to repeat some
to regroup and clarify, as in the following
or all of what the student has said, and then
asks the student to verify whether or not the
1. Ms. B.:So now that you’ve had a chance to teacher’s representation is correct, as in the
investigate with your cubes and plasticine in next stage of our example. In doing this, she
your groups, what do you think? Is it weight or leaves room for the student to clarify her
volume that makes the water level rise? [8 sec- original intention.
onds of Wait Time. Gradually several hands go
After hearing Jashida’s contribution in (2),
up.] Jashida?
Ms. B. could grasp that Jashida was claiming
2. Jashida: It’s the weight, I mean, they all have that it is weight, not volume (an incorrect
weight, so yeah it’s the weight, um, of the vol- claim). But she is unsure of the basis for
ume. Jashida’s claim. By asking her to “say more,”
the situation improves, but is not cleared
3. Ms. B.: Can you say a bit more about that?
up entirely. Ms. B. knows that Jashida seems
Tell us what you mean and how you figured that
to be thinking that she has evidence in her
notebook that the water level rose less with
4. Jashida: I came up with–I thought that– the lighter aluminum cube than the copper
I thought that it was, um, the weight for the cube. Ms. B. also knows that this is NOT what
copper cube, and the aluminum cube because, Jashida and her teammates found because she
because in my group, I found out that the alu- visited their table and saw Jashida’s science
min-, the, yeah, the aluminum cube, had less, notebook. And, of course, Ms. B. is fully aware
less–the water went up less. It didn’t go up more that thinking it is weight rather than volume is
than the copper cube. So it’s weight. a common misconception, and that this might
• “So, are you saying?” (asking a student to be leading Jashida to misread her own data.
verify your interpretation and clarify their By phrasing this guess as a question, she is ask-
thought) ing Jashida if her understanding is correct. By
waiting for her answer, she gives her a chance
When students talk about complex phenomena to clarify.
in science, it is often difficult to understand
what they say. And if you as the teacher have 5. Ms.B.: Okay, let me see if I understand. So
trouble understanding a student’s reasoning, you’re saying you found that the water level
the student’s classmates will likely not do rose more with the copper cube than with the
any better. Yet given your goals to improve aluminum cube, and so that’s what’s making
the thinking and reasoning of all students, you think it’s weight and not volume? Do I
you cannot give up on an especially unclear have that right?
student. Deep thinking and powerful reason- 6. Jashida: Yeah. Because, right here [pointing
ing do not always correlate with clear verbal to her notebook], it says that…oh wait [6 second

14 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

pause], I’m confused. The water rose the same 7. Ms. B.: Who thinks they could repeat or put
with both cubes. Wait. I think I made a mistake. into their own words what Jashida has said?
I think it’s weight because the heavier cube makes
8. Luis: I think I can. I think what she’s saying
the water go up more, just a tiny bit more, even
is, um, that she thinks it’s the weight that mat-
if it’s hard to see. The heavier object has more
ters, because heavy things have, um, more force
force and it pushes the water up more.
than light things. And I think she said that the
By opening this conversational space for heavy cube made the water rise a tiny bit more
Jashida to respond, Ms. B. has learned that than the aluminum cube.
Jashida WAS misreading her data and still
9. Ms. B.: Is that right Jashida? Is that what
holds the basic misconception that weight
you were saying?
rather than volume causes the water level to
rise. That is, she is treating her data as if it 10. Jashida: Uh huh. Yep.
contains an error. Ms. B. gained a foothold 11. Luis: But I’m confused. Because we found
in the discussion that she lacked after simply that the copper and aluminum cube went up the
hearing her contributions in turns (2) and same amount. I mean, um [looking at his note-
(4). Now Ms. B. has to somehow include book], it made the water go up the same amount.
other students in this conversation. She has And it was the–the plasticine that went up a
to ensure that everyone is following and can little bit more, not the copper cube.
think about their own findings and what they
mean, in light of Jashida’s contribution. Notice that in line 9, Ms. B. checks back with
Jashida to see if Luis got her idea right.
Talk moves that help students listen
carefully to one another (Goal Two) It is important to note that Ms. B.’s “Who can
repeat or put into their own words?” move
• “Who can repeat/rephrase?” (asking stu- (in line 7) is not being used as a manage-
dents to restate what has been said) ment move. Some teachers use this move to
“catch” students who are not listening, but
When a student says something potentially
we recommend against using this move as
important, whether it is correct or not, you
a management tool. Students will be more
may want to ensure that everyone can engage
enthusiastic if you use it in a positive way, ask-
with that idea. But if other students did not
ing for volunteers who think they have under-
hear it or were not paying attention, they will
stood to repeat the idea or put it into their
be unable to take the next step and think
own words. Notice that Ms. B. asked someone
about it. There are many ways to do this, using
to repeat what Jashida said, even though she
what we call a “Who can repeat?” move. “Who
knew that Jashida’s idea was incorrect and
thinks they understood what Jashida was say-
contained the misconception with which many
ing and can put it into their own words?” or
students began the investigation. Some might
“Who can just restate what Jashida said?” or
think that having this idea repeated will only
“What do think Jashida was saying?” Even in
confuse students and reinforce the wrong
cases where the student is not correct, all stu-
idea. However, if everyone has not heard and
dents can benefit from understanding the rea-
understood Jashida’s idea, albeit an incor-
soning behind it, particularly when a common
rect idea, they will be unable to think with it
misconception is at stake.
and interrogate it. If alternative conceptions
or misconceptions are not explained and

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 15

explored, students never fully understand 12. Ms. B.: Okay, let’s slow down a little bit.
what is problematic about them. It is here that It sounds like we need to discuss our data, our
Ms. B. has “set the table” for digging deeper evidence. Can someone from Jashida’s group
into the data and letting different views come explain their results? What did you find when
into play. you put your two metal cubes in the water?
Alicia, you were in Jashida’s group.
Talk moves that help students dig deeper,
and provide evidence to support their 13. Alicia: Yeah, well I think I have to disagree
claims (Goal Three) with what Jashida said. What we found in our
group is that, um, the metal cubes (pause), both
• Press for reasoning (asking students to made the water rise, like, the exact same amount.
explain their reasoning) The copper cube was heavy and the aluminum
Even if students speak so that everyone can cube was, um, lighter, but they both went up,
hear, and even if they listen carefully to one the water went up the same. And we found
another, it is possible that the discussion will that our plasticine cube made the water go up a
remain at a superficial level. To deepen the little more than the metal cubes, even though it
shared reasoning, students must get used to weighed, like, exactly the same as the aluminum
explaining why they say what they say, and cube. Kind of like what Luis said.
what the evidence is behind their claims. As you help the students dig deeper and
There are many ways to press for reasoning. explain or clarify their reasoning, everyone
Here are some examples. else has to be listening and following along.
Why do you think that? Even if the speaker is correct and clear, that
does not mean that everyone else will hear
What convinced you?
and understand. Many students will tune out
Why did you think that strategy would work? as they hear a classmate produce a long and
Where in the text is there support for that claim? complex piece of reasoning with pauses. This
is an ideal time to use the Who Can Repeat?
What is your evidence? move introduced above, and ask for volun-
What makes you think that? How did you get that teers to put the student’s ideas into their own
answer? words. Some might object that it takes extra
time and it does, but everyone benefits. The
Can you prove that to us?
student being repeated is honored by being
Some students are not used to explaining taken seriously, and the student repeating has
their thinking in this way, and may at first be a chance to practice explicating a complex
puzzled. How did you know? “I looked at our idea. And everyone in the group gets a second
data.” Or “I can’t explain. I just know.” chance to hear and consider the idea. That is,
it serves as a kind of Wait Time for everyone.
So you may need to be persistent.
The entire group moves forward together
At this point, Ms. B. has elicited Jashida’s idea deepening their understanding of core
(weight not volume), and has heard, along concepts and explanations.
with the group, her reason for it. And Luis has
After Alicia’s contribution in line 13, Ms. B.
admitted some confusion over Jashida’s results
decides to ensure that everyone is following:
and the results he got in his group.

16 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

14. Ms. B.: Alicia, you said a lot. Can anyone Ms. B. decides that the students are ready
put that into their own words? to build on each other’s thinking, and think
together about their results and what they
15. Johnny: Yeah, she said that in her group,
they found that the cubes, um, aluminum and
copper cubes, made the water go up the same, and 16. Ms. B.: So, I’m, hearing some different ideas
they were, um, different weights. And that’s what here, about what happened and what made the
we found too. And the plasticine did make the water level rise. Could someone from another
water go up more. But it was lighter, a whole lot group explain what they found and tell us where
lighter than the copper. And so doesn’t that mean you stand? Do you agree or disagree and why?
that the weight didn’t make the water go up?
17. Mathais: Well, my group, we found out that
Talk moves that help students think with that the–we thought it was because of the vol-
others, or apply their reasoning to the ume, because we found that the volume and the
ideas of others (Goal Four) water level were the same, but the weight was dif-
ferent. And I thought that if–if the weight, was,
After everyone hears and understands the um, there’s more weight in the copper cube than
claim and the reasoning behind it, they are the aluminum cube, then I think it just should
ready to think with that idea, to apply their depend on the volume because the weight, if it
own reasoning to the thinking of was more, the copper cube is more, then it would
someone else. have more volume. If it really depended on the
• Do you agree, or disagree…and why? weight.
(asking students to take a position) 18. Ms. B.: Okay, does anyone want to
This talk move helps you guide the students respond to that? Who wants to respond and can
to consider seriously the reasoning of their prove that they listened to Mathais’ explanation
peers. There are a number of variants of this and can kind of respond with their own ideas or
“Agree-Disagree/Why?” move. Other versions can add another idea to it? Flaver, go ahead.
include “Who has a similar idea or a differ- 19. Flaver: Um…I–I…
ent idea about how this works, and how is it
similar or different?” “Does someone want to 20. Ms. B.: Talk to Mathais about how you feel
respond to that idea and tell us why you agree about what he said.
or disagree?” Some teachers say, “Thumbs up 21. Flaver: I, I agree with what you said because
if you agree, thumbs down if you disagree.” this, for example, like if you put–if you had big,
Note, however, that it is crucial that you fol- um, like if you got a big cup of water and you
low up with the question “Why do you agree?” put an eraser in there, like, like the eraser over
or “Why do you disagree?” Otherwise, there there [points to an eraser by the whiteboard],
is a chance that students will just “phone it if you put something like that in a big cup of
in” and assert that they agree without much water, the water level would rise a lot, and,
thought. Moreover, asking, “Does everyone if you put in a copper cube, and it’s not even
agree?” or “So do we all agree?” and getting gonna–it’s not going to rise that much even
a chorus of yeses is not the same move. It though that copper cube will weigh more than
telegraphs to everyone that there is one right an eraser.
answer, and students will stop pursuing their
(A few turns excerpted where Ms. B. asks
own ideas if they are different.
“Who can repeat what Flaver said?”)

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 17

22. Aisha: I have a question for you Flaver. Um, hand. She is an English learner and rarely
what if the object had like buoyancy, like it’s able talks. Ms. B. calls on her. Felicia pauses, then
to float? speaks slowly, and pauses again.
23. Ms. B.: Ohh…I think that’s a good question 26. Felicia: [6 second pause] I think when you
for the whole group. But go ahead, Flaver. put the plasticine inside the water, the water
will rise because the volume of the plastic is
24. Flaver: Then it would be a different story,
big and this is small. And…[4 second pause]
because, if–if it had buoyancy then it wouldn’t
and the water rises with volume because when–
really be taking up much space, so but, I
that’s heavier but that one take more volume
wouldn’t know, um, so some things that have
and it went up more than the copper cube did.
buoyancy it would–it wouldn’t do the same thing
And…[8 second pause] I used to think it was
like I was talking about.
weight that made water rise because I compared
• Who can add on? (asking students to add when you’re in the bathtub, when you sit and
their own ideas) I thought your weight makes the water rise but
Sometimes a student may explain her own now I know that it’s really volume.
reasoning or make a claim in a way that is • Wait time (giving students time to think, and
clear enough and significant enough for oth- time to answer)
ers to respond to, such as Flaver’s claim and
Though we listed Wait Time in the first cat-
example in line 21 above. This is a time when
egory of helping students expand and clarify
you can really help students engage with
their ideas, it is a talk move that actually sup-
their classmate’s reasoning and work to sus-
ports all four steps and can be used produc-
tain and amplify the depth of the discussion.
tively throughout a discussion. As mentioned
Asking “Who can add on?” or “Who wants to
above, Wait Time might seem like an unusual
respond to that?” invites anyone to join in and
“talk move” because it is a pause in the talk-
respond. You can also personalize this move
ing. But it is the most researched of all the
by calling on a particular student.
talk moves and has been shown to remark-
25. Ms. B.: So let’s stick with the idea that all of ably impact the quality of both students’ and
these objects sink for right now. So Flaver is say- teachers’ thinking. Wait time, as described in
ing, if I have your idea right, that you think the the work of Mary Budd Rowe (1986), involves
size of the object matters, that objects with more waiting at least 3 to 5 seconds after you ask a
volume would make the water go up more. And question, and then waiting again for the same
Jashida thinks it’s weight that matters. Is that interval after the student responds to the
right? [Jashida nods.] So who wants to add on question.
here? Tell us why you agree or disagree with
The research on Wait Time is extensive. The
Jashida or Mathais or Flaver.
research literature talks about two differ-
Some students raise their hands immediately ent kinds of wait time, both important, and
but Ms. B. gives 17 seconds of Wait Time powerful. The first is after you ask a question
for more hands to go up. Her students are but before you call on a particular student or
accustomed to Ms. B. waiting and know that before a student begins to speak.
they will have time to ponder and really think
The second kind of Wait Time is pausing
through her question. After a while, a few
before you respond to what a student has just
more hands go up. Finally, Felicia raises her

18 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC

said. And of course, sometimes in the middle will carry the ball. If students opt out because
of a turn, a student pauses and this second they think they are not quick enough at for-
kind of wait time is important as well, waiting mulating their ideas, they often stop listening
after a student pauses or stops talking. with the same degree of focus as their peers.
When this happens, everyone suffers. The dis-
The research—at all grade levels and across all
cussion will not be enriched by the thinking
subject domains—shows that if you increase
of everyone in the group, and the talk will not
your wait time—to 3 seconds or even more—
lead to deeper learning for the entire group.
dramatic changes take place.
Notice that each of these talk moves—from
1. Students say more. The length of student
“Say more about that” to “Who can repeat
responses increases between 300% and
that in their own words?” to “Why do you
think that?” to “Do you agree or disagree, and
2. They expand and clarify and explain their why?”—are all moves that open up the con-
thinking with evidence. versation to student thinking, explaining, and
3. The number of questions asked by students reasoning with evidence. Each move, in its
increases dramatically. own way, positions students as thinkers rather
than “getters of the correct answer in the
4. Student-to-student talk increases. teacher’s head.” Each move helps to encour-
Increasing Wait Time after a student has talk- age the students to do the “heavy lifting” of
ed is particularly powerful for expanding the explaining and clarifying, citing evidence, and
complexity of student explanations, the depth critiquing or evaluating the thinking of their
of reasoning, and in growing the amount of peers.
student-to-student talk where students sponta- Talk Moves are Tools
neously address or ask questions of peers.
These talk moves are tools, tools that you can
By waiting patiently, Ms. B. and the entire
get very good at using and that can help you
group enabled Felicia, a second-language
take up the challenge of promoting produc-
learner, to make an important contribution
tive talk. Like all tools, these take practice,
that she and other students can build on in
ongoing experimentation, and the patience
the ensuing discussion.
to make mistakes and try again. There is no
Although the research is clear on the value of such thing as perfection. These moves are
wait time, anyone who has tried to do it knows relatively easy to pick up, try out, and the
that it is difficult to change one’s ingrained process can be exhilarating for both students
conversational style with respect to pausing. and teachers alike. Many teachers have said
We tend to feel uncomfortable with silence, as things like the following, “These talk moves
though we are putting a student “on the spot.” are not quite as simple as I first thought, but
Yet few students can put together an answer they totally changed my life…and the lives of
to a complicated question after only a second my students.”
or two. And English Language Learners may
Together, in the context of a rich task, talk
need even more time to formulate their ideas.
moves help to build a classroom culture of
So if we do not use wait time consistently and
equity, risk-taking, intellectual effort, and
patiently, students may give up and opt out of
respect. Teachers who use these moves stra-
the conversation, assuming that someone else
tegically and successfully find that students,

Copyright © 2012 by TERC Talk Science Primer 19

from all cultural and linguistic backgrounds—
even those who have struggled in the past—
make significant gains in learning and con-
ceptual understanding, gains that manifest in
student writing and on standardized tests.
In Talk Science, a series of video clips illus-
trate this small set of productive talk moves
in detail. These videos introduce you to these
talk tools, give you tips for using them effec-
tively and strategically, and show you a variety
of different teachers using them in real time
to guide student talk in science.
As you watch these video clips, ask yourself
about your own discussions. Do you use some
of these moves? Are there some that you
would like to explore and practice in your
own classroom?
The table, Goals for Productive Discussion
and Nine Talk Moves, can be printed out and
kept on hand for quick reference. It can also
be used as a tool for self-reflection, or by col-
leagues who observe you during a discussion
and check off each time you deploy a talk
move to provide some non-judgmental feed-
back about the moves you use.

20 Talk Science Primer Copyright © 2012 by TERC