Academically productive talk in science

There is no shortage of talking in classrooms, yet academically productive talk is far different from the standard teacher-directed questioning strategy to elicit singular correct responses. In the academically productive talk classroom, the teacher serves as facilitator for discussions that help the students grapple with concepts and reasoning that will deepen their understanding of topics. There is an element of “letting go” that is difficult for the classroom teacher who has been conditioned to “stand and deliver”; however, students will learn more as they debate and wrestle with the questions that they arrive at after they have had opportunities to observe and manipulate phenomena.

Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, TERC has a long history of project research and development in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. In work that was partially funded through a grant awarded to TERC from the National Science Foundation in 2012, Sarah Michaels of Clark University and Cathy O’Connor of Boston University authored the Talk Science Primer.

Academically productive talk can only happen in a classroom where the culture is one of respect and trust, so norms will have to be modeled and adhered to with special attention at the onset of introducing productive talk. In science, students should regularly engage in making sense of phenomena, e.g. bubbles escaping from a carbonated beverage, thunder and lightning, the reflection in a mirror. In today’s science classroom, it is the students generating questions on the heels of the teacher posing the phenomena.

Productive talk involves the use of “talk moves,” i.e. tools that help promote academically productive talk. In a classroom that offers rich tasks/labs/experiences to explore phenomena, talk moves help build deeper learning, risk-taking, collaborative problem-solving strategies and student engagement. So what are these talk moves?  Michaels and O’Connor identify nine talk moves that they group under four goals:

  • Individual students share, expand and clarify their own thinking
  • Students listen carefully to one another
  • Students deepen their reasoning
  • Students think with others

An example of a talk move in your classroom could be to ask students to share, expand and clarify their ideas by utilizing the “Say More” move, e.g. elicit an expansion of student thinking by asking one or more of the following questions:

  • Can you say more about that?
  • Tell us more about your thinking.
  • Can you expand on that?
  • Can you give us an example?

By asking these questions, you are indicating to the student that you want more than just a correct answer and that you want to understand the student’s thinking. It is a good start move to help student’s build confidence in going public with or clarifying their thinking.

This work is happening in Maine classrooms as a direct result of training provided through the Maine Elementary Science Partnership (ESP) under the direction of the RiSE Center in Orono. The RiSE Center has and continues to work with cohorts of elementary teachers to introduce, practice, share and teach Talk Moves.  A nice introductory video that looks at the value of their work along with a classroom example can be viewed at this link. Talk Moves are truly appropriate for all grade levels and cross all content areas.

Certainly, this brief article serves only to whet your appetite and the link above will flesh out more details and examples, but trying one talk move and building other talk moves into your repertoire will benefit your students tremendously. For Maine DOE webinars that take a closer look at talk moves, access the links below.

Scientific Argumentation: An Instructional Approach to Literacy (PK-12)

For more information, contact Maine DOE Science and Technology Specialist Shari Templeton at