Did you see my summer reading list? No, it wasn’t filled with thrilling fiction (though I did try to squeeze that in!), but excellent math resources!  Since I love all things Lucy West, one of the first things I read was: “Turn and Talk: One Powerful Practice, So Many Uses” by Lucy West and Antonia Cameron (2011).

Here’s a little background on the topic of academic discourse, according to West and Cameron (2011):

  • student discourse is vital for learning, but it is not seen in classrooms regularly (p. 1)
  • “Research from around the world validates the importance of dialogue as a key avenue for learning content with understanding and developing reasoning, social skills, and intelligence” (p. 1)
  • Douglas Reeves, Richard Allington, Vygotsky, and Robin Alexander have “linked academic success with the capacity to engage in conversation and to as and answer questions in full sentences” (p. 1)
  • it is not easy for teachers to engage students in rigorous discourse for a few reasons: the content of the lesson is lacking (i.e. there is nothing to talk about), the lesson is too factual or skills based, the lesson is not based on any “big ideas”, there is not enough time for discussion, and too much time is spend practicing a skill (p. 1-2).

So what are the benefits of “turn & talk”?  West and Cameron have eleven benefits, but I think the three most relevant to my teaching practice are:

  • “Develops capacity to articulate an idea and use new terminology”: this is a key point for me because I find that students are lacking math terms. By talking to a partner during math lessons, students are able to improve and broaden their math vocabulary.
  • “Develops the idea that the source of power is in each learner”: it is so important for students to understand that their voices, ideas, and contributions are essential to a math lesson.  They are the source of power during the lesson and their contributions are essential.
  • “Gets at least 50 per cent of the students talking in a given lesson”: I have several students in my class who love to participate during lessons and discussions, but there are many students who would rather sit back and just listen.  Turn & talk helps me get those students involved in the discussion and helps them build confidence during math lessons.

So when is it a good time for “Turn & Talk”?  West and Cameron provide 10 clues that show student discourse would be beneficial at that time, but for me the following two really stand out:

  • “Preparing to write”: for our numeracy learning cycle, we are focusing on the analysis of the problem (using our GRASS acronym), where students need to explain their thought process as they tackle the problem.  We are asking students to take us step-by-step through their though process.  By having students turn and talk with a partner first, we have found that the analysis of the problem is much more detailed, in-depth, and accurate.
  • “Teaching each other”: it is such a pivotal and powerful moment in a lesson when students are able to teach one another.  It may be that only some students understand the concept enough to teach a peer, or it may be that many students understand the concept and can show their understanding by explaining their ideas to their classmates.  Student discourse would be a great way to review the highlights and summaries of a lesson and to check for understanding. I used this approach during my measurement unit when students had to discuss the various area activities we were solving.  It worked out very well and it had everyone talking!

I highly recommend reading the article by West and Cameron.  It is an essential read for any math teacher who wants to improve both the quantity and the quality of student discourse in the math classroom.

We have been using this strategy during our TLLP math journal project and we have noticed an improvement in student problem solving and analysis. By having students turn and talk with a peer, they are showing how well they are attaining the concept and then have a better understanding of how to approach a problem and solve it successfully.


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