Part 2 of Oral Discourse begins to address 2 topics:

Oral Discourse and School Success

Oral Discourse and Reading Success

In this post the focus is on the first topic: Oral Discourse and School Success.

There is a long history in the education literature of focusing on the role of discourse (dialogue, conversation) in school success. These resources cover a range of ages/grades, topics, and context.   Some of them are oriented toward oral language development at the preschool levels; others are oriented toward the ways in which discourse plays a critical role in success in the classroom, often with emphasis on higher order thinking and problem solving. Here are just a few representative examples of this literature with very brief excerpts. Some of the references address the issue of children whose level of language skills puts them at a disadvantage as they enter school.

One of the earliest treatments was by Courtney Cazden.

Classroom Discourse: The language of teaching and Learning, Portsmouth, Heineman (Original 1988; Second Edition, 2001)

“Yet she also reinforces her original message: “The basic purpose of school is achieved through communication” (p. 2).”

Courtney Cazden, Professor Emerita at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote her classic text Classroom Discourse in 1988. In this second edition she revisits many issues from the original text, including the exploration of “teaching as a linguistic process in a cultural setting” (p. 1), and her belief that the study of classroom discourse is “a kind of applied linguistics — the study of situated language use in one social setting” (p. 3). That first edition examined what Cazden calls the languages of curriculum, control, and personal identity, addressing three research questions still central to this second edition:

How do patterns of language use affect what counts as “knowledge,” and what occurs as learning? How do these patterns affect the equality, or inequality, or students’ educational opportunities? What communication competence do these patterns presume and/or foster? (p. 3)

Other historic and current works highlight the importance of discourse (dialogue, conversation) to school success. The big question to be addressed is: What kinds of discourse lead to what kinds of success. We make a beginning here by citing some short excerpts. In subsequent blogs there will be more detailed responses to that big question.

Karan Gallas, Talking Their Way Into Science: Hearing Children’s Questions and Theories, Responding with Curricula, 1995, Teachers College Press. For some of Gallas’ other work, see From the Harvard Education Review:,-write,-dance,-draw,-and-sing-th and Imagination and Literacy:

 What I describe in this book is how our practice of Science Talks developed in my primary classroom in response to my own questions as a teacher researcher. My reflection will focus alternatively on what “real science is, on the study of science in schools, on children as thinkers, on the role of theory in the science classroom, on the nature of collaboration and discussion, on different kinds of talk, on the acquisition of a discourse, on the teacher’s role in science instruction and on the social construction of learning.” p. 1.

Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning by Arthur N. Applebee, 1996, U. of Chicago Press

“In this book, I offer a vision of curriculum that redresses that balance on the knowledge-in-action (rather than knowledge-out-of-context) that is at the heart of all living traditions. Such knowledge arises out of participation in ongoing conversations about things that matter, conversations that are themselves embodied within larger tradition of discourse that we have come to value (science, the arts, history, literature and mathematics among many others.)” p. 3

Zoe Donahue, Mary Ann Van Tassell, Leslie Patterson (Eds.), Research in the Classroom: Talk, Texts, and Inquiry, 1996, International Reading Association

“Many teacher researches are using the texts and the talk from their classrooms to participate in reflective discourse. They know that learning moments are captured in the classroom, and through discourse teachers and their students can re-see and re-search those significant moments.” P. 3

Martin Nystrand with Adam Gamoran, Robert Kachur, and Catherine Prendergast,Opening Dialogue: Understanding the Dynamics of Language and Learning in the English Classroom 1997

“Nystrand argues that people learn not merely by being spoken (or written) to, but by participating in communicative exchanges.”P. ix

Gordon Wells (Ed.) Action, Talk and Text, Teachers College Press, 2001

“The original title of the DICEP ( Developing Inquiring Communities in Education Project) Project was “Learning through Talk.” From the outset, we were certain that the essence of learning and teaching was to be found in the interaction among students and teachers that constitutes such a large part of classroom activity (two-thirds according to some estimates). At the same time we were also convinced that the most valuable talk occurs in the context of exploration of events and ideas in which alternative accounts and explanations are considered and evaluated. The question, then, was: What are the conditions that make such talk possible? Is there an overall approach that makes it more likely to occur?” p. 3

See also

Instructional Conversation in the Classroom: Can the Paradox be Resolved?

A version of this paper was presented at the Annual Convention of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, April 16, 2009.


Recently published:

John E. Henning, The Art of Discussion-Based Teaching: Opening Up Conversation in the Classroom 2008, Routledge Press

“….Yet despite repeated criticism and the introduction of numerous innovations the recitation (IRE) of memorized facts continues to dominate the classroom interactions between teachers and students…

In comparison to a recitation, a discussion is a related but different form of classroom discourse. Classroom discourse is very board and includes terms that refer to any and all verbal interchanges among teachers and student in a classroom…

A discussion may include some form of recitation but only as one part of a far more complex discourse. To facilitate participation during a discussion, teachers ask open=ended questions that enable longer, more varied student responses, require more varied teacher responses, and encourage more student-to-student interaction. In addition, the teacher places less emphasis on evaluation, more emphasis on feedback and casts the students in a more participatory. What distinguished expert discussion leaders from novices is the complexity of their classroom discourse….” pp. 1-2


Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford, Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understanding, 2011, Stenhouse Publishers   See also:

“Since the dawn of language, conversations have been powerful teachers. They engage, motivate, and challenge. They help us build ideas, solve problems, and communication our thoughts. They cause ideas to stick and grow in our minds. They teach us how other people see and do life, and they teach other people how we see and do life. Conversation strengthens our comprehension of new ideas….

…..As we worked in classrooms as instructional coaches and began to tap the teaching and sculpting power of extended, back and forth talk between students, an approach emerged that we called academic conversations…

….Conversations are exchanges between people who are trying to learn from one another and build meanings that they didn’t have before. Partners take turns talking, listening, and responding to each other’s comments. Academic conversations are sustained and purposeful conversations about school topics….” p. l.


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Discourse and Reading Success….the next blog post

While we might think of “reading” as a one person silent venture, it is clear that in school students don’t just read. They talk before, during, and after some (most) forms of reading. They might talk to a teacher, tutor, peer, or self. The primary focus in this section will be on reading and talking and how that leads to being a successful reader.