Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

How to Help Your Students Engage in Productive Discourse During Small Groups

By Becky McDowell, Science Curriculum Writer

In my work for McGraw Hill, I develop lesson components for digital articles and texts to engage students and provide lesson options for teachers. I use what I learned as a former elementary STEM teacher and instructional coach to support teachers with eliciting student thinking and students with sharing their thinking through crafting different types of embedded questions and text annotations.

What do you think your students would say if you asked them where they thought knowledge came from?

Maybe they would say knowledge comes from observations and experiences. Several would probably mention textbooks, the internet, or the teacher. But how many students would say knowledge can come from sharing and listening to understand each other’s ideas?

When asked to “turn and talk,” my elementary STEM students would turn to their partner, share their response, often at the same time, and then have no idea what their partner shared and no new way of thinking about their own ideas. I found some early success with letting my students know ahead of time during these turn and talk moments that I would be asking them to share what their partner said, not what they shared. My students also struggled with asking questions and providing feedback to each other when asked to share design ideas to gain new perspectives and ideas for design improvements. So, it became clear students needed more direct instruction on communication skills.

Developing Active Listening Skills

To develop active listening skills, I needed to model for students what it looked like to really listen. During communication, people listen for various reasons such as learning, understanding, enjoyment, and sometimes just waiting for a pause for our turn to talk. I wanted my students to move towards listening to understand and learn and away from waiting to talk. I knew that I also needed to be a better listener to really make sense of what a student was sharing so I could understand potential gaps and misconceptions, but also so I could get to know my diverse students’ different ways of sensemaking.

When I asked my students a question during class, I started taking more time to really understand what they were saying, not just evaluate whether their response was correct or incorrect. I also made sure my body language demonstrated that I was actively engaged in what they were saying. Pretty soon, students were sharing their ideas in more detail, and I was also able to build up student ideas by having students elaborate on each other’s ideas. I found this Checklist: Goals for Productive Discussions and Nine Talk Moves incredibly helpful in thinking about classroom discourse and wanted to translate these ideas to small group work.

After students had experienced this modeling during classroom discourse, it was time to provide more direct instruction for small group communication. The following are examples of the topics and prompts we covered while developing our communication skills.

Nonverbal Cues to Demonstrate Active Listening

  • Look at the speaker
  • Nod in agreement if appropriate
  • Use facial expressions to indicate an emotional response
  • Have an open posture to show continued interest

Question Prompts and Response Starters


  • What is your idea? / My idea is…
  • What do you think about…? / I think it was caused by…
  • What should we do first? / I think we should…

Clarifying Ideas

  • What do you mean by…? / Well, in other words…
  • Say more about… / I think it is important because…
  • Are you saying… / It sounds like you think…

Combining Ideas

  • How are our ideas similar and different?
  • What should we use to decide which ideas to pursue first?
  • Which idea has the strongest evidence?

Providing Feedback

  • I wonder if… / I agree, and I also think… / I do not think so because…
  • Did you consider… / Yes, and we found… / No, that is something we should consider
  • I like how you… / Thank you, we…

To support students while developing these communication skills, I created conversation cue cards with question prompts and response starters for each small group or put some of the relevant ones on the slide deck I was presenting.

Since moving out of the classroom I have had the opportunity to work with student teachers. Some form of “Uses questioning strategies to stimulate discussion” is always present on the evaluation rubrics and is one that many struggle to achieve high marks on. Without intentionality, we can fall into what is called the IRE model which stands for Initiate — Response — Evaluate. This model is being used when a teacher asks a closed-ended question, a student responds, and the teacher acknowledges whether the answer is correct or not and moves on without further inquiry. This type of questioning does not lead to discussion either with the teacher or, the ultimate goal, amongst students. Using these resources shared here, my student teachers all saw more success in stimulating discussions among students.

Becky McDowell is an Actively Learn science curriculum writer for McGraw Hill. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction in Science Education through the University of Wyoming. She has over 13 years of classroom experience split between her home state of South Dakota and Illinois. Her personal blog is at:



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