Another approach to teaching listening – which I like to use as a “signature approach” in academic contexts – is what I call “probing conversations” or “active conversations” or “academic conversations”.  This is really a way to get students to talk about what they understand, what they don’t understand, and how they might learn something from other people’s understandings (imagine that!). It’s actually a counterpoint to what the image here shows: the students are not talking about “me, me, me”; they’re talking about the ideas and their partner’s views first…

This type of conversation might be considered an “ice breaker” approach to learning, because most of the time the classroom that has students engaged in real academic conversations resembles a cocktail party – but with very focused and very structured conversations taking place.


Probing conversations

The second approach to teaching listening is scaffolding the ways students approach understanding, exploration, and application of what they hear in real time. In this approach,  listeners actively construct meaning through conversational practices of examining their own development of understanding, and through querying their peers’ understanding of the same input or experience. Often called “academic conversation”, this approach involves affective, cognitive, and social elements (Zwiers & Soto, 2016).

A  probing conversation, or an “academic conversation” is a learned structure in which students practice discussing complex issues and defend their thinking. The concept of structured conversation for learning is certainly not new (cf. Cazden, 2001; Goldenberg, 1992). Through the use of academic conversations students learn to articulate their thinking, investigate their own thinking processes and the thinking of others, and actively listen to each other. A shift from “normal conversation” to “academic conversation” is achieved gradually through the use of conversation starters, such as “My experience with this is…” and “What do you mean by that reference?”

Teachers have long encouraged their students to discuss what they have read or watched or heard as a way of deepening their comprehension skills. Unfortunately, without guidance or modeling, a typical classroom “discussion” may go something like this:

Student A: What was the main idea of the story?

Student B: Courage.

Student A: Yeah, the guy was brave.

Student B: OK. What do we do now?

Left to their own devices, students may resort to the familiar “game over” strategy: how to most quickly and efficiently “beat” the game. Many classroom activities, such as think-pair-share or vocabulary games often devolve in this way: they elicit short bursts of student output and interaction, but do not lead to extended discussions, personal engagement, or co-construction of new ideas (Hall, 2016).  For many students, this “opting out” behavior may be due to social awkwardness, habitual interaction patterns, or lack of guidance and support for having more meaningful conversations. Teachers who allow this weakened discourse to occur repeatedly likely need additional training in how to intervene and support better conversations (Singer, 2018).

What has proven to be helpful to students of all ages, but particularly school age students, is to demonstrate the idea of “conversation strategy” explicitly in a framework and present specific language frames for the students to use when they enact the strategy.

For example:

 Target BehaviorConversation gambit to ask about ideas Language frame to state ideas
Describe the main idea  What is the gist of the story? What do you think is the central idea in this story?The story was mainly about…

The speaker is basically saying….

The main idea of the story was…

A number of studies of productive academic discussions — what Singer & Zwiers (2016)  call “powerful conversations” have revealed at least six distinct discourse exchange types that can be modeled for students (Beglar & Murray, 2017; Rost, 2016; Staarman et al., 2005).  (See Table 2.)

Table 2: Conversational Strategies and Sample Prompts

StrategiesPrompts for initiating:Prompts for responding:
Frame and reframe topics and sub-topicsWhy do you think that (the speaker said…)?I think (the speaker said…) to (teach us about…).
Elaborate and clarify pointsCan you elaborate? What do you mean by…? What makes you think that? I’m not entirely clear about you point.Let me tell you more about what I think. I think it means… In other words, … I think that’s true because…
  Support ideas with evidenceCan you give me an example? Can you show me (remember) where he/she says that? Can you be more specific? Are there any cases of that that you know of?For example… In the lecture, she said that… One case that showed this was…
Paraphrase and summarizeLet’s take a step back. What have we discussed so far? How can we summarize what we’ve talked out?We can say that… So far, the main themes/points we’ve discussed are… This is a bit complex, but I think we can summarize by saying…
Build on or challenge another’s ideaWhat do you think? Can you add to this idea? Do you agree? What might be some other points of view?I would add that… Then again, I think that… I want to expand on your point about…
Apply and connectSo what? How can we apply this idea to our lives? What can we learn from this (character/story/part of the lecture)?I can offer something here. In my life… I think it can teach us… If I were…I would have…

Once introduced and with training, student conversations will develop into more elaborate and satisfying exchanges:

Student A: Why do you think is the main theme of the story

Student B: I think the main theme is courage. The story teaches us about courage.

Student A: Can you elaborate? What makes you think that?

Student B: Well, I think Marco’s decision to go back and confront his father took a lot of courage.

Student A: Yeah, going back took courage. I see what you mean. But what do you mean by “confront his father”? Can you be more specific?

Shifting to this type of academic discourse is not simply a behavioral adjustment. Teacher and students need a shared understanding of the underlying psychology in order to implement this approach. Most students, irrespective of cultural background, tend to be reticent and deferential in conversations, particularly younger learners. However, in developing academic listening skills of probing for common ground and defining points of view, it is essential that students push beyond their natural tendenciesfor agreeing or reaching a quick consensus and actively look for points of “respectful disagreement” with their classmates.

Part of this shared understanding is that there is an essential affective element in successful academic conversations. This element is what may be called “positive regard,” a psychotherapeutic term grounded in listening (and grounded in the work of Carl Rogers), which means acknowledging and accepting each speaker’s contribution (Rogers, 1965). Positive regard is a foundation of both speaking and listening “authenticity,” a sense that all participants are communicating on a deep, personal level. This mindset can be encouraged through listening without judgement to each other’s ideas, supporting each other’s efforts to learn, and actively seeking out alternate points of view. Teachers assist through modeling and monitoring of positive conversational interaction in order to promote not only “higher level” academic conversations, but also improved well-being among learners (Singer, 2018).

Table 3   Summary: Teaching Approach Essentials for Academic Conversations

Teaching StructuresLearner mindset shiftForm of practiceMonitoring/ Evidence of uptake
     Text types:

Imaginary scenarios (example: two patients need a kidney transplant, only one can receive it; how to decide)


Fictionalized news stories 

(example: a student is expelled from school for plagiarizing)


Task types:


group discussion tasks
• developing curiosity about others’ points of view

• satisfaction with explaining one’s viewpoint/ expressing personal experience

• search for common ground, search for points of “reasonable disagreement”
 • direct instruction of  interaction gambits

• video models of interaction gambits

• specific peer / small group interaction worksheets (e.g. grid with specific information/ opinions called for)

• teacher hand signals (or other non-verbal codes) to indicate what features student should try
• students using the target gambits

• students have more empathic and respectful interactions

• students have more explicit, extended conversations

• students make applications to their lives, rather than simply repeating information

• students self-report greater engagement in discussions and more satisfaction with group work

About The Author

, Probing Conversations, Lateral Communications
Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fuelled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco.

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