There's a Cuban proverb that says, "Listening looks easy, but it is not simple. Every head is a world."
At the start of a school year, it's tough to slow down and listen to students — and tougher still to find time to talk to them in ways that encourage them to think more deeply and respond more thoughtfully. But over time, words mark the quality of thinking and learning. Come December, the "talk curriculum," not the layout of the room, will matter when you assess your students' work. These norms for the way you and students communicate will determine whether or not students will be able to take more responsibility for their learning as the school year progresses.

How We Talk to Kids Matters

The amount and quality of talk in classrooms is tied directly to student achievement. Yet many teachers are still locked into the "Initiation-Response-Evaluation" (IRE) pattern of talk. With the IRE pattern, the teacher asks a simple question (such as, "Are you finished with your work yet?") that requires a short response from students (yes or no). The teacher then offers a quick evaluative rejoinder ("Good job!"), and moves on to the next question or comment.

Don't be surprised if they are totally confused at first by all your questions that have no easy answers. So wait . . . The longer you wait for an answer, the more you show a student you care about his or her response.

Avoiding the IRE Trap

There are times when teachers should check in to see if students are absorbing new information. But dependence on the IRE pattern does not promote independence in students, or an understanding that many important questions have no clear-cut, speedy answers. The best way to judge if you've fallen into the IRE trap is to monitor your exchanges with students over a half hour or more in a typical teaching situation, such as a book talk. How often do you ask open-ended questions? How many times do you respond to students with comments that aren't evaluative? If the answer to both questions is "rarely," you might want to rethink the way you interact with students. Changing the language norms now will yield big dividends throughout the year, as your students become more comfortable with richer questions and responses. Here are some ideas for getting started.

1. Ask Open-ended Questions.

When you find yourself starting to ask a question that can be answered with yes or no, find a way to rephrase it. In their book Thinking for Themselves: Developing Strategies for Reflective Learning, authors Jeni Wilson and Jan L. Wing (Heinemann, 1993) suggest using the questions on page 39 routinely to help students think more deeply about their learning.

If you want to avoid asking too many "yes"/"no" questions, make a commitment to also ask "how" and "why" questions. For example, instead of just asking if a student's parents helped him or her with spelling homework the night before, also ask how the parents helped. What did they do together and was it, in fact, helpful? You'll get much more insight into a student's thinking processes and his or her life beyond the classroom —- information that's particularly useful early in the school year.

2. Ignite Rich Conversations.

Franki Sibberson, a kindergarten teacher in Dublin, Ohio, uses the "ask questions and walk away" strategy. Whenever students are working together in small groups, whether browsing through books or building something with blocks, she checks in with big open-ended questions, and leaves before children can answer her. As a result, the children answer the questions together, in a natural context, and the richness of the talk enhances their work.

For example, during writer's workshop recently, a group of children were working together. Franki noticed one child's story about a pet, entitled "Play." She asked, "Why is play the important word?'' and walked away. When she returned a few minutes later, she discovered the whole group had talked about important words in the story, discussing what made certain words more valuable than others, and highlighting those valuable words.

Suzy Kaback, a fifth-grade teacher in Holden, Maine, uses an "All About Us" bulletin board to prompt rich talk among students. Each week, during the first month of school, students bring in objects that are important to them, post them on the board, and discuss them. Every change is noted by students, providing starting points for conversation. (See details in column at right.)

3. Increase Your "Wait Time" With Students.

As humorist Fran Lebowitz wrote, "The opposite of talking is not listening. The opposite of talking is waiting." Adding just a few seconds onto your pause at the end of a question, particularly an open-ended question, gives students the time they need to arrive at deep answers. Remember, they may already have had years of the IRE pattern. Don't be surprised if they are totally confused at first by all your questions that have no easy answers. So wait. And wait some more. The longer you wait for an answer, the more you show a student you care about his or her response. Perhaps the best phrase ever invented for opening up new conversations with students is "Tell me more about that." Even students who have little conversational time with adults are eager to expound on topics they have initiated in class.
This is the time of year when classrooms never look better, with colorful displays, polished tables, and clean desks and rugs. It's easy to make a classroom look good . . . but much harder to make it sound good. Ultimately, the quality of talk in your classroom defines how much learning your students will acquire.

Web Resources for Boosting the Talk in Your Classroom includes many wonderful tips for successful morning-meeting activities that build conversation skills. is a treasure trove of inspiration that includes thought-provoking, fun quotes about listening. A favorite of mine is from Pooh's Little Instruction Book: "If the person you are talking to doesn't appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear."

The "All About Us" Bulletin Board

At the beginning of the school year, I construct an "All About Us" display by dividing a large bulletin board with string into as many sections as there are students, plus myself. During the summer, I send letters asking students to bring in hangable objects for the display that will tell their classmates something important about them, from family photos to sports ribbons. On the first day of school I talk about the object in my square and encourage my students to do the same. Then, during the first month, we replace objects weekly and spend part of each Friday morning learning about each other.

Seven Open-ended Questions for the Classroom

1. Would you explain that to me?
2. What reasons do you
have for that?
3. How is that different from your classmates' idea?
4. What do we know about this?
5. When wouldn't that happen?
6. How does that fit with what we said earlier?
7. Can anyone think of how that might happen?


Brenda Power is a professor of literacy education at the University of Maine, and a site coordinator for professional development schools in Maine. Power is currently working on a literacy-related book for Scholastic Professional Books about getting the school year off to a good start.