Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings

One of Stanford University’s most remarkable staff members is senior researcher Dr. Jeff Zwiers. He works at the university’s Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, or CSET. He is also training teachers before they actually become active in the educational profession. For more than ten years, Dr. Zwiers has been working as an educational mentor in various school settings in urban areas where he focused on literacy development while creating academic education plans for students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

Jeff Zwiers additionally has trained educators for many years and has helped them develop and implement various professional teaching methods and to learn to work within educational teams that may apply collaborative educational cycles. Dr. Zwiers also participates (in his free time) in various national and international learning development groups that are actively promoting and researching critical thinking processes, bilingual education issues, formative assessment facets, and topics related to engaged learning.


There are several books and other publications from his hand that relate to thinking, reading, and various academic language issues, and his most recent publication is his book: “Academic Conversations: Classroom talks that foster critical thinking and content understanding”. All of his recent work is addressing issues that relate to the development of teachers’ most important practices to be able to effectively teach communication and academic language skills in all types of lessons and in practically every subject area.

The Following is a Summary of “Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters  Thinking & Content Understandings” by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford

The process of learning is actually a social venture, and interactions such as conversations (and specifically academic conversations) are helping students to enhance and broaden their comprehension of a specific topic profoundly and in a meaningful way. A typical academic conversation is a back and forth dialogue that takes place in the challenging, purposeful, and supportive environment of the classroom. These conversations are very helpful and allow students to concentrate on and explore specific topics, while communicating, challenging, and negotiating crucial ideas or philosophies with other students and teachers.

In general, classroom education, conversation, and discussion are dominated by teachers. Research has shown that in the majority of classrooms, not even two minutes in every hour are dedicated to discussion and classroom conversation, and generally, the so-called discussion won’t get beyond the stage of very short Q & A sessions. The main reason for this phenomenon is that teachers have never learned how to stimulate, initiate, and maintain an effective level of academic discussion and conversations in their classrooms.

In general, we can say that there are 5 key communications skills that will help both students and teachers engage in successful and useful academic discussions and conversations regardless of the specific academic subject fields. These important skills are: effectively elaborate and clarify topics, support academic issues and ideas with proper evidence, effective build-up and/or challenging of theses or ideas, the best way to paraphrase, and how to best synthesize various aspects.

Dr. Zwiers’ book is clearly explaining how to implement these main educational skills in various teaching approaches and practices. The book supports teachers in particular how to use and apply discussion and conversations to stimulate and build-up the following aspects:

  • Grammar and (the use of) academic vocabulary
  • Critical reasoning competencies, for example interpretation, persuasion, considering multiple aspects and perspectives, and the evaluation and application of content subjects
  • Literacy competencies, for example posing questions, making predictions, connect to prior information, or make a summary
  • The comprehension of issues related to abstract and complex content fields such as human nature, bias, adaptation, energy, conservation of mass, gravity, democracy, greed, irony, and so on
  • Stimulating a classroom setting that brims with respect for other people’s ideas, while focusing on engagement, the equity of voice, and mutual respect and support

Dr. Zwiers’ book comes with highly practical, hands-on training activities so teachers can work on each individual communication and conversation skill. They will learn how to create conversation assignments, and how to best use the idea of conversation while teaching and assessing knowledge. His book is the perfect resource for those teachers who want to help their students understand and master all sorts of communicative aspects and expectations of the contemporary world.

“Academic Conversations” Chapters Overview

Chapter 1

Is describing the key principles of learning and how they provide a rationale to use and teach academic discussion and conversation competencies in classrooms. Dr. Zwiers describes how students are developing and learning through conversation.

Chapter 2

Is dealing with what teachers could and should do in preparation to stimulate conversation. Here, the 5 key conversation competencies and behaviors are described and covered.

Chapter 3

In this chapter, teachers will learn various activities and methods for teaching the skills that were addressed in Chapter 2.

Chapter 4

This chapter addresses how to design prompts and communication/conversation tasks.

Chapter 5

This chapter addresses specific strategies that will help to teach divers conversation skills, and how to train students to engage in advanced discussions and conversations in all sorts of content fields.

Chapter 6

Here we learn how to use discussion and conversation to enhance vocabulary and grammar, the two most important aspects of language in general. A major hurdle when it comes to teaching conversational skills lies in the fact that different disciplines use different rules, guidelines,  and approaches when it comes to discussions and conversations.

Chapter 7

This chapter focuses on in what way, and to what extent, conversation competencies may be developed and applied in English and Language Arts classes. Here the author focuses on literature conversations and discussions, and how to write an analytical and persuasive essay.

Chapter 8

This chapter covers discussions and conversations about social studies, science, and history issues, and how conversations may very well be used for the development of students’ critical reasoning skills. Very useful for persuasion, interpretation, debate, and application.

Chapter 9

In this chapter, the author is describing the best way to develop scientific thinking competencies via conversation, and the best ways to develop conversation competencies via science. Here, Dr. Zwiers describes conversations and discussions about scientific study and experimentation, while explaining how important it is to keep connected to earlier discovered science aspects if we want to make hypotheses and create the foundations for possible claims.

Chapter 10

In this chapter the author describes in what way we can use conversation as assessments, how conversation may show us how good or fast students are picking the study material up, how to learn about the points-of-view and meanings they have developed, and how well they can make new meanings or adhere to their standpoints. Academic conversations can very clearly show students’ content subject knowledge, conversation behaviors, language skills, and even their engagement or commitment.  Here, the author hands out various ideas for summative and formative conversational assessment, and teaches us how to use conversation and discussion to measure and assess writing, reading competencies, and content comprehension for example for the ACT and SAT tests..

Chapter 11

This last chapter includes a summary and synthesis of the previous ten chapters and provides various practical suggestions. Each of the previous chapters includes prompts to encourage teachers to reflect on the key issues addressed in that chapter and how to start applying the concepts and ideas within their particular settings.

We are, just like you, highly committed to and passionate about the development of language in general. We want to focus on developing critical thinking skills, discussion and conversation skills, better content understanding, and enhancing student character in all sorts of classroom settings, particularly at schools that have high numbers of non-native English speakers from often less-privileged backgrounds.

Like Dr. Jeff Zwiers, we all have extensive experience with working in urban settings. We all worked with students who have difficulties with communicating in English as we know it. They frequently do not communicate in line with the language used in mainstream schools or on the typical work floor. Very often, these students are well motivated and highly intelligent, and they really deserve a classroom setting and experience that will support them in developing their communications skills so they can become fine contributors to their communities.