Learning through Discourse - PEBC

Learning through Discourse

I met a special education teacher who shared a story about a boy with autism who had not spoken a word all year. Then one day she gave the group a uniquely challenging math problem. This boy figured it out before all his peers; everyone saw his solution and believed that it was correct, but no one quite understood how he had gotten there. They begged him to explain, and sure enough he did. In great detail. For about ten minutes. This teacher was amazed. This experience taught her how giving learners something challenging and interesting to explore can evoke language production from even the most reluctant.

If we invite learners to discuss low-level questions, seek definitions and verify known answers, there will be little to say, and soon their focus will drift. Instead, to invite rigorous dialogue in our classrooms, we must offer students something juicy to talk about, a struggle for insight and meaning. Our discourse requires a focus, a purpose, a quest for understanding that will motivate and engage participants to grapple in earnest with the conversation. We can support their grappling through the questions we ask. 

Discourse: Learning through Discourse

First Steps Next Steps Advancing Peak Performance

(also see Chapter 2, “Plan”)

Focus discussions around making meaning of standards-based content. Present important concepts, challenges, or paradoxes that invite rigorous thinking and conversation. Use discussion to build enduring understanding of complex ideas.

Structure opportunities for learners to provide and discuss claims, evidence, and reasoning.

Learners capitalize on the perspectives of their peers to explore depth and complexity and make meaning as experts in the discipline.


We can ask ourselves, “What invitation will unsettle and challenge learners in such a way that their conversation will be rich and meaningful?” Sometimes these opportunities present themselves naturally: when eighth-grade teacher Jessica Piwko found her whole group mired in confusion about how to apply the Pythagorean theorem in a real-world context, she invited them to engage in an impromptu turn-and-talk: “Talk to your partner about how you find the hypotenuse of a right triangle.” The air was electric with discovery as learners’ confusion was at last allayed. That’s a quick example of just-in-time discourse, which can flow from an authentic opportunity.

At other times, we need to plan ahead for a rich, deep discussion. In any content-area study, the true grapple is the fertile ground for discourse. When seeking to scaffold rich conversation, find the crux, the moral dilemma, the paradox, the puzzle. 

Topic Discourse-Worthy Challenge 
Environmental challenges What progress is worth what price?
Genetics Are we all created equal?
World War I How does the past predict the future?
Shakespeare What is worth dying for?
Galileo What is the role of geniuses?
Space exploration What is the value of discovery?

Deep Questions

The nature of the question(s) posed will have a bearing on the richness of the conversation. Although literacy experts caution us against the oft-promoted sequence of working from surface-level to deeper-thinking questions lest we languish too long in the shallows, we can provide learners with a range of prompts to foster fruitful dialogue. Consider the possibilities of employing the thinking strategies as tools to pose evocative questions, such as those below. Annotate this list—highlight those that might feel authentic to your content and purpose; add your own thinking.

Thinking Strategy-Informed Questions

Monitoring for Meaning
  • What makes sense?
  • What’s confusing?
  • What are we being asked to do?
  • Is our answer reasonable?
Background Knowledge
  • What does this remind us of?
  • How do our connections help us understand more deeply?
  • Is this an example of a larger phenomenon that we have seen before?
  • Based on . . . What do we think will happen next?
  • Based on . . . What do we think is going on?
  • Based on our data, what might we conclude?
Determining Importance
  • What is the main idea/purpose/theme of this text?
  • What is this problem asking us to solve? How do we know?
  • What patterns do we notice across the “text”?
  • What’s worth remembering? Why?
Creating Sensory Images
  • In our minds, what do we see, feel, smell, taste?
  • What’s the movie in your mind?
  • What might we draw/map out to represent this information to help build understanding?
  • In what ways might we model or represent this situation?
Asking Questions
  • What are we wondering?
  • What do we need to know in order to solve?
  • What is the most efficient way to solve?
  • In what ways will our questions help you understand this?
  • What do we understand now?
  • How has our thinking changed?
  • What new ideas emerged based on key themes/ideas/data from the text set?
  • What patterns do we see?


Excerpted from Phenomenal Teaching, just out from Heinemann.

To learn more about Phenomenal Teaching and the PEBC Teaching Framework, please join us for our forthcoming webinar series.