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Constructive Classroom Conversations: Mastering the Language of the Common Core State Standards

Monday, October 21, 2013 to Monday, December 9, 2013
Course topic: 

The Common Core State Standards for English ELA and Mathematics emphasize improving the quality of student-to-student discourse as a major feature of instruction.  The new standards specifically describe the importance of students understanding the reasoning of others and engaging in meaningful conversations using evidence for claims. Yet this type of student-to-student discourse tends to be rare in classrooms. Common classroom activities such as whole class discussions, jigsaws, and think-pair-shares, can have the appearance of constructive interactions, but they often do not provide adequate opportunities for all students to engage in academically rich, back-and-forth dialogs.    

This short course looks closely at student-to-student discourse and addresses how to facilitate student engagement in the types of interactions required by the new standards. It organizes a massive collaboration of educators who wish to support students, particularly English Language Learners, to co-create and build upon each other’s ideas as they interact with the content.  Starting with the notion that in order to improve the quality of student discourse, educators need to listen closely to existing talk, the course asks participants to gather, analyze, and share examples of student conversations from their classrooms. The overall goal is for participating educators to better understand student-student classroom discourse and use what they learn to facilitate higher quality interactions that build disciplinary knowledge and skills. 

The four main objectives of this course are for participants to: 

  1. Develop a practical understanding of academically-engaged classroom discourse, with emphasis on what this looks like in linguistically diverse classrooms that are focused on teaching Common Core State Standards;
  2. Listen more carefully to student talk and use a discourse analysis tool to analyze student discourse, focusing on how interactions build disciplinary language, knowledge, and skills.
  3. Learn and practice practical teaching strategies for building students’ abilities to engage in constructive face-to-face interactions;
  4. Collaborate with other educators and build professional relationships that result in an online community focused on improving students’ abilities to engage rich academic discourse across disciplines and grade levels.


In order to participate in the course, you will need to have access to a classroom in which you or the teacher you are observing are able to collect short samples of paired student talk two different times. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment?

This course may be taken for a free statement of accomplishment.

How much of the time commitment will this course be?

Online work will take around 1 hour per week; assignments will take around 1 hour per week.

Any additional textbooks or software required?



Weeks 1-2: Constructive Conversations I

In these two weeks we dive into what high-quality talk between students can sound like in lessons that effectively teach the new standards. Specifically, we focus on the features of “constructive interactions,” during which students create, clarify, support, and negotiate ideas as they talk about concepts and build understandings in a discipline. 

Weeks 3-4: Teaching the Constructive Conversation Skills 

These two weeks focus on instruction to support rich interaction introduced in Module 1. We analyze video clips that show teaching that fosters interaction skills described in the new standards. We look at activities that help students build interactions skills for staying focused on objectives, building and negotiating ideas, and clarifying ideas. 

Weeks 5-6: Constructive Conversations II

These two weeks we will look more in depth at how to foster student interactions that build the learning of lesson objectives, challenge thinking, and push students to use more complex language of the Common Core standards. 

Week 7: Collaboration, Communication, and Community

This will be a summative week, when we will pull together everything we’ve covered in the course to create a product that communicates to other teachers the value of having a discourse focus for implementing the new standards. You will also consider next steps for applying and collaborating in this work during the year.


Kenji Hakuta

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University

Kenji Hakuta is the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University.  His research, publications, and professional activities have been focused on the education and development of bilingual children and youth for several decades.  He works with various learning communities of district and state leaders engaged in reforming systems for ELLs. Most recently, he has been leading the Understanding Language Initiative at Stanford University in an effort to address the educational challenges and opportunities of the new standards for English Language Learners.

Jeff Zwiers

Senior Researcher, Stanford University

Jeff Zwiers is a senior researcher at Stanford University. He supports the Understanding Language Initiative and collaborates with teachers, instructional coaches, and school systems to improve the education of academic English learners. He co-directs the Academic Language Development Network, which focuses on accelerating students' literacy, language, cognition, and conversation skills. He has also written books and articles on these topics.

Sara Rutherford-Quach

Lecturer, Stanford University and the Understanding Language Initiative

Sara Rutherford-Quach is a postdoctoral fellow with Stanford University and the Understanding Language Initiative. A former bilingual elementary teacher, Sara has more than 12 years of experience working with linguistically diverse students and their teachers and has conducted extensive research on instructional practices for English learners. Sara was previously awarded a National Academy of Education Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship for her work on the role of silence and speech in an elementary classroom serving language-minority students.