What the discourse tells us: Talk and indicators of high-level comprehension

Anna O. Soter, Ian A. Wilkinson, P. Karen Murphy, Lucila Rudge, Kristin Reninger, Margaret Edwards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

225 Scopus citations


The purpose of this study was to validate and extend the findings of an exhaustive literature search in Year 1 and a meta-analysis in Year 2 of a 3-year project in which nine (9) small-group discussion approaches were identified. Having identified parameters of discussion that were, to a greater or lesser extent, present in these nine discussion approaches, our goal in the study being reported in this paper, was to evaluate the nine discussion approaches on a common set of discourse features known to characterize 'quality' discussions. Although there is overlap among some studies in the nature of the measures used, the extant literature does not afford a uniform basis on which to evaluate student talk as an indicator of student understanding and critical thinking. In the present study, we identified features of classroom discourse that might serve as proximal indices of students' learning and comprehension and we employed each of these proximal indices in analyzing and evaluating the discourse samples solicited from the proponents of the discussion approaches. Two research questions guided this study:•Which discourse features (established in existing research) can productively serve across all nine discussion approaches as proximal indices of high-level learning and comprehension of text?11Applying coding of discourse features to transcripts that were solicited from proponents of the nine discussion approaches created challenges that we know only too well: can such analysis accommodate contextual factors such as classroom cultures, teacher personalities, expertise and familiarity with the approaches, potential distracters such as student SES, grade level, ability groupings, heterogeneous or homogeneous groupings, variability in texts selected for discussions, student interest in texts selected, and so on.•To what extent does an analysis of the discourse of representative transcripts from each of the nine discussion approaches validate and extend our understanding of quality group discussions? Our procedure entailed the solicitation of four typical, complete discussions from the proponents of nine identified discussion approaches, providing us with a total of 36 transcripts. Our goal was to identify indices for which there was good theoretical warrant and evidence drawn from empirical research that link these to high-level thinking and comprehension. Our coding scheme focuses on the quality of teacher and student questions [Nystrand, M., Gamoran, A., Kachur, R., & Prendergast, C. (1997). Opening dialogue: Understanding the dynamics of language and learning in the English classroom. New York: Teachers College Press; Nystrand, M., Wu, A., Gamoran, A., Zeiser, S., & Long, D. A. (2003). Questions in time: Investigating the structure and dynamics of unfolding classroom discourse. Discourse Processes, 35(3), 135-198], the presence of elaborated explanations [Webb, N. M. (1991). Task-related verbal interaction and mathematics learning in small groups. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 22, 366-389], the presence of 'key' or reasoning words [Wegerif, R., & Mercer, N. (1997). Using computer-based text analysis to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods in research on collaborative learning. Language and Education, 11(4), 271-286; Wegerif, R., Mercer, N., & Dawes, L. (1999). From social interaction to individual: An empirical investigation of a possible socio-cultural model of cognitive development. Learning and Instruction, 9, 493-516] and the presence of exploratory talk [Mercer, N. (1995). The guided construction of knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters; Mercer, N. (2000). Words and minds: How we use language to think together. London: Routledge]. The data indicate that the most productive discussions (whether peer or teacher-led) are structured, focused, occur when students hold the floor for extended periods of time, when students are prompted to discuss texts through open-ended or authentic questions, and when discussion incorporates a high degree of uptake. Results also indicate that authentic questions give rise to longer incidences of student talk, which in most cases result in opportunities for greater elaboration of utterances by students, and which in turn, generate reasoning and high-level thinking. Our results also support the view that affective connections between readers and text appear to play a role in generating discourse that elicits high-level comprehension and critical-analytic responses in text-based discussions. Indeed, the richest reasoning appears to occur in the critical-analytic rather than in the expressive discussion approaches. Our analysis of discourse, then, suggests that authentic question, uptake, the density of reasoning words, and elaborated explanations may indeed be useful measures of productive discussions despite the highly situated nature of small group discussions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)372-391
Number of pages20
JournalInternational Journal of Educational Research
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Education


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