Authentic Talk for Collaborative Learning

FEBRUARY 8, 2023


One of the things I dislike is having to make “small talk”. I love to meet people, to talk to them, to learn something new or learn more things about something I have already encountered. Perhaps it is my dislike of small talk that has led me to focus on authentic, meaningful, and purposeful talk with the students in my classroom. I refer to it as Rich Talk (Vetter, 2008).

From the youngest grades, students can engage with topics that are relevant to their world and their understanding (Vasquez, 2004). One of my favourite anecdotes is from a Grade One class. We had done a lot of social justice work during the year, and we were invited to sing “One Small Voice Can Teach the World a Song” (Loggins, 1998) for the parents at the June Volunteer Appreciation Tea. After our song, the principal asked the students what they had learned in Grade One. A few students offered the anticipated responses, but one young lad surprised us all when he said, “I learned I can make the world a better place” (Vetter, 2008, p.88).

Knowing their voices are important and valued, here are few activities that engaged my students and helped them to develop their subject-based learning, along with their communicative competence.

Talk Shows:

A group of students choose a topic of interest and discuss it for the rest of the class. Unlike a formal debate, this format has each student playing a role. For example, a discussion about cell phone use in schools might include the roles of teacher, student, principal, cell phone salesperson, parent, psychologist, etc. Students research their role and perspective. Classroom chairs are moved to create a “set” in the talk show format. Those not presenting would become the audience. At the end of the “talk show” the conversation would open for whole class or small group discussion.

Collaborative Writing and Projects:

I love to use books with a pattern, then ask students to work in groups to create their own pattern on a different topic or theme. An example might be The House that Jack Built (Traditional Rhyme, 1755), which has resulted in many similar tales, such as The House that Drac Built (Sierra, 1998) and The House that Crack Built (Taylor, 1992). Students can illustrate and publish their books to share in the classroom or school library. Library discard book covers (with original pages removed) can be easily re-covered with paper. The inner pages of the new tale are stapled, then inserted with duct tape. Over the years, my students have engaged in many collaborative projects, including a weekly school newsletter, stories for their young reading buddies, a book about Canada that was placed in the school library, a recipe book, letters to the editor of the local paper, a class quilt, bulletin boards, and more. Each task required significant oral engagement and collaborative talk to plan and execute, while addressing cross-curricular learning expectations.

Audio Recordings:

It is interesting to ask students to audio record their group discussion on any topic then play it back for self-evaluation by the group. I recall one student who noted after listening to her group’s recording that she was “greedy” with the talking time. Listening to her group, she realized she had not shared the floor well. This is a great activity to support group dynamics. Students do not evaluate each other; they evaluate their own participation and then determine how they might become a more successful contributor to the group.

Classroom Guests:

Our classroom hosted many visitors. They were not famous people or ones who had lived extraordinary lives. They were simply people who were willing to share a bit of themselves or participate in discussion with the students. Prior to a visit, the students would research the person’s particular interest, then brainstorm a list of questions. Both visitors and students were aware it was to be an interactive session, rather than a presentation. There was a lot of important learning about appropriateness of questions, sharing the floor, welcoming guests, and general discussion of what makes good conversation.

Podcasts and News Reports:

Many classrooms have school-based online hubs where they can share and store data. After reading a book about the environment, our class created podcasts that shared what they could do to help Mother Earth. They knew that families would be able to listen online to their work. They also created classroom news reports. Having an authentic audience made the creation of the podcasts and news reports much more meaningful.

Daily Circles:

Our classroom held a daily circle. Sometimes we would begin our day with a circle and talk about our goals or personal objectives for the day. Other times, we would end our day with a circle to talk about what went well and what we would strive for in the coming day. In the higher grades, we arranged the classroom so that desks were at the perimeter and there was space to bring chairs to the center of the room. In the primary grades we would alternate between bringing chairs and sitting on the carpet. Initially it was a bit chaotic moving to the circle, but students enjoyed the opportunity to converse with each other. They soon learned to move quickly and quietly to maximize circle time. We learned to share talking time and that listening was just as important as speaking.

In a Rich Talk environment, I observed that students take great ownership of the learning. When we had a joint project on the go, I often had to remind them to disengage and take a break. During an independent painting activity, I recall seeing a group of young boys congregated around one student’s desk. When I went to investigate, I found they were engaged in a discussion of an article in the newspaper that was protecting the desk from paint. Focused engagement with text and talk … what more could I ask for?

Wonderings about authentic talk for collaborative learning…

Prompts to facilitate authentic talk for collaborative learning …


Vasquez, V. M. (2004). Negotiating critical literacies with young children. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum Associates. 

Vetter, D. (2008). Towards a critical stance: Citizenship education in the classroom. In M. O'Sullivan & K. Pashby (Eds.), Citizenship education in the era of globalization: Canadian Perspectives (pp. 105-111). Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishing. 

Diane Vetter is an author and educator. She has published numerous articles and her book, co-written with Lana Parker, Mentoring Each Other is available through Steinhouse Publishers.


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