What is an Academic Conversation?

What is an Academic Conversation

Our days are jam-packed full of conversations. We talk about the weather, about sports, about album releases, politics, movies, TV shows we’ve watched, work, food, and so much more. Just the same, our students’ lives are full of conversations. Sometimes these conversations are casual and friendly while other times these are based on whatever they’re learning at the time. However there’s one thing we know for sure: our students aren’t having as many academic conversations as they could be. 

What is an academic conversation? Well academic conversations are conversations that are sustained and purposeful conversations about school topics. That’s the simplified explanation of an academic conversation but it goes a little deeper than that too 

Academic Conversations use Core conversations skills.

Based on Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford’s book “Academic Conversation” there are 5 core conversation skills that students should use to transform their ordinary conversations into academic conversations. 

Elaborate and Clarify.

 In a normal conversation your students might simply state their opinion and then move on. For example, maybe your student really liked Black Panther and, when having a conversation about it might say “Yeah I loved Black Panther.” That’s a great conversation to have (we liked Black Panther too) but it’s not really academic.

If instead your student, when asked about Black Panther said “I liked Black Panther because of its strong ties to African mythology, symbolism and cultural artifact,” they’d be using their core skill of “elaborating.” If they went on to clarify what they meant by mythology, symbolism, and cultural artifact by citing examples from the film, they’d then be clarifying their position. 

Support Ideas with Examples.

 So, say you’re having a group conversation about the scientific consensus behind the theory of evolution. In a normal run-of-the-mill conversation one of your students might simply state “evolution exists” and leave it at that. This might be true and the whole class might know it’s true, but it’s still not an academic conversation. However, if your student used examples from your lesson like bringing up the case of the Galapagos Turtles or Finches Charles Darwin found during his voyage, then they’d be having an academic conversation. Supporting your ideas with examples is crucial to having an academic conversation.

Building on or Challenging Partner’s Ideas.

 Often times in conversations we agree or disagree with whomever is talking. In a normal conversation we might say “yeah I agree with that” and leave it at that. In academic conversations that’s not good enough. Instead we build on ideas we agree with and challenge ideas we don’t. If, during a lesson on the rise of the counter-culture movement of the 60s, someone said they believed that “music was the biggest factor which led to its rise.” We might disagree with them by saying, “while that’s true, I also believe that America’s increased involvement in the war of Vietnam had an outsize influence.” We might agree with them and build on this idea by saying something like, “I agree, but also believe that the music was by and large a response to society’s newfound focus on civil rights.”


Great academic conversations utilize paraphrasing effectively. Paraphrasing involves actively listening to what someone else is saying and restating their ideas in our own words. Or, it involves absorbing a text and putting that text in our own words. These are fundamental skills for academic conversations as, unlike normal conversations, students aren’t copying other’s words but creating their own interpretations of those words.

Synthesizing Conversation Points. 

Conversations can spin off into any number of directions while still being productive. It’s normal for a daily conversation to start on the weather and end up somewhere else. Academic conversations spin-off too. But, unlike everyday conversations where it’s not really important where we started, academic conversations keep track of all conversation points. Why? Because by synthesizing these points we can help our students better understand the subject area we’re discussing.

If we started a conversation on Civil Rights and ended up talking about comics, music, and fashion, it might be helpful to ask ourselves “How can we bring this all together?” In an academic conversation we could synthesize these points by acknowledging that, aside from its political impact, the Civil Rights era affected our cultural identities and influenced a generation of black artists, musicians, and fashion designers. 

Academic Conversations Help Students Focus on and Explore an Important Question, Idea, or Topic

 Exploration is crucial to deep learning. Regular conversations generally stop once people have shared their ideas and either agreed or disagreed with each other. Regular classroom conversations also might stop once your students have reached an agreed upon answer to something they’re learning. Academic conversations aren’t about reaching one conclusion. Instead they’re about exploration; they don’t stop at the “I agree and disagree” portion, but ask questions about the topic, leading to a deeper understanding of it from multiple points of view. 

Academic Conversations Are Deep and Not Surface Level Conversations

Say you were reading 1984 for class. A surface level conversation might simply state “1984 is about authoritarianism.” That’s not necessarily untrue, but it doesn’t get really deep into what Orwell was saying. In an Academic Conversation your students might explore the concept of free speech some more. They might also probe Orwell’s theories on free speech given his past experience and literary works. They might dive even deeper and question the tenants of authoritarianism and Orwell’s political solutions to it. 

Academic Conversations Involve Skills that Future Employers Love 

Most jobs are communal, even if we don’t always like it. In the workforce your students will be required to communicate their ideas, disagree with bad ideas, and agree with ideas that are good for their company. Academic conversations teach these skills early-on, giving your students  plenty of time to perfect them!

Learn more great conversation strategies from our Strategic Instruction team.

Mary Black worked with teachers and principals in creative and strategic planning for curriculum and instruction at schools with diverse student populations. She has years of leadership experience in secondary schools, beginning her educational career as a high school English teacher in an urban high school, also serving as a high school principal.

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