The Role of "Productive Talk" in Early Science & Language Learning

Cindy Hoisington and former EDC Senior Research Scientist Julie Hirschler design, deliver, and study engaging and rigorous professional development programs for early childhood teachers. The EDC Excellence in Teaching courses they teach—including Foundations of Science Literacy and Literacy Environment Enrichment Program—build educators’ capacity to promote young children’s school readiness and success. In this two-part post, Cindy and Julie discuss the important role that video analysis plays in promoting teachers’ professional growth and fostering their ability to enhance children’s early science and language learning. 

Communication technology is transforming education. A host of digital tools now allows teachers and their students to transcend the confines of classrooms and to explore and observe environments that were previously inaccessible. In our EDC professional development projects, we use video technology to transport teachers into classrooms and education settings that they would not otherwise access.

Although classrooms may exist side-by-side in programs and schools, teachers rarely have opportunities to closely observe one another’s teaching practices in action. Authentic classroom video vignettes—brief two- to five-minute video clips—allow them to do just that. When these vignettes are chosen carefully and used intentionally by a knowledgeable facilitator to engage teachers in collaborative analysis and reflection, they can be powerful teaching and learning tools (Borko, Koellner, Jacobs, & Seago, 2011; Kersting, Givvin, Sotelo, & Stigler, 2010).

Productive Talk and Science
We use video to deepen teachers’ understanding of productive talk and give them strategies to facilitate productive conversations with young children. Productive talk, sometimes called accountable talk (Resnick, Salmon, Zeitz, Wathen, & Holowchak, 1993), benefits children’s language development and learning as well as their conceptual understanding of the relevant topic (Mercer, Wegerif, & Dawes, 1999). This type of talk:

  • Maintains a focus on the topic at hand
  • Incorporates a mutual sharing of experiences, observations, and ideas
  • Encourages children to express their thinking verbally
  • Promotes reasoning based on evidence

In our early childhood science work, we have observed that inquiry-based science provides an ideal context for productive talk and hearing, using, and learning language. Young children are highly motivated to explore science topics and to communicate their science questions, observations, experiences, and ideas. Hands-on science explorations offer early childhood teachers limitless opportunities to engage children in rich discussions that fuel children’s excitement about science and foster their early literacy.

Aimed at children in grades K–12, the scientific and engineering practices in the National Research Council’s Framework for K–12 Science Education all incorporate authentic and distinct purposes for communicating with others and reflect the close link between science and literacy learning. Three- and four year-old children are capable of engaging with these practices—which are thought of as science process skills or inquiry skills in preschool—in ways that form a strong foundation for later science thinking and learning.

For example, during an extended exploration of ramps children may:

  • Ask questions and identify problems as they wonder together about which objects will roll, slide, or stay put on a ramp or identify a common problem of objects falling off ramps.
  • Develop and use models as they draw pictures of how balls of different textures roll on a ramp and use these pictures to share their observations with others.
  • Plan and carry out investigations as they collaboratively make predictions, explore, observe, and document how many blocks a ball coming off a ramp can knock down.
  • Analyze and interpret data as they describe their observations of which objects slid, rolled, or stayed put and begin to identify relationships and patterns.
  • Use mathematics and computational thinking as they explore size, weight, and shape of balls and measure how far balls roll off the ramps of different inclines.
  • Construct explanations and design solutions as they generate ideas for why balls move differently on different surfaces and try different strategies for moving objects that stay put.
  • Engage in argument from evidence as they compare their different experiences with rolling and share individual observations.
  • Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information as they explore, discuss, represent, and demonstrate their findings about ramps and rolling.

The practices provide a context in which children can use language to recall past experiences, ask questions, interpret their representations, make predictions, participate in planning, describe their observations, and explain what they are doing or how they are doing it. They can use language to make comparisons, identify the relationships and patterns they observe, explain their thinking, share their ideas, and even argue about the evidence. Doing science also provides children with multiple opportunities to hear, try out, and use interesting new words that connect to science concepts (force, weight, incline) and practices (question, investigate, represent).

Foundations of Science Literacy
In Foundations of Science Literacy, EDC’s science professional development program for preschool teachers, we use video vignettes of teacher/child interactions during science explorations to address two primary goals. First, we want teachers to understand that young children are capable of participating in the science and engineering practices and of communicating their science questions, observations, experiences, and thinking in multiple ways. Second, we want teachers to learn and use a number of effective strategies for facilitating productive talk and supporting children’s concept and language development in the context of science.

In our next post, we discuss Foundations of Science Literacy’s “Engage-Explore-Reflect” framework and describe how Foundations of Science Literacy uses video vignettes to help teachers engage young children in productive talk in science.