Using Video Analysis to Promote "Productive Talk" in Preschool

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 their previous post, Cindy and Julie introduced “productive talk” and discussed the important role it plays in fostering young children’s learning. In this post, they discuss Foundations of Science Literacy’s “Engage-Explore-Reflect” cycle and describe how Foundations of Science Literacy uses video vignettes to help teachers engage young children in productive talk in science.

The Engage-Explore-Reflect Cycle
In EDC’s Foundation of Science Literacy professional development program, we use an organizing framework—the Engage-Explore-Reflect cycle (EER)—to help teachers learn effective strategies to facilitate productive talk and support children’s concept and language development in the context of science. The EER framework chunks individual explorations into three phases of inquiry that focus on what children do: before the direct exploration (Engage), during the direct exploration (Explore), and after the direct exploration (Reflect) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. What Children Do

The EER framework embraces the ideas that:

  • Each exploration cycle needs to include a full range of practice
  • Children need time away from the direct exploration to think and talk about what they did
  • The purposes of facilitation are distinctly different during each phase

In EDC’s Foundations of Science Literacy professional development program, the EER framework enables teachers to tackle one exploration phase at a time and to focus on a manageable set of practices, purposes, and teaching strategies.

Using Video Vignettes to Support Productive Talk in Science
Before viewing vignettes with Foundations of Science Literacy participants, we make explicit what teachers do—that is, the role of the teacher and the teacher’s purposes for interacting with children during each phase (Figure 2). Facilitating productive talk occurs primarily during the Engage and Reflect phases. The teacher’s main role during the Explore phase is to support children’s direct investigation, observation, and data collection.

Figure 2. What Teachers Do

The Engage and Reflect phases can look similar in practice and on video because of their shared emphasis on productive talk. In both phases, teachers draw out children’s prior knowledge of the topic and help children verbally express their current ideas and questions. In the Reflect phase, teachers may have a special focus on supporting children in communicating conclusions.

After we make the role of the teacher clear, we introduce a video of a teacher facilitating an Engage, Explore, or Reflect conversation and challenge participants to identify the strategies the teacher in the video uses, connect the strategies to specific purposes, and evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies based on evidence. In other words, we ask participants to determine to what extent the conversation shown in the video qualifies as productive talk.

To make this process come alive, try it yourself by watching this Foundations of Science Literacy video. The video features an Engage conversation in which a Head Start teacher, Alicia, and a group of three- and four-year-olds—most of whom are English language learners—discuss their exploration of ramps.

When we show this video to participants, we tell them that it occurs toward the end of the first week of a unit on balls and ramps and that it also includes many elements of a Reflect conversation. We ask them to jot down their ideas in response to the following questions as they watch the video: "What strategies does Alicia use to draw out children’s prior experiences and observations?" "What strategies does she use to help make children’s ideas and reasoning explicit?" "What strategies does she use to support children’s understanding of target vocabulary?"

After the viewing, we ask participants to work in small groups and collaboratively discuss the strategies they have identified, analyze Alicia’s purpose for using each one (referencing the teacher’s role in Engage conversations shared earlier), and evaluate the effectiveness of each strategy. Table 1 shares an extensive list of potential responses that we use to guide the discussion and to help teachers be as specific as possible as they describe and justify their reasoning.

Table 1. Strategies, Purposes, and Evidence in a Classroom Video

Strategies and Interactions


Evidence of effectiveness

  • Reviews a list of what each child said previously in response to the question “What is a ramp?”
  • Asks Child 3 to recall/ “read” her own response.
  • Support children’s growing collaborative understanding of the concept/word ramp.
  • Support children to recall and share their ideas about ramps.
Children’s engagement and responses:
  • Child 1: “I said it’s a slide”
  • Child 2: “I said stairs”
  • Child 3: “It’s when you push things up”
  • Child 4: points to the chart and verbalizes as if to ask "What did I say?"
Using the words discussion, observation (x2), and observing in context Introduce/reintroduce target vocabulary related to practices.  
Acknowledges child’s comment that the teacher made a ramp by saying “Oh I made a ramp! You guys are so smart! I was holding the paper like this and you told me that I just made a ramp! What a good observation!”
  • Support children’s growing collaborative understanding of the concept/word ramp.
  • Positively reinforce close observation and sharing of ideas.
Children’s engagement
Using photos of children exploring as props for the conversation. Provide concrete reminders to help children recall their previous explorations and observations. Children’s engagement and responses to questions
Questions and Comments
“We went for a walk and we were observing ramps. What did we see? Help children recall prior exploration.  
 “What were you trying to do?” Support child to recall and share his questions/what he was investigating. Child’s response: “A ramp. I was making a tunnel.”
“What happened to the ball?” Help child recall prior observation. Child’s response: “It was rolling down.”
“I notice a blue basket over here.” Model making an observation.  
 “Why did you put the blue basket there?” Help child explain his reasoning. Child’s response: “For it to roll inside it.”
“And did it roll inside?” Support recall of observation. Child’s response: “No.”
“I see Akila over here. She has her hand inside the basket”….pause Model making an observation.  
“Did it roll inside, Akila? It did?” Scaffold child’s recall of her observation. Child’s response: "Yes."
Has a chart titled: Which ball will knock down the blue cup? Support children to make predictions and plan an exploration. Children notice that the chart paper is making a ramp in the teacher’s lap.

Next, we ask participants to look for patterns in the teacher’s facilitation: Were there certain purposes the teacher emphasized? Were there any purposes the teacher neglected? How might the teacher have addressed these? When viewing the video of Alicia, for example, teachers might notice that her emphasis is on helping children recall and share their observations and experiences and on vocabulary development. She seems to have less emphasis on helping children express their conclusions and theories. For example, when Niko says the ball did not go in the basket, Alicia could have followed-up by asking “Why do you think it didn’t go in?” or she could have addressed a general question to the group “What do you think Niko could do to make the ball go in the basket?”  

Finally, we ask participants to comment on the general tone of the teacher/child interactions in the video. What can they say about the mood or culture of the classroom based on this vignette? After viewing this video, most participants talk about the teacher’s calm manner, her wait-time after asking questions, her responsiveness to children, and her tolerance for children moving around and talking out of turn.

Some teachers question why the teacher does not correct children’s “wrong” definitions of a ramp. This often leads to a lively discussion of how children construct their understanding of words that name abstract concepts. For example, do they relate the word to something they have seen outside such as when a truck was unloading using a ramp? Do they relate it to classroom experiences in which they have rolled balls down ramps?

After participants view and analyze vignettes of other classrooms, we ask them to videotape their own science conversations with children. Coaches facilitate participants’ reflection on their videos of their science conversations with children using a process that parallels the one used in our Foundations of Science Literacy professional development sessions.

As instructors, when we view and analyze participants’ videos we can quickly identify the ways in which watching the videos of Engage, Explore, and Reflect conversations from real classrooms has influenced participants’ practice. Taken as a whole,  video analysis helps teachers construct an understanding of productive talk—what it looks like and sounds like in a preschool classroom—and helps them acquire specific strategies to support children’s language development in a science context. From analyzing videos, participants in Foundations of Science Literacy also gain insight into young children’s capacity to engage in content-rich and challenging science conversations and the foundational respect for children’s thinking that is a crucial element of productive conversations. As they move forward to apply new teaching strategies and refine their practice, many participants continue to use video as a tool to help them observe and reflect upon the effectiveness of their own science and language teaching strategies.