Classroom Strategies

Fostering Academic Discussion Online

This article was originally published on the Fishtank Learning blog and was reprinted here with permission. The original post can be accessed here. Fishtank Learning is a free, standards-aligned curriculum developed and curated by educators. Highly rated on EdReports, the full math and ELA curricula can be viewed, shared, and downloaded free of charge.

Imagine a classroom where students are not allowed to speak to each other, respond to questions, build on each other’s ideas, or see each other’s facial reactions. Unfortunately, this is the reality many teachers and students are grappling with now as they try to continue teaching and learning online.

Teachers are realizing now more than ever how much academic discourse is the lifeblood of the Math and ELA classroom. Encouraging students to talk about what they are reading or to talk through a math problem helps them build or clarify understanding of the topic. Conversations benefit English learners especially, allowing them to practice speaking and listening in English. Individual students answering questions on their own, without interaction with their peers, is a poor substitute for the dynamic interactive learning that happens continuously in a typical classroom.

While the recent worldwide switch to remote learning makes rich student conversations much more difficult to initiate and manage, it’s not impossible to bring discussion into the online learning experience. In this blog post, we will discuss the ways (albeit imperfect) that teachers can continue to facilitate academic discourse from home.

Establish conversational norms

Even if you have established strong norms for conversations in your classroom, you will need to re-establish and clarify these norms in the new context of digital classroom conversations. Name expectations and set boundaries to set students up to successfully continue the rich conversations they were having in the classroom. We suggest considering the following questions before leading a virtual classroom discussion.

Synchronous discussions:

  • What platform will you use to have the discussion?
  • What does it mean to be prepared for a discussion?
  • How will students indicate that they want to talk? What will be the expectations for using a “mute microphone” function?
  • How will students respond to someone else?
  • What are acceptable vs. unacceptable comments?

Asynchronous discussions:

  • What platform will you use to have the conversation?
  • How and when are students expected to respond? How much response is expected?
  • What are acceptable vs. unacceptable comments?
  • How should students respond to each other’s comments?

Choose lines of questioning that promote meaningful engagement

As in a classroom, the types of questions you ask students during a discussion shape the direction of conversion, depth of understanding, and set the rigor of the lesson. It is especially important to be mindful of this as you’re in a setting where it’s not as easy for you or your students to feed off each other’s energy or use sharp timing to bounce ideas off each other. For example, a discussion with only short, factual, or one-word answer that you could whip into an engaging back-and-forth in the classroom may quickly fall flat in a virtual discussion.

As you plan your class discussions, consider these suggestions:

  • Ask questions that require more than one voice. A discussion topic should be complex enough that students need to build on to each other, not just ping-pong ideas back and forth. This ensures that students are listening and engaging with each other, just like in the classroom.
    • In an ELA lesson: Should all plastic be banned? Why or why not? 
    • In a math lesson: On Monday, Ms. Rojas delivered 514 snacks to classrooms. For Tuesday, she rounded to the nearest ten and decided that she would need about 510 snacks. Do you think Ms. Rojas made a good decision to round the number of snacks she needed? Why or why not?
  • Ask questions that require critical and creative thinking. The question promotes high-level thinking, reasoning, and problem-solving. Students will be more invested in their virtual learning if they feel challenged and engaged in their work. While fact-establishing questions are mandatory for many discussions (especially in math), tasks that just require “answer getting” and not “sense making” feel like busy work rather than deep learning.
    • In an ELA lesson, ask open-ended questions with more than one answer.
      • Instead of Explain why the Romans were always ready for war, try Would you want to be a part of the Roman Army? Why or why not?
    • In a math lesson, ask students to explain, defend, or compare their strategies, rather than just asking for the answer.
      • After asking If 25 copies cost $0.75, what is the cost for 1 copy?, follow up with What strategies could you use to find this? Which strategy do you prefer and why? Or How do you know that this is a reasonable answer? Can you use that idea to check if the answer to problem #5 is reasonable?

Take steps to encourage active participation and maximize engagement

To ensure that all students participate, set clear expectations for what they should do before, during, and after the discussion.

  • Before the discussion:
    • Provide students with the question(s) in advance. This ensures that all students come to the discussion prepared.
    • For ELA consider giving students a Discussion Graphic organizer that they can use before, during, and after the discussion.
  • During the discussion:
    • Depending on how many people are in the discussion, set clear expectations for participation. For example, you may set the expectation that each student needs to participate at least twice.
    • Decide if you will cold call students. If so, this blog post from Teach Like a Champion offers ideas for how to do so in an online setting.
  • After the discussion:
    • Make sure you have a strategy for assessing what students learned from the discussion.
      • For ELA, you may ask students to write one or two sentences summarizing their thinking.
      • For math, you may ask students to work a similar math problem, do an error analysis, or compare new strategies to old ones.

Plan the support you will provide English Learners and students with IEPs

Just like in the classroom, it’s important to think about the support you will give English language learners and students with IEPs to ensure they can participate fully in online discussions.Thinking through how to provide them access to conversations will ensure they continue making progress. It’s likely any steps you take to support ELs and students with IEPs will help all your students. Once you have a clear plan for your class discussion, pick which supports to provide for students.

  • Provide sentence frames. Teachers can embed sentence frames into a PowerPoint or presentation that they share with all students during the discussion. Or, during the discussion, teachers can use a chat feature to provide sentence frames or starters to individual students who need them. For potential frames see Sentence Frames for Academic Discourse.
  • Plan scaffolding questions. Think about where students may get stuck and plan questions that help students understand the content without telling them the answer.
  • Provide students the discussion questions in advance. Give students enough time to prepare for the discussion. If students are recording their answers using an online platform, review student work and provide students feedback in preparation for the discussion. For example: “Make sure to share this idea with the class.”
  • Provide vocabulary resources. Spend a few minutes reviewing key vocabulary before launching into the discussion, and display the vocabulary on the screen during the discussion. Or, use chat features to individually provide students definitions for words, or suggestions for words to use. You can also send the vocabulary to students ahead of time to prepare for the conversation.
  • Speak slowly and clearly. If necessary, repeat directions multiple times or type them into a chat feature so students can read along. Or, provide students with written directions for the discussion prior to the discussion.
  • Use technology features. Different platforms have translation features to help students access content during the discussion. Spend some time familiarizing yourself and students with the different features. (Please note: We are not endorsing any of these platforms. Defer to the guidelines established by your school or district.)
    • Google translation features:
      • In Google Docs, students can translate the document. (Click “Tools” in the menu, followed by “Translate document”.) This allows students to create new copies of a document in their home language.
    • Zoom translation features:
      • Zoom includes a transcript translation feature. In a recorded session, students can set a language other than English (the default). The transcript will appear AND be read to students in their preferred language while the teacher simultaneously speaks in English.
      • Use Zoom breakout rooms to have students discuss ideas prior to discussing as a class.
    • Other translation resources:
      • Google Translate
      • Microsoft Translator for Education

Incorporate social time

Finally, we suggest allowing students time to discuss non-academic content. Social interaction with peers is also important during this time, and students will be more invested in coming to class and participating if they know it will be a fun conversation with their friends. Start the first 5-10 minutes of every class with a check-in or a student-driven conversation. Examples of questions you could ask to guide the conversation include:

  • What would be your perfect day?
  • If you could eat two foods for the rest of your life, what would they be and why?
  • Would you rather walk on your hands or eat with your feet? Why?

8 thoughts on “Fostering Academic Discussion Online

  1. Hello! As a future educator these were some very helpful tips especially with my growing concerns that online teaching will continue to be a challenge I will have to face. I really appreciated the English learners and students with IEP section and I think there was some really good suggestions/advice given there. I do wonder however, for the social time would some time at the end of a lesson possibly be better? I think that at the end of a lesson it can be a nice breather after learning all the material in the lesson they were taught that day. Furthermore, what would be some recommendations for possible answers to the questions prompted in the conversation norms section be?

    1. Hi JD – Chelsea from Fishtank here! Certainly, planning social time for the end of class instead could also have a lot of value for decompressing and connecting after moving through a lesson.

      And the answers to the questions about norms are going to vary widely based on what age your students are, what subject you teach, what technology solutions you are using, and your personal style as a teacher!

  2. I really enjoyed learning about how to make class discussions via online. I feel like class discussions are a must and now I know how to incorporate this into my online learning.

  3. This format can absolutely encourage student participation, but when done virtually in a third-year French IB class with students new to me and who are unused to hearing or speaking French, it really is frustrating even though I’m using VERY elementary language in class.

  4. I would NEVER recommend Google Translate to my classes. I DO think Linguee French/English is a good APP to have because it gives them internet access to WORDS; it’s up to the individual student to form sentences and paragraphs using those words. Students need to see how the language works instead of just feeding English into an app. On the other hand, I appreciate knowing that the Zoom transcript can reflect the French being used in class. Up to now, the French presentations of my French classes have been transcribed into phonetic English, and the result has been pretty awful.

  5. I think this article provided me with some great strategies that I think will be helpful with encouraging my students to engage in dialogue while we are still in this virtual setting. I look forward to implementing.

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About the Author: Fishtank Learning is a non-profit organization that believes that teachers and their students deserve access to the highest quality instructional materials. Our in-house curriculum team has spent the last decade drawing on their experience as classroom teachers to develop the Match Fishtank curriculum. Our K-12 curriculum is rigorous and standards-aligned, dedicated to providing culturally relevant content for students. We offer our core curriculum in a convenient, openly-licensed format so teachers can use, adapt, and download it for free. Learn more at