Classroom Discourse: The Language of Teaching and Learning Second Edition

by Courtney B. Cazden (Heinemann Press, 216 pages, $24.00) reviewed by Zaretta Hammond

Courtney Cazden examines two questions fundamental to successful CES practice: How do patterns of talk in classrooms affect the equality of students’ educational opportunities and outcomes? How is discourse a support for deeper student learning?

Cazden focuses on a variety of different types of discourse that occur in classrooms, from “sharing time” to “public disagreements in student discussions.” She deftly marries analysis of university and teacher research findings with rich examples of actual transcripts of students and teachers talking to reveal patterns in the conversations. Cazden suggests that how students talk to each other connects directly with their ability to use their minds well.

The heart of the text examines ways in which teachers struggle to “retrain” students to engage in more rigorous student-to-student discussions that stimulate and support “higher-order thinking” across the curriculum. She shares an exchange among fourth-grade students discussing a math problem. At first, they are unsure of what there is to discuss??”they think that the solution to the problem is either right or wrong. But with some prompting from their teacher, the students actively debate the different approaches to finding a solution. Each student’s statements reveal more and more of his thought process to his classmates. Despite the public “disagreements,” each student’s thinking is pushed deeper. While not a how-to book, the text is instructive for those who want to shift from teacher-led discussions to true student-to-student discourse.

Cazden’s book challenges us to think about how “observable classroom discourse affects the unobservable thinking of each student,” and thereby, the very nature of what they learn. She also asks the reader to reexamine whose talk is valued in the classroom and how a multicultural society can honor different types of discourse and different ways of using language. Cazden reminds us that in order to have healthy communities (inside and outside the classroom) all students must be active members, engaging in public discourse around important issues. She demonstrates how enriching classroom dialogue can help bring alive our Common Principle of democracy and equity.

Zaretta Hammond, a former writing teacher, is the Director of Professional Development and Research at the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools.