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Growing Classroom Dialogue with Micro-Lessons

Stream explorations

Small but Mighty

This summer I (Christy) have been going on lots of hikes with my seven and five-year old daughters, and we’ve been doing a little young naturalist learning along the way. On a recent stream exploration, I was showing both of them how water insect larvae often live on the underside of rocks, and when we lift a rock, we can discover their hiding places. We also speculated about which insect larvae might be the “babies” of the full grown water insects we observed in the stream (water striders, whirligig beetles etc.). During this science exploration, my younger daughter kept slipping on the large wet submerged rocks in the stream, losing her balance, and getting frustrated. My older daughter, however, was stepping mostly between the dry surfaces of the partially submerged rocks and feeling more comfortable. I broke away from our exploration momentarily to deliver a little micro-lesson to my younger daughter. 

“Look,” I said to her, pointing out an algae-covered underwater rock, “See the green algae there on that rock? The large rocks under the water are usually the slippery ones. Try stepping on the dry rocks out of the water or the little patches of small gravelly rocks, so you can keep your balance and keep exploring. Like that one right there, try stepping on it!” 

She stepped onto the large dry rock I had pointed out in front of her. “And that one?” she asked, pointing to the dry surface of another half-submerged rock. “Yes, you got it. That will help!” She continued moving about the stream, and we resumed flipping rocks and looking for water-life.

Suggestions like the one I gave my daughter about rock-stepping build upon one way that children naturally learn to navigate their world; by observing what those around them are doing and trying it on for themselves. Children are born competent learners and we can capitalize on this innate ability by offering them brief invitations to try on new skills.

What is a Dialogue Micro-Lesson?

We believe that one way to build robust classroom discourse is by orienting children to specific talk and listening moves and inviting them to “have a go” with them. Just as Christy offered her younger daughter a quick tip on traversing a stream and then turned it back over to her, we believe that orienting students to some ways dialogue works and then turning the conversation back over to them deepens the level of classroom talk while maintaining students’ agency and own ways of engaging in dialogue.

In a section of our new book, Hands Down, Speak Out we share twenty-eight dialogue micro-lessons designed to help classroom communities build on children’s natural ways of talking and listening. We wrote these micro-lessons based on our experiences listening to the ways children talk and listen to each other and thinking about ways we might nudge them to grow as talkers and listeners. And then we tried them out, many times, across grade levels and revised the micro-lessons based on what we learned. We know, for example, that all children come to our classrooms as reasoners. They talk about the “why” behind their ideas in their play and in social conversations. The goal of the micro-lessons around reasoning is to help children build on the ways they already talk about their reasoning and listen to the reasoning of others.

But before we go further, you may be wondering: “So, Christy and Kassia, what’s with the ‘micro’ in dialogue micro-lesson?” Why not call them mini-lessons or focus lessons like everyone else does? Believe it or not, this was not just a random attempt to be different, but a deliberate naming to indicate the way we use these lessons in quick and invitation ways, within and around the content that we are also teaching. We like to think of them like a productive nudge.

This is how we define a dialogue micro-lesson:

  1. It’s really short (just a few minutes). 
  2. We choose a particular micro-lesson based on what we notice as we listen to children in the classroom. We ask ourselves: “What dialogue move or tool would really help this group of students right now?” We most often draw from moves students in the class are already starting to use on their own.
  3. Dialogue micro-lessons have a predictable structure so students can quickly understand what the move is, why it is helpful, and how to try it out.
  4. We provide an opportunity for students to try out the move right away, with some guided support (such as naming what they have done when they try it, offering encouragement, and other facilitation moves)
  5. Dialogue micro-lessons are usually small nudges framed as suggestions or invitations. “You might try…” “One way of doing this is…” We don’t hold students accountable for “perfecting” or even using the move during the lesson. We trust that students will make the move their own and use it if it feels like a natural fit for their conversational style and what they’re trying to do within a conversation.

Seeing Micro-Lessons in Action

Below you’ll see an annotated micro-lesson from Hands Down, Speak Out

You can also check out this short video to see a dialogue micro-lesson in action. In this clip, Kassia is launching a conversation in Kelsey Friend’s first-grade class. Before this clip, the first graders have examined a picture of a collection of pennies and a collection of dimes in partnerships, and have been discussing the ambiguous question “Which is more?” We tune in right before they launch into a Hands-Down Conversation about this topic. 

In the above clip, you see how this lesson truly is “micro” in size, in this case about two minutes. In the micro-lesson, Kassia takes a moment to “pull back the curtain” on an important aspect of dialogue. This move, (explaining your reasoning) is one that she and the classroom teacher, Kelsey, have selected because they have observed students are already using and approximating it, and also see it as a good next step that would help these young conversationalists understand each other’s ideas a little better. You don’t see this in the clip, but it is super important to note that after the lesson, Kassia quickly passes the conversation back to the students so they can continue thinking about and playing with the math together. We believe that a dialogue micro-lesson like this keeps the ownership of the conversation in the students’ hands. Kassia resumes her position as a listener, and observes the ways the students explain their reasoning in their own ways.

What Will You Try Out?

You can see the version of this micro-lesson that appears in our book below, and hope that you will consider trying out other micro-lessons with your students in whatever format you are teaching this year. We’ve tried this in virtual settings too with good success! (The key being small groups – see our previous blog post “Unmuting Students’ Virtual Voices”.) We’d love to hear about how you are playing with dialogue micro-lessons in your classroom. Please tweet or comment with your ideas and reflections!

P.S. You can check out some more of the dialogue micro-lessons in the free preview Hands Down, Speak Out on the Stenhouse website.



Christy (literacy coach) and Kassia (math coach) are the authors of Hands Down, Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math.

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