Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.7A1, 60-68
Published Online July 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Instructional Conversations in Early Childhood Classrooms:
Policy Suggestions for Curriculum Standards and
Professional Development*
Stephanie M. Curenton1, Tricia Zucker2
1Bloustein School, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, USA
2Children’s Learning Institute, University of Texas Health Sciences at Houston, Houston, USA
Email: curenton@r
Received May 7th, 2013; revised June 6th, 2013; accepted June 14th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Stephanie M. Curenton, Tricia Zucker. This is an open access article distributed under the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the orig inal work is properly cited.
The purpose of this article is to provide suggestions for two early education policy levers proposed by the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that can be specifically applied to oral
language instructional in the classroom: Policy Lever 2—Designing and implementing curriculum and
standards; and Policy Lever 3—Improving qualifications, training and working conditions. First, I de-
scribe the efforts the United States has made in terms of oral language instruction, and second I describe a
professional development model (the Conversation Compass©) that trains teachers to use instructional
conversations with children age 2 - 6.
Keywords: Teacher Professional Development; Preschool; Oral Language; Early Education Policy
Language is thecurrencyof education because the higher-
order cognitive and social skills needed to succeed in school
are gained via language interactions.
Cocking & Mestre, 1998.
In Starting Strong III: A Quality Toolkit for Early Childhood
Education, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and De-
velopment (OECD) highlights five policy levers countries can
use to enhance the quality of early childhood education. These
levers include: 1) Setting out quality goals and regulations; 2)
Designing and implementing curriculum and standards; 3) Im-
proving qualifications, training and working conditions; 4) En-
gaging families and communities; and 5) Advancing data col-
lection, research and monitoring. During a presentation to the
OECD in October 2012, I focused on Policy Lever 2 and 3,
specifically as it relates to oral language instruction (i.e., in-
structional conversations) within early childhood classrooms
with children age 2 - 6.
Within Policy Lever 2 there was a list of critical learning
domains for curricula or standards that expanded beyond tradi-
tional academic skills of literacy and numeracy, and included
other important learning domains, such as art and play, both of
which researchers agree are key to young children’s wholistic
development. Interestingly, however, oral language was not
listed as a critical learning domain within its own right. On the
one hand, it is logical to not have a separate domain for oral
language because language is the basis for human thought;
therefore, success across all of the learning domains would be
dependent on children’s language skills. In fact, in Thought and
Language (1986) Vygotsky writes, “··· Thought does not ex-
press itself in words, but rather realizes itself in them” (p. 251),
which can be interpreted as linking oral language to our higher-
order reasoning. Although most scholars, and even classroom
practitioners, would acknowledge that oral language forms the
basis for higher-order reasoning, as researchers, teachers, and
policy makers in the early childhood education field, we must
also acknowledge that the intentional teaching of oral language
skills to children, particularly conversation skills, and the spe-
cific training early childhood professionals receive in terms of
how to teach conversation skills is an area that is lacking in
many countries’ curriculum development and professional de-
velopment (PD) trainings for teachers.
Therefore, the three purposes for this paper are to: 1) de-
scribe the need for curriculum standards and PD around oral
language conversation skills; 2) describe recent efforts within
the United States to build these oral language and conversation
skills into the education goals for K-12 students; and 3) intro-
duce a PD strategy designed to train early childhood teachers in
the art of facilitating instructional conversations.
Need for Curriculum Standards Related to Oral
Language Skills
The development of children’s oral language skills is a key
concern for many policy makers and practitioners because oral
language provides the foundation for learning (see NICHD
Early Child Care Research Network [NICHD], 2005). Cocking
and Mestre (1998) argue that language skills are the “currency”
of education, and this is because the higher-order cognitive and
social skills needed to succeed in school are mediated by
*Author Note: Portions of this work were presented to the Organization fo
Economic Cooperation and Development. The authors would like to thank
the children, families, and teachers who participated in this research.
children’s oral language abilities, particularly those abilities
needed for engaging in collaborative reasoning during aca-
demic discussions, which can be referred to as instructional
conversations. Based on a reading of the education literature
related to classroom discussions (see Aukerman, 2007; Burman,
2009; Goldberg, 1992; Peterson & Taylor, 2012; Zhang & Stahl,
2011), I have come to define instructional conversations as
planned discussions with small groups of children in which
teachers facilitate students’ collaborative reasoning using chal-
lenging questions that require students use complex language to
talk about their experiences, knowledge, and opinions. Such
conversations should not just be limited to discussions around
shared-reading, especially given that shared-reading accounts
for such little time throughout the school day (Dickinson &
Tabors, 2001), but should also extend to other classroom activi-
ties, such as play and/or hands-on science or math activities
(see Curenton, Justice, Zucker, & McGinty, 2013).
Unfortunately, studies show that classrooms within the
United States vary dramatically in the quality of their language-
learning environments, especially in classrooms where the
majority of children are living in poverty (Connor, Morrison, &
Slominski, 2006; Farran et al., 2006; Pianta et al., 2005). Re-
peated research has found that teachers’ classroom talk relies
too much on directives, closed-ended questions, and talk that is
not cognitively challenging (Dickinson, 2001; Durden & Dan-
gel, 2008; Gest, Holland-Coviello, Welsh, Eicher-Catt, & Gill,
2006; Massey, Pence, Justice, & Bowles, 2008), which limits
opportunities to engage children in higher order talk/thinking.
Within early childhood education, some researchers have de-
signed specific interventions that focus training teachers to use
conversation (see Bond & Wasik, 2009; Cabell et al., 2011;
Girolametto, Weitzman, & Greenberg, 2003; Piasta, et al., 2012).
Taken together, these early childhood interventions suggest
higher-level classroom conversations during the early school
years provide the foundation for later school success because
they build young students’ ability to talk about and understand
vocabulary, academic language, features of written text, and the
internal states of story characters. Such conversations also teach
young children to make evaluative judgments and inferences by
providing opportunities for them to use scientific prediction and
problem-solving, which are essential skills for future math and
science courses. Thus, across the educational spectrum re-
searchers, teachers, and policy makers agree that high-level
conversations are a key component of high-quality instruction,
and that there is a need for intentional policy efforts to build
these skills into the curriculum and to train teachers have to
more effectively use these skills in the classroom.
United States Curriculum Efforts to Focus on Oral
Language Skills
The United States does not have a national curriculum be-
cause individual states are given the autonomy to decide which
curriculum is best suited for their particular populations, how-
ever, recent federal policy efforts have encouraged, and pro-
vided incentives for education policy makers across states to
adopt the Common Core Standards for K-12. Common Core
Standards are not a curriculum per se; instead, they are educa-
tion goals for what students should be able to achieve across the
grade-level spectrum. The Common Core Standards for English
Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science,
and Technical Subjects (
CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf) identify anchor standards criti-
cal to classroom discussions: Anchor of Speaking and Listening
and Anchor of Language. Table 1 provides details about the
skills teachers need to instill for each anchor. Although the
Common Core Standards are targeted towards the education
goals for children in elementary and secondary school, the early
childhood field demonstrates that it is also committed to fos-
tering such instructional conversation skills. For example, all
state Early Learning Guidelines emphasize knowledge-building
higher-order dialogue around texts and activities. The inclusion
of these Anchors for Speaking and Listening and Language,
will force teachers to intentionally focus on teaching these
skills throughout classroom activities. Given that prior research
has demonstrated teachers are not very effective in facilitating
classroom discusssions (see Aukderman, 2007; Goldenberg,
1992; Peterson & Taylor, 2012; Zhang & Stahl, 2011), such
Common Core Standards beg for the field to more create PD
opportunities for teachers to become skilled at teaching oral
language skills.
A Professional Development Model for
Instructional Conversations: The Conversation
Compass (CC)©
Early Educators’ Need for Training on Conversations
with Special Populations
Across all divisions of education, both early childhood and
K-12, there is a need for professional development (PD) and
training on how teachers can engage students in higher-order
conversations, and this is especially true for those teaching
low-income ethnically and linguistically diverse students (see
Aukderman, 2007; Goldenberg, 1992; Peterson & Taylor, 2012;
Zhang & Stahl, 2011). Ethnic and language minority children
have unique needs as it relates to classroom conversation be-
cause children enter early childhood programs with less devel-
oped oral language skills (Curenton & Justice, 2008; Justice,
Meier, & Walpole, 2005; National Center for Education Statis-
tics, 2012). In general, researchers report there is a lack of ade-
quate professional development for administrators and teachers
who educate language minority children (Buysse, Castro, West,
& Skinner, 2005; Gandara, Maxwell-Jolly, & Driscoll, 2005;
Ryan, Ackerman, & Song, 2005).
It is important to consider individual differences in language
skills, particularly for children raised in poverty, children with
language impairment, or English Language Learners (ELL).
These populations are at greater risk for later reading and aca-
demic difficulties than their typically developing peers and are
likely to need additional practice and scaffolding to use aca-
demic language (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). For instance,
low-income children’s vocabulary lags behind their middle-
income peers’ (Farkas & Beron, 2004), and preschoolers with
specific language impairment have problems using decontextu-
alized language to recount personal narratives (Kaderavek &
Sulzby, 2000). The good news is that intervention research
demonstrates the effectiveness of training teachers in conversa-
tions with low-income children and/or language impaired chil-
dren (Wasik et al., 2001, 2006; van Kleeck et al., 2006). In
terms of ELL students, many ELL students attend schools were
instruction is predominately in English (Tabors & Snow, 2001).
ELL in mainstream classrooms thrive when instructional con-
versations encourage complex verbal expression through open-
nded questions and follow-up probes (Williams, 2001). Our e
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 61
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 1.
Common core standards in English literature.
Speaking and Listening Anchor
Comprehension and Collaboration Present Knowledge and Id eas
Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and
collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing
their own clearly and per suasively.
Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that
listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the o rganization,
development, and style are appropriate to task, p urpose, and audience .
Integrate and evaluate informa t io n p r esented in diverse medi a and formats,
including visu ally, quantita t iv ely, and orally. Make stra t egic use of digital media and visual displays of data to
express information and enhance un derstanding of presentations.
Evaluate a speaker’s poi nt of view, re asoning, and use of evide nce and rhetoric. Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks,
demonstra ti ng command of formal Eng l is h when indic ated or
Language Anchor
Conventions of Standar d English Know l edge of Language (Begins @ 2nd grade)Vocabulary
Demonstrate command of Standard E ngl ish
grammar and usage when writing or sp eaking
Apply know ledge of language to
understand how language functions in
different contexts, to make effective choices for
meaning or s t yle, and to comprehend more fully
when reading or listenin g.
Determine or clarify the meaning of u nknown
and multiple-meaning wo rds and phrases by
using context clues, analyzing meaningful word
parts, and consultin g g eneral and specialize d
reference materials, as appropriate.
Demonstrate command of the conventions of
Standard English capitalization, punctuation,
and spelling when writing. Demonstrate understanding of figurative lan gu age,
word relationships, and nuances in word meanings
Acquire and use accurate l y a range of general
academic and domain-specific words and phrases
sufficient for reading, writing, sp eaking, an d l is t ening.
Demonstrate independe nce in the gathering of
vocabulary knowledge when encountering an
unknown te rm important to comprehension
tool is helpful to teachers working with ELL students who are
proficient in basic interpersonal conversation but have yet to
master cognitively demanding, academic conversations. Teach-
ers can use the Conversation Compass to build Linguistic Rea-
soning (define words) or Analytic Reasoning (explain/analyze),
both of which are examples of recommended instructional
strategies for ELL (Gersten et al., 2007). Because the compass
focuses on other language skills, like problem-solving and hy-
pothesizing, it can also help ELL students in mainstream class-
rooms learn other academic skills, such as science via hands-on
inquiry activities (Stoddart et al., 2002).
Early Educators’ Need for Training on Using
Facilitated Conversations
Justice and colleagues (2008) explain that training teachers to
engage in high-quality oral language instruction may be more
complex than training them in literacy instruction. Oral lan-
guage training requires teachers learn how to engage in dy-
namic conversation exchanges in which they are following the
child’s lead, and such exchanges cannot be scripted or manual-
ized. In fact, teachers even believe language instruction (par-
ticularly vocabulary instruction) is best when it is non-scripted
and spontaneous (Diamond & Powell, 2011). On the contrary,
Justice and colleagues (2008) explain that high-quality literacy
instruction is relatively teacher-initiated, systematic, and ex-
plicit; it is “systematic” in that teachers can organize and se-
quence lessons in a logical manner, and it is “explicit” in that
there is clear terminology for the concepts children are to learn.
In terms of literacy instruction, teachers thought that literacy
instruction (teaching letter names) should be done via explicit
instruction (Diamond & Powell, 2011). One way in which lan-
guage instruction can become more systematic and explicit is
by maximizing the frequency and quality of facilitated class-
room conversations (see Burman, 2009). There are two types of
conversations that happen in early childhood classrooms, spon-
taneous conversations versus facilitated conversations. Spon-
taneous conversations are the most frequent conversations and
they occur without any particular planning on the part of the
teacher; the topics for such conversations are typically initiated
by children. On the other hand, a facilitated conversation hap-
pens during planned lessons/activities and the topics are initi-
ated by the teacher. The Conversation Compass instructional
support strategy attempts to train teachers to make use of rou-
tine, planned facilitated conversations.
Brief Description of the Conversation Compass
The CC is a conversation-based instructional support strategy
that can be used to promote young children’s thinking, reason-
ing, and language skills in preschool classrooms, and there are
three lesson planning tools that accompany the strategy: the
Conversation Compass© (see Figure 1) the Conversation Map©
(see Figure 2), and the Talking Terminal Peer Conversation
Planner© (see Figure 3). Images of these planning tools are il-
lustrated below, and more information about how to use the
tools and receive professional development training can be ob-
tained by contacting the author at
Figure 1.
Conversational compass.
Figure 2.
Conversation map.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 63
Figure 3.
Talking termin a l s peer conversation planner.
Figure 1 provides a graphical depiction of the primary ele-
ments of the CC. At the heart of the compass is the need for
teachers to intentionally plan for the facilitation of peer-to-peer
conversations that build higher-order reasoning. In order to
facilitate such conversations effectively, teachers much be
trained on how to effectively engage in a conversation (i.e. have
Knowledge of Conversation Principles which will be dis-
cussed later in the example) with students and evaluate stu-
dents’ conversational skills using On-going Formative As-
sessment that can be done by routinely observing children in
small group discussions using the Talking Terminal Peer Con-
versation Planner). As shown in Table 2, The CC has four
quadrants called Conceptual Paths: Literate Reasoning, Lin-
guistic Reasoning, Analytic Reasoning, and Social Reasoning.
Embedded within these conceptual paths are Conversation
Starters that are used as the topic of questions a teacher might
use to begin a conversation. So the Conceptual Path is the con-
cept (also known as the type of “reasoning”) teachers want to
teach, and the Conversation Starters are the topic of the ques-
tions teachers will use to start the conversation. These conver-
sation starters are based on inter-disciplinary research demon-
strating the effectiveness of engaging children in high-level,
decontextualized discourse or inferential reasoning (Dickinson
& Tabors, 2001; Nagy & Townsend, 2012; van Kleeck et al.,
2006). Table 2 provides detailed definitions and examples of
the Conceptual Paths and Conversation Starters. In order to
fully understand the Conceptual Paths and Conversation Start-
ers, it is first important to realize that teachers’ comments and
questions do not always require the same level of verbal ex-
pression or the same experiential knowledge-base and/or rea-
soning from children (Sigel, Stinson, & Kim, 1993). For exam-
ple, questions about a character’s motivation for engaging in a
behavior (social reasoning) is asking children to pull from a
different knowledge base than questions that ask them about
letters and numbers (literate reasoning).
Examples of Instructional Conversations
Ms. Sims’ Example of How to Use Conversation Map
In this example, we describe the use of the Conversation
Map and share a sample planned interactive book reading con-
versational created by a preschool teacher (see Figure 4), Ms.
Sims1 (a pseudonym) who selected a book to share with her
mixed-raced, bilingual (Spanish) Head Start students. Shared
book reading is a common activity teachers use for instructional
conversations. Shared-reading interactions is an activity that na-
turally lends itself to higher-level conversation because discus-
sions during shared reading involve making inferences, build-
ing vocabulary, giving factual information, providing clarifica-
tions, and anticipating future events (e.g., Sorsby & Martlew,
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 2.
Definitions of conceptual reasoning paths and conversation starters (and examples from real preschool teacher).
Literate Reasoning
The ability to un derstand alphabetic and numeric print and societal symbols and the ability to interpret writte n texts and oral n arratives.
Analyze Li teratu re: Dis cuss t he stru ctur e of the s tory or infer the aut hor’s messag e or st ory th eme/pl ot (Why did Duck decide to go back to the farm at the
Analyze Print: Explain features and/or meanings of the alphabetic or numeric system or phonetic sound system (What does the F. stand for when you see
F. Brown on this page?).
Linguistic Reasoning
The ability t o u nderstand and use features of language, like v o cabulary, g r ammar, and social conventions of speaking.
Define Vocabulary: De f in e or explain the meaning of a word, symbol, or picture b y explaining the meaning (What does it mean to vote?).
Academic Vocabulary: Define or explain discipline specific language or concept or the language for the mainstream school setting (What is the governors
ANALYTIC Reasoning
The ability to make observations, brainstorm, compare/c o nt rast, and gather information.
Problem Solve: Describe alternative solutions or methods for doing things or detail the steps in a plan (So first duck ran for the ______ then the _______,
then the _________?).
Predict/Hy pothes ize: Predict the future or make “If-then” guesses about cause-effec t (Do you th ink Farmer Brown will ever run for president?).
Integrat e/Connect : Con nect present lear ning to real li fe or prior learn ing or make compari sons/contras ts (Whats the name o f our Presiden t in the United
Social Reasoning
The ability to interpret and expl ain their own and other peoples’ p sychological states (such as thoughts, feelings, and motivations).
Imagine/Infer: Encourage pretending or imagining, talk about fantasy versus reality, use a make-believe voice for character, or make inferences (Can a
duck really become president?).
Build memori es: Ask children to remember prior information, activities, or procedures or share personal stories about the past (What kind s of animals di d
we see on the farm?).
Explain Feelings/Thoughts: Describe or infer story characters’, personal, or other children’s thoughts, desires, feelings (Why was Farmer Brown angry
when he foun d out duck was g oi ng to run in t he farm election?).
1991; van Kleeck et al., 1997, 2006). Educators are more likely
to ask questions and use a rich vocabulary during shared read-
ing than in other classroom activities (Gest et al., 2006; Massey
et al., 2008).
Based on the Conversation Compass professional develop-
ment workshop she attended in the fall of 2011 (given by the
author), she crafted a lesson plan to achieve higher-level con-
versations using the principles and planning tools embodied by
the instructional strategy. Ms. Sims incorporated the conceptual
paths and conversation starters into the Conversation Map plan-
ing tool; this tool supports thoughtful preparation of higher-
level conversational within the context of shared book reading;
it provides a “map” (i.e., a guide) for the conversation.
Step 1. To use the Conversation Map, a teacher would select
a fiction or non-fiction text she is planning to read and generate
conversation topics. The book for Ms. Sims’ lesson is Duck for
President (Cronin, 2004) which is about a duck who decides to
run for public office because he is unhappy with the working
conditions on his farm. Duck first begins by organizing the
other animals and starting a campaign to take Farmer Brown’s
role as head of the farm. Duck wins the election, but soon finds
he is unhappy because it is hard work managing the farm. He
decides to run for governor because he thinks that job will be
easy, but when he finds being governor is hard work he runs for
president. Eventually, Duck decides he is even unhappy as
president and returns to the farm to work on his autobiography.
This fanciful book provides the opportunity for a rich discus-
sion about civics, job satisfaction, and ambition. There is both
alphabetic and numeric text embedded within the illustrations
that provide possibilities for talking about the meaning of
printed letters and numbers.
Step 2. The next planning steps with the Conversation Map
are to determine the learning objectives and then choose the
Conceptual Path(s) and Conversation Starters one will use to
achieve higher-level dialogue. In Ms. Sims’ example, she chose
Literate Reasoning, Analytic Reasoning, and Social Reasoning
as conceptual paths, and she used conversation starters within
those paths. Her lesson plan illustrates how Conversation Maps
should not solely be limited to the Literate Reasoning path. For
one part of the story, Ms. Sims focused children’s attention on
the pages showing the election results. The pages with the elec-
tion results always showed the tally of votes for Duck and his
opponent (e.g., F. Brown 6, Duck 20). Therefore, on these
pages she planned to engage children in back-and-forth dia-
logue about print, both letter (alphabetic) conventions, such as
understanding the initial in Farmer Brown’s name (“F. Brown”)
and numerical conventions (e.g., “20” signifies a greater quan-
tity than “6”). The book allows for repeated discussion of these
concepts, and Ms. Sims takes advantage of every opportunity
by asking a similar open-ended known question on each elec-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 65
Figure 4.
Example conversation compass: Conversation Map©.
tion page. Ms. Sims also asked children to predict who they
thought would win each election and why. Both before and
after the reading of the text, she asked children to use their
Analytic Reasoning to make a connection between the book
and their home chores (integrate/connect), and (b) use Social
Reasoning to remember places they have gone or to imagine
which of Duck’s jobs they might like to have (build memories).
Using Ms. Sims’ Example to Explain the
Conversation Principles
Scaffolding Based on Children’s Responses. Because CC
lessons are subject to the three responsive conversation prince-
ples—active listening, responding, and continuing—it simply
sets the path of the conversation. Responses from individual
children determine the actual journey! Teachers can use the
Conversation Map to set the course of learning objectives, but
she needs to take detours based on children’s responses, which
could result in scaffolding between asking harder and easier
questions. For example, in order to answer the prediction/hy-
pothesis question about who will win the elections, children
must recognize the word duck. If children are unable to read
this word, she might scaffold with, “Which word says ‘duck’?”
which could further be scaffolded down, if needed, to “What
letter does the word ‘duck’ begin with?” or even “Show me the
word that begins with the letter D?” Scaffolding between harder
and easier questions is necessary in order to help children grasp
Practicing Back-and-Forth
Exchanges. When teachers first begin using the compass,
they should pick one path and focus on using multiple back-
and-forth exchanges within that particular path to ensure chil-
dren’s conceptual development is driven via elaboration during
these exchanges. It is better to have a longer back-and-forth
exchange around one concept, rather than brief exchanges
across a variety of concepts. The goal is to get children to think
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
deeper along each Conceptual Path. Children will have ample
exposure to all of the paths if teachers are repeatedly read
books and plan activities to support higher-level conversations.
Each book (or activity) can—and should—be read (or done)
again and again, each time with the focus being on another path.
Later, after teachers have become accustomed to fostering long
back-and-forth exchanges, (s)he can begin creating lesson plans
that cross Conceptual Paths they way Ms. Sims did.
The CC is intended to move conversations in early childhood
classrooms to higher levels by fostering deep, thoughtful dis-
cussion. The lesson planning tools, along with the philosophical
strat egy , of the CC str ategy fits nicely within any existing coun-
try’s curriculum planning, especially with those found Common
Core Standards within the United States. The key knowledge of
conversation principles can be applied to any routine classroom
activity, such as literacy, science, or math activities. The re-
search basis underlying the CC indicates this type of classroom
talk benefits children from all ethnic groups, socio-economic
statuses, and developmental abilities. Educators across coun-
tries can use the CC to help all children navigate the present
world in which mastery of sophisticated, academic language is
the educational currency of the 21st century.
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