Quality Talk improves students’ writing, study shows

By Jessica Buterbaugh
August 04, 2016

After developing Quality Talk in 2002, Penn State Professor of Education P. Karen Murphy has continued researching and expanding the teacher-facilitated discussion instructional approach to advance the academic skills of school-aged children. In a recent project that spanned three years, she found that Quality Talk not only is a successful intervention for comprehension of text, it also increases students’ ability to do argumentative writing.

Designed to promote high-level comprehension, Quality Talk teaches students to generate oral arguments through small-group discussions. The discussions are facilitated by teachers who have been guided and coached by the researchers, but the teachers share control of the discussion with the students. As students’ comprehension increases, the teacher becomes a participant-observer and gradually releases control to the students so that they may participate in self-guided and open dialogue.

“The idea of Quality Talk is that students are going to talk about evidence, weigh that evidence and help each other come to what we call an ‘examined understanding,’” Murphy said. “So if they can do that orally, we thought that it might transfer to their writing, too. And, it did.”

“Being able to do argumentative writing is one of the key components of the Common Core standards. So teachers and schools are particularly interested in students not just being able to do oral argumentation, which is part of the standards, but also to be able to do that in writing.”

-- P. Karen Murphy, professor of education

Murphy, along with colleagues at Penn State and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, worked with two fifth-grade classrooms for one academic year to complete two studies — one in the fall and one in the spring. In the first study, the teachers held weekly Quality Talk discussions focusing on the discourse elements of questioning and argumentation. After each discussion, students were required to independently respond to a writing prompt based on the discussion. In the second study, which followed a quasi-experimental design, both teachers continued the original Quality Talk curriculum while one teacher also added an argumentative writing component.

“We had writing assessments at mid-year after the first study and then again at the end of the year after the second study,” said Carla Firetto, a post-doctoral scholar on the project. “We found that there was a small increase in students’ writing after teachers implemented the original Quality Talk curriculum. But in the class where the teacher implemented the writing intervention, students’ argumentative writing doubled.”

This is important, she said, because many schools have a desire to increase their students’ writing skills and the ability to read text, think about the evidence presented in the text, make reasoned decisions and express those decisions in writing. These are areas of difficulty for many students.

“Being able to do argumentative writing is one of the key components of the Common Core standards,” Murphy said. “So teachers and schools are particularly interested in students not just being able to do oral argumentation, which is part of the standards, but also to be able to do that in writing.”

While small group discussions create a collaborative environment of understanding, writing requires students to make decisions independently, she explained.

“The writing outcome allows the students to show how much they have processed the information from a discussion and how much they can make reasoned arguments on their own,” Murphy said.

“There are two important things we are learning from our studies,” she said, adding that her team is concurrently working on two other projects that explore the use of Quality Talk in language arts curriculum with colleagues in South Africa and Taiwan. “Number one is that teachers are now aware that their students’ talk matters.”

When students use a particular phrase, form of evidence or ask certain kinds of questions, the teacher can use that to gauge their cognitive understanding as the discussion is unfolding, she said. “It’s not just increasing the talk that matters. It is the kind of talk that happens that matters.”

“The other thing we learned is that students need explicit instruction in what they are supposed to do in the discussions,” Murphy said. “In essence, students need instruction on how to ask deep, meaningful questions as well as on how to form and weigh claims, reasons and evidence so that they can reach examined understandings. Such skills do not come naturally.”

Traditionally, teachers follow an I-R-E (initiate, respond and evaluate) model when teaching discourse. Quality Talk differs in that students are explicitly taught how to construct meaningful, “authentic” questions such as generalization questions, analysis questions and connection questions where the students find a connection between the content and previous knowledge or personal experiences.

“Regular instruction provides a more declarative level of understanding,” Murphy said. “But Quality Talk pushes you beyond that. Quality Talk enhances students’ ability to think about, around and with text in critical and analytical ways.”

In addition to the $1.5 million Institute for Education Sciences grant that funds the Quality Talk Language Arts project, Murphy and her colleagues also were awarded a three-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to explore the use of Quality Talk in high school chemistry and physics classrooms. Quality Talk Science aligns with Next Generation Science Standards and aims to promote higher-level thinking in STEM classes through student-led class discussions. That project will conclude in 2018.

For more information about Quality Talk, visit www.qualitytalk.psu.edu.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017