Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Harvard Professor shares about classroom discourse at the Faculty of Education
Author: E Els
Published: 14/02/2023

​​​​​​​​​​Prof Catherine Snow, the John and Elisabeth Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education shared about her research on classroom discourse at the Faculty of Education in February 2023.

Prof Snow is an expert on language and literacy development in children and her current research activities include a study of how early childhood classrooms are supporting children's development, and participation in a long-standing research-practice partnership (the Strategic Education Research Partnership, SERP) that is developing curricular tools to support teachers in introducing innovative classroom practices. Word Generation, a discussion-based academic language and literacy program developed by SERP, has been shown to improve middle-school literacy outcomes.

“Fifteen years of research on classroom discourse and efforts to improve the quality of classroom discourse have confirmed the conclusion that teacher-fronted forms of instruction need to be complemented by opportunities for student talk-with one another as well as to the teacher. ​Discussion in the classroom is very rare, yet very powerful. How we teach is what we teach" Prof Snow said. 

​​The research was tested on different groups of students and the outcome confirmed that education should be complemented by opportunities for students or learners to talk with one another and with the teacher in the class about what is taught. She said that such discussions are very important and that it gives learners a chance to engage, get perspective on a subject, reason about it, and learn to use the academic language. She added that education lecturers will have to demonstrate to students the discussion techniques (like open-ended questions for example) they will need in the classroom.

Dr. Erna Lampen (Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education) agreed with Prof Snow's research and said “learning is social, students and learners need to talk in our classrooms." Prof Christa van der Walt (retired Vice-Dean: Research of the Faculty of Education) mentioned that it is also important that students should be guided in such discussions.

Prof Snow referred to several other studies that showed that discussion improved learning. One such study by Ruhl, Hughes, and Schloss in 1987 showed that two 2-minute pauses during a 45-minute lecture for students to clarify their notes with their fellow students had a 25% improvement in short-term retention of the new material and a 10% improvement in long-term retention. In 2007 Crouch, Watkins, Fagen, and Mazur found that using polling in large introductory physics lectures followed by peer instruction improved learning.

Prof Snow received her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from McGill University with a thesis on the topic of how adult speech to children supports their language development.  She subsequently worked for several years in the Linguistics Department of the University of Amsterdam before moving to Harvard, where her interests expanded to include literacy development.  She chaired the National Academy of Sciences Committee that produced Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (1998) and the RAND Reading Study Group that produced Reading for Understanding: Toward an R&D program for reading comprehension (2000), a volume that influenced the federal education funding agenda over the next 20 years.  Her work has been characterized by a willingness to defend unpopular positions on questions of relevance to language learning and teaching, early childhood education, and literacy instruction. Much of her recent work has been carried out in collaborations with educational practitioners and other researchers focused on understanding the most urgent problems of practice in literacy education, under the auspices of the SERP Institute and the Boston Public Schools. ​