Teaching Children Online: A Conversation-based Approach

Teaching Children Online: A Conversation-based Approach

by Carla Meskill, Natasha Anthony


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What does best practice in online education look like? How can educators make use of the affordances offered by online environments to bring out the best in the children they teach? These questions are answered in this new textbook, written with experienced teachers, novice educators and teacher educators in mind. Meskill and Anthony offer a wealth of examples of what successful online teaching looks like, and provide a rich source of practical, conversation-based strategies for optimizing online learning. This book will inspire anyone teaching or planning to teach fully online, or in a blended or hybrid format, by demonstrating how well constructed online conversations constitute powerful teaching.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781788922005
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 01/30/2019
Series: MM Textbooks Series , #14
Pages: 216
Product dimensions: 6.92(w) x 9.77(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Carla Meskill is Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her research and teaching explore new forms of technology use in language education and professional development as well as the influences of new technologies on evolving language and literacy practices. With Natasha Anthony she is the author of Teaching Languages Online (Multilingual Matters, 2015), which is now in its 2nd edition.

Natasha Anthony is Director of the International Language Laboratory and Associate Professor of Russian at Hudson Valley Community College in New York. She designs and teaches online Russian courses as well as online graduate courses in Education. Her research focuses on Computer Assisted Language Learning and, more specifically, on the use of synchronous and asynchronous oral components in online language courses.

Read an Excerpt


Teaching online: a conversational approach

In this chapter you will learn:

* the nature of online instructional conversations and the specifics of their functioning in a range of online environments;

* how instructional conversations work when Teaching with Voice, Teaching with Text and Teaching in Real Time;

* how each environment's affordances can be optimized to support and amplify these conversations;

* the role of playfulness and humor in online teaching.


To truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach. (Tharp and Gallimore, 1991: 4)

This chapter introduces a conversational approach to online teaching and learning, the main focus of this text. Throughout subsequent chapters, we discuss and illustrate how and why online instructional conversations can be effective for young students and rewarding for you, the instructor. In this first chapter, the rationale behind the approach and the fundamentals of online activity design and active teaching via instructional conversations are presented as they align with the goals and processes of contemporary education. We begin the chapter with an overview of the potential pedagogical merits of online and blended learning.

Why online?

At the tremendously rapid rate at which online teaching and learning are being embraced worldwide, the question Why online? may soon be obsolete. For the moment, however, educators around the United States and worldwide are posing this question and considering carefully the rationale for offering online educational opportunities to their students.

Why the rush to move learners online? This expanding migration makes good sense for a number of important reasons:

(1) Opportunity

Where there is no critical mass, as with

* less commonly taught school subjects;

* schools with small enrollments;

and for

* students whose homes are far from bricks-and-mortar schools;

* students who have physical or psychological challenges too great for bricks-and-mortar environments.

(2) Fit


* most school-age students are accustomed to and comfortable with digital literacy through informal recreational practices;

* online instruction can be rendered developmentally appropriate, tailored and responsive to individual learners;

* the range of at-hand materials and the ways learners can interact with them to learn is limitless online.

(3) Pedagogical affordances

Where there is growing empirical evidence of

* convenience;

* connectivity;

* membership (playing field is leveled);

* authentic audiences;

* tailored audiences;

* strategies to compensate for lack of non-verbal information;

* richness of information (links, multimedia);

* time to focus and review;

* time to compose, resources to compose;

* time and opportunity to reflect;

* opportunity to witness and track learning;

* opportunity to demonstrate learning.

In short, online teaching and learning represent both excellent opportunities and fit for many learners and, as is the emphasis throughout this text, an abundance of opportunities for educators to exploit the pedagogical affordances of multidimensional online venues. The chapters that follow intend to model and guide educators as they develop and implement online learning activities in ways that complement and amplify their professional beliefs and practices, especially as these are instantiated through instructional conversations with learners.

Why instructional conversations?

Computers, especially when they serve as they most often serve nowadays – to facilitate communication between people – are highly social machines. Our preferred uses of computers overwhelmingly involve connecting with others: to play games, to chat, to compare notes, to cooperate, to agitate, to commiserate, to antagonize – activities that are very similar to those we most enjoy offline. Our current online social discourse practices have evolved organically, non-systematically, serendipitously. They continue to evolve. Computers will never possess the human capacity for making informed judgments and interpretations, never mind the capacity to take on the perspectives of interlocutors. The machine, therefore, will forever play a supporting role in our teaching and learning enterprises; supporting critical mediation and supplying resources used in online human conversation.

How does conversation constitute instruction? learning? The concept of teaching and learning as conversation differs radically from traditional notions of instruction where one individual, an instructor, is equipped with knowledge and works to transplant this knowledge into students. In short, a one-way transmission of information. Thus, the widely shared concept: learning as transmission of information. Sadly, this concept of teaching and learning as knowledge transmission has literally invaded our language, our conceptualizations, our bones, so much so that it has become difficult to talk and write about instruction in ways that deviate from this paradigm. One need only listen to ways the media, policymakers and the business sector talk about the educational enterprise to hear this paradigm operating alive and well. Venturing outside the safety of viewing both our instructional language practices and the ways we think and talk about technology from a critical distance is the task of this text. Here, teaching and learning are considered part and parcel of our daily in-school and out-of-school discourse practices where conversation with others across forums, mediums and technologies is the locus of learning with the deliberate shaping of the conversations constituting the teaching and the learning. Our focus throughout is on the instructional conversation.

First coined by Goldenberg in 1992 in the context of traditional, face-to-face teaching and learning, instructional conversation is a means of teaching that nurtures and supports learner development of understanding through talk (Goldenberg, 1992). Learners are guided to share their thinking as a means of developing it. This is done with others through speaking and writing. This kind of responsive teaching (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988) puts student learning and student talk in the spotlight rather than the teacher. This kind of instructional responsiveness requires flexibility, openness to others, superior listening skills and fashioning optimal instructional responses to teachable moments. It requires that instructors know their students and their subject matter extremely well so that these can be effectively coordinated in a fluid, ongoing manner. It also requires acute attention to teachable moments whereby students can be led to see and interpret their own and others' development as they move toward deep understanding, generative uses of and, ultimately, mastery of the subject area discourse.


In considering online instructional conversations, it is important to consider perspective-taking. When we read, speak, attempt to understand, we take on the perspective of the person who is either the source and/or the target of the communicating. This is a fundamental element of effective communication known widely as theory of mind: the understandings we are continually in the process of refining based on what and how others with whom we communicate think, believe and operate. Much of this understanding generates from the cumulative and continually edited learning we do over a lifetime of being in the world with others. Simply put, when conversing with others what we say and what we understand are shaped by our taking on one another's perspectives, of walking in one another's shoes. It is through this mutual perspective-taking that messages get negotiated. This in the moment, in one another's shoes interaction is almost always instructional in one way or another. We are not only teaching and learning about what we are talking about (the topic and informational content of our utterances), but we are also teaching and learning about how things get done with words in a socially and interpersonally successful way. We are simultaneously learning about ourselves and our relationship with the world and, to some extent, about our interlocutors and how they relate linguistically to their worlds.


Our key biological inheritance is to identify with others; to see the world from their position, through their eyes, based on what we know about the world and on what we can read from the individual as we jointly construct meaningful exchanges with them. It is this unique attribute that marks us both as human and as teachers and learners; for it is perspective-taking that compels us to do both: teach and learn. Teaching and learning is, therefore, a quintessential human activity. It is speakers or writers engaging one another in such a way as to guide, inspire and experience the pleasures and rewards of minds coming together and communicating. Throughout our perspective-driven interactions with our world, we teach and we learn. When we are teaching and learning the content/substance aspect of our utterances, we are simultaneously learning new ways to think about them, to see them. If the way of thinking about what is being spoken or written about is not new but resembles our own, we are learning that our own perspective is shared and what it feels like to see eye to eye with others. If we hear the same information from the same perspective continually (memes in the echo chamber), a sense of membership is learned. Indeed, when the same information with the same perspective with the same effect is repeated often enough, it becomes a slogan and blinds its subscribers to other possibilities.

Context and mind

Considering the amount of time we spend using language with others, the depth of the experience we have while immersed in conversational interactions is vast in terms of the constant learning we do and the continual consequences on who we are and how we relate to our worlds. The extensive amount of inferencing required in verbal interaction reflects both the power of language in individual and collective agency as well as the indeterminacy of our linguistic system per se. Words themselves don't mean. Sentences on their own are almost always ambiguous. In short, we work with the language we use by employing our knowledge of the world in collaboration with the cumulative and dynamic ways we understand language as it is used to make meaning. Language is not in itself a way of communicating. It is but a bare tool that our intellect, social experiences and the given moment in time use to generate and understand meaning.


As social networking genres develop, so too do genre/community-specific forms and styles of communication. We need only go on the internet to witness such developments. Sloppy though chatting and texting language may seem compared to other communities' communication norms and practices, it is, nonetheless, communication whereby we teach and learn. The communication that results is successful and, with language, that's what counts. Like all communicative venues, the quite local and particular context-building and perspective-taking that goes on in online exchanges draws on our sociolinguistic experiences and language competences. Communicating online is as interpretatively complex an activity as face-to-face interaction, if not more so in that the reading between the lines that we do in both situations is subject to the literal physicality of those lines. In the case of online conversations, infinite amounts of time to study the spaces between them do not equate with real-time non-verbal information. Nonetheless, we do this reading between the lines, employing our theory of mind well. For example, we readily repair the communicative mistakes we make through errors of interpretation. As part of our 'reading' of our interlocutors' understandings as these unfold in conversation, we also read whether our postings/utterances are being interpreted as we intended. In short, we facilely adapt our communicative predispositions to telecommunications to gain and retain membership in communities. This is a tribute to our social drive to make sense of the world through language with others regardless.


How is it that we manage all of this? First, building mutually understood contexts is foundational to successful communication of any kind. The following are some of the understandings that we employ as we read and respond to one another's postings:

* continual assessment of what our interlocutor knows and does not know (our shared knowledge);

* complex knowing of our mutual status in the world, in the context of these exchanges, and how these may or may not change in the course of our communicating;

* jointly established sense of our context of use – the virtual, ideational context in which we communicate;

* jointly established schema for anaphoric and exophoric referents;

* mastery of language as it is generated and as it assimilates contextual nuances;

* flexible understanding of expertise as inherent and generative within the particular context of use (mastery of multiple semiotic/discourse systems; their generation and their interpretation).

We are organically and non-systematically growing online practices and, as they are taking shape, we are also teaching and learning with one another about what constitutes a responsible communicator in online communities. Although a few early attempts at rudimentary 'how-to' lists of online communication protocols appeared in the mid-nineties ('netiquette'), these were rarely read and referenced for the purpose of being a better online citizen. However, they were, for the most part, heeded; with the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to be a successful online communicator emerging organically via our predispositions as social beings. For the most part, you can go into a particular online communication site and scope out its sociolinguistic norms and conventions in fairly short order. We are creatures adept at reading social situations and doing what is needed and in keeping; to bid for and maintain membership when we choose to do so. We can readily intuit where we belong, might belong and absolutely don't belong without instruction of any kind.

These forms of social/sociolinguistic expertise are the essence of our social selves. However, they are rarely considered as foundational traits in theories and practices of education. There is, of course, the exceptional classroom where skillful instructors exploit the natural social dispositions and impetus of students to engage the learning in powerful ways. However, the legacy of psychological traditions and the objectification of learners and learning continue their influence. Where recent theoretical and practical shifts away from the individual, in the head, toward the social actor have flourished in the academic literature, these have sadly had little impact on policies such as the design of teaching and learning spaces and standardized, psychometric testing. Note that one can certainly make the case that rows of desks facing a lecturing teacher are less the norm than in earlier times and that in some enlightened corners of the testing industry assessment activities by which students demonstrate skills other than the five-paragraph essay and/or recall of objective facts have crept in.

Figure 1.1 represents the key elements that contribute to the shaping and outcomes of instructional conversation strategies as a pedagogical approach to teaching the content areas. Within the inverted cone, starting on the left is the element of ways of knowing. In any academic subject domain, there are specific ways of viewing and talking about the subject area. These ways of knowing are most readily apparent in the discourse of the materials and of those who participate as the insiders of the subject area. When we engage learners in instructional conversations, we do so as insider participants and thus model the rules and norms of that academic discourse community. Moving clockwise, learners' histories and identities come into play. Excellent instructional conversations engage learners fully. To do so, who learners are as individuals and as a group factor centrally in how instructional conversations are shaped by skilled educators. Knowing one's students is, in short, key to great teaching online or off. Finally, as you will see throughout the illustrations of online instructional conversations all through this text, content is central. The concepts and accompanying language of the content area form both the impetus for and the meat of instructional conversations.

Online conversations differ in many and important ways from face-to-face. Whether you teach synchronously or asynchronously or some combination of the two, the characteristics and resources of the online venue contribute to the shape of your posts and students' responses to them (Table 1.1).


Excerpted from "Teaching Children Online"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Carla Meskill and Natasha Anthony.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

IntroductionChapter 1. Teaching Online: A Conversational Approach Chapter 2. Saturating and Modeling in Online TeachingChapter 3. Corralling Student Learning in Online TeachingChapter 4. Orchestrating Interactions and Scaffolding Synthetic ThinkingChapter 5. Providing Feedback in Online TeachingChapter 6. Elements of Effective Online Instructional ConversationsChapter 7. Future Directions for Online Teaching and Learning

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