Chalk Talk in the Classroom:
An Opportunity to have a Conversation in Writing Judi Fenton
Chalk Talk is a silent conversation in
writing that allows students to have an equal opportunity
to participate. It is a versatile protocol that can
be used for many purposes. Students and teachers love
Here’s the protocol, adapted from the website
of the National School Reform Faculty.
The facilitator explains VERY BRIEFLY that Chalk
Talk is a silent activity. No one may talk at all
and anyone may add to the Chalk Talk as they please.
The facilitator writes
a relevant question in a circle on the board or chart
paper. (I prefer paper. You’ll find out why
by the end of this article.)
What did you learn today?
How can we keep the noise level down in this
What do you know about Croatia?
How are decimals used in the world?
The facilitator either hands a piece of chalk or
marker to every student, or places many pieces of
chalk or markers at the board. Students can comment
on the initial question—and subsequent comments—by
simply drawing a connecting line to the question or
People write as they feel moved. They can read and
respond to the comments of others. There are likely
to be moments where not much seems to be happening—that
is natural, so allow plenty of wait time before deciding
it is over.
How the facilitator chooses to interact with the
Chalk Talk influences its outcome. The facilitator
can stand back and let it unfold or expand thinking
circling other interesting ideas, thereby inviting
about a participant’s comment
adding his/her own reflections or ideas
connecting two interesting ideas/comments together
with a line and adding a question mark
Being an active participant encourages students
to do the same kinds of expansions.
When it’s done, it’s done.
Uses for Chalk Talk
Assessing prior knowledge
Before starting a unit I assess what the students already
know about the topic so I can plan my instruction accordingly.
I find Chalk Talk to be a valuable assessment tool.
Begin by writing in the center of the chart paper, “What
do we know about (the presidential election process,
sharks, the circulatory system, families, the moon,
etc.)?” and let your students write all they know
on the page. Leave the chart up for the entire unit,
using it as a resource. As you progress through the
unit ask your students to correct any misconceptions
that they may have had at the outset.
Assessing what was learned
At the end of a unit, I often harbor a secret wish that
I could go inside my students’ heads to see what
they’ve really learned! Lacking that ability,
I find asking them to have a conversation in writing
to be a great alternative. Ask, “What did we learn
about (the Industrial Revolution, spiders, the Brooklyn
Bridge, exploding manhole covers, etc.)” Then
compare what the students say they’ve learned
with your goals or expected outcomes for the unit. Not
only will you assess your students’ learning,
you will be able to assess your own teaching and determine
whether your goals were appropriate to begin with.
Discussing difficult issues
Sometimes it’s hard to get kids to talk about
certain issues, especially when it involves their own
behavior in a group. Chalk Talk can be a way to overcome
this problem. On your chart write the question, “How
did we work in our groups to complete this project?”
Tell your students that no individual names may be used.
Stand back and watch them go, they might be writing
till next week. Next, write the more important question,
“What can we, as a group and as individuals, do
next time to make sure that the group works better?”
I find my students really begin to take responsibility
for their own behavior.
When there is a problem in the classroom (interpersonal
or related to an academic issue) that is likely to cause
arguments, denials, or defensiveness, Chalk Talk once
again proves useful. “What can we do about our
class’ behavior with the art teacher?” can
generate great ideas, as can, “How can we make
sure that we all do the homework that is necessary for
our class work to progress?” All the suggestions
can be compiled and a course of action decided upon
by the class.
Recording what was discussed
When a Chalk Talk discussion is over, I have a written
record, if I did it on chart paper. I have compiled
many Chalk Talks. I categorize them, look for commonalities,
count how many people said what, etc. I give the compilations
back to participants to expand upon even more.
Communicating to others
Chalk Talk communicates a large body of knowledge to
an outside group or individual. Students in one first
grade class did a Chalk Talk to communicate to kindergarteners
what they can expect to do and learn in first grade.
Consider showing the classes Chalk Talk pages to your
principal. It’s an effective way to convince him
or her that your class needs playground time or that
The benefits of using a conversation in writing are
enormous. To start, quiet students have as much opportunity
as outgoing ones to offer their thoughts. Your class
clown cannot as easily disrupt this conversation, nor
can your most articulate students dominate. Given the
reflective nature of Chalk Talk, you’ll also find
that dissenting viewpoints can be more easily “heard”
and responded to in a thoughtful fashion.
I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’d
love to hear other ways you’ve used it. And, if
you don’t have any objections, I could share your
ideas in future articles, citing you and your school.