Discussion Supports [MLR 8]

Plan and support student discussions about mathematical ideas, representations, content, and strategies
21 teachers like this strategy

About This Strategy

The Discussion Supports strategy, based on the Open Up Resources Mathematical Language Routine, is a collection of strategies and moves that can be combined and used to support discussion during almost any activity. Academic discussions don't happen naturally; teachers need to plan and support productive talk. To support planning and supporting effective discussions, this strategy includes multi-modal approaches for helping students comprehend complex language and ideas via discussion, and can be combined and used together with any of the other OUR Mathematical Language Routines or BetterLesson Discussion Strategies.

A variety of approaches can be used to support rich and inclusive discussions about mathematical ideas, representations, contexts, and strategies. When there is an opportunity for discussion in a lesson, using purposeful discussion supports can invite and incentivize more student participation, conversation, and meta-awareness of language. This strategy provides guidance to help identify when and how to build student discussion into your lessons, how to provide appropriate support for students during discussion, encourage and structure student participation during discussion, and build in share-outs and reflection after discussion. Eventually, students will become more comfortable using discussion strategies independently to engage deeply in discussions with their peers. 

Implementation Steps

  1. Identify an opportunity in a lesson for student discussion and the purpose of that discussion. In any lesson, students should be given multiple opportunities to:

    • explain and demonstrate about their mathematical thinking, negotiate meaning with others, and collaboratively solve problems. 

    • discuss important concepts of the unit 

    • practice a variety of language functions (for example, justifying claims with evidence, explaining reasoning, critiquing the reasoning of others, and comparing approaches). 

    • pose and answer questions, clarify what is being asked and what is happening in a problem, build common understandings, and share experiences relevant to the topic.

  2. In preparation for a discussion, anticipate where students might need support in understanding concepts or mathematical terms, and provide multiple ways for students to access these terms. Providing visuals or manipulatives, demonstrating problem-solving, engaging in think-alouds, and creating analogies, synonyms, or context are all ways to amplify language so that students can improve their understanding of key terms.

  3. Before beginning student discussion, provide students with 1-2 minutes of quiet think time or writing time to consider their response before they begin discussing with a partner or small group to complete their response.

    • While students are preparing for discussion, circulate and look for students who are "getting it" and/or using a variety of strategies to solve the problem. You can then ask these students to share their strategies if other students are struggling. 

  4. As students share their responses with their partner or group, circulate and encourage listeners to push speakers to use academic language central to the lesson. As you circulate:

    • Remind students of key vocabulary terms, using visuals or pantomime as necessary. Listen for students who use key vocabulary in their discussions and amplify this language by repeating it back or by calling it out. 

    • Revoice student ideas to demonstrate subject-specific language use by restating a statement as a question in order to clarify, apply appropriate language, and involve more students.

    • Encourage students to re-voice their partners' reasoning.

    • Press for details in students' explanations by requesting for students to challenge an idea, elaborate on an idea, or give an example. This is intended to get more participation from students, deepen student understanding, and provide extensions. Encourage thinking aloud, revoicing, and pressing for details (e.g., "How do you know _____ is (or is not) a perfect cube?" "Tell me more about...").

      • Consider using Bounce Cards, a strategy used to support students to engage in dialogue about content in a productive way. Students can choose to "bounce" ideas off what students said, "sum it up" or rephrase what students said, or "inquire" to clarify and understand through questioning. Examples are linked in the resource section below.

    • Show central concepts multi-modally by utilizing different types of sensory inputs: acting out scenarios or inviting students to do so, showing videos or images, using gesture, and talking about the context of what is happening.

    • Practice phrases or words through choral response. 

    • If needed, provide sentence frames to support students with explaining their strategies. For example, "I noticed that ______." or "First, I ________ because ________." 

      • Consider using more content-specific frames as needed to help students produce statements that use mathematical language. For example, "For Triangle __, I chose side ___ as the base because ________." or "The next time I need to find the area of a triangle, the strategy I will use is ________, because ________." or "The surface area of shape _____ is larger (or smaller) than shape _____ because..."

      • Consider providing students with a checklist that lists sentence stems to have students check off how many times they use them.

      • See the "Accountable and Academic Student Talk Stems" strategy in the BetterLesson lab for more suggestions.

  5. If students have an opportunity to share out after the discussion, give students time to make sure that everyone in the group can explain or justify each step or part of the problem. Then make sure to vary who is called on to represent the work of the group so students get accustomed to preparing each other to fill that role. 

    • When students share their answers with a partner, prompt them to rehearse what they will say when they share with the full group. Rehearsing provides opportunities to clarify their thinking.

    • After students have shared their explanations, call on other students to restate and/or revoice their peers' descriptions using mathematical terms. If students are not able to restate, they should ask for clarification. This will provide more students with an opportunity to produce the language needed to describe the final point.

  6. If students have an opportunity to write after the discussion, encourage students to borrow words and phrases from their discussions for their written responses. 

  7. After some discussions, it can be helpful to have students reflect on their own participation during the discussion in order to set goals for future discussions. Consider having students use a rubric to reflect as an individual or as a group on their participation and their use of discussion supports. See the "Accountability Structures: Self or Group Participation Rubric" strategy in the BetterLesson lab for more details and resources.

Discussion Supports for Distance Learning

Kathleen Rockefeller
BetterLesson Instructional Coach

The Discussion Supports strategy includes various supports that promote productive discussions for any instructional activity.  It can be challenging to incorporate two-way communication between and among students and teachers in a virtual setting.  But, nevertheless, it is critical to engage students in meaningful discussions in a virtual setting using the steps and suggestions below in order for students to gain a deeper understanding of the academic content.  

Implementation steps:

  1. When planning a lesson for a live synchronous teaching session, identify opportunities for class discussion within the lesson. The Synchronous Lesson Builder, linked in the resources section below provides a structure for planning synchronous virtual lessons.  It also provides examples of technology tools that a teacher could potentially use during the define, explore, or build section of a virtual synchronous lesson. Discussion should be used in lessons for the purpose of: 

    • Explaining and demonstrating their thinking 

    • Negotiating meaning and comprehension with others 

    • Collaboratively solving problems

    • Discussing important concepts of the unit 

    • Practicing a variety of language functions (for example, justifying claims with evidence, explaining reasoning, critiquing the reasoning of others, and comparing approaches) 

    • Posing and answering questions

    • Clarifying what is being asked and what is happening in a problem

    • Building common understandings 

    • Sharing experiences relevant to the topic.

  2. Determine whether students will engage in whole group discussion, small group/partner discussion, or engage with discussion with a virtual tool.  

    • A tool like Padlet can be used to engage students in both synchronous or asynchronous discussion.  The tutorial linked in the resources section below shows how to set up a Padlet.  

  3. Consider and anticipate what students will need support with in the virtual setting in order to engage in meaningful discussions:

    • Setting Up Norms and Expectations for Discussion

      • Virtual discussion norms and expectations are a type of discussion support.  Once students have been taught, and given time to practice, the norms and expectations for discussion in a synchronous learning session, they will have much more productive academic discussions.  

    • Language Supports

      • Sentence Stems or Sentence Frames can be used to support students in their ability to discuss academic content by providing them with a language structure.  The sentence stems, or frames, should be visible to students during the discussion time.  The teacher can share his/her screen during a discussion to ensure the students can see the sentence stems during the discussion.  If students are in a breakout room setting, students should have a copy of the sentence stems in order to reference them during the discussion.  The resource linked below, LearnZillion MLR8: Discussion Supports, provides a list of potential sentence stems to use for academic discussions.  

    • Assigning Roles

      • Students can be assigned a specific role specifically for academic discussion.  The expectations and responsibilities of each role should be explicitly taught to students.  The BetterLesson strategy, Literature Circles and Book Clubs, linked in the resources section below, discusses how to set up roles for literature circles.  Class discussion roles can include:

        • Moderator

          • The moderator will keep the conversations flowing in the group discussion.  He/she will encourage others to comment and ask questions.  If the group is straying off topic, the moderator will remind them of the inquiry question(s) and or topic. 

        • Wordsmith

          • The wordsmith will keep track of new and interesting words/phrases that are discovered or discussed during the discussion. The wordsmith will select some of the interesting words/phrases mentioned in the discussion, and use a dictionary to record the meanings. They will share their findings in the discussion..

        • Data Digger

          • The data digger will uncover information to help the group find the answer to any questions that arise during the discussion.  The data digger will record their discoveries and share with the group.

        • Reflector

          • The reflector  will be asked to make personal connections to the information during the discussion.  They should consider: Is this important? Why? Do you agree or disagree? Why? What is your opinion?  The reflector can offer alternate opinions during the discussion.  

        • Questioner

          • The questioner will ask questions (who, what, when, where, why, how questions) during the group discussion to encourage engagement of all students.  

        • Illustrator

          • The illustrator will record the key ideas discussed in a visual format. The illustrator can use a chart, graph, sketch, web, cartoon, diagram or a combination of visual formats. The illustrator can share their product with the group.  

    • Revoicing

      • The teacher or facilitator can encourage students to re-voice student ideas to demonstrate mathematical language (or other content language) use by restating a statement as a question in order to clarify, apply appropriate language, and involve more students.  This is also a good way to get students involved in virtual discussions during synchronous learning sessions who are hesitant to jump into the discussion.  

    • Elaborate

      • The teacher can press for details in students’ explanations by requesting for students to challenge an idea, elaborate on an idea, or give an example.  Students can be encouraged to share their screens during a synchronous learning session in order to share their notes or work.  

    • Incorporate Various Forms of Media

      • Incorporating various forms of media (video, audio, images, etc.) provides a support to students to continue and deepen their discussions.  

    • Choral Response

      • Practice phrases or words through choral response as a virtual discussion support to get all students involved in the discussion.

    • Use Exemplars/Student Work to Promote Discussion

      • Engage students in a think aloud by talking through thinking about a mathematical concept while solving a related problem or doing a task.  The technology tool, Formative, linked in the resources section below, allows students to show work for questions using a "whiteboard" tool.  These student responses can be used to promote discussion about misconceptions or exemplar work.  There is also a Formative tutorial linked in the resources section below.

  4. When the discussion occurs within the lesson, provide students with some think time before engaging in the discussion in order to prepare their thoughts.

    • Allow students to write down questions, notes, or discussion points using a whiteboard tool like Jamboard.  They can refer to their Jamboard page while engaging with the discussion.  The resource linked below, Jamboard Tools for Reference and Glossary, provides a description of the different tools within the Google Jamboard app.  There is also a video tutorial linked in the resources section below on how to use Google Jamboard. 

  5. Monitor the discussions as they are happening.

    • Whole Group

    • Small Group/Partner Discussion: If students are in breakout rooms, or meeting in individual video sessions to have small group discussions, the teacher can visit each small group discussion to monitor the discussions taking place.  

    • Virtual Tool Discussions

      • If students are using message board tools to engage in synchronous discussion, the teacher should monitor to ensure appropriate behavior is occurring during the discussion.  

  6. Provide students with opportunities to share what was discussed with their partner or group.

Special Education Modification

Nedra Massenburg
Special Education Specialist

Use of Discussion Supports is an excellent tool to use to engage in content for students with disabilities.  This will not only help them improve their presentation and speaking skills, but also improve their active listening and collaboration skills to develop relationships in the classroom.  Building their toolbox to engage with content is an important step in helping them build overall investment in their learning.

Discussion Supports skills require significant executive functioning skills (including focus, organization, working memory, etc.), emotional regulation, reading,  written skills and/or verbal expression skills.  In order to support students with disabilities who have difficulty in these areas, consider the following modifications:


  1. Before deciding on a differentiated lesson plan involving Discussion Supports, teachers should consult with special education department administrators or special education teachers that can give extra guidance on both the accommodations and modifications that should be considered to support students during the lesson.  See the "Differentiating Instruction for Success in Special Education" and “Differentiated Instruction for Students with Learning Disabilities” in the resource section below for more information. 

  2. Teachers who use Discussion Supports should be mindful of student disability types and needs in addition to formative data when assigning partners and/or groups; this ensures that students are paired strategically to support development of mastery without increasing frustration.  

  3. Use or modify structured handouts to help students with task initiation as well as provide clear benchmarks (bolded words, bulleted lists) to assess task completion when using Discussion Supports. 

  4. Use visual timers and verbal reminders to help learners with task initiation and task completion when using Discussion Supports.  

  5. For students that have disabilities that affect their verbal and/or written expression, provide additional scaffolds, such as visuals, talk stems, and/or manipulatives to support their crafting of questions and discussion and feedback from peers.  See “Accountable Talk Stems” and “ 25 Question Stems Framed Around Bloom’s Taxonomy” in the resource section below for more information.  

  6. Intervene as a teacher to ensure all students have the opportunity to process what has been said in discussions whole group, in small groups or in partners.  Students who benefit from additional processing time or who struggle with short-term memory should be given time during feedback discussions to stop and jot any new ideas they learned before moving on.

  7. If multiple teachers are present in a classroom, careful thought should be put into co-teaching models and how they integrate into a differentiated lesson plan using Discussion Supports.    See the "How to Choose a Co-Teaching Model" and “Differentiation Within the Inclusion Classroom Model” in the resource section below for more information.

EL Modification

Shannon Coyle
English Learner Specialist

Discussion supports are an excellent way to create the structured academic talk time English learners require to practice their listening and speaking skills. 

English learners need to listen and respond to discussion prompts as well as read and write discussion supporting text. In order to support English learners consider the following modifications:


  1. Write language objectives. Like content objectives, language objectives frame for learners where they are going in a lesson. Language objectives describe for learners how they will express their learning and establish the importance of using the target language in their academic discussions. See the “Linguistic Scaffolds for Writing Effective Language Objectives” and “Academic Discussion Objectives, Templates and Scaffolds” resources in the resource section below for more information. 

  2. Pre-teach target and academic language. English learners often learn content specific language at the same time as their native speaking peers. English learners at lower levels of proficiency often require explicit instruction in the high-use academic vocabulary, e.g., bloom’s taxonomy verbs, required to use content area vocabulary accurately. Ensure learners understand and are able to use all the discreet vocabulary required of the target language in a lesson. Consider posting high-use academic vocabulary alongside mathematical vocabulary in an anchor chart. Consider providing home language translations or bilingual dictionaries. See the “Bilingual Content Area Glossaries”, “Preparing for Effective Vocabulary Instruction”, “Catalyzing Comprehension through Discussion and Debate”, and “Templates and Samples for using Academic Vocabulary and Discussion” resources in the resource section below for more information. 

  3. Provide and practice discussion frames. English learners at lower levels of proficiency may require scripted and rehearsed supports to enter into discussion. Consult students’ language level data to ensure appropriate levels of scaffolding. Consider providing time in advance of discussion for learners at lowest levels of proficiency to prepare full responses to share in class. Consider whole class choral practice of most used discussion frames. See the “Descriptions of What English Learners “Can Do” at Various Language Levels”,  “Academic Language Function Toolkit” and “Classroom Collaboration Discussion Frames” resources in the resource section below for more information.  

  4. Provide a variety of ways to express learning. English learners who are newcomers or in a silent period may need alternative means of showing their understanding and ability to apply target language. Consider cloze exercises, matching target language to situation, pointing to target language in a group, creating target language sentences with vocabulary and sentence chunks written on index cards, and/or drawing. See the “Language Acquisition Overview” resource in the resource section below for more information. 

  5. Try a variety of activities. In addition to the activities embedded in the strategy, see below resources for creating structured talk opportunities for increasing whole class use of academic discussion. See the “Center for Applied Linguistics Scaffolding Options” resource in the resource section below for more information. 

  6. Put English learners in heterogeneous groups that will be most supportive. Consider social dynamics as well as language skills to ensure all learners’ ideas will be included. Consider assigning roles to individual learners. Consider anchoring learners at lower levels of proficiency with learners who speak the same home language to allow for idea generation in the home language. See the “Grouping English learners in diverse classrooms” resource in the resource section below for more information. 

  7. Differentiate reflection materials. Create accessible questions and/or rubrics for learners to use during reflection. Consider filling out reflections 1:1 with teachers reading questions and students dictating responses. 

  8. Observe and check in. While circulating, make time to check in or support accountable talk in English learners as needed. See the “Math Observation Checklist and Tool” resource in the resource section below for more information.

Tech Tools


  • Padlet is a digital corkboard type tool that students can use to gather information or reflections. Teachers can easily access each student's Padlet with a shared link. 

  • Students can use Padlet as a digital discussion platform to share their approaches to a given problem or question, and to compare their problem-solving strategy with their peers' strategies. 


  • Flipgrid is a video discussion platform great for generating class discussion around topics, videos, or links posted to the class grid. Students can video record their responses to share with the teacher or class.

  • Students can use Flipgrid to share their approaches to a given problem or question via video, and to hear their peers' problem-solving strategies.


Screen Recorder (i.e. Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify) 

  • Screen recording tools such as Screencast-O-Matic or Screencastify allow students to capture their group work and discussion when using a laptop or tablet. 

  • Recording their group work increases student accountability. While teachers may not watch all screencasts, they can select a few that are strong models to share with the class to help other students understand what great discussion looks and sounds like.