One day last week, in the first few days of June, I was meeting with the small group of fourth graders I work with to provide reading intervention. In partners, they were reading a book, The PS Brothers by Maribeth Boelts. Every few pages, they were stopping to discuss the book, talking to each other about such things as what was happening and what they were figuring out. When I listened in to the talk, I heard partnerships engaged in meaningful conversations about the book. Two students were talking about their prediction and explaining their reasoning. Another two students were discussing the reason for the main character’s behavior. The other two students were discussing what they thought a character was feeling.
As I listened in, I was pleased with students’ conversations. Students were truly listening and responding to each other. When I started working with this group of students they were not accustomed to talking back and forth in a way that built upon each other’s ideas. When I first started working with this group, I knew I had to break their habit of parallel talk. If I asked these students to turn and talk to a partner, one student would say a thought or idea and the other student would then respond with another thought or idea not directly related to what the first student said. These students did not seem to realize that a conversation involves not just hearing what a partner says, but really listening in order to understand what was said.
I started working on supporting students in discussions about books starting at the very beginning of the year. I modeled effective conversations, using a fishbowl strategy, and discussed how my partner and I discussed an idea. I supported students in their use of language with anchor charts about how to keep a conversation going and prompts for meaningful talk. I also gave my students many opportunities to talk to each other. For example, partners would take their post-it notes on which they wrote thoughts about their reading and choose one to talk about. I would challenge them to talk as long as they could before I called time’s up. My students have gotten better at talking about text, but it is something we have had to work at all year.
One of the challenges to teaching my students to have better discussions about their reading has been their hesitance to offer their own thoughts and ideas. At the beginning of the year, there were many times I would ask students to share their thinking and there would be six pairs of eyes staring back at me. These are kids who talk a lot – they talk as they walk into school in the morning, they talk in the hallway on their way to my room, they talk at recess. But, talking about something they read is a whole other story. I have been asked more than once, “Am I right?” during a group discussion. In addition to conversation skills, getting students to share their own thoughts and ideas has been something that we have also had to work at all year.
When I reflect on this, I think part of the challenge is because of what we unintentionally teach students. Teachers ask so many of the questions. Students learn to answer. Students start school and it’s not long after that they begin to think the teacher is looking for the “right” answer. Students become less willing to share their ideas because they don’t want to be wrong. I want my students to have meaningful discussions. I want them to grow their own ideas, not rely on my thinking. I want them to come up with their own theories. I want them to take a risk in their thinking without worrying if they might be wrong. I have strived to get my students to have conversations that will support their understanding of text. It has been challenging work to teach students to have better discussions. It continues to challenge me, because as I have reflected on my teaching, I know there are ways in which I can continue to improve upon the lessons and strategies I use to support students’ discussions of text. Supporting students in their ability to have a meaningful conversation about text has been challenging, but it is important and worthwhile. To be independent readers, students must do their own thinking and talk can provide an opportunity for students to share their thinking as well enhance their thinking.