Focus on the Discourse level: Dialogue and Reading

The current focus for this blog is discourse/dialogue and reading. At the same time, I am mindful that all breakdowns in reading progress do not just occur at the discourse level. I will continue to pay attention to good ideas/information that demonstrates the role of oral language at the sound, word, and sentence level and reading success. The ultimate goal is reading text(s) in a meaningful way.

I believe an ideal place to start the focus on Dialogue and Reading is with Dialogic Reading.   A particularly useful link is to a blog from 2010. This blog begins with an explanation of dialogue reading and offers other links (in the sidebar) that provide the history of this approach as well as examples.

Here is the link and a short excerpt:

What is Dialogic reading?


 “Dialogic reading is essentially a reading practice using picture books to enhance and improve literacy and language skills.  The basis for this is asking simple questions and following up with expanded questions.   There are numerous studies that show the improvements from using this method. Essentially the practice involves reading interactively with children, even very young children, to help them develop strong comprehension and language skills. Practicing this type of active reading with children from a very young age sets the foundation for strong readers later.

Many parents naturally practice dialogic reading with their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. If a parent and child are observed reading a book together and the parent asks the child “Where is the Duck?” This is dialogic reading. It is the discourse that takes place about the story and images.

While there are many elements in the complicated process of learning to read, dialogic reading is the activity that will help emergent readers develop strong comprehension skills. It’s also a positive effect on oral language development.

Dialogic Reading was pioneered by Dr. Russ Whitehurst. Language is the Key uses a dialogic reading approach. It is also infused with research findings in the areas early language, literacy, and play development; family involvement; language facilitation; bilingual language development; cultural relevance, and adult learning. “



The Reading Pyramid: A Framework for Early Literacy

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”; title=”Read 1 2-3 go!” target=”_blank”>Read 1 2-3 go!</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”; target=”_blank”>Fran Toomey</a></strong> </div>


Moving Forward

There are many unanswered questions about the “achievement gap”. the issue that prompted this sequence on early literacy success? I’m going to move on to an emphasis on learning to read/reading to learn. I propose that the adults taking a role in early literacy success will need to focus on four areas:

*The Whole Child: The whole child and the child’s strengths and challenges as a learner and as a reader

*The Learning Context: The learning context (at all of its relevant levels: home, classroom(s), school, community).

*Assessment: How we assess reading: “placement’ and progress; formative and summative

*A Model of the Learning Process: For the purposes of this blog the fourth areas of consideration will focus on the role and relationship between dialogue and reading success. school success, and life success.

I’m going to begin with assessment, briefly, and then return to it periodically as I move though the other topics. Here I will just mention the topics I believe are relevant to supporting and assessing reading success. I will make brief comments on the “whole child” consideration; then the “learning context” consideration; and then the relationship between dialogue and reading success as it impacts school success and life success. Often I will be integrating these 4 considerations, depending on the point of departure—a reference, a link, my own perspective and integration.


5 important points:

1 The status of reading achievement at the local, state, and national levels. We have seen increasing reference online and in the educational (and business) literature about the status of learners reading achievement…from K assessments to local/state testing to NAEP reports for 4th, 8th and 12th graders. Particularly striking are reports that indicate that there have been minimal changes in reading scores as reported on national tests, including NAEP assessments.


A particularly powerful treatment of this topic by Reid Lyon at a Stern Center for Language and Learning (Vermont) Conference on “closing the achievement” gap:

2 Continuity across contexts. There is increasing interest, at least in Vermont, in developing a process whereby Preschool teachers can “pass forward” what they have learning about their preschool students that will impact learning to read and school success.

Teachers at the state and local level discuss preschool education and communicating with the K-3 community.

I am in the process of gather information of what systems or procedures there are for “passing forward” a child’s reading strengths and challenges as s/he moves from K to grades 1, 2, and 3 and beyond.

3 Kinds of Assessment. We need to clearly understand and put into practice the relationship between formative and summative assessments. This must include giving credence to the value of teacher observation and “informal” assessment. We need to find ways to relate formative assessment to subsequent “instruction.”

4 Task Assessment. When we ask a child to perform a reading/dialogue task, we need to be able to assess how close the child has come to the target. There are three relevant assessment concepts here: diagnostic teaching, gradual release or responsibility, and zone of proximal development (Vygotsky). All three of these suggest that we need to work within a frame work of where the child has come from, where s/he is headed, and what comes next. We know that feedback places a critical role in learning. Task assessment demands feedback at critical points.

5 Learner as evaluator. We need to have input form the learner. Children have a sense very early on whether or not they are “readers.” Some children as young as K will tell you whether or not they think they are “good” readers (with more or less accuracy). Some children can also tell you what “reading” is about for them: what kind of books/genre, authors, illustrators, themes, or topics they prefer to read, what strategies they use to read a challenging text and how well those strategies work; how they are begin “taught” to read (and whether or not the approach is working; what they think “reading” is for—its purpose inside and outside of school. In their book on Speaking and Listening for Preschool Through Third Grade, Resnick and Snow discuss goals for this age group, including Talking to Oneself. They say: “This “private speech” is a key way for children to practice language and guide themselves through their actions…Talking out loud indicates that they are working hard ton a task; indeed it helps them stay focused on a challenge. By second or third grades, children also use self-monitoring strategies—thinking silently or muttering quietly to themselves to…check their understanding of words and leaning as they read, rehearse steps to solve a problem, recite information they have learned or memorized.” That is, they are evaluating their learning. They are metacognitive!


The Whole Child.

 Children come to us in our teacher role with a whole self, with a family, a personality, with strengths and challenges, with a background of experiences inside and outside of school, and with a learning history.  For them, school and learning have personal, social, cultural, physical and cognitive dimensions.  Knowing the whole child means tuning into those dimensions of the child as s/he is achieving and not achieving his goals, the family’s goals, and the teacher’s and school’s goals.

More and more teachers and parents are interested in understanding the affective dimensions of learning.  Popular concepts include engagement, a growth perspective, stamina, grit, perseverance, challenge.

The Learning Context

The Learning Context is what happens/has happened before the child reaches the school door, what happens in the classroom(s) and school, and what happens in the context beyond school and over time. Certainly we expect children to carry learning from home as well as into the community as they venture forth into the larger world. There are approaches to learning that reflect this contextual perspective: “Authentic Learning”, “Cognitive Apprenticeship,” “Situated Learning.” “Whole Game Learning“ all of which reflect application of what is learned across contexts.

A Model for Early Language and Literacy Learning and Success: The Reading Pyramid and Talk-Text-Task

The Reading Pyramid is a tentative model I am working on to try to pull together all of these dimensions of learning to read and reading to learn.

It starts with the concept of 1-2-3 GO! (and I might add—keep on going.)

1 is the learner

2 is the learning time frame (2/3 months to 2/3 years to grade 2/3+) for learning to read and reading to learn.

3 the dimensions of the learning process with specific emphasis on the talk-text-task relationships: all embedded in the contexts in which the child operates (the base of the pyramid) both in and beyond school.  This approach will offer information and insights into a range of talk-text-task approaches to learning to read and reading to learn, including “dialogic reading”, “Rich Talk About Text” by David Pearson, Allington’s work on the 6 T’s, Collaborative Conversations, “instructional conversations,” Reciprocal Teaching, and “accountable” talk.

In the next blog, I will share some of the details of the work of Allington, Pearson, and Whitehurst.






Discourse and Reading Success

 Discourse and Reading Success

 While we might think of “reading” as a one person silent venture, it is clear that in school students don’t just read. They talk before, during, and after some (most) forms of reading. They might talk to a teacher, tutor, peer, or self. The primary focus in this section will be on the relationship between reading and talking and how that leads to being a successful reader.

 One of my earliest introductions to the relationship between talk and text came from a chapter by Gordon Wells in a book titled Constructing Knowledge Together (1992), Heineman. In chapter 3, “The Literate Potential of Collaborative Talk” he makes the case that learning that is essential to cognitive development involves interactive problem solving of increasingly more complex problems.

 “The major role of interaction in learning, therefore, is that it provides the child means through which the teacher can enable students to learn from engaging in activities that pose problems to be solves. We shall now go on to argue that, in this context, collaborative talk optimally meets the requirement just discussed.” p. 57

 Later in the text, Wells takes the position that student can attain literate thinking through talk, or more specifically, through collaborative talk.   This section of the chapter is titled “Conclusion: Attaining Literate Thinking Through Talk”. He writes:

 “The preceding analyses of the collaboration between Joao, Eric, and their teacher have illustrated the potentially empowering nature of collaborative talk and have highlighted the centrality of concerns such as problem solving, ownership, challenge, and intersubjectivity of understanding. If we now look at the list of characteristics that are intrinsic to the achievement of these concerns–such features as explicitness, connectivity, justification, and relevance—it will be seen that they are precisely the sort of attributes that are also to be particularly characteristics of written discourse (Chafe 1985). They are also attributes of thinking that are considered to develop as a consequence of becoming literate (Cole and Bruner, 1971; Goody, 1977). Since, however, we are dealing here with spoken language, it seems that we should reconsider the traditional definition of literacy and, in the present context, ask what is “literate thinking” and how does it develop”… p 69

 Wells is by no means the only language/literacy expert who describes the relationship between discourse and reading (literacy) success. In the last blog attention was draw to the role of oral language/discourse in learning to read. The discourse/reading connections also impact reading to learn.

 Starting Early

Starting at a very early age children can actively participate in “reading”

Fostering Early Literacy at Home (in Normally-Developing and At-Risk Children)

Carole Peterson, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Memorial U of Newfoundland

Encyclopedia of Language and Literacy Development

“Reading books with children is also an important activity. Children who are exposed to more books not only have better vocabulary, but they become better readers, particularly in later elementary school (Bus, van Ijzendoorn, Pellegrini, 1995; Sénéchal, 2006; Sénéchal & LeFevre, 2002). Recently, the value of a particular style of reading picture books (called ‘dialogic reading’) with 2 and 3 year olds has also been demonstrated, with both normally developing children and those with developmental disabilities (Dale, Crain-Thoreson, Notari-Syverson, & Cole, 1996; Hargrave & Sénéchal, 2000; Whitehurst et al., 1988). Dialogic reading of picture books is a technique where parents pose questions to children about the story, the pictures, what children expect to happen, and so on. Thus, children are brought into the ‘reading’ task in a more active way and contribute to story construction. Parents across socioeconomic strata have been readily taught to read in this manner, with resultant gains in the oral language skills of their children (Lonigan & Whitehurst, 1998). Again, more research is needed on the longitudinal benefits of dialogic reading.”

 In preschool, as well, we find a relationship between discourse and reading

 From Prestwich’s work

 P 54 “During book reading, a variety of styles were observed, but the most effective style included both analytical and interactive talk before, during, and after reading a book. Positive correlations were found between the teacher’s use of questions that included words such as why, how, and when and scores of receptive vocabulary at the end of kindergarten. Additionally, story comprehension was related to book reading opportunities that included interactive and reflective conversations” (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001).

 Discourse continues to be important as children move into Kindergarten.

 Clotilde Pontecorvo, M. Orsolini, B, Burge, and Lauren B. Resnick, Children’s Early Text Construction, 1996, Lawrence Erlbaum

In this text, William H. Teale and Miriam G. Martinez address “Reading Aloud to Young Children: Teachers’ Reading Style and Kindergartener’s Text Comprehension.”

 They analyzed the (story) reading of six kindergarten teachers, observed their reading style, interviewed the teachers, and then noted the kinds of responses children made.

They found that children’s level of recall was related to the type of emphasis (or style) in the teacher’s reading as well as the type of discussion: Story elements, theme, (type of inference), words.

 Kind and amount of discussion also influenced the outcome. “Comprehension scores in Teacher Herrera’s classroom were significantly higher than for any other teacher, except Teacher L, whose students scored equally as well. For example Herrera and her students were very story directed and the segments of the story they highlighted in their discussion were key ones. Teacher L generally focused on important story information in each episode of a story, calling attention to inferential information. Teacher L also used a line of questions to guide story questions. For Teacher B extensive discussions focused on inferences but on minor details. Teacher M involved students in minimal discussion. Teacher K focused on “word” in story reading. “When reading each of the four stories, K repeatedly halted her reading at midsentence to give her student the opportunity to predict upcoming words in text.”

 Discourse continues to be important as children move into elementary school.

 Nancy L. Roser, Miariam G. Martinez (Eds.) in Book Talk and Beyond: Children and Teachers Respond to Literature, 1995, International Reading Association

In a chapter by Taffy E. Raphael, et. al. titled “Promoting Meaningful Conversations in Student Book Clubs” the authors discuss the ways in which talk has been used in reading and the ways it should be used. “Research supports our belief in the need for reform in the methods we use to teach student to read and, specifically talk about text.” They go on to say:

 “Researchers who have studied classroom talk have found that it has been traditionally dominated by teachers who ask a question, elicit one student’s response and then evaluate the response (see Cazden, 1988). This pattern holds for both large and small group interaction (McDermott & Aron, 1978) and reveals a frustrating situation in which students have little opportunity to raise topics of interest, pursue lines of thinking, of collaborate in critical problem solving—a situation even more pronounced for poor readers (Allington, 1991; McDermott & Avon, 1978). Yet, current theories suggest that language is fundamental to thinking (Gavelek, 1986; Vygotsky, 1978) and that through classroom talk, students come to experience the social, collaborative nature of literacy (Wells, Change & Mather, 1990). Thus, we must create classrooms in which students engage in meaningful talk if we are to promote higher level thinking important to success in and out of school.” P. 67

 * * * *

 More recent texts on the discourse/reading connection give us even more detailed descriptions of why discourse is important and how it works.

 Patricia M. Cunningham and Debra Renner Smith, Beyond Retelling: Toward Higher Level Thinking and Big Ideas, 2008, Pearson

These authors focus on Thinking-Themes-Collaboration (my word)

 Chapter 2: the Big Question, the Big Idea, and Deep Thinking. In this chapter the authors show how “themes” help students to develop their deep thinking skills.

Chapter 7: Organizing the Thinking Theme Lessons across the Year

In this chapter the authors recommend pacing children through interactive reading: read alouds, shared reading/read alongs, partner reading, and team or “play school” reading.

                                                 * * * *

 My favorite of the more recent publications

Maria Nichols, Comprehension Through Conversation: The Power of Purposeful Talk in the Reading Workshop. 2006, Heineman.

 Here the Chapter 2 outline gives an indication of the depth and applicability of her work.

Chapter 2: The interconnectedness of Language Development and Purposeful Talk

^Language and Purposeful Talk

^All Children Are Language Learners

^Creating the Conditions that Enable Language Learning

*A Sampling of Key Indicators from The Frist Steps Oral Language Continuum (p. 15) (1999) addressing Language and Social Interaction, Language and Literacy, an Language and Thinking.

Children progress through Exploratory Language, Emergent Language for Learning, Consolidated Language for Leaning, Extended Language for Learning, and Proficient Language Use, 8: Advanced Language Use.

 This text is full of examples of teacher-children conversation across elementary grade levels and schools. There are a wealth of instructional principles, ideas, and activities.

 Finally, I suggest the Frey and Fisher text– Rigorous Reading: 5 Access Points for Comprehending Complex Text 2013 Corwin Press–because it addresses the CCSS-LA Standards for Reading and Speaking/Listening, because it addresses the topics of both close reading and complex text, and especially because of Chapter 4: Access Point Three: Collaborative Conversations

 Beyond these specific sources, there are any number of programs and approaches for understanding how discourse provides a foundation for and facilitates reading.

 *There are specific programs like Reciprocal Teaching, Questioning the Author,

Concept Oriented Reading Instruction (CORI), Collaborative Strategic Reading (CSR),

POSSE (for students with learning disabilities) to name a few of the more familiar ones.

 *There are a range of videos that demonstrate the talk-text relationship in relation to complex text: There are 90+ videos across age groups and subject areas. Many of these videos show the relationship between reading complex text and discourse.

 This completes the Oral Language Development Series. There will, however, be additional posts that take us back to early literacy skills, the achievement gap, and how we address the language/literacy needs of all children.

 * * * * *

Coming Full Circle

 In a sense this bring us full circle to the beginning of this blog on Dialogue about Language, Literacy and Learning with the first entries in September 2012. I continued that focus until September 2013, when I began observing language/literacy development in a kindergarten with an excellent teacher devoted to her students’ success as learners and readers. At the same time I began to read about legislation to hold back third graders who were not meeting grade level reading standards. Wait a minute, I thought. Why are we holding back the children as though they were at fault? What are we, as adults, doing or not doing so that 3rd grades…and 2nd graders and 1st graders and kindergartners are successful literacy learners, making progress as they go?

 Here’s the entry from September 2013

Focus on Reading

10 Sep 2013 by frantoomey

I’m shifting my focus to early reading skills and successful reading for all kids.  I am especially concerned about kids who struggle with reading because of dyslexia, poverty, and/or disadvantaged learning opportunity.  All kids need an approach to reading that begins to track their progress at the preschool level and follows through until they are reading at a grade level consistent with their ability as learners.

I am curating links on ScoopIt and Pinterest that offer helpful suggests for teachers and parents.  See and

Every Child a Reader by Third Grade? We Can’t Wait

12 Sep 2013by frantoomey

Yes!!!  But we can’t wait until 3rd grade to find out.  Children begin to develop “reading skills” well before 3rd grade, starting with early language and then early literacy development.  Here’s a link to a strong presentation by Reid Lyon that addresses the reading by 3rd grade imperative:

         * * * *

Still Thinking About Early Literacy and the Achievement Gap

09Jan2014 by frantoomey

Back again.  I haven’t stopped reading and talking and thinking about early literacy and the achievement gap.  I just had not figured out what I want to post on this blog.  But, I’ve created an outline much as I would if I were teaching or taking a “course.”   I need to know where I’m going if I have any hope of getting there.  So, here it is (below).  I’m going to introduce the topics today and then continue on subsequent posts to expand and update the topics.

Blog:  7 questions about learning to read and reading to learn

Who, Why, What, When, Where, How, And So?….

After the initial answers to those questions, I asked “Where are we going?”

Where are we going? 12 Mar 2014 by frantoomey

 Over the next several months, this blog will focus on the earliest stages of literacy, beginning at the preschool level, moving into K-2, and then 3-5.  Our initial emphasis will be on the role that oral language development plays in literacy.    Even as children begin K and as they progress through grade 5, oral language will remain a focus.

 Over the course of weeks/months posts will look at language at the sound, word, sentence, and discourse levels, considering relationships between oral and written language.  There will always be the intent to translate what is known through research and experience into instruction/learning that leads to application across contexts.

And now I need to pause again and create another outline of where to go!   I hope to have that figured out by May 12th. Please stay tuned.