Dialogue and Reading Success: Comprehension Through Conversation
The Subtitle of Comprehension Through Conversation by Maria Nichols (Heineman, 2006) is The Power of Purposeful Talk in the Reading Workshop. Nichols begins her text by reporting on a comment made to a colleague during a staff meeting on “accountable talk.” She says, “I distinctly remember leaning over to a colleague and whispering, “My kids talk. What’s the big idea?” … Years later at a week long Reading and Writing Institute she heard Richard Allington talk about the Six T’s of exemplary teaching, one of which got her full attention: Talk. That started a project of in depth research on talk.”
Her work continued into the spring of the first year at the Professional Development Center. She says: “My first-graders and I had just wrapped up a nonfiction unit of study in reading in which we had immersed ourselves in the discovery of fascinating things in, and thoughts about the real world. As part of the study, focusing on the importance of building an understanding of what’s in a character’s heart by listening to their words and carefully scrutinizing their action. Embedded in these studies, as in all aspect of our learning, was the important of thinking and talking about our thinking as a means of constructing ideas, negotiating meaning, and developing structure for independent thought.” (p. xi)
She goes on to say:
“Constructivist thinking like this does not happen by accident. It is the byproduct of classrooms where children think and talk together to make meaning, work collectively to construct stronger ideas, push back at thinking that doesn’t make sense to them (even the teacher’s), come to expect and anticipate differences of opinion, and do this on such a regular basis that thinking in this way becomes a habit of mind.”…
Based on the central idea of Purposeful Talk, Nichols explores the use of Read Alouds as a tool for helping children “Thinking and Talking About Reading in Increasingly Complex Ways” through units of study.
Although I don’t believe I can do justice to the thoughtfulness, carefulness, and comprehensiveness of Nichols’ work, I’d like to briefly outline her work here in relation to my 5Rs of Dialogue.. This is really a text worth buying, reading and rereading.
Reasons: What is/are the purposes of the dialogue?
Nichols engages children in “Purposeful Talk” in order to prepare them to interact in a meaningful and effective way in the economic, political and learning demands of the larger world. I would characterize this as an “interactive” world demanding higher order thinking and collaborative problem solving.
Rules: Is there a set of “rules” that participants follow. Are the rules implicit or explicit. If implicit, are all of the participants aware of the rules? Do they all agree to the rules?
In Chapter 4, Nichols describes Teaching Conversational Behavior that will apply across tasks, situations and contexts.
^Hearing All Voices: Learning to how to both take and give turns
*saying something meaningful: understanding the text or the world through the text
*listening with intent: actually engaging with the ideas
*keeping lines of thinking alive: agreeing, disagreeing, adding on to an idea, clarifying meaning
^Negotiating Meaning: Voicing ideas and pushing back and forth at each other’s thinking; listening with the intent of understanding the reasoning and evidence behind differing idea by allowing them to develop.
These are fairly general rules and will be adapted to the task and contexts in which the talking (and listening) takes place.
Roles: Who are the participants in the dialogue and how, in the particular context, are they related to each/one another?
Nichols outlines 4 roles based on the work of Luke and Freebody: code breaker, text participant (meaning maker), text user (what do I do with the text here and now) and text analyst (what does the text do to me). Her focus is on the roles of participant, user and analyst. It isn’t clear how these three roles function in the context of routines, which reflect reading together and turn taking.
Routines: Dialogue entails multiple “turns” among participants. What kinds of “turns” are there? How do participants determine whose “turn” it is and what kind of contribution is appropriate? meaningful? helpful? How are the routines influenced by Reasons, Rules and Roles?
In the section on Orchestrating the Talk (Conversations), Chapter 5, Nichols focuses on Read Alouds as the starting point in a “Release of Responsibility Model.” (p. 53) Here is the real strength of Nichols’ approach: knowing when and how to help children move to the next level of conversation. She does this in two ways. She gradually moves children through types of reading conversations, beginning with Read Alouds and then moving to Shared Readings, Guiding Reading, Partnerships and Literature Circles…and only then to Independence. In her effort to be sensitive to the strengths and challenges of all language learners, she thoughtfully plans Macro (stages of interaction) and Micro (types of interaction) progressions, systematically monitoring children’s progress in order to move them to the next more challenging level of interaction/conversation. Although Nichols work doesn’t reflect “routines” in the typical sense of how turns are determined among the readers engaged in the conversations, she does show what kinds of turns there are as children participate in different stages of reading (Read Alouds, Shared Reading, etc.) and engage in a variety of fiction and nonfiction tasks. One of the ways she brings these examples to life is by charting stopping places as the children engage in reading. Her charts show stopping place, reasons for stopping, what talk indicative of meaning-making sounds like and possible scaffolds if the children aren’t constructing strong meaning. (p. 59)
Here Nichols uses three techniques: focusing on the nature of the reading task, determining where to stop in the reading (to allow for thinking/reflection) , and addressing the differing demands of both fiction and nonfiction.
The reading task.
Nichols takes a grade by grade approach, suggesting what kinds of task might be appropriate at each grade level. For example: “In kindergarten or first grade, a study lasting approximately four to six weeks might focus entirely on understanding characters. When planning studies, I always include an expectation for children’s talk. Once children are thinking about their reading in this way, what should their talk sound like…..”
Where to stop
Here Nichols gives very explicit examples of places in text to stop. She outlines “focus points,” “how readers do this,” and “what the talk might sound like.” Focus points include “tasks” like: getting to know what’s in a character’s heart, noticing changes in characters, and understanding what caused a character to change.
Differences in fiction and nonfiction reading
Here are some examples on nonfiction tasks: reading with a wide-awake mind, making sense of information, asking questions and forming theories, reading for big ideas, differentiating fact and opinion. Again, Nichols shows us how the reader does this and what the talk might sound like.
Rewards: Can dialogue really achieve the desired/specified “reasons” for all of the participants? How do we know?
The End Result (p 102-4) in Nichols’ words:
“Over time, we should see and hear evidence of the cumulative effect of instructional experiences in reading, thinking and talking and opportunities to practice with supports along the Release of Responsibility slide. Our children should be emerging from these experiences not only as stronger meaning makers capable of orchestrating their own conversation and negotiating with others for the purpose of construction meaning but as critically aware.”
“By teaching our children to read, think and talk about their thinking we enable them not only to have purposeful conversations that construct meaning with others, but also to have raging conversations in their own heads, even when thinking alone. In this way, we create self-sustaining , purposefully literate beings who question, build on the thinking of others, pursue more information, seek out and actually listen to other points of view, and in the end, make up their own minds” (P 103
…and..”the ability to take part in an intellectual exchange of ideas the constantly enlightens us, guides us, and helps us continually rethink our physical, social, political, and economic environments.”( P 104)
Bolding of print mine.