The Reading Strategies Book – Chapter 12, Supporting Students’ Conversations – Speaking, Listening, and Deepening Comprehension

The strategy lessons highlighted in Chapter 12, Supporting Students’ Conversations – Speaking, Listening, and Deepening Comprehension, in The Reading Strategies Book by Jennifer Serravallo are critical to students’ engagement and comprehension, as well as their ability to write literary essays, or even book reviews, summaries and reflective pieces about books. If students aren’t able to talk about books in a way that is invigorating and joyful, they will be less likely to develop an interest in growing ideas for writing about books.

In her introduction to this chapter, Jennifer Serravallo, reminds us that when conversations go well, children are inspired by what they read and are motivated to keep reading. However, when conversations fall flat, then kids get bored and tune out. How do we avoid this situation and teach kids to have focused conversations about books? The answer is easy: teach kids strategies to help them develop effective conversational skills

As in other blog posts about The Reading Strategies Book for this book study – shout out to Tina Croft at Crofts’ Classroom blog – I have selected three of my favorite strategies from this chapter that are appropriate for my 5th grade students. 

12.1 Listen with Your Whole Body
I’ve done variations of this strategy several times a year for every year that I’ve been in the classroom. It seems that there are always some children who know how to listen well and then there are others who don’t seem to have a clue. I think this strategy works best if it’s taught to a whole class when students are being introduced to partnerships or book clubs OR to small groups, as needed. The gist of this strategy is that we need to teach children how to listen with their whole body. This is about sitting knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye. It’s about leaning in with your hips, shoulders and head toward the speaker. It’s about letting the speaker know you are listening by making eye contact and nodding your head. And, of course, as Serravallo notes in her “teaching tip” for this strategy, it is important that we use our knowledge about our students to adjust this lesson for kids who may have trouble making eye contact or who just can’t sit still. The graphic for this lesson pictures four students at a table demonstrating hands that are still, eyes focused and shoulders leaning in toward the speaker. I think that taking photographs of kids who demonstrate attentive listening “with their whole body” would be an effective chart to use for this lesson.

12.4 Say Back What You Heard
Teaching kids to repeat what someone else has said is often a challenge for teachers and students alike. So often, our students simply tune out or try to hide so they don’t get noticed and called on by the teacher. Or, they think that having a conversation means to skip from topic to topic without stopping to think about what someone said, much less respond to his or her ideas. In this strategy, we teach students to repeat what they heard someone say before stating their thoughts. Serravallo recommends the following sentence stems to help students develop this habit: “I heard you say…What I think is…” 

In addition to book clubs, my students engage in two- to three-minute conversations with a partner a few times a week as part of our reading status check in. If you do something similar in your classroom, then it might be a great time to teach this strategy. Of course, we need to be sensitive to the ELL’s in our classrooms. Saying back what they heard may be a huge hurdle depending on their English language developmental stage. Additionally, some students may need to ask their partners to repeat what was said before saying it back to them. Teachers should always consider potential adjustments depending on the needs of the children in their care.

12.10 Sentence Starter Sticks
I have found that students sometimes need sentence starters to…well..get started with conversations or even when doing exit tickets or quick writes. Sentence starters, if used judiciously, can help kids start and continue conversations with their peers. First, the teacher prepares some popsicle sticks with sentence stems that serve as conversation starters. Using these sentences stems with teacher support, at first, may help students get a feel for whether or not these might be useful to them. For example, do the sentence starters help students have more robust and engaging conversations that mostly stick to the topic of the book? Also, students can use the sticks when a group or partnership is stuck (this will happen) and the conversation is not going anywhere (this will happen, too). Serravallo suggests the following sentence stems, but we all have ones that get kids talking in meaningful ways. Some stems to try are:

  • In addition… (great for getting kids to use transition words and phrases in their conversations and can hopefully transfer to their writing)
  • On the other hand… (transition words and phrases)
  • I agree with you because… 
  • I disagree because…
  • I’d like to add on to what…said…
  • This might not be right, but maybe…
  • Why do you think…?
  • What do you think about…?
Once students have learned how to listen with their whole body and are able to paraphrase what their partner or book club member said in order to extend their own thoughts, then using the sentence starter popsicle sticks is a natural extension to keep a conversation going. 

Note: When Jennifer Serravallos’ The Writing Strategies Book was published, I immediately ordered a copy. I have started to use both of these books several times a week in my whole class, small group and individual lessons with students. Although there are strategies here that I have used in one way or another before, having them in one place has been extremely helpful. 

Cross posted to: Crofts’ Classroom

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