Talk to be “good”

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I recently encountered an article indicating that school-age children rarely talk with their friends about what they are “free” reading, mostly because they don’t have time in their academic day.

Wait! Really? That’s huge!

This lost conversation represents a lost educational opportunity, seemingly sacrificed on the altar of what apparently passes for instructional efficiency! But it’s not just that teachers generally don’t lead kids to converse about their self-selected books. In the absence of book clubs and such, I don’t think adults do it much either.talking-about-books-2

The verifiably biggest value multiplier for kids’ reading is in genuine conversation about a book they choose to read: enthusiastic promotion of a favorite book to others, sincere collaborative analysis of literal and inferred meaning from a book that others also read, and relating personal life stories illuminated by the book. The potential positives go on and on.

Reading and talking about it are the most reliably beneficial activities for developing richer vocabulary. Follow-up conversation about reading gives kids a chance to use new vocabulary introduced by the author, explore new ideas and experiences presented in a book, and integrate new insights they encounter in a book. Reading also positively impacts background knowledge, composition ability and spelling.

What’s more educationally beneficial than the above collection of enriched cognitive abilities?

But the larger question for us adults is, “When does anybody talk about what they are reading?”

I am the odd bird that interrupts people lost in a book while we are sitting adjacent in waiting rooms, on buses and in airport lounges, asking what they are reading. That typically leads to a pleasant discussion of  their favorite genres and authors, the premise of the book they are holding and whether the reader would recommend it to a nosey stranger. My interruption is totally selfish, of course. I’m shopping for my next read/author/portable adventure. I’ve never had anyone ask me about what I’m reading unless they see me smiling, slapping my book or tablet shut at the end of a satisfying read.

For children, genuine talk about books occurs when parents, who understand the essential role they play in the language development of their young ones, initiate and invite conversations about books enjoyed during daily reading together. This kind of talk lays the foundation for schools to build upon.

A simple turn-and-talk directive at the end of a classroom’s free reading time can be an easy addition to keep this very powerful ball rolling. However, it can’t be added if there is NO free reading time established in the daily schedule.

Teachers NOT instituting a free reading time is like baseball coaches not arranging time for their kids to joyfully play catch without interruption. Follow up discussion in either case can’t be anything but good.

As Richard Allington asked so many years ago, “If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good?”*…and the “good” is not just good at reading for school work. It includes good at being a reader who carries on post reading conversations that build deep comprehension and solid thinking.

Really now…If they don’t converse much, how they ever gonna get good?!


*Allington, R., If They Don’t Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good? Journal of Reading, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Oct., 1977), pp. 57-61

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14 Responses to “Talk to be “good””

  1. Cindy Hoisington October 28, 2016 at 4:15 pm #

    You’ve hit on a huge issue in elementary school where the focus seems to be on reading and writing without any realization that talk is the foundation for all literacy. The research is clear that talking about meaningful interesting topics (whether from a book or another source) is absolutely fundamental to promoting higher level thinking as well as language. Try finding a video online showing a teacher reading interactively with elementary students and asking interesting productive questions that extend children’s thinking or deepen their understanding of story concepts rather than focusing on discrete vocabulary words, phonics, or reading “skills”. No can do! Bravo for your post!

    • Mark Condon October 31, 2016 at 11:52 am #

      Thanks Cindy! You are so right. How can schools claim to be focused upon literacy when they utterly ignore the importance of language development as its foundation. Those who do this are undoubtedly well-intentioned. However, they are evidently not well-educated in this most important aspect of education.

  2. Jennifer Young October 29, 2016 at 7:57 pm #

    You are absolutely right! So much of what we ask kids to do in classrooms is NOT what real readers do in real life. We must provide time and opportunity for kids to do what readers do…read and talk with their peers about what they are reading.

    • Mark Condon October 31, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

      Thanks for bringing this up, Jennifer. However, I’m not sure that I agree that many of us readers (those not in book clubs) actually do converse about our reading lives. My experience has been that at least in the USA, seeing people reading a book in public is a rarity. As a society, we don’t LIVE our literacy in an public way. So, children from families that don’t read, can grow up with virtually no expectations for the joys found within their pages. Perhaps our reticence to carry a book wherever we go, and to read it during all of those periods we find ourselves waiting for others, leaves our children guessing about why all the fuss.

    • Jenna Rowland November 9, 2016 at 6:32 pm #

      I was thinking the same thing! I am an avid reader, however I rarely talk about what I am reading to anyone. If I want to see a change in my students I will need to start with myself. I found this blog to be most helpful.

      • Mark Condon November 9, 2016 at 6:50 pm #

        Yeah, I agree, Jenna. We have to SHOW kids what it looks like and how we handle it before we can expect them to step up and try it themselves.

  3. Elisa Waingort October 30, 2016 at 10:30 am #

    Very timely post, Mark. I’ve been working with my students on partner conversations. I find that kids, like you say, don’t voluntarily talk about books with their friends. They either have never been encouraged to do so and/or don’t have the language to discuss books in an engaging and significant way. I do see a lot of that starting to happen once we get into a reading workshop routine that allows for a lot of independent reading time with self-selected books. However, kids still need a lot of support as they develop conversation structures for discussing books beyond the typical summary of the story.

    • Mark Condon October 31, 2016 at 12:07 pm #

      Thanks for sharing that, Elisa. I’m thinking that when we find ourselves entranced by a good book, that the intimacy of that experience may be hard to put into words. If children can’t observe adults’ book-induced laughter, tears and thrills they may find their own similar experiences too intimate to put into words and share. As adults, we need to own that reticence in ourselves and step out more for the sake of our kids.

    • Jenna Rowland November 9, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

      I see the same thing in my students. Many of them will read something and not want to share with anyone what they have read. I have them pair up and summarize what they have read. Sometimes I give them different articles to read and then pair them up with a person who read something different than them. At that point, I have them summarize what they have read to the other person. The other person must ask two thoughtful questions about what the summary was about. It is all about trying to get them involved in reading and interacting with each other. I did find this blog to be very interesting.

      • Mark Condon November 9, 2016 at 6:57 pm #

        Thanks again, Jenna. The only thing I’d suggest for you to consider is that you are assigning them a structure that you’d never assign to a mature fellow reader. 2 questions? Summarize? Those are requirements that we ONLY see in school. Think about a bunch of adults … or even just two, who read the same materials. I can envision the conversation as “So what did you think??” and the response being something appropriate (Let’s call it XYZ). The next really good response to that might be, “You just said, “XYZ.” Could you talk about that a bit more? And from there the conversation takes off. No summary. No structured questions. Just conversation.
        I don’t mean to suggest that it is easy to get kids interacting in that natural way, but if that’s what we want to them to do, then the lesson should invite them to try out a natural give and take.

        • Jenna Rowland November 10, 2016 at 7:10 pm #

          Perfectly put! You made an excellent point! Thank you!

  4. Beth Hughes November 2, 2016 at 7:20 am #

    What a great post! I’m a high school ELA teacher who instituted choice texts and 10-minutes of free reading at the beginning of the block three years ago (during which time I also get lost in a good read), and I have witnessed firsthand my students transitioning from being fake readers (to get the A, which is a whole other post!) to being voracious, authentic readers. Their writing skills are better, their vocabulary foundation is stronger, and they’re building the stamina they’ll need for when they hit college. (According to Penny Kittle’s research in BOOK LOVE, these students will need to be able to consume 600+ pages of text in a single week!) The talking-about-it piece is so important. To that end, a colleague and I redesigned our midyear and final exams to be Book Clubs where our two classes meet in the library and discuss, among other things, their growth as readers, writers, and thinkers, as well as a recent-year text that has had an impact on them. The discussions are amazing, and the students demonstrate the same standards they would on a 200-question multiple choice test in a real-world setting. (I shared this paradigm shift here–>

    Thanks for the reminder to us all about the importance of letting students just be good!

    • Mark Condon November 2, 2016 at 10:29 am #

      Wow Beth! I’m honored by your attention to my offering. There are people like me who share an idea or two and then there are professionals like you that DO stuff and make the world a better place for the kids. Thank you so much for sharing. I just visited your blog and my admiration for your contribution was doubled.

  5. Jenna Rowland November 9, 2016 at 6:22 pm #

    I found this to be a very interesting read! I teach 7th grade language arts, and I do try to get my students to talk about what they are reading. Sometimes it is like pulling teeth, though. I will often have them read a passage from our text, or an article I have selected, and then have them turn to a partner and share their ideas on the reading. Sometimes I will even have them read different passages and then summarize what they have read to a person who read something different than them. This is difficult at times. My middle schoolers feel self-conscious talking about what they are reading. I guess it isn’t “cool.” What do you suggest doing to help them come out of their shells and be more open to talking with others about their understanding of literature? Is it just something that needs to be practiced?
    Again, I really did enjoy your posting!
    Jenna Rowland