Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Text Talk - Why talk matters for comprehension

I first devised the term 'Text Talk' in the 1980s and wrote about it in a number of publications, including my book 'Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work' (Continuum). The post is based on what I said in these publications. My purpose in using the term was to stress to teachers and parents that the most vital thing we can do to improve children's comprehension is to talk about text.

What do I mean by 'Text Talk'?

Photo courtesy of Tembari Children Care
Text Talk means more than teachers talking to children about books, or asking them questions designed to elicit information. In essence, Text Talk requires the teacher or parent and children to converse about their understanding or meanings as they read, reflect up the author's intent, tease out the knowledge and meaning an author communicates, and generally tussle with and critique the view of the world that the author presents as well as the effectiveness of the text.  The role is varied, but in essence, still simple and requires the teacher to:

a) provide background information if necessary and appropriate;
b) elicit responses from readers to the text;
c) suggest alternative strategies for making meaning;
d) share insights about reading and language;
e) support and assess student efforts to construct meaning;
g) ask questions that expand knowledge and insight, rather than simply testing it; 
g) introduce new forms of language and alternative purposes for reading.

Teachers can assume varying roles when talking to children about texts, ranging from those which are heavily teacher-centred and text dependent, to those which are child-centred and reader dependent. Some teachers adopt a questionning role, while others provide support in the form of knowledge, alternative strategies etc. These roles are not mutually exclusive, nor is one approach right and the other wrong (although implementation of both can be good and poor). What is needed is balance and, above all, true conversation about books.

How should teachers talk to students about text?

One of the nicest examples of 'text talk' in action is to be found in the children's novel 'The Great Gilly Hopkins' (Paterson, 1978). This story revolves around Gilly's struggles to adjust to life in yet another foster home, come to greater understanding of herself, and experience love for the first time. Within the story there is a delightful exchange between Gilly, Mrs Trotter (foster mother), Mr Randolph (a blind man who lives next door) and William Ernest, a younger mildly disabled foster child who lives also with Mrs Trotter.

After dinner one evening Mr Randolph asks Gilly to read some of Wordsworth's poetry to him. She reluctantly agrees, and finishes William Wordsworth's 'Ode on Intimations of Immortality from the Recollections of Childhood'. She sits down lost in her own inner anger and frustration. But Mr Randolph interrupts her thought:
'Well, what do you think of Mr Wordsworth, Miss Gilly?' asked Mr Randolph interrupting her angry thoughts.
'Stupid,' she said.....................A look of pain crossed his face. 'I suppose,' he said in his pinched, polite voice, 'in just one reading, one might....'
'Like here' - Gilly now felt forced to justify an opinion which she didn't in the least hold - 'like here at the end, "the meanest flower that blows". What in hell - what's that supposed to mean? Whoever heard of a "mean flower"?
Mr Randolph relaxed. 'The word mean has more than one definition, Miss Gilly. Here the poet is talking about humility, lowliness, not' - he laughed softly - 'not bad nature.'
Gilly flushed. 'I never saw a flower blow, either.'
'Dandelions.' They all turned to look at William Ernest, not only startled by the seldom-heard sound of his voice, but by the fact that all three had forgotten that he was even in the room. There he sat, cross-legged on the floor at the end of the couch, a near-sighted guru, blinking behind glasses.
'You hear that?' Trotter's voice boomed with triumph.
'Dandelions? Ain't that the smartest thing you ever heard? Ain't it?' W.E. ducked his head behind the cover of the couch arm.
'That is probably exactly the flower that Mr Wordsworth meant,' Mr Randolph said. 'Surely it is the lowliest flower of all.'
'Meanest flower there is,' agreed Trotter happily. 'And they sure do blow, just like William Ernest says. They blow all over the place.'

This extract provides a perfect example of people talking about text and in the process increasing the child's knowledge of the world, and their grasp of language.  As well, it creates interest and appreciation of an unfamiliar and more complex work than they could encounter and understand alone. Within it we see:
  • Mr Randolph providing access to a text beyond Gilly's level of "actual" developmental.
  • How interaction between individual people can facilitate learning.
  • How a 'teacher' can exercise quiet control through questionning and comment without stifling other voices and views (or just testing knowledge).
  • That the 'teacher' is not the only person with knowledge and, that insights can come from unlikely places (William Ernest).
  • Mr Randolph providing new knowledge in response to the Gilly's questions.
  • The excitement of Trotter as she witnesses the insight of William Ernest, and her affirmation of support for him as a person and a learner.
Text Talk results when a teacher or parent has the sensitivity and insight to spot the teachable moment, to grapple for the right question, to know just when to provide new knowledge, or when to probe and prompt children to grasp new things.

Related Posts

'Guiding Children's Learning' HERE
 Other posts on comprehension HERE

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