Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why dialogue is important to comprehension development

This is a reprise of a post I wrote in 2011, which was based on an idea I first devised in the 1980s. Back then I was challenging teachers to consider the importance of what I called 'Text Talk'. I wrote about it at the time in a number of publications, including my book 'Teaching Reading Comprehension: Meaning Makers at Work' (Continuum). I was trying to challenge teachers to consider using more than just the classic IRE form of questioning. The Initiate-Response-Evaluate (IRE) approach is probably the most common approach to comprehension. Typically, the teacher leads a discussions and asks questions to which a response is elicited and then evaluated by the teacher (and sometimes students). It is useful to test factual knowledge, or recall. It can also be used to attempt higher order questioning, but it rarely seems to in classrooms. I've written other posts on questioning (see HERE) that you might consider. But in this post I simply want to remind teachers and parents that testing comprehension doesn't do much to enhance or improve comprehension.

What do I mean by 'Text Talk'?

Above: Reading to my grandchildren. Lot's of Text Talk here
'Text Talk' means more than the teacher or parent talking to children about books, or asking them questions designed to elicit information. Rather, Text Talk requires the teacher or parent and children to have dialogue or conversation about reader understanding or meanings as they share a book, watch a film, observe some event and so on. It is used to tease out the knowledge and meaning that a text, image, movie or event offers. It's about tussling with, interpreting and even critiquing what the creator of the book or film has sought to communicate. 

Text Talk as an alternative to IRE questioning offers more space for children to share ideas and meanings, and offers them opportunities to grow understanding beyond a single idea or focus. The role is varied, but in essence, still simple and if led by the teacher involves:

a) Providing background information if necessary and appropriate.
b) Eliciting responses from readers to the text.
c) Suggesting alternative strategies for making meaning.
d) Sharing insights about reading and language.
e) Supporting and assessing student efforts to construct meaning.
g) Asking questions that expand knowledge and insight, rather than simply testing it. 
g) Introducing new forms of language and alternative purposes for reading.

Of course, while such discussions often need a facilitator, there is a place for students to fill this role. In this way different voices and ideas are sometimes heard and more students tend to engage rather than the most vocal few.

When teachers try to support comprehension, they can assume varying roles, ranging from some which are heavily teacher-centred and text dependent, to those that are child-centred and reader dependent. At times teachers will adopt a questioning role, but at other times they will 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 illustration of 'text talk' in action that I've used a lot is actually to be found in a 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 shared 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 experience.
  • How interaction and dialogue between individual people can facilitate learning.
  • How a 'teacher' can exercise quiet control through questioning and comment without stifling other voices and views (or just testing knowledge).
  • That the 'teacher' is not the only person with knowledge, and that insight 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 and a more dialogic approach to reading comprehension, 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.It can be used incidentally, or as the focus for whole lessons or group activities.

Related Posts

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

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