Balancing Opportunities for Children to Think and Talk About Text

Kathleen-FayGuest blog post by Literacy for All Conference featured speaker Kathleen Fay, Primary Literacy Collaborative District Trainer for Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia

When I taught Reading Recovery, I remember being blown away by the question, “What is the child’s theory of reading?” I hadn’t thought about interpreting behaviors to reveal a possible reading theory for each child. One child may enter school with a solid foundation that books make sense, we talk about them, and we have favorites. Another child may think that reading is getting the words right, or remembering the words. School situations, testing situations, home interactions, bedtime stories, listening to a funny story, being asked about ideas… each interaction has the potential to contribute to a child’s theory of reading, positively or not, regardless of intention. As teachers, we only have control over what goes on in our classrooms. As such, what we say to children, how we listen to them, and how we respond to them, can contribute to their identity as a reader (a writer, a learner, a person) and how they perceive what reading can do for them. It is as exciting as it is daunting.

Here’s an exaggeration to illustrate my point. A child reads a text during a guided reading session and is asked a series of questions to follow up: What happened? What happened next? What happened at the end? What was your favorite part? Why do you think the author wrote this story?

Regardless of the intentions behind this interaction, there are possible contributions to the child’s in-the-head theory: Reading is about remembering what I read. I have to prove to them I just read the text.  My responses are either right or wrong. I should like what I read. Once I figure out what my teacher wants me to say, she’ll be happy with me, or she’ll leave me alone.

We want kids to be active and genuine in their thinking. To reveal this thinking, we have to have authentic conversations with them. Yet we have to be careful of our tone and that even open-ended questions don’t feel like a barrage. I have to constantly remind myself to be genuine. Wait. Listen. Talk with. Especially with tentative children, I’ve tried to use statements instead of questions:

  • I wonder what you’re thinking…
  • Let’s pick a part to talk about…Let’s talk about…
  • I wonder why [the character] did that.
  • Wow, I didn’t know that! That makes me think …

Interacting this way, the theory we hope to be building is: Someone cares about what I think. I have something to say. My ideas matter. It’s okay not to know. Sometimes people aren’t sure, but they share what they are thinking anyway. There are books we like and books we don’t like. I can learn something when I read.

It’s not about which prompts or opening moves are right but the importance of balancing opportunities for children to think and talk about text and that the joy and pleasure in books may not be about the author’s message or the main idea of the story. Sometimes it’s just about enjoying a few quiet moments of undivided attention that isn’t scripted or defined by standards. I’m reminded of this when I read with my daughter. For the past few weeks we spend time every night searching for the ten hamster children, noticing another parallel in the illustrations, and playing with different voices in Peggy Rathman’s Ten Minutes Till Bedtime (1998). In these moments, books bring us together. My hope is that our quiet (or very loud) talk, impromptu reactions, and play with texts build her theory that reading is worthwhile and what she contributes is valued and brings meaning to this enjoyable experience.

becoming-one-communityKathleen has more than 20 years of experience working as a classroom teacher, Reading Recovery teacher, and most recently, as a Literacy Collaborative Coach in Title I schools. She is co-author, with Suzanne Whaley, of Becoming One Community: Reading and Writing with English Language Learners (Stenhouse, 2004). She will be presenting at the upcoming Literacy for All conference in Providence, RI. Her sessions on Monday, November 3 and Tuesday, November 4 include: 

LCD-5 — Keeping Meaning at the Forefront of Book Introductions (Grades K–2)

LCF-3 — Keeping Meaning at the Forefront of Book Introductions (Grades K–2) 

LCG-2 — Using Small-Group Read-Alouds to Support Young Readers (Grades K–2)

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