Sherry Kinzel is a contributing author to Responsive Literacy: A Comprehensive Framework.
I usually enjoy my commute to work by blaring ’80’s music, singing at the top of my lungs to songs that I’m still amazed that I remember, and, yes, occasionally a little car dancing. However, on one particular morning, my attention landed on a talk radio show about relationships. The guest was explaining how some relationships are vertical relationships, where one person holds the power over another, such as parent-child, boss-employee, teacher-student, etc. He also said that some relationships are horizontal relationships, where power isn’t held by one or it’s shared equally, such as husband-wife, colleagues, and friends.
My mind immediately thought of all the times that I explained to teachers that Interactive Read Alouds can be so powerful in the classroom because they “level the playing field” by giving all readers, regardless of reading ability, equal access to the text, since the teacher is doing the reading aloud. Then I recalled numerous teachers who told me that when they asked their students questions during an Interactive Read Aloud that most of the students were quiet, or that one or two students seemed to dominate. One child would answer the question and then…crickets. They were done. Kids would just sit there waiting for the teacher. I’ve noticed this behavior in many classrooms over the years.
I began putting these ideas and observations together, and I wondered: Do students view the teacher-student relationship as a vertical relationship? Of course, they do! The teacher is in charge, right? Therefore, we wait for him to ask a question, guess what the right answer is, or hope he doesn’t call on us. Then, we wait for the next question. I have a hunch that students learn this way of interacting very early. Think about how students respond in your school’s classrooms. When do you notice students taking a passive stance about contributing to the conversation?
A better question might be what can we do to increase thoughtful, authentic conversations?
Are you ready for this? Let’s stop asking so many questions. Seriously. Let’s change our language from “who, what, where, when, and how?” to “Let’s talk about what we are noticing” or “Build a conversation with your partner” or “Please share your thinking.” The former format of questioning can unintentionally come off as a mild interrogation. The latter feels more like an invitation to share my thinking without being distracted by searching for one, limited right answer.
I ask the teachers and literacy coaches that I work with to incorporate this shift in their language during Interactive Read Alouds, Guided Reading lessons, and Reading Conferences. The results have been amazing! Each educator said that they noticed a significant increase in the volume and depth of the thinking shared by their students.
You might be wondering, if we ask students what they are thinking, we don’t know what they will say. Exactly! It is a great way to sample the kind of thinking our readers are actually doing with a text. Teachers may discover that they were unintentionally limiting their student’s thinking by asking questions that only required literal comprehension or recall. We know that reading is much, much more than recalling information from a text. Reading is a “message-getting process.” So, what messages are our readers constructing? Do they have the opportunity to hear from their peers multiple perspectives from a shared text? Can we create a space in the day when students feel safe about sharing their ideas, interpretations, connections, and what they notice?
Here are some helpful suggestions for creating classroom environments that facilitate greater volumes and deeper levels of thinking about text:
1. Stop asking so many questions. Reword questions to begin with phrases such as let’s talk about, build a conversation with a partner, think about what this means to you, share something you learned about, etc. Turn questions into invitations to think.
2. Create a list of “language that builds conversation.” We can’t assume that students know how to listen carefully to others and respond appropriately.
- “I can add to that…”
- “I disagree because…”
- “Are you saying…?”
- “Now I’m wondering…”
We should model this language during Interactive Read Alouds and hold our students accountable for using it. Reinforce how this language helps us learn more. Start with a short list. Then, add to it over time.
3. At first, when we prompt students with language such as share what you are noticing, we may notice that students will look at us as though they are waiting for more. We can’t get discouraged, and we should remember that their habit of letting teachers decide what kind of thinking they should be doing probably didn’t start this school year. It could take a little while for kids to realize we actually want them to notice something on their own and be able to articulate what was noticed. My advice is to avoid eye contact until someone begins sharing. It works like a charm! We should also let them know that we are comfortable with the brief silence because that means they are thinking deeply.
When we do not narrow the kind of thinking we ask students to do, we are actually asking them to do more of the work of reading. Reading is like a muscle. The more we work the muscle, the more strong and flexible it gets. Students need to be active in the construction of meaning. Let’s not allow our readers to take a passive stance by waiting on their teachers to ask a question.
Check out more, recent blog posts from Sherry and other Responsive Literacy contributors, here:
- Inquiry in the Classroom: Never Lose Your Sense of Wonder! by Sherry Kinzel
- Word Study: Assessment-Driven Instruction by Carla Steele
- The Joy of Writing: Living as Writers Within the Workshop by Wendy Sheets