Talk Structures

Talk. It’s a huge part of our personal lives and our schools’ lives. I love what Donald Graves said about why he refused to learn how to use an ATM—he liked going into the bank, he liked talking to the teller, he liked connecting and conversing with people outside of his universe. With all the technology that is at our fingertips, conversation may be a dying art.

I am not immune. You have a much better chance of connecting with me via text or email than by phone. Case in point, my 82-year-old father, frustrated with my reluctance to answer my phone, taught himself to text. Now, we “talk” all the time—via text. But, as reluctant as I sometimes am to engage in voice-to-voice or face-to-face communication, There. Is. No. Substitute. This is true for us, and it is also true for our students.

So how can we make talk a vibrant, essential, and enjoyable part of classroom life?

Club Talk
Club talk gets a lot of attention in the hearts and minds of workshop teachers. There is a sense of anticipation and, if we are honest, sometimes dread when a book club unit is approaching. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because while kids might be fluent talkers of all things non-academic, the minute they sit in a group to discuss a text… you hear crickets. Everything they know about how to initiate, sustain, and switch conversational topics seems to disappear. I believe one possible cause of this is our students do not have a vision of what they are trying to create. (Think Lucille Clifton: You cannot create what you cannot imagine.) Maybe our students cannot have rich, provocative conversations about texts because they cannot imagine what they are trying to make. In other words, club talk is not the beginning of strong talk work, it is the continuation. I suggest beginning with whole class conversation. Whole class conversation provides students with a vision of how readers talk about texts.

Whole Class Conversation
Ideally, you and your students will gather once, or better yet, twice a week to talk about a shared text: the read aloud, a video, an article. As with any predictable structure, you’ll want to establish a few guidelines:

1. It’s your turn to talk if no one else is talking and you have something to say. In other words, no hands, no objects, no roles. In real world conversations, people do not raise their hands, pass objects that permit them to speak or speak only about an assigned job like vocabulary. In the real word, conversations are messy and dynamic—people interrupt each other, topics intersect and people talk about information and ideas. I want the conversations that occur in the classroom to reflect and prepare kids for real world conversations.

2. Sit facing most of the readers. During whole class conversation, readers sit facing each other for the simple reason that listening is an essential ingredient of a strong conversation. Heidi Hayes Jacobs teaches students to listen with their eyes and their ears, their hearts and their minds. Teaching children to sit facing in each other (as opposed to you, the teacher) provides repeated practice in listening with eyes and ears, hearts and minds. This, perhaps more than anything else, has the power to improve talk.

3. Can’t hear? Use our “turn up the volume” signal. Nothing is more disruptive to a speaker, particularly a reluctant speaker, than being repeatedly interrupted with, “What? I can’t hear you,” or, “Could you please speak up?” For this reason, teach your students to use a non-verbal gesture that indicates to the speaker that they need to increase their volume. I usually recommend putting two arms in the air, but any signal can work. And, don’t forget to teach your students to stop using the signal as soon as the speaker gets the message.

You’ve shared a text together. The guidelines are in place. Time to talk! Only sometimes, when presented with the question, “So what are we thinking about… ?” or, “Who can get us started on a conversation about… ?” you can once again hear those crickets. One way to deal with this is to invite students to turn and rehearse their ideas with their partner first. During this time, you can bop to a few different partnerships listening for an idea to launch the talk, then say, “All eyes on… (name a student).” Another way to support readers in saying something is by teaching them to prepare for talk by jotting a “Let’s talk about…” post-it. With post-its in hand, each reader feels confident that they have something to say. Congratulations! You’ve just launched a whole class conversation.

Partner Talk
If whole class conversation provides the vision of what kids are trying to make when they engage in intellectual talk about a text, then partner talk provides day-to-day talk workouts. By this I mean, daily time to meet with one’s reading partner and talk. About texts. Partners might retell or talk about favorite parts or ask for help in resolving a confusion. Partners might talk about the book they are currently reading, the class read aloud text or books they’ve previously read. There are myriad options. The first step is creating leveled partnerships and a predictable time for those partnerships to meet.

And… Back to Book Clubs
Earlier I mentioned that clubs can be a source of mixed emotions—anticipation and dread. Although hopefully more anticipation and less dread now that you’ve created a vision for talk via whole class conversation and provided predictable and ample opportunities for students to practice talking about texts with their reading partners. This is certain to make the club work, reading a common text in sync with a few other readers, go much more smoothly.

I realize this is a tip-of-the-iceberg post. There is so much more to explore related to whole class conversation, partner talk and clubs. I’ve merely provided skeletal definitions. So, I am curious, what are your questions and confusions, struggles and successes connected to talk? I’ve heard Lucy Calkins say that the definition of a good conversation is thinking grows and/or thinking changes. Katy and I want this blog to be the kind of place where thinking grows and thinking changes and for that to happen we need to hear from you. Jot a comment. Tweet an idea. Chat with a colleague. In other words, turn and talk.

16 thoughts on “Talk Structures

  1. Teacher readers here may be interested in a great MOOC through Stanford “Constructive Classroom Conversations” all about getting more than sharing out of our T&Ts. I just completed the course and it’s been practice transforming… along the lines Lucy C spoke of I believe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a long time follower and learner from you, I usually implement things you mention asap, and have LOVED regular whole class conversations with my fourth graders. A struggle every year, and where most of my teaching around whole class convos ends up, is to get them to move from sort of popcorning their thinking and really stick with an important idea and talk it out. Would love to hear how you’ve supported kids in this work.


    • That’s such an interesting struggle to think about. One thing I’ve tried is tracking the conversation (how long we stayed on a topic, with tally marks or something) and then helping kids study when and why they popcorned around. If you set it up as “Hey, we have this goal to stay on a topic, so let’s study this and figure out what works” that can be nice.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: In the Fishbowl | Turn and Talk

  4. Katie, if we ever decide to write a post about the qualities of ah.mazing colleagues, you will be one of our ‘mentor texts.’ Thanks for your support!


  5. First, I have to say that I love that your dad is commenting!! So sweet!

    I have run book clubs for a few years and love to see the progress as the students feel more comfortable. I am switching to only teaching writing. I have heard about writing clubs and would love to know more about them and how they operate. Do you know of any resources?


  6. Adrienne,
    First, I have to agree my dad is very sweet! He’s incredibly supportive and always proud of me. I am a lucky daughter. For sure.
    Writing clubs. Much of my knowledge comes from Colleen Cruz–@colleen_cruz and I was lucky enough to be a member of her adult writing workshop. Check our her blog and definitely read anything she’s written.
    Also, Katy and I will write about talk in the writing workshop. Promise!


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