Sorting Out Talk

Everyone has a geeky teaching passion, right?

Vocabulary is definitely one of mine, and lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work on vocabulary with middle school science and social studies teachers. Word sorts, described in depth in Words Their Way, have long been a staple of many elementary word study programs, but haven’t always made their way up to middle school. I’ve been asking groups of middle school content area teachers, groups of students, and really, groups of anyone I can find, to try out some content area word sorts, using a set of words pulled from the Colonial America era.

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The idea of a word sort is in the name – you’re sorting a collection of words! In an “open” word sort, groups of kids (or teachers!) categorize the words into groups – any groups at all that the group works out. In a “closed” sort, you’d provide some labels for categories for the words to be sorted into.

Closed sort with three categories provided

Closed sort with three categories provided

One of many ways that kids sometimes do an open sort with these words.

One of many ways that kids sometimes do an open sort with these words.

Time after time, groups laid out their words and begin sorting, but quickly I became aware of what a lot of the groups weren’t doing – talking.

In one group of teachers, I watched teachers conduct a lively, impassioned argument over where a word should go, just by moving the card, back and forth, back and forth – without a word spoken.

In groups of kids, I often saw one or two kids emerge as leaders, and the others defer to them, sometimes without a word. Again, the existence of the physical cards stood in for conversation and although I could often guess at why someone moved a card into a specific pile, or imagine what their thinking probably was, I didn’t hear it and I wasn’t sure I was right.

I realized a few things, watching this. First, that this is a harder task than it seems. It’s hard to name categories for concepts, and it’s hard to describe in words how things fit together, when sometimes it feels like they just DO. Second, when we see kids go silent (or go unproductive – “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” “Yes it is!”), that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re shy, or quiet, or not sure of what to say, or not sure of the answer. The teachers doing this, for example, were all literate, thoughtful, eloquent adults, some of whom had extensive knowledge of Colonial America – and even they had trouble narrating their thinking. Third, I realized that the talking aspect of this task makes it much more challenging than if I had asked individuals to sort the cards – but also far more productive. The value of the task isn’t in getting the “right” sort, but in remembering or learning what the concepts mean and figuring out which other concepts are linked in different ways. This almost always requires some debate, or discussion. It may not require disagreement, but at the very least it requires a little noise.

This third realization is the biggest one, to me. Talk can be a way of processing information, revising thinking, deepening comprehension. Talk is a way to make thinking visible so that you can coach into kids’ thinking, not just their final answers. And talk is a way to make good instructional activities great. As teachers we spend so much time developing powerful opportunities for kids to engage with rich, vibrant materials and ideas – but kids’ silence can thwart even the best-laid plans.

This “silent play” is a pretty common occurrence in the classroom…so now what do we do about it? I’ll be honest – I don’t have seven color-coded fancy strategies to try out. Often, in my experience, just saying, “Hey, can you guys talk out loud about what you’re thinking?” has been enough. But for groups that need a bit more, one tip is simply to observe – are they talking? What’s the talk like? You could share these notes with the kids, too, asking if they see the same patterns you do and inviting them to brainstorm and set goals to change those patterns. A second tip is to try fishbowling a group doing a word sort, and talking, so that the other kids see how that talk might sound and have a vision of what you’re looking for. (For more on fishbowl activities, check out this post!)

So, the upshot? I think it makes sense to continue to nudge and push kids toward doing the talking in this kind of activity, even if it’s hard, and even if kids could perhaps make better (and certainly faster!) sorts independently. I think talking about words, using words, and talking about how to use words builds vocabulary and builds the webs that kids will use to keep track of and grow concepts in their content area studies. And I think that, like so many other facets of our school days, talk can be the bridge between our initial thoughts and the powerful webs of new thinking that school can help us grow.

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12 thoughts on “Sorting Out Talk

  1. Talk is SUCH an important way of processing information. It’s through talk that we grow our thinking in meaningful ways. Fishbowling is a great way to lift the level of conversation around a classroom talk-related activity.

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  2. Quick, I need to find students so I can try this out right now. I love the three realizations: noticing, naming patterns, synthesizing = hard work. Talking out our thinking, being vulnerable and open to disagreement, hard at any age. My favorite passage in this post is ….

    “Talk can be a way of processing information, revising thinking, deepening comprehension. Talk is a way to make thinking visible so that you can coach into kids’ thinking, not just their final answers. And talk is a way to make good instructional activities great. As teachers we spend so much time developing powerful opportunities for kids to engage with rich, vibrant materials and ideas – but kids’ silence can thwart even the best-laid plans.”

    It would be great to think about ways to transfer this work to partnerships, book clubs and other times of the day. I find myself reflecting on some of the following questions after reading this post: How often do we see Ss pulling words and concepts from the text (words that represent larger ideas, words that lift the level of their discourse around texts)? Could we also do this with lines from literature versus just words as it seems like lines can also hold larger meaning in narrative texts? How could we teach Ss to create their own sorts around texts, and then do this kind of work inside small groups? As we look at the words that we and Ss pull, do we notice that more of them fall in the Tier 2 or Tier 3 categories based on Beck’s work?

    Thank you so much for this, I can’t wait to try some of this work out.

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    • Those are fascinating questions, Ryan! Now *I* want to go find some kids and try that out! Especially the idea of kids creating their own sorts — anytime we can turn over the ownership of our “stuff” to kids I am a big fan 🙂

      (And I love Beck’s vocab work too – we should talk about that!)

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  3. Katy,
    So I just saw and heard Jennifer Serravallo talk about these kinds of prompts with her reading strategies: compliment
    directive
    redirection
    question
    sentence starter

    I’m wondering if some of them fit into the talk about word sorts.
    “You are working in a group – you need to develop your own group processing norms.”
    “However, if you want to move a word to a different category, what will you say BEFORE you do it?”
    “How do we honor the contributions of all learners? (and make sure that all participate!)”

    . . love that no one just waits for the answer!

    Obviously more thinking required!!!

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    • Interesting!!!!! I haven’t thought about prompts in those kinds of categories before, and I think you’re definitely right that could be an amazing way to think about how we comment on and teach into talk during activities. Sentence starter as a category (assuming I am getting Jen S. right here) could maybe lead to some good lean coaching to remind kids of some of the discussions they’ve had as a group. Lots to think about here!

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      • Yes, sentence starter as a category! I love your thought of “lean coaching” as I know I have a tendency to “try this, and this, AND this” hoping one will stick when I should just wait to see the evidence of learning!

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  4. “Talk is a way to make good instruction great.” So many good points here. We all say talk is important yet the doing of it well is questionable. Teachers may start in with the work but then, I think they feel the loss of control and don’t see the value in it. Students get stuck in their lack of independence and things fall apart.

    Your observation that proficient adults “had trouble narrating their thinking” speaks volumes. We don’t really know how this goes for ourselves and I think there is a huge vulnerability felt by teachers when they share.

    So happy this blog is here. Such a necessary area we need to talk more about!!

    Julieanne

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    • Thanks Julieanne! I think you’re absolutely right about how this stuff sometimes falls apart without meaning to. Your comment about adult vulnerability is huge, too — I know there are zillions of times when I have something to say in a group and am hesitant, and might try to just slip something in really quick (the equivalent of silently moving a word, maybe!) without drawing attention to myself. That’s a great point.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So many insights here about the value and function of talk in the learning process. It’s so true that this process can most often be difficult and look different each time and with different groups. But, it’s through working through that discomfort that we discover new pathways of thinking, sharing, and move on to synthesizing ideas and formulating new ones. Great post!

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