On “Comprehension Through Conversation”

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Infographic from @TeachHeath

FROM: Comprehension Through Conversation, by Maria Nichols

The Importance of Developing the Ability to Think & Talk (Chapter 1): In the traditional classroom, the teacher typically takes the role of a banker who “deposits” knowledge into passive students and questioning becomes a game of Trivial Pursuit where students respond to inauthentic questions by regurgitating facts.  Learning goals in an environment such as this are designed to support achievement in an industrial world where workers do not need to think, but only need to complete basic tasks.

As educators, we must move beyond traditional methodologies in order to establish an environment that supports the development of skills our students need to be successful in a global economy.  According to Peter Senge, this includes “listening and communication skills, collaborative learning capabilities, and critical and systems thinking.”

The Interconnectedness of Language Development & Purposeful Talk (Chapter 2): According to Nichols, language development, purposeful talk and literacy learning are “beautifully intertwined.”  She also reminds us that all students must be provided the opportunity to participate in purposeful talk – especially in diverse settings.

Some important things to consider as we develop “an environment that enables all children to grow as thinkers, language users and participants in purposeful talk” include student groupings, the use of charts and picture books, multiple exposures to a specific text, and vocabulary routines.  At the heart purposeful talk and literacy learning is Cambourne’s Conditions for Learning, which contains 8 conditions for the optimal social, emotional and language rich environment.

Paradigm Shifts (Chapter 3): In order to develop a classroom that promotes purposeful talk we must shift from a banking model to a constructivist model.  According to Nichols, it is necessary to reflect on some powerful beliefs that have permeated classroom instruction for years in order to ensure that these traditional beliefs evolve.  Our views on student abilities must shift from a fixed view of intelligence to a focus on reflective intelligence (or a growth mindset for the Dweck fans out there!).

As we plan, we must develop questions that promote the sharing of ideas rather than just the “right answer.”   Conferring and dialog must now be the focus of assessment rather than traditional pen & paper tests.  This will result in a learning community where children who “respect, value and trust each others thinking are challenged to read, think and talk together to construct meaning.”

Environments & Instruction that Enable Purposeful Talk (Chapter 4): Constructivism; Purposeful Talk; Reflective Intelligence…if you are wondering what this looks like in practice then this is the chapter for you!  Through some specific case studies, Nichols paints a clear picture of what purposeful talk in action and even provides examples of the scaffolding process!

She starts out by detailing the optimal physical environment and then gives us some key points to focus on, including talking with meaning, listening with intent & building bigger ideas (consider the links to writing in this area, after all, language is the sea upon which all else floats).  Nichols also provides us with some wonderful sentence stems to facilitate building bigger ideas, scaffolding them from “generic” language to “natural” children’s language.

Growing Purposeful Talk-Using Read Alouds as the Spark (Chapter 5): Throughout Chapter 5, Nichols focuses us in on Domain 2: Planning & Preparation.  When planning for an interactive read aloud we must select a text that our students (and we as teachers) will connect to deeply and that will promote powerful conversations.  We must look beyond the literal components of the text and examine the themes deeply as we plan for purposeful talk.

Once we have found the heart of the text then we can plan for natural stopping points, what the talk might look like and develop scaffolds to promote the dialog.  Most importantly, Nichols stresses the importance of modeling these routines and even provides an example of this in an early childhood classroom – some of which will sound very familiar thanks to Carrie & Lori!

Thinking & Talking About Reading in Increasingly Complex Ways-Immersing Children in Units of Study (Chapter 6): The development of thematic units is an essential component to the reading workshop; however, when developing units of study, Nichols challenges us to look beyond apples or groundhogs.  First and foremost, our themes must be aligned to the standards, be developmentally appropriate, and should include a core of complex texts to work from.

When planning units of study it is equally important to visualize your expectations for conversation as students cycle through within the text, about the text and beyond the text thinking/discussion.  This will result in students who live “purposefully literate lives” as they become text participants, users and analysts.

Building Toward Independence-Moving Reading, Thinking & Talking Down the Release of Responsibility Slide (Chapter 7): In Chapter 7 we move across the Release of Responsibility continuum to focus on shared reading, guided reading, partner/independent reading and literature circles.  Throughout the chapter, Nichols provides several examples of read-think-talk routines(or “STP” for those of us working with the Next Steps Forward in Guided Reading text).

Once again she focuses on the importance of modeling as our young students take ownership of the reading process and on the role that various charts can play in helping to make this process interactive and authentic.  As we incorporate these routines into our literacy block, consider the implications for conferencing, mentor texts and anchor charts during writing as well…imagine the meaningful connections our students will be making as these routines become seamlessly integrated!

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