We often think of reading as a solitary, silent activity, but it can also be a noisy pair or group event which keeps students busy. We think that both approaches to reading are equally enjoyable and beneficial for language learning. And by using them both, you can develop your students' vocabulary, grammar, and thinking skills through stories.
In this post, we look at some ideas to help you engage young readers in dialogue during reading time. Dialogic teaching and dialogic reading are excellent ways of developing language skills, building cultural and subject knowledge, and learning about emotions and personal responses. When students feel at ease during dialogues, they are more likely to use the language and you can support and scaffold them in the process. We know that language anxiety can be reduced and willingness to communicate increased by creating a friendly and motivating learning environment. Story time is a great way for teachers to do this. We have collected a couple of ideas to help you get dialogues up and running during classroom reading time.
1 Getting started
There are two ways to get storytime started. You can start with the visual world of the book, and observe the pages and the illustrations. Building dialogues based on the illustrations is an easy and comfortable way to begin. However, you can also jump right into the story and say ‘Today we will read a story about…’, and start with background knowledge activation and prediction. It means that you talk either in L1 or L2 about what the story might be about and give any necessary information the students may need to help them to better appreciate the story (e.g., setting). Then read the story out loud, paying attention to a slow pace and engaging intonation. Remember that babies understand that there is a narrative unfolding just by listening to intonation before they have language to grasp meaning, so always rely on your voice.
2 Pick your questions wisely
Language teachers know how important it is to ask the right questions when preparing for class dialogues. Both open-ended and yes/no questions have a place in the classroom. If you want to get your students to talk and express their feelings, tell stories, talk about the content (visual or verbal) on the pages, and ask open-ended questions. For example, start with the visual content and ask:
- What’s going on in the picture?
- What can you see?
- What is [a character] doing?
Then, during reading, stop from time to time and check the plot:
- What does/did [a character] say?
- Where is/was [a character]?
- Where do/did they go?
Yes/No questions work well when you want to get the conversation started. For example, ‘Do you like this picture?’, ‘Do you like [a character]?
Yes/No questions also work when you want to check the meanings. For example, ‘Do/Did they go to the party?’, ‘Do/Did he/she talk to anyone?’ and so on.
Since speaking is one of the most challenging skills for all students, go slowly and accept even a one-word answer. Just like in real-life communication, we don’t need to say full sentences in dialogues. If you feel that your students need a little bit more encouragement, you can initiate a conversation in your students’ mother tongue then switch to English. This will allow them to activate background knowledge before they start talking about it in a foreign language. Code-switching can feel comfortable and safe for students, so if they start off by responding in their first language, let them use it. The main point here is to get them hooked on the story. When you start reading, gradually (or completely) switch to English and build up a dialogue word by word.
3 Let students observe the book
Examining the physical book is also a great way to get the dialogue going. It feels interesting to hold and open a book. Pay attention to the cover, the endpapers (sometimes stories begin there!), and the layout of the pages. What information, other than the story, is given? Let your students look at the images, say something about the colours and the book as an object.
4 Dialogue starters and giving feedback
As we said above, it is a good idea to think in terms of short dialogues. A few words, or even a one-word in exchange is already a great achievement for a young child. Our role in these dialogues includes prompting the students, and then evaluating/giving feedback on their responses. If a child says something incorrectly, avoid correcting, just reformulate their answer in the appropriate way. With older children, you can give synonyms during your feedback. Here are some ideas to get the dialogue going:
- Let students finish the sentence. For example, ‘The kids in this story are …’, ‘The little boy is…’
- Practise simple descriptions when you read a picture book: ‘What can you see?’ Use the words as well as the images from the story pages in the dialogue.
- Who, what, where, when, why? When you have read a passage, use Wh-questions. They prepare students for active reading, which is an essential skill in the future and paves the way for critical reading. The earlier students get used to the idea of being in a dialogue with a text, the more confident they will be when reading.
- Raise interest. Ask questions about the events in the story. For example, ‘Do you know why it is a dangerous place?’, ‘Do you know why they can’t eat …?’
5 Emotional response and factual descriptions are both important
When we read, we learn new things, experience new events, and also feel all sorts of emotions. Both emotional response and knowledge-building are important in reading. After checking what a passage or a story is about (with the help of Wh-questions), focus on how the characters in the story feel, then ask the students how they feel about the story. Ask questions like ‘How do you feel about this story?’, ‘Is it a happy or a sad story?’, ‘Why is the boy sad?’, ‘Why are they laughing?’, ‘What made the man happy?’. By recognizing emotions in the characters, the students can learn to reflect on their own emotions better.
6 Retell: recall: recycle
When you have finished reading the story, go back and retell the story by recalling the most important events and talking about different aspects of the story. When you talk about the story, you start using the new words in it. For example, ask ‘What happened to [a character]?’
If your students need more support, start retelling the story and let them finish your sentences. For example, ‘There was a boy - what was his name? - travelled to - where did he go? by - how?’ By building a plot summary together your students will begin to realise what the structure of a summary is. With time, they will be able to do it on their own.
7 Make connections with other things
Stories are great resources to learn about the world, as you think about connections between the story and the ‘real’ world. These can be cultural, historical, emotional, or scientific. In the simplest way, if the story is set in the land of volcanoes, it gives you an opportunity to talk about geography. If the story is set in the past, you can talk a little about the historical context. For example, ‘The man wears a … in the story. Why?’ And then go on by comparing with life today.
These were just some of the ideas you can use to get dialogues going. Stay tuned for more ideas on reading methodology in the classroom.