Monday, March 26, 2012

Conversation: A Powerful Tool

Conversation: A Powerful Tool
By Wendy Sheets, Intermediate Literacy Trainer

After spending three days in professional development with a group of amazing literacy coaches recently, I can’t help but ponder the power of conversation. Over and over, I heard remarks about appreciating having time to talk with other professionals, to reflect upon successes and challenges, and to find encouragement through those conversations. Sometimes we need to just listen to others’ ideas as we process and synthesize what they’re saying. And at other times, our own sharing helps us to clarify our beliefs, perhaps solving problems or noticing new ones, and at times just affirming that our voices matter. Isn’t that how we create meaning, either learning something new or shaping what we already know? Conversation is powerful. “Essentially we are social beings and our brains grow in a social environment…we often forge meaning through socializing…Talking, sharing, and discussing are critical; we are biologically wired for language and communicating with one another” (Jenson, 1998, p. 93).
Interactive Read-Aloud 
Let’s think about conversation within a few different contexts, beginning with interactive read-aloud. When a classroom community has been created and children feel comfortable taking risks, what rich conversation takes place around a high-quality text! As purposeful talk is orchestrated and students engage in the negotiation of meaning, thinking is furthered. The dance of strategic actions begins, and students naturally make connections, predictions, and inferences, and they dig deeper to synthesize new ideas, along with thinking more critically and analytically about the text. “The experience provides unequaled opportunities for expanding background knowledge, vocabulary, literary knowledge, and shared language” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2006, p. xxxiv).
 Book Clubs  

Once effective talk is established during interactive read-aloud, readers naturally progress to building deep conversations during book clubs. “When students participate in book clubs, they talk, read, and often write in highly interactive ways. The central idea is that greater insight can be achieved when several people share their thinking, thus benefiting from each other’s understandings and perspectives. The discussion takes the form of an investigation as participants try out tentative ideas, search for information to confirm or refute their thinking, and build on one another’s ideas” (Fountas & Pinnell, 2006, p. 280). Inquiring becomes habitual as readers probe the meaning of text together. As meaning is constructed in a small group, readers achieve a greater understanding, a lift, if you will, than they would have alone.

Writing Conferences    
There is something very special about setting aside one-on-one time. My sons and I have our best conversations when travelling alone for long distances in the car. I think knowing we have the stretch of time, our talk is less inhibited, and becomes more meaningful. During writing conferences, we also set aside a special time, or meeting, to focus solely on one individual. We seek to discover our student’s needs, reinforce their strengths, and provide support, all the while lifting the writer, rather than the piece. And that needs to happen through effective conversation. Carl Anderson suggests several different conversational strategies for helping students talk about their writing (2000, p. 97). He recommends redirecting when a student talks about the content of their writing rather than their writing work. When students have some facility with talking about their writing work, he suggests reflecting and pausing, showing and describing, referring back to the last conference, and naming what is observed. When students need much support with talking about their work, he uses strategies to take a tour, describing what he thinks he sees the writer doing, and then making suggestions by asking specific questions that create options for the writer. Amplification allows him to demonstrate something while naming it, such as the use of carets or a circular structure, and finally, he asks for clarification when students need practice using writing discourse. Most importantly, I think we need to remember that a writing conference is a personal conversation that moves our writers forward. The work is generative, so that the learning becomes a part of the writer’s repertoire to use again and again.
 Coaching Conversations 

I would be remiss to leave out the power of conversation within a coaching context. According to Lyons and Pinnell (2001, pgs. 141-12), “Coaching emerges from the trusting context that surrounds the act of teaching…An effective coaching conversation has five essential features:
      1.      It is tied to a specific event that has just occurred.

2.      It takes place in the context of the teacher’s attempt to learn a specific technique or concept.

3.      It makes use of specific teacher and student actions as well as words.

4.      It includes reciprocal reflection and constructive dialogue between teacher and coach.

5.      It results in new learning and a plan of action to improve teaching.

The authors go on to discuss the fact that a real conversation has give-and-take with both participants making statements and asking questions, offering advice and help, clarifying for each other, and sharing experiences and hunches. It is through the wonderings, the hunches, that we become active learners.  
Think About It…

Think about the conversations that take place in your life. Are they productive? Full of give-and-take? Do they help you to reflect and clarify, and do they lift others in their thinking? When we come together to share our ideas, all of our contributions are woven together into a beautiful tapestry that covers our thinking and pushes us beyond our own walls. This is what happened with the literacy coaches in our professional development session I mentioned earlier. The stage was set, the pump was primed. Voicing ideas was bound to happen and everyone went away feeling refreshed and renewed with strengthened understandings and greater intentions. Let’s work to create the right atmosphere for purposeful conversation in every context in which we live as readers and writers. Our brains will thank us.


Anderson, C. 2000. How's It Going? Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Fountas, I.C. & Pinnell, G.S. 2006. Teaching For Comprehending and Fluency. Portsmouth:
Jenson, E. 1998. Teaching With the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Lyons, C.A. & Pinnell, G.S. 2001. Systems For Change in Literacy Education: A Guide to
          Professional Development. Portsmouth: Heinemann.
Nichols, M. 2006. Comprehension Through Conversation: The Power of Purposeful Talk in the
          Reading Workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.              

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