Read Talk Write: Developing 21st Century Skills

By Laura Robb

A group of five eighth grade students meet to develop open-ended questions for historical fiction texts about war; their instructional reading levels range from fifth to seventh grade. Students have read the first four chapters in their instructional reading books and are preparing for a student-led discussion. Even though they read different books, they know how to develop open-ended questions based on themes, conflicts, problems, and how characters cope with war—questions that lead to meaningful discussions. In fact, discussing multiple texts results in richer conversations because students can also compare and contrast wars in the context of different historical periods.

Books Students Have Selected

So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins

My Brother Sam Is Dead by Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier

Number the Stars by Lois Lowery

Shades of Gray by Carolyn Reeder

Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers

This scenario highlights how I embed three key learning priorities that have students:

  1. Choose from a group of books at their instructional level;
  2. Read books they can learn from and discuss with other group members;
  3. Collaborate to develop questions for a discussion they will lead.

I always offer students choice of reading materials, so they invest in and commit to the reading (Miller 2009; Robb 2010). Finding books for a wide-range of reading levels is doable when you ask your school librarian to help you select books for your students’ needs—books that are worth reading, reflecting on, and discussing.

In this article, I will discuss the literary conversations students can have with a small group, the entire class, partners, and even themselves in the form of in-the-head conversations. But first, let’s take a look at how student-led conversations develop the twenty-first century skills they will need as they continue their education and eventually join a job market that requires highly developed literacy and analytical skills (Recovery 2020).

Student-Led Literary Conversations Develop 21st Century Learning Skills

Today’s classrooms should provide students with the experiences needed to develop the four 21st century skills, called the 4C’s: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. Everything students do at school should equip them with the 4C’s and build the interpersonal, creative, and analytical skills necessary for solving global problems such as limited water and food supplies, climate change, immigration, and humanitarian problems that will arise as the future unfolds.  You can develop the 4C’s with a student-centered approach in which you facilitate learning, not control it with worksheets, daily quizzes, and recitation, posing questions with one correct answer. Student-led literary conversations are one such approach that can be woven into your daily lessons.

Right from the start students collaborate in groups or with partners to compose discussion questions, estimate how much time they’ll need to complete a discussion, and decide who will be the student-facilitator that maintains the discussion’s forward motion. During discussions, students communicate directly with each other. They organize and present their ideas in ways listeners can understand and follow. Meaningful talk can lead students to recall details and then use these details to identify themes and main ideas and cite evidence that supports their thinking. Critically analyzing texts asks students to use creativity and imagination by stepping into characters’ shoes and living life as they lived it (Coles, 1990). In addition, as others share ideas, students observe creative thinking in action and see how the evidence they cited can support different viewpoints.

After the discussion, I have students debrief with two questions: What worked and why? What can we improve and how? They apply the 4C’s as they reflect on their process which results in setting goals that can improve their conversations.  One such debriefing enabled a group of eighth graders to notice that three students dominated the conversation and two did not contribute. To reach their goal of full participation, students agreed that the group facilitator would remind everyone to participate before the discussion began. And yes, there are other ways to solve this problem, but permitting students to find a solution means they collaborate to problem solve. If one solution doesn’t work, they can agree on and try another.

Not only do literary conversations strengthen students’ communication and collaboration skills, they also foster a sense of agency by inviting students to work together to compose questions that lead to discussing and uncovering layers of meaning in texts.

Initiating Literary Discussions With Interpretive Questions

Research shows that students who are taught to generate their own questions after reading can develop a deeper understanding of the text than students who receive no training and practice (Rothstein & Santana, 2011; Zimmerman & Keene, 2007).  Deeper comprehension develops because students must have a thorough knowledge of the reading material to create questions. Moreover, using their questions motivates students to discuss texts and also leads to greater independence.

Explain to students that there are two kinds of questions: open-ended, interpretive questions that have more than one answer and closed questions that have one correct answer. For example, an interpretive questions for The Giver by Lois Lowery is Why does the Giver encourage and help Jonas to escape the community? A closed question is Who does Jonas take with him when he leaves the community?  An interpretive question has more than one answer that can be supported with text evidence. Tell students that as soon as they can find two valid answers to a question, they can think about composing another question. You’ll also want to teach students to ask guiding questions so they can explore ideas in multiple texts.

Initiating Literary Discussions With Guiding Questions

In the opening of this article, I describe a unit on war that has students reading different texts. Such a unit is ideal for developing guiding questions that move beyond a specific book to exploring a topic, an issue, or a common theme. For the unit on war, students developed two guiding questions: Is there such a thing as a just war?  Why do conflicts escalate into wars?

Help students develop guiding questions for a unit of study by telling them the issue, theme, or concept they’ll be exploring. Then ask students to use the idea such as stereotyping or obstacles to compose a question that can’t be answered in one or two sentences. Guiding questions such as How do obstacles affect the course of a person’s life? or Why does stereotyping limit a person’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?  compel students to read texts closely, think critically, and agree or disagree as they exchange ideas in order to build understandings and a knowledge base.

The teaching tips that follow will enable you to facilitate engaging, student-led, literary conversations.

Four Tips for Initiating a Variety of Student-Led Literary Discussions

You can engage students in talk about a text you’re reading aloud, texts they’re reading at their instructional levels, a common short text, different texts on the same genre, topic, or issue, and independent reading materials (Robb, 2016).  

Tip 1: Negotiate how much time groups will have for their literary conversations With students’ input, establish a timeline that provides a deadline date for discussions that may extend over several class periods. Let students know that they need to tell you in advance if they can’t meet a deadline. Negotiate extra time for students if they have been using class time productively.

Tip 2: Give students prompts that keep discussions moving forward. Have groups choose a member who will be in charge of using prompts such as:

  • Does anyone have a different idea?
  • Can you find text evidence that supports that idea?
  • Can you clarify your point?
  • Can you explain that term?

Tip 3: As students discuss, circulate among them and listen. Provide desk-side scaffolding for students who can benefit from 2-to-3-minute interventions, such as using context to figure out a word’s meaning or setting a purpose before reading. Note the names of students who require more time to move to independence and support them when the rest of the class reads independently.

Tip 4: Set a signal for closing a conversation. You can flick the classroom lights to get students’ attention and say something like, “You have about one minute to finish.”  Always end on a positive note by sharing what you noticed: I heard different interpretations; I liked the careful listening; I noticed that everyone wrote in their notebooks.

Implementing this approach take s time, and you should know that student-led discussions often derail at first. I recommend that teachers start with whole-class discussions so they can model and scaffold the process, and then  release responsibility to small groups and partners.

Read Talk Write

When talk precedes informal writing about reading, written responses reveal critical thinking and analysis. The research on informal writing about reading is compelling: When students write about books they read their comprehension of the text jumps 24 percentile points (Graham & Harris, 2016).  For this reason, after literary conversations I encourage students to summarize key points of their conversations in a notebook or to write about one of the open-ended questions they composed.

With his partner, Lucas discussed examples of Atticus Finch’s courage (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee). The paragraph reveals that the pair took the discussion beyond the prompt and linked it to what Jem and Scout learn about courage from their father. The odds of your students making similar connections are greater when talk precedes writing about reading because during a conversation students have the opportunity to find new connections and try out ideas in a non-threatening way.

Jem and Scout learn from their father that courage is standing up for someone who can’t stand up for themselves. When Tom and Atticus are both cornered by an angry mob, Atticus holds his ground and tries to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner. He tries to convince the mob to let due process decide whether or not Tom is guilty. Atticus showed his courage here by not standing down no matter the threat, as all he wanted was justice. This experience taught Jem and Scout that everybody, of any race, deserves a chance at due process. “Stand up your daddy’s passing,” this quote from the Reverand shows that even though Atticus had lost the trial, everyone in the black community recognized that he had tried his hardest, deserved respect, and proved Tom was innocent. This is shown because usually people only stand up when a judge enters or exits the courtroom.

Four Student-Led Discussions

Discussions can be a quick turn-and-talk with a partner, but they should also include longer conversations that call upon students’ critical thinking skills and creativity.

Whole-Class Discussions

These can take 5 to 20 minutes and ask students to participate without raising hands. Initiate the discussion with a guiding or interpretive question; remind students to cite text evidence to support ideas. Encourage everyone to risk participating. Students listen to each other and take turns responding, being careful to wait until a classmate has finished. Jot key ideas and summarize them to close the discussion.

Small-Group Discussions

Three to six students have a discussion for 10-30 minutes and might need more than one class to complete the discussion.  As in a whole-class discussion, students take turns responding without raising hands; groups choose a peer to use prompts that keep the discussion moving forward.

Partner Discussions

Two students have an in-depth conversation about student-generated guiding and/or interpretive questions, issues, or concepts. Partners can focus on a small chunk of text (quote or chapter) or the whole text. Discussions can take 5-30 minutes and may extend over multiple class periods.

In-the-Head Conversations

Students have these conversations with themselves while reading, looking at photographs, attending a play, or watching a video or movie. Internal conversations motivate and engage students with written, oral, or visual texts. It is also a meta-cognitive tool helping students recognize when a passage confuses them, signaling the student to reread or close read to comprehend.

Assessing Literary Conversations

There are many ways to assess literary conversations including notebook entries and teacher observation forms to jot comments on students’ preparation, participation, and thinking (Daniels 2006). You can also ask students to write paragraphs and essays based on their discussions and notebook entries.  The point to remember is that when students choose texts they want to and can read, write discussion questions, and exchange ideas with peers, reading, talking, and writing about reading become engaging and meaningful.

Closing Thoughts

When you incorporate student-led literary conversations, you inspire students to read, talk, and write about materials they choose. Remember, a student-centered approach creates a community of learners who collaborate and support one another. The result? Students improve as readers, writers, communicators, and critical thinkers.


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