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By Jen Kelly, Ph.D., teacher consultant, Provincial Outreach Program for the Early Years (POPEY)

Why is talk so important? First and foremost, it provides educators a window into who students are and what they think. Talking not only promotes relationships and community-building within a classroom, but also provides significant academic payoffs in learning. Talking supports robust learning by boosting memory and providing richer connections to concepts through vocabulary development. Conversations allow students to have a voice and encourage students to reason with evidence. In addition, intentional talk can enrich the development of critical social skills in and out of the classroom. Below are three strategies to support intentional talk in the early years classroom.

Conversation station

Setting up conversation stations is a way to bring in purposeful dialogue daily in Kindergarten and Grade 1 classrooms. During the interactions at the station educators and students actively listen to each other, engage in meaningful dialogue driven by students, and have the opportunity for educators to develop and expand students’ language.

Setting up a conversation station is quite simple, but it may take some time for students to get used to the format. The significance of the interaction is rooted in the concept that the students drive the conversation; however, most students will need to have dialogue scaffolded until they are comfortable. Educators can accomplish this by having some theme-related vocabulary picture cards that can spark opinions or thoughts. Recently read picture books can also provide prompts for conversation starters. Establishing rules about talking and listening can be discussed with the whole class and practised with students one-on-one. As students start to show competence and confidence in conversations, additional students may be invited to join the conversation.

There are many benefits to using conversation stations in early years classrooms. A significant advantage is that educators can expand upon the language students choose to use from their background knowledge. For example, an educator may say, “You mentioned that your puppy was running into the water; was it a lake or a river? Can you tell me how your puppy looked when he was in the water?” In addition, if a student wants to tell the class about their new puppy during a whole class discussion and there is no time to dive into the topic, the educator can suggest that they continue the discussion during the conversation station. The student feels respected and heard by the class, and can be invited to be the first person at the station that day.

Guiding intentional talk between students

The opportunity for educators to step back and observe students’ language and thinking can provide a lot of information about students. During a recent forest walk, I had the chance to follow a conversation among three students working together to build a snake habitat.

Student A:     And this is a snake nest, and this is a little snake bed.

Educator:       Why did you choose to put a rock here?

Student A:      It’s the thing for the babies to go under.

Educator:       How did you design your snake home?

Student A:      By looking at others and thinking about what snakes need. And this is chew stuff for the babies.

Student B:      And that’s the dinner table.

Student A:      And this is the baby room, and this is the Daddy room.

Student C:      And where’s the Mommy room?

Student B:      It’s the same spot.

Student C:      Just like my Dad’s and Mom’s room, but they don’t share it anymore.

In the script, there is meaningful learning to note. The educator asked intentional questions to get the three students to describe and explain; however, it is evident that the students are leading the conversation. The students are working collaboratively and building on each other’s ideas. The students were not only thinking about their ideas and building on their background knowledge of snakes, but also connecting to their own lives to make sense of the world around them.

Hands-down conversations

An essential skill for young children to learn and practise is having an authentic conversation based on listening to others, adding opinions, and justifying reasons. A hands-down conversation is an opportunity for students to experience how people converse in the real world where the format of “question, response, evaluation (right or wrong)” is inappropriate. In Hands Down, Speak Up, by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind and Christy Hermann Thompson, the authors describe the process of listening and talking through hands-down conversations.

The format of hands-down conversations involves no hand-raising; instead, students are taught how to listen for a place to slide their voice into the conversation. There is only one voice speaking at a time, and students are expected to listen closely to the person speaking. Educators take the position to the side of the students or as part of the circle to guide the conversation at times, but not lead it. The educator may prompt students by mentioning, “Sadie is trying to get her voice in. Someone can invite her in by asking her what she thinks.”

A beneficial way to scaffold how to share ideas and opinions in hands-down conversations is to have a detailed lesson on how to talk about reasoning or telling why you are going to say something. An educator may begin by saying, “We are going to tell our ideas to our friends and then tell them why we think that, because that will help us understand each other’s thinking. We can start our sentences like, ‘I think…, Because…, I noticed…, So I’m thinking….’”

An interesting way to monitor the hands-down conversation is conversation mapping. An educator may draw a quick sketch of the circle, naming where students are sitting, and then draw arrows to indicate where the conversation is going and who is taking part. The authors suggest sharing the map with students afterward and discussing what they notice about it. After discussing who was often speaking and who was not, students become aware of the conversation directions in the following weeks and become more diligent about having an “even” conversation where everyone is involved.

Each of these instructional practices exposes students to new ideas, new language structures, and new vocabulary through intentional and authentic engagement in conversation. The benefits are significant and far-reaching in real-life situations. One huge benefit that needs to be mentioned is the fact that all these language development opportunities set up students for enhanced reading comprehension. Reading comprehension starts long before students learn to decode, and instead begins as students learn to understand and use spoken language. The best investment in future reading comprehension is to focus on language comprehension in the early years.

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Category/Topic: Teacher Magazine