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Building dialogues in the reading class

February 05, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Dialogue and learning

What are your most memorable experiences of learning something new? 

Thinking back, you may recall a given context (who was present or what the light was like, for example) or place (maybe a science lab or a museum). Perhaps it was a non-scholastic event: talking to a friend or a family member, or listening to a documentary on television. Many of us may say that our learning is related to reading.

There are endless answers to the question above, but it is likely that some of our memories are related to either a lesson or a lecture, or a dialogue, either with people or a text. In this post today, we focus on the importance of dialogues built around reading experiences.

In current educational discourse, the most widely known and popular ways of learning are all related to inquiry-based approaches. Such approaches engage students in dialogues and encourage them to ask and answer questions. This view is in sharp contrast to the traditional image of teaching as the ‘transmission of knowledge’ as educational researcher Gordon Wells points out. Inquiry and dialogue are also different from the classic IRF (initiation-response-feedback) model of teaching, which often results in quick turn-taking with students who put their hands up first in the classroom. This approach usually means a certain group of students are systematically left out of discussions simply because they are shy or come from a different cultural background.

Dialogue walks hand in hand with inquiry. When students’ attention is directed towards interesting topics through engaging tasks and texts, they start asking questions, and they feel more confident to answer other people’s questions. A long history of research within the sociocultural theory of learning supports the idea that collaborative dialogues are one of the best models for learning. This is how people actually learn, not simply through the transmission of knowledge. This basic idea in modern psychology comes from research carried out by psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who described language as the ‘tool of tools’, the most developed means of mediation. In this view, psychological processes emerge first in collective behaviour in co-operation with other people.

These insights are especially significant for language teachers. Learning a language means learning to participate in dialogues, ask for clarification, reflect on other people’s thoughts, contribute and debate. The real question for the language teacher is in the ‘how’. How can we create situations in a language classroom? How can we engage in dialogues with students of lower levels of English? 

One way of initiating dialogues is by building them around shared reading experiences. We have outlined some steps that you can adapt to your own classes based on your students’ interests and language levels. 

However, before you start, you need to consider some significant aspects of dialogues in the classroom before you design your own lessons. 

Firstly, dialogue in the classroom should  have a purpose that you clarify with your students. A dialogue for its own sake can go on forever and students might not be sure what to take away from it. For example, this purpose can be learning to use new phrases in dialogue, learning something about a new cultural topic, or exploring how the class thinks about a certain story they read together. Of course, you can continue this list with dozens of new purposes.

Secondly, it is often a good idea to encourage students to ask their own questions. Students need to be reminded that asking a question shows the thirst for knowledge and not the lack of it. 

Finally, dialogue often rises out of a difference and learning to appreciate and reflect on other students’ ideas can be modeled in the guided dialogues. 

Steps towards initiating dialogues based on stories

1 Start by selecting a piece of text for classroom reading. Recommend two to three pre-selected titles and let your students choose one, or make a reading list of all of the titles.

2 Read a chapter in class, either individually or following the audio recording of the text.

3 When you have read the chapter or passage, you can lead students into the dialogue by asking them for their own reflections first. Ask them which character they liked, how they feel about what they read. Then you can focus on specific questions connected to the text: setting, plot, symbolism, etc.

4 Use the reflection boxes in our Red and Blue readers as a starting point. The boxes ask questions related to the story, encouraging the readers to draw lines between what is happening in the story and their own experiences. Encourage your students to stop and talk about these questions in pairs, before sharing their ideas with the class. This gives them some time to think and prepare sentences and questions. Then, dedicate enough time to collaborative dialogue with the whole class. Invite students to share their ideas, and to compare their ideas and experiences with those of others. At higher levels, these discussions might become more abstract. 

In our Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland reader, you can see such questions promoting personal engagement on page 17. After talking about why Alice felt bored and tired, students can tell you when they have felt something similar. Remember modeling how students can ask back to keep the dialogue going. For example, if someone says they feel boring during a long train journey, ask: ‘Where did you travel?’, ‘Who travelled with you?’, ‘How can you make a journey more interesting?’

Alice in Wonderland page 17
Sample page with reflection box from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. © Helbling Languages

5 Invite students to support their answers by giving examples (either from their own experience or the text, depending on the question asked).

6 Encourage debates by asking students to argue for and against a topic.

7 Elicit predictions about what might happen next.

8 When students ask their own questions about a text they are getting very real and powerful language practice. Helping students to formulate meaningful questions is one of the toughest challenges for a language teacher yet it is essential for real language proficiency.

You can help your students in this process by asking them to tell you (even in their first language) what they would like to more about. Encourage them to look at the images and the text, too. Maybe there is a detail in an illustration that they want to know more about. Perhaps they want to understand something about a character. Either help them build these questions in English, or model some questions. 

Dialogues take time, and it also means that students need to slow down and listen to each other. Dialogic teaching also means that we need to pay attention to the way we formulate our questions and understand how dialogues can serve pedagogical purposes. What is the role of dialogue in your own teaching? How do you promote dialogue in the whole class and in small groups?

Read more about dialogic teaching:

  • Gordon Wells & Rebeca Mejia Arauz. (2006). Dialogue in the Classroom, Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15:3, 379-428.
  • Lantolf, James P. (2000). Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: OUP.