Literate conversations: a how-to

In the October 2014 issue of Educational Leadership, an article–“Reading Moves: What Not to Do”–brings up the idea of a literate conversation,. A literate conversation is one in which the conversants are creating meaning out of the common experience they have created and shared through reading.

Unfortunately, in many classrooms, these conversations don’t happen. Instead, we –fearing losing control of the classrooms or letting students feel as if they haven’t accomplished anything by not reading, not reading closely, or reading material that is too hard for them–tend to ask students little beyond low-level, detail-oriented questions that require almost no understanding. The article explains it well:

   Imagine that you’re sitting in a coffee shop one morning reading the local newspaper when a friend walks in and asks, “Have you read the story about the tornado in Johnsonville?” You respond, “Yes, I just finished it.”
   If your friend were then to subject you to the sort of low-level questions found in most reading series (“What was the fire chief’s name?” “What color was the car that was destroyed?”) you would probably look at her somewhat grumpily and wonder what was wrong with her.
   Instead, your friend would be more likely to ask something along the lines of, “That tornado was terrible, wasn’t it?” You might respond, “Yes, it was a miracle that nobody was killed!”

All well and good, but how do you actually implement this in a classroom? Many students are so used to answering low level questions that when faced with a higher-level question, they are at a loss. They don’t know how to started, don’t read the question all the way until the end of the sentence, or provide answers to unasked questions (because they have guessed what the question is asking instead of reading the question).

Fearing the inevitable frustration that students express when given work that they think is too hard for them (even if it isn’t), we give them predigested questions. We operate out of fear instead of a desire to model thinking.

Q. So how do we solve this problem?

A1. By modeling thought processes and giving just-in-time instruction.


A2. By scaffolding.

In short — DON’T TELL THEM WHAT TO DO FIRST. Let them grapple for three or four minutes, then show them the steps. or GIVE THEM EASY STEPS FIRST, then build on those steps.

Method A1 :

1. Give students the text/picture/film clip/lyrics about which they will be answering questions

2. Give them the high-level questions they will answer, from least to most difficult. All questions should require interpretive reading on some level.

3. Give them 5-7 mins to answer the first question. Be sure to tell them they have 7 mins  to get started, then you’ll get together again to discuss.

4. During the 7 mins, go straight to the most- and least likely to understand kids. What patterns do you notice? Help them out.

5. After 7 mins, reconvene. Ask: How did it go? Ask: To easy, too hard?

Model: Model how to break down the question. Let them complete the question on their own.

6. Give them another 7-8 minutes to start the next question. Say you’ll reconvene in 7-8 mins.

7. Again, go around. If after that, it is time to reconvene, do it. Otherwise, let them fly.


1. Give students the text/picture/film clip/lyrics about which they will be answering questions.

2. For each high level question, give a pre-question–a low-level question that REQUIRES copying, quoting, or a simple “what do you see.” This calms those who are used to giving low-level answers.

3. Allow them to move forward to the harder questions at their own pace. The simple questions are the life raft that allow students to try swimming in deeper waters.

Give students the opportunity to feel smart. It’s important. Just feeling smart is the first step to saying/expressing something smart. To expressing anything, actually.


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