Sunday, March 27, 2011

Text-based inferences: Who's Talking?

As we move past state testing and into the last months of the year, I like to have students work in literature circles. Literature circles are a great way to get kids talking about their books and engaging with text.

For my transitional readers, though, the literature circle books I've chosen present some new challenges. In Misty of Chincoteague and Bunnicula, there are exchanges of dialogue in which the speaker is not identified. While I'd like to believe that all of my students have mastered the ability to pick their way through tricky dialogue, I know that this is not the case.

To help them work through the dialogue, my student teacher and I tried this simple activity. After talking about ways that we know how different characters are speaking, we gave students a short snippet of a story and directed them to use colored pencils to underline the dialogue of the different characters.
What a revealing activity this is! Identifying the speaker in dialogue is, after all, a kind of inference. This inference is text-based--that is, it pulls on the reader's background knowledge of how text works. As I talked with students about their work, I was able to gain some insight into how they thought about text. "How did you know that this was Robert?" I asked one student.

"Oh, well," he said. "There were already two people in the kitchen, and then someone else came in. So I pictured him coming in, and then I just knew that he had to be the older brother." Here, I could learn much about how this student was processing the text--he was visualizing the setting, and tracking the movements of the characters. These are the skills he needs to be successful with understanding a story.

But I learned about problems as well. One student underlined the entire first five lines. "But, ___, why did you underline so much? There are no quotation marks," I asked, a little puzzled.

He answered, "Because she's the one who's telling the story, right? So she's talking." Oh! In this case, the student had mistaken the narration of the first-person narrator for dialogue. Think about how this changes his perception of the time of the story and how it unfolds. I grabbed a new copy of the page and tried to explain. "She's the one telling the story, yes. But it's not the same as dialogue. Look, the dialogue is down here--see, with the quotation marks? That's how we know that different people are speaking."

He dutifully took the colored pencil and underlined where I had shown him. But I could tell that he still wasn't convinced. And I was falling down the rabbit-hill of teacher-thinking: trying to figure out how he was building his mental model of the story, and how the time of the first-person narrator was different from the story-time, and how perhaps I should have used a third-person text for this activity, but that maybe it was better to have a first-person text, because now I knew this was a problem, and how this would impact teaching the writing of first person narratives, and maybe this was why some kids were so resistant to adding dialogue to those narratives--because they thought they were already using dialogue.

Lots to think about there! And that, to me, is the hallmark of a great classroom activity--situations like this that get me thinking about all of those spaces between what we think we teach and what kids are actually thinking and learning.

If you'd like to give this activity a try, check it out below or download it here. (And there is more about teaching these kinds of text-based inferences in my book The Forest and the Trees, if you want to know more.)

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