One of these small details is dialogue. In a story, dialogue can serve many purposes. Sometimes dialogue shows us insight into a character's personality or motives. Dialogue can also move the story forward and reveal information. Skipping over dialogue would lead to a fractured reading experience.
And yet...many young readers have great trouble in figuring out who is speaking in dialogue! The tiny clues to skilled readers use to match speaker to speech are invisible to many young readers. They don't notice the paragraph breaks or the empty white space at the end of lines. They can't track split dialogue. When speaker tags are not included, they have trouble following the back-and-forth of a typical conversation.
Figuring out who is speaking is a kind of text-based inference. Readers need to combine the clues in the text with their background knowledge of how text works. And this is hard! Even readers who are on and above grade-level can struggle with dialogue.
1. Find out what kids can do with reading dialogue
I like to sit with kids as they are reading. Sometimes I listen to students read, and sometimes we read aloud together. During these conversations, I ask, "Who is speaking?" or "How do you know who is talking at this point?" These conversations help me to figure out the sub-conscious rules that students are or are not using to figure out who is speaking.
2. Model understanding who is speaking by displaying read-aloud text
With a document projector or overhead projector, show students the text that you are reading aloud. I like to make little sticky note tags or even little sketches of the characters to display at the same time. Then, I go back and forth to show who is speaking at each point. It's fun to engage students in this as well.
3. Label dialogue in text
This requires some colored pencils. Give students a copy of a short piece of text, and talk explicitly about the rules of dialogue. What does it mean when a new paragraph begins? How can we tell that a person is still speaking? Underline dialogue by different characters in different colors.
You can extend the conversation by talking about what the dialogue reveals. Does it show us what characters are like? Reveal details of the plot? An example of this activity is included in the Literature Circle Materials below.
In the past I saved some of these lessons for later in the year. This year, though, I think that I will face them early on. Understanding the little rules of print and the conventions that authors follow will only help us as we begin our exploration of stories and narratives.
Some other lessons for teaching about text-based inferences and understanding dialogue can be found in my book The Forest and The Trees.
Character Traits and Emotions: Making Inferences: This unit includes an activity in which students write dialogue to show character traits.
Text-Based Inferences and More: This pack includes more resources for teaching text-based inferences.