Who is that talking while I’m reading?

Do you remember the excitement of the big book?

I was lucky enough to have a teacher for many of my primary school years who adored books. And she read to my class often. I still remember the feeling of seeing the big book coming into the classroom. Carried in its over-sized bag. The pointer! Oh the pointer! If it was a glitter one you knew you were in for a treat.

Big books were shared, loved and explored in my classroom when I was in Kinder and Year 1. So when I had the opportunity to teach in Kinder last year I knew I would only need one resource, a big book.

My choice was easy. Pig the Pug by Aaron Blabey, one of my all time favourites. I carried the book to class with excitement. The students sat in awe as I started my read aloud. I whispered, I yelled, I threw my arms about. I performed that book. A performance almost worth of an Oscar (if I do say so myself). The students clapped when I finished reading. Bravo to me on an excellent lesson.

And then, a few weeks later I heard a colleague (Jan Herold) speak about her research. She was developing dialogic teaching practices in the early years of schooling. Dialogic teaching is an approach which uses talk as the launchpad for learning. Jan explained that some of her research participants had increased students oral language through the use of book discussions. With one participant using diologic approaches while reading big books! The students in these classes were listening and responding to each other as they were being read a big book. Not only were these students developing oral language skills such as listening, reading visual cues for turn taking and speaking…they were also developing a range of other literacy skills. They were comprehending, inferring, drawing connections and increasing their vocabulary all through talk. Development of oral language was not an end to itself, it was the door to developing literacy skills!
It was astounding and humbling. It wasn’t the teacher running the show in these classrooms. It wasn’t the teacher doing all the talking.
It was one of those moments when you think you are hot stuff then realize that you are actually kinda lukewarm.

Now, this isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for read-alouds in classrooms. There most certainly is! I’ll even write another post about it if you like. What I had realised is that read-alouds was all I had been doing. I hadn’t even thought about using a big book or read-aloud in this way.

Rather than go and bury my head in my big book collection I decided to give it a go. I took my time and selected another favourite of mine, Olga the Brolga by Rod Clement. I decided I wanted the students to identify the visual features in the book that gave “clues” to how the characters felt. I wanted them to infer. Rather than read the book with the students prior to the discussion I decided I wanted the students to use their inferential cues for prediction. I went through the book once before reading it to the students and made notes for myself where I would stop and in which parts I wanted the prompt discussion.

gray red bird near trees
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Next I shared with the students some “talk moves”. These are basically sentence starters or prompts for speaking. I printed a few out and explained how you would use each one. I did share a few with the students but we focused on:

  • I agree with________ because________
  • I want to add on to what ______ said. I think ____________
  • I’m wondering_______

I focused on these talk moves because I wanted it to become a discussion that would build on the ideas shared. I wanted the talk to develop students understanding of text.

The students and I also talked about what good listening and speaking looks like, feels like and sounds like. We created a Y-chart detailing this. As we discussed it we came up with two things to remember. The kinders were amazing with this and ended up narrowing it down to 2 rules.

  1. one person talking at a time
  2. look at the person speaking

I didn’t realize it at the time but having only two rules to remember was a lifesaver! Rather remember a multitude of listening behaviours these students could ace it by just doing two things.

Then I started reading.

“Olga the Brolga was in a terrible mood. She was whiny and pushy and downright rude!”

Me: Why do you think she might not be happy?

Student 1: Cause someone took something off her.

Student 2: Maybe because she was doing a move and someone pushed her over.

Me: What else could have put her in a terrible mood?

Student 3: Maybe when she was saying something people would laugh at her.

Student 4: You know how there are two types of “but” maybe she was saying “but” and people thought that she was saying “butt”.

Me: oh so, are adding on to what Student 3 said?

Student 4: Yes.

Student 5: Maybe she doesn’t like how she looks.

Student 6: She needs someone to help her.

Yes, it doesn’t look like a deep and complex discussion yet, but we were all learning. It took a lot of effort on my part to allow the students to just talk and to not wrap up their comments quickly. I was so used to just taking the one, or maybe two answers and moving on. It was a real test for me to keep my mouth shut and let the students talk.


The students were learning too. These kids had not been involved in discussions like this before and were used to the Initate, Response, Feedback (IRF) pattern of classroom talk. You can see it in their comments. Only one student felt that they could respond to someone else. The rest were waiting for some feedback from me. Perhaps thinking, “Maybe this is what she wants? If I say it maybe she will stop staring at all of us.” So clearly there was still work to be done.

The following weeks and months saw the class and I work on our discussions. With each week I gave away a little more control and with each week the students took on some responsibility. They collaboratively decided to ditch the talking tool (shock horror! That was my last scrap of control!). They even started to adjudicate their own discussion, prompting peers to contribute if they hadn’t shared in a while.

As the weeks went by more students shared, more students responded to each other. Big book discussions became louder, became less structured and became a time of beautiful learning. I saw the students engage, and I mean fully engage in the books. I had been in book clubs with grown women (all literacy educators) and I hadn’t seen discussions like this about books. I fell in love with book discussions. I hope you can too.

But just like love the first step is the most difficult.

Step one is for you to stop talking.

Below is the work I am referring to in this post, please do have a read:

Herold, J., Cusack, Y., Hunter, E., & Lewis, J. (2018). Talking the talk: Using dialogic teaching strategies to develop young children’s talk about text. Practical Literacy: The Early and Primary Years, 23(1), 38-41.

Please note that although I am talking about my experience with Big Books this strategy can be used with any text! Big or small!