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Literacy Partners

Grand Conversations: Teaching Kids to Listen and Talk About Books at a High Level

Have you ever tried to have a class discussion about a wonderful read-aloud, but the conversation felt…less than amazing? We’ve been there! Initiating high-level conversations can be challenging, even if you pick a stellar text

Grand conversations, which are whole-class conversations that follow an interactive read-aloud, take practice.

Grand Conversations 101

During this 15 to 25 minute student-led conversation, students sit in a circle so they’re able to see and hear each other. Once your kiddos are settled in the circle, the conversation starts with a big idea from the read-aloud. As students share their thoughts and the conversation continues, you act as a facilitator to help move the discussion along.

  • If your group is new to grand conversations, you can prompt your students with an open-ended question or idea from the read-aloud  
  • As students become more comfortable, you can ask kids to come up with big ideas to discuss

Benefits of Grand Conversations

High-level conversations about books are so much more than an extension activity. Grand conversations in your classroom:

  • Build and strengthen your classroom community by inviting more voices into conversations
  • Help build your readers’ independence
  • Develops your readers’ listening and speaking skills
  • Supports their comprehension

What to Discuss in a Grand Conversation

Picking a “just right” idea to open the dialogue can feel daunting. Don’t overthink this! Here are some suggestions to help you get started: 
  • Introduce a debatable or ambiguous concept from the text
  • Start with a student-generated idea
  • Zoom into a compelling moment from the book, one that touches the mind and heart
  • Highlight a theme or lesson from the book

As you start to think about what ideas you’ll discuss during your grand conversation, you’ll also want to consider how to phrase your questions. Here are some key considerations:

  • Questions should be open-ended and should not have a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer 
  • Questions can be inferential, a synthesis, or a critique of any aspect of the book
  • Questions that start with Why…? or How…? Leave room for multiple responses
  • Questions should elicit different types of responses and opinions from your students 

You can prepare a question beforehand or gather question ideas from students, chart them, and choose one as a class.

Structures & Routines to Facilitate Thought-Provoking Conversations

Facilitating an engaged grand conversation will take some practice — and it’s well worth it! You’ll want to consider those tiny routines and expectations to support your students in their conversations. Here are some essential practices you’ll want to think about as you launch into discussions with your readers:

  • Designate a meeting area where the class can sit in a circle. This makes it easier for students to make eye contact with each other, not just you. Post an anchor chart with guidelines for the speaker’s and listener’s roles and introduce it to your class. 
  • Establish a procedure for a conversation. For example:
    • First, listen to the question
    • Second, think about the question
    • Next, respond when there’s a pause or when your classmate is done; no need to raise your hand
  • Decide how you want students to participate during the conversation. 
    • Ex: Speaking tokens that are placed in the circle’s center when a student speaks help you see how many times students have shared
  • Introduce, practice, and post conversation prompts and/or sentence stems to support students with participating.

Supporting Thinking and Talking During Grand Conversations

To get readers ready to engage in deep and meaningful conversations, here are a few tips for setting them up for success:
  • Show them videos of a class having a grand conversation. After watching the video, have students name what they noticed about the conversation and record their observations on an anchor chart called What Grand Conversations Look, Sound, and Feel Like
    • Explore the TCRWP’s Vimeo account for some helpful video examples
  • Support conversations with specific lessons on talk moves. These can be taught as mini-lessons or even snuck in as mid-workshop interruptions or teaching shares.
    Here are strategy lesson ideas to consider:

    • Role of the speaker vs. the role of the listener 
    • How to share airtime in a group and invite new ideas in
    • How to agree, disagree, add on, or change the subject
    • How to pose a question 
Conversation Starters

Conversation Movers

  • I think…
  • I wonder…
  • I noticed…
  • I agree/I disagree… because…
  • Why do you think that? 
  • Why do you say that?
  • Can you share an example from the book?
  • Consider displaying anchor charts of strategies that will support students’ comprehension as they share during the grand conversation

Suggestions, Strategies, and Tips for Grand Conversations

  • At the beginning of the conversation, set a talk goal for students.
  • Whisper in your students’ ears to coach them to move the conversation along. Try to stay out of the conversation.
    (ex. “Ask them why they think that or where they noticed that in the book.”)
  • Model how to stay on-topic using the same color cubes. Stack cubes whenever someone responds on a topic. Show a different colored cube when someone responds off-topic. 
  • Take notes as students talk: 
    • Jot down the big ideas, and important or key responses. 
    • Use a note-taking system to track who spoke and what they said
    • Tally who is participating, how often, and who is keeping quiet
    • “Micro-transcribe” the conversation (see Figure 2 below)
  • After several people respond to the question, you can change the topic by asking a new open-ended question. 
  • At the end, chart the big ideas and different opinions. This can serve as a reference for students when making connections in other texts.
  • At the end of your chat, discuss how well the group did with the talk goal. Involve the kids in determining this. And then, decide if that is a goal you should continue to work on or if, next time, the class should try a new talk goal. (ex. Next time, we’re going to try and say, “I agree or I disagree…”) 

Enjoy the many inspiring and eye-opening moments a grand discussion in your classroom brings. For some additional guidance, check out the book Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning by Peter H. Johnston.

Here are some additional articles you might find helpful:

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