Teach your students to be more insightful readers with lots of productive talk about texts.

The knowledge and skills to be an astute reader are best developed with lots of talking as well as lots of reading, as Anthony discovers with guest blogger, Jude Macadam.

With over thirty years of teaching experience, my colleague Jude Macadam knows a thing or two about teaching reading. And as I’ve learned when she begins one of her legendary anecdotes, always three minutes before the bell as I’m about to dash out of the English Office to do the photocopying I’ve forgotten about, she also knows a thing or two about talking. We’ve attempted to capture a recent discussion between the two of us…

Anthony: Jude, you recently told me about a teaching assistant you worked with in a previous school who told you she was struggling to scribe all that was said in the lesson for the student she worked with. She insinuated that there was too much content to ‘get down’ and asked if you could provide her with a list of the most important content before the lesson. But something didn’t sit right with you, did it?

Jude: although it would be reasonable to share a summary of the poem with a TA in advance of the lesson, I believed that firstly, the discussion itself was of the most importance. Not everything had to be captured verbatim. Secondly, it was impossible to predict where whole-class discussion would go — that’s the point of a good exploratory lesson in which students are encouraged to express their own opinions about what they’ve read.

Sometimes, the role of exploratory reading and personal response in the English classroom isn’t valued as much as it could be, especially at KS3 and KS4. We should, it’s been argued, teach definitive interpretations of texts. But teaching reading — and English literature by extension — is about more than making content digestible. Lots of talk is fundamental to teaching the process of reading. This can take the form of whole-class discussion, skilfully fielded by the teacher, or it can involve paired talk and guided group talk.

Why is good talk helpful and preferable to providing ‘the answer’?

Anthony: Talking about texts in the classroom models the cognitive processes of reading, of coming to an understanding of what we’ve read, exploring how that understanding might be at odds with the understanding of others and making a response. I think meaning is inherently unstable. It’s about the structures and systems of language and how inferences themselves can change. Reading a dynamic process. Meaning is mutable.

Jude: As teachers, we don’t know everything about a text. Our own understanding can change and evolve, and one of the most pleasurable experiences for me is when a student makes an interpretation or articulates a response that illuminates the text in a way I’ve not thought of myself. During a whole-class discussion about Of Mice and Men, I quoted George, who tells the Boss that Lennie is as ‘strong as a bull’. This really struck a chord with one student, who immediately picked up on the link between the bullish Lennie and the motif of the colour red. Lennie, said the student, was just like a raging bull himself. When children bring this kind of insight and share it in class, it models to everyone in the room the insights we can bring, as readers, to a text.

The text itself should always be the springboard to learning. I’m mixing metaphors here, but the text is really fertile ground. If we pre-empt students’ personal response by feeding them with someone else’s ideas, we’re taking away the process of engaging imaginatively, of thinking, responding and feeling.

Anthony: one of the things I always enjoy about visiting your classroom, Jude, is the way you encourage everyone to join in. Yes, sometimes the role of the teacher is the role of the expert, but sometimes, everyone is equal. As readers, everyone can be equal: the students, the teacher, the ITT student and the Teaching Assistant.

Jude: When everyone joins in, it’s great. Literature can take us to dark places and by sharing how we relate to them, it releases memories we can discuss and explore. After reading about Carlson shooting Candy’s dog, our ITT student shared a story about a time when she had to wring the neck of an injured kitten in New Zealand. Brutal, yes, but the students could feel the resonance of Steinbeck’s world in our own.

Of course, I could have taught a much more didactic lesson: ‘it’s about this, this and this.’ But it’s much better when they find their own way there. Give the kids a phenomenal text, something they can really respond to, and that’s where the magic is.

What barriers can students face?

Anthony: sometimes there are barriers to understanding for children. Firstly, there’s the barrier of the text itself; the decoding of unfamilar vocabulary and complex syntax. Of course, reading itself — lots of reading and lots of talk about reading — is a proven way to develop students’ levels of comprehension and inference.

Jude: a student might also experience the challenge of an unfamiliar context. But surely, that’s why we read in the first place: to learn about new ideas and to work out how to deal with them. A skilled teacher can capitalise on what students don’t know and make connections to touchstones or reference points that are more familiar. And the literary world is vast. There is no singular, coherent body of knowledge we can teach, even if we subscribe to the primacy of an established literary canon. Reading literature is about a process that’s as much about learning as it is about understanding. 

Anthony: Students with limited experiences of reading and of how texts work may struggle with inference — with seeing patterns of language and deeper meanings. They might grapple with symbolism and metaphor.

Jude: also, they might have little knowledge about structure, foreshadowing and backstory. Students who read lots of books and watch lots of films are often great at talking about these things. Again, the process of talking about these aspects of fiction is powerful.

Anthony: as the teacher, a little sleight of hand can be useful in modelling the sense of discovery we get from books and film. Watching The Mothman Prophecies (2002, dir. Mark Pellington) with my Year Nine class, I was pleased that a number of students picked up on the motif of red lights that is threaded throughout the mise-en-scènes:

‘You’re right!’ I told them. ‘I never noticed that before. I wonder why?’

‘It’s like the Mothman’s always watching,’ replied one student.

‘And it’s red, isn’t it?’ said another. ‘Evil!’

I could have told them about the motif myself, which of course I’d noticed before. But this hammy disingenuity on my part is really about modelling the process of questioning what we see, of making inferences and of finding pleasure in the insights we have.

Jude: again, it’s the discussion that’s helpful, and the opportunity to interpret a text can empower the students.

How could a reading and talking tool help?

Anthony: I’ve advocated before for the use of ‘loose frameworks’ when encouraging students to write about texts. I’ve always liked the idea of something akin to ‘big questions’ and I’ve wondered how this could work in terms of classroom talk. I’ve played around with a framework of ‘big questions’ and I’ve ‘unpacked’ them further by generating ‘supplementary questions’ that branch out from them.

I’ve brought the ‘big questions’ together in the form of a ‘reading and talking toolkit’:

The ‘reading and talking toolkit’ helps the teacher and students to talk about the text with focus. It works well as a prompt for paired discussion or group discussion. Students can make brief notes, but they don’t have to. Here’s an example from my Year Ten class:

Jude: but even with your ‘big questions’, how could we model and scaffold the process of reading itself? What kinds of questions make the reading process more transparent? How can we reveal thought processes and cognitive processes behind the surface — what’s inside the ‘machine’, so to speak? I can see how the ‘big questions’ and the ‘supplementary questions’ can help students when they’re working independently, but how can we model what great discussion looks like at a whole-class level?

Anthony: when I was at the 2019 NATE conference, I really enjoyed Raymond Soltysek‘s workshop. He demonstrated how a series of prompt cards, which could be shuffled and used in paired or group work, could scaffold great discussion. Raymond was inspired by John Lawson and Fiona Norris’s book Talking Milestones. I’ve tried a ‘whole-class discussion’ version of it. We used my ‘big questions’ and the ‘supplementary questions’ as out starting point and I fielded the discussion Newsnight style, selecting students who put their hands up and choosing more reticent students myself. I used prompts, based on Raymond’s cards, to compel students to propose ideas, then I asked others to support, refute, question, build or consolidate as appropriate:

The prompts helped to scaffold the discussion at first, but of course, as students observe, participate and become confident, the process becomes much more organic:

Can talking help students make a personal response in their writing?

Jude: some people might ask how all of that ‘talk’ help students to understand; to articulate; to make a more formal response?

Anthony: it’s all about the importance of a cognitive schema. That’s what those ‘big questions’ offer. Big picture thinking is really important. Then we can narrow the focus. The English classroom is a place where we talk about what we read; where we find understanding through discussion, debate, finding consensus, being provocative. And of course, the best essayists are polymaths. They make an open and insightful response to aesthetic experiences. If we don’t encourage students to think big, we’re just teaching them to write low grade university literature essays by numbers. I’ve argued before that individual response is one of the three key elements of analytical writing.

Jude: it’s like the case of the ‘quadruped’.

Anthony: ‘quadruped’?

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’
    ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
    ‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Extract from Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Jude: Sissy Jupe and Gradgrind: ‘You must discard the word Fancy altogether,’ Gradgrind tells Sissy. Yes, some people might worry about the ‘danger’ of encouraging kids to be imaginative, to think for themselves. That’s because there’s power in it. And that’s why it’s so crucial.


Thanks to Raymond Soltysek for the inspiration and for recommending John Lawson and Fiona Norris’s book Talking Milestones. Thanks to Rebecca Dowlen for the anecdote.

Featured image by Jessica Russell on Unsplash. Archive images from The British Library on Flickr.

Published by Jude Macadam

Jude, an English teacher with over thirty years of experience in different contexts, teaches at Boroughbridge High School.