Helping Silent Kids Talk in a Conference

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Before I pulled up next to William, a first grader, to confer, I watched him for a few moments. He was drawing a picture containing three people (his older brother? a grown-up, himself?), each holding a long object (a bat? a fishing pole?). A swirl of lines surrounded the two characters. He paused, thought for a moment, and then added some small round shapes scattered among the feet of the three people.

As he continued to draw, I looked through his writing folder. It was a week into their opinion writing unit, and his folder was stuffed, overflowing with signs, letters, petitions. There were at least five separate pages with a large, octagonal-ish shapes with “SOTP” written in very large letters in the center, and then in smaller letters all around the edges. “DIR MOM, I WNT A PPPPY” read one letter. “NO RNN!” declared another sheet a paper, with a picture showing about ten people on the page.

I pulled my chair close next to William. “Can I stop you?”

William just kept on drawing.

I placed my hand on his paper. “William, let’s talk about your writing.” I said gently.

He stopped, and I gestured to put the pen down. He did–reluctantly.

Then, for the next five minutes I proceeded to ask questions, unsuccessfully trying to get William to say something (anything!) about the mysterious drawing with the three people, and the baseball bats/fishing poles.

Finally, William picked up his pen and continued to work. “DAD TK ME PND” he wrote.

“William, does this say, ‘Dad, take me to the pond?'” I asked enthusiastically. He stopped working, shook his head no, and was clearly annoyed with my presence.

I glanced at the clock. Writers workshop was over. It was time for me to go work with a different classroom. Argh.

When this scenario (in various forms) strikes me, I find myself grasping for ways to get kids to talk during a writing conference. Fortunately, I know I’m not alone.

Last week, I had a little brainstorming session with one of my favorite groups of teachers and we came up with a list of tried-and-true teaching moves to help the truly non-talking kids open up a little when it comes time to talk about the work they’ve been doing.

Our conversation had in mind English speaking students, as well as preproduction-stage English Language Learners. We were thinking about the kids who are indeed drawing and/or writing, but need lots of support with oral language. They are producing lots — but they have trouble articulating what they want to say out loud in conversation.

Here’s what we came up with:

1. Say hi! Imagine if any of your colleagues randomly walked right up to you and without as much as a ‘hello’ or a ‘how are you today’ started questioning you about your work. ‘So, what are you working on?’ works just fine for lots of kids (and adults), but some need you to put them at ease first–especially kids who are uneasy about the work they’ve been doing. Once warmed up a little, they may be a little more open to talking about their work.

2. Wait time. Many kids need at least five seconds (butterfly-one, butterfly-two, butterfly-three, butterfly-four, butterfly-five) to process what you have said, consider their response, and then articulate it. This is even more true if you are working with an English Language Learner, or a child who needs extra processing time. Five seconds of silence can feel like an eternity if you haven’t been practicing this. I have to count inside my head, and even sit on my hands to keep from saying anything or touching the kid’s pages!

3. Use the drawings. If you teach young children, chances are they use drawing to plan out what they want to say as writers. These drawings are great conversation starters. “Tell me about your drawing,” is more concrete than, “Tell me your story, in order, with detail, from your memory.” If you teach older students who have a hard time opening up in a conference, maybe sketching their ideas is a tool you might use to encourage more conversation about their writing.

4. Yes or No. When as student has drawn something, but either doesn’t know the words for the things in the pictures, or won’t talk about the pictures for other reasons, you can use yes or no questions as a starting point. “Is this you? Are you outside? No, so are you inside? Oh, I see… This is you and you are inside.  Are you playing? No? Are you eating? Oh! So your story begins One day, I was eating.” The student might even say the sentence back to you if you invite them. This is very helpful for English Language Learners who are still learning the words for the the objects and actions they’ve drawn.

5. Either/Or. Another useful strategy, similar to yes/no is to offer a few options. Point to the picture and take a good guess. “Is this you? Or your brother?” “Is this a building? Or a tree?” Often students will be able to figure out the right word once they hear it. Even if you can’t guess it, and the student is shaking their head no to all your guesses, we think that is still okay. You’re having a positive interaction that is focused on the student’s work, and it’s a chance to develop the student’s vocabulary.

6. A Head’s Up. Some students might need a minute or two (or more) to prepare themselves before they are ready to talk. If they know you’re coming, they might not feel put on the spot and might be more willing to say a few things.

7. A Friendly Partner. In some cases, a child might open up more if she is with another student. You can ask the two children the same questions, allowing the child to hear the other’s responses and use them as language models for her own responses.

The next time I’m visiting William’s classroom, I’m going to make sure to find him. “DAD TK ME PND” Hmm…Maybe it said, “Dad take me playing,” or “Dad took my pole.”  So hard to know!  That P could have been a reversal – maybe it’s a word that starts with d, or b?  I’m dying to find out.

Chances are you have one or two kids that you are dying to find out what they’ve got to say as well. If you have a strategy or two that works for you, please leave a comment to share!