community · Starting With What Matters Most · Talking · writing workshop

Unpacking the Power of Talk: Starting with What Matters Most

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When I began using the workshop model I didn’t truly understand the power that talk plays throughout the process. It was after reading the book, Talking, Drawing, Writing by Horn and Giacobbe, that I really began to give it the respect it deserves.

As a kindergarten teacher, I would spend the first several weeks of writing workshop modeling storytelling. As I modeled my own personal stories, I was also giving students a window into my life. When students began to share their own stories in the “sharing circle” it would become the start of a community of writers.

Talking within this community circle became a ritual. A place we could come together every day to share our thinking, celebrations, and process. What I realized then and know now is that putting an emphasis on talk took away the pressures of the paper and allowed students to become fluid with ideas. Building excitement and anticipation within the circle set up independent writing time in a way that provided students with an opportunity for more success when they went out to work on their own. When we are able to weave talk throughout the workshop experience, I believe students feel the value of their work and their confidence grows.


“Story is so central to the lives of young children that it comes close to defining their existence.” (The Storytelling Animal, How Stories Make us Human by Jonathan Gottschall). Students are motivated by stories. Often times, so eager to tell us stories that they are bursting when they walk in the door if we allow time and a listening ear.


When students know there is an expectation of talking, either with a peer, the class, or teacher they are held accountable for this work. Knowing that your writing partner, group or teacher are going to check in is highly motivating. These smaller communities also begin to understand that everyone has an off day. When talking is a part of the daily workshop, more often than not, students will be sharing their work. But it is important to point out that there is an understanding when you build these smaller communities that not every day is a good day for a writer and though we are accountable for our work, it is what we do daily that matters.


When we share pieces of ourselves with our writing community we begin to see patterns. Students can begin to identify with their peers, as well as share in new experiences. The use of intentional and designated time for talk allows students the opportunity to open up and get to the heart of their own identity.


Students are able to revise as they go, weeding through their ideas and unpacking the best parts of their story. As they talk through and rehearse their story, the organization of their ideas build themselves in a way that students are able to visualize before they begin drafting. Jotting and listing these ideas while talking begins the blocks of a plan from which to begin.


Often times, when telling a story, our voice emerges. The dialogue of the scene and exciting moments are shared verbally. When we are able to help  students capture these moments through verbal interaction it solidifies the importance of their voice within their writing.


As students talk through their writing and thinking, their writing community can encourage and encounter wonders. These wonders and questions push the writer to think more deeply about their topic. As peers and teachers ask questions for clarification it strengthens the writer’s thinking and clarity of their subject, creating a piece that is more solid throughout the process.

It Matters

As you begin the school year and think about what matters most within the workshop, consider making talk a priority. Even if you just begin small. Five minutes a day of intentional talk is better than no time at all. Build from this and watch what happens. I have learned over several years of workshop that talk is integral and necessary. I feel that talk is the backbone of my workshop environment and sets the stage for the writing that students will do on their own. Make time. Make it important. Make it matter.


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24 thoughts on “Unpacking the Power of Talk: Starting with What Matters Most

  1. I read Horn and Giaccombe’s book a few years ago, after you suggested it to me, and it was a huge a-ha moment for me. Coming from upper elementary grades, I didn’t realize the importance of talk until I read about it in your posts and in their book. Thanks for bringing talk to the forefront yet again. It is such an important part of building confidence and stamina in our youngest writers.

    BTW: I love the idea of “intentional talk.”


  2. Betsy, this post reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, “Reading and Writing Floats on a Sea of Talk”-James Britton. I think that metaphor sums it up so perfectly. Here’s for keeping talk an essential part of our students’ learning lives!! Thanks for this reminder!


  3. Amazing article! I teach kindergarten and I plan to begin the first several weeks of workshop with talk. What you wrote seems so obvious yet I never included oral storytelling as a precursor to written storytelling. Thank you so much for sharing.


  4. Our school’s focus this year is on EL’s (since half of our students are classified as EL’s). Talk is so important for them, but it’s a good reminder that talk is important for ALL students, not just EL’s.


  5. This makes so much sense, yet it is not something I made an integral part of my writing instruction. If you think about how children learn, first they understand sounds, then sound development leads to words, words to sentences and speech. Speech is then vital to understanding what they
    read and write. Children need to be able to talk about their world to make sense of it. Making sense of it can lead to deeper engagement and excitement of writing! So excited to give this the time it deserves.


  6. Talk is a very underutilized part of the process. Once an empathetic community is established which is built on and celebrates the unique strengths of its individuals, conversation and authentic feedback really takes wings.

    In previous experiences, I have observed reluctant writers, being very willing and open to feedback and conversation centered around ideas.

    Another area to explore that has been proven successful is to have conversations of refinement of published works by authors of text in our school library. Books like Harris Burdick or the Journey trilogy offer wonderful opportunities for discussion and creativity, which ultimately lead to writing as the form of communication.


    1. I think you are right. It is often an underutilized part of the process. I certainly underutilized it as a new teacher, unaware of the power it would have in so many areas of my classroom. Not just writing.


  7. I agree with the value of talk time, but I always find myself rushing through it. I will make it a priority (set a timer?) this year.


    1. I think it is really hard to give ourselves permission to take the time to allow conversation. I think if we can structure it in a way, while still allowing some freedom, we an feel good about the time we give to talk.


  8. I have always had talk in my classroom but I don’t believe that I allowed it to develop thoroughly. I have a What’s Up? circle where I invite the students to share a personal experience. The rest of the students have always participated by listening to the speaker. I see now the value of active listening and questioning the speaker so that they may expand upon their thoughts. Thank you for this insight!


  9. After just spending the week at our district’s introduction to writing workshop PD, this post highlighted the missing element….talking. Children, especially English language learners, need the talk time. I am convinced to build that time into my workshop minutes. Thanks for reminding me of this important component.


  10. Thank you for this wonderful post. As a freelance storyteller I help kids and teachers distinguish between conversational talk (sometimes just what’s needed) and uninterrupted listening/talk which is followed by 2 or 3 “appreciations” for what the talk/teller said – really showing I HEARD and VALUED your tale’s details or points you made. The idea of not interrupting, of holding the space for true responsive listening makes a world of difference. Happy new year to all you wonderful “in the trenches” teachers.


  11. This is a great post Betsy. I just shared it with the K teachers at my school. We spent some time this summer planning ww units and we talked so much ourselves about the power of talk and helping young writers share stories through talk first.


  12. I taught 4th grade for 16 years, and I know that when I had my students brainstorm out loud, they always did better. I always started the year with brainstorming being mostly talking. Then we would transfer to quiet brainstorming and the talking about their list just before we planned. It really does build confidence in your students.


  13. Talk is crucial, not just in workshop, but throughout all the learning. It is through talk that learning is clarified and fortified, but what I love about talk in writer’s workshop is how quickly community is built. I’ve seen classes go from individuals to family because of the shared knowledge of the life stories shared.


  14. I’m thinking about what my students can gain by having a built-in talking time every day. Oh, boy, I’m so excited to develop this. It can play such an important part in the beginning of the year in, not only developing their voice and their descriptive ability, but also developing our classroom community and each student’s ability to be a good speaker and listener.


  15. Talk is vital for English Learners too; it motivates them to share their cultural background and experiences in the classroom community. They can also organize what they have as they’re talking, rehearsing their voice, which would help them learn English.


  16. I am making a conscious effort to build in more time for talk, and specifically storytell, at the beginning of this school year (which starts in two days! Thanks for the reminders!


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