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Book Talk Tips, by Gwenyth J. McCorquoale

Want to help your students develop a love of reading? Try a little classroom conversation about books

Illustration of children reading

Talk about books is often overlooked in classrooms, and even when it's not ignored, it's often limited in scope. The teacher asks a question, a student provides an answer and often that's it. There's a better way, however. I've found that meaningful talk about books not only helps students learn to read, but also helps them learn to love reading. My sister (teacher Debbie Potts) and I frequently use book talks in her classroom; at these times, all students read the same book and meet as a class to talk about their reading. A good way to explain how book talks work is to answer the five W questions: Why? Who? What? When? and Where?

Why talk about books?
I've found that involving students in purposeful talk about books helps them realize that reading is fun. Book talks also create classroom community. They allow each reader the opportunity to share his or her thoughts and also the opportunity to listen to the opinions of others. This exchange of ideas helps students to understand their own responses to the reading while developing social sensitivity and a genuine interest in friends' observations.

The idea of a learning community doesn't stop once the student leaves the classroom, however. The home is part of the community, too, and I've come to think of homework as a tool that helps promote a parent/child/school community. My homework assignments are structured to promote parent-and-child communication.

In this approach to reading, homework involves parents reading to their children and talking about the book together. I encourage my students and their parents to read aloud and I give parents resources to use in the home, such as a list of recommended books.

Who is involved in classroom reading?
Book talks aren't just for students and teachers. We include parents, authors, artists, administrators and people with unique connections to the book. Guests extend our understanding in broader and deeper ways than if we were to limit the talk to ourselves.

What kinds of books do we read?
We select picture books and chapter books from all genres that include curriculum content and classroom considerations. The books we choose support a theme, such as immigration or friendship. From each cluster of books that connect to a theme, we select a core book that's worthy of deep exploration by all.

Illustration of the book Wilma Unlimited

Not surprisingly, the same book can be used differently in different classrooms. For example, Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull (Voyager, 2000) was the core book in a cluster on courageous women one year, and was also part of a cluster on polio for a health unit in the next term.

Pairing nonfiction and fiction for book talks enhances interdisciplinary teaching in my classroom. I used Eve Bunting's picture book Train to Somewhere (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), a fictionalized account of the orphan train riders, and paired it with the biography Orphan Train Rider by Andrea Warren (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). Providing two different perspectives on the same topic extends interest and knowledge.

I've found that ownership of a book is important to a reader so I make sure that each child has his or her own copy of the book that will be used for the book talk. Grants, PTAs, church organizations and community foundations assist in funding this effort.

To help students prepare for a book talk, I give them Post-it™ notes to use as they read. Some students color-code their notes – for example, red for passages they don't understand; blue for very interesting passages; yellow for passages that remind them of another book and so on. During the book talk, they refer to the marked passages for clarification or confirmation of their responses.

There are times when I use prepared questions to promote interaction; questions that draw upon students' personal beliefs and experiences as they connect to those of characters in the book. Children write their answers and share them during the talk.

When do you hold book talks?
This is up to you, although you'll get better results if you hold them frequently, rather than just occasionally. A lot depends on the length of the book. Students need time to delve deeply into the book, even if that means spending an extra day or two reading. Sometimes they'll be able to read the whole book before the book talk. Other books may have to be broken into sections, with talks occurring after each section. Knowing the book and your readers will help you decide on the time frame for your talk.

Illustration of doughnuts, pretzels and Cheerios

Where do you hold book talks?
Setting is an important element in establishing the mood for a book talk, so we spend lots of time choosing the right environment, whether it's our classroom, a church or a museum. Children are unconsciously stimulated by their surroundings, and so we carefully prepare the environment to engage the senses.

When the class met to discuss Holes by Louis Sachar (Random House, 2003), a "Welcome to Camp Green Lake" sign greeted the students outside the classroom. Inside the room, food helped set the tone for our conversation. Breakfast foods included goodies with "holes," such as doughnuts, pretzels and Cheerios.

I don't neglect music when establishing a book talk setting. During our talk about Minty: A Story of Young Harriet Tubman by Alan Schroeder (Puffin, 2000), the children sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Go Down, Moses." Photographs and film footage of historical events can also help to make events seem more real and set the scene for your students.

A roomful of books doesn't guarantee that you'll have a roomful of children who are eager to read. But add meaningful talk about what's being read and there's a good chance that those children will develop into readers with a passion for books.

Topic: Book Talks

  1. Book Talks: Get a list of book talk tips covering how to select books, beginning a book talk and using book talks in the classroom.

  2. Booktalks – Quick and Simple: Resource guides for book talks with more than 600 book talks organized by author, title and subject. Follow the "Book Talk Tips" link to get book talk ideas from teachers and librarians.

More on book talks:
A questionnaire to be used with at-home reading and a list of books and comments on book talks.


Gwenyth J. McCorquodale is a member of the faculty of the School of Education, University of Alabama at Birmingham.


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