Turn, Talk and Listen

Method Helps Kindergartners Learn Basics of Reading, Communication

Cassidy Duong tells teacher Mandy Noble about what her partner Weston Wojczynski, center, liked best about his book

Kindergartner Vincent Reatini looked up from his book, “Froggy Builds a Tree House,” which he couldn’t read much of yet. But asked for his favorite part, he promptly pointed to one page and said, “This is my favorite part, because they’re eating pizza.”

Spoken like a true American boy. He shared this information with his reading partner, Jaxyn Morrison, as the two told each other about their books. When teacher Mandy Noble asked Jaxyn what Vincent’s favorite part was, Jaxyn faithfully reported, “The pizza part.”

It was a textbook example of the “turn and talk” approach to learning, in this case learning to read. Noble uses it frequently in her Zinser Elementary classroom, as a way to not only help students understand content, but how to focus their thinking, listen to others and communicate clearly.

“They’re learning to collaborate and communicate,” Noble said of the strategy she and other Zinser teachers use with their K-5 students in several subject areas. “Those are skills every individual needs, no matter what job they have, no matter what path they go down in life.”

She calls the method “partner power,” which she says helps students learn better together by being more attentive to each other. Instead of being distracted by a loose shoelace or a bird out the window, she said students are “learning how to share their thinking, build that thinking and work together.”

Related Story: Boosting Student Reading Takes Center Stage

Vincent Reatini, right, pores over a picture book while his partner Jaxyn Morrison does the same

Learning How Books Work

Noble was among a number of Zinser teachers who learned the “turn and talk” strategy in a summer 2014 book study with Tracy Horodyski, a reading interventionist/instructional coach and the 2016-17 Michigan Teacher of the Year. Teachers based their study on the book “Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives” by Peter Johnston, a professor at State University of New York at Albany whose research focuses on how teachers’ language shapes students’ learning, and how to engage students through “purposeful talk.”

Though it can be applied to many subjects, in her reading lessons Noble uses the strategy to help kindergartners learn letters, words, story sequences and how to pick up context clues from pictures – the basics of reading. She wants them to “see themselves as readers.”

“They’re starting just to learn how books work,” said Noble, noting five of her 24 students can read. “The turn and talk part of it is they’re having to think about what they feel and think, and then explain it to somebody else.”

On a recent morning, she had students sit down in pairs and silently scan books of their choosing for three minutes. Knowing they couldn’t understand most of the words, she told them, “I want you to quietly tell yourself the story with your ‘imagination stations.’”

She then led them through the methods of turn and talk: knee to knee, eye to eye, “park your thinking” (put their own thoughts aside), listen, and then “parrot-talk” what their partner said, like this: “So what you’re saying is …”

Her pupils seemed to get the program. Hunter Zaverl told Ava Santos his favorite part of “Little Tiger’s Big Surprise” was “the tiger looking at the birdies.” By way of explanation, he added, “The last time I went to the zoo, I fed the birds and petted the birds.”

Noble reinforced their listening skills by having them report to the whole class their partners’ favorite parts. “The cupcakes,” one boy said. “The kissing part,” a girl said of her boy partner. Said another girl, “That they were happy.”


Interview with Peter Johnston about Language Teachers Use

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.


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