Cultivating Conversations with Students: Reading Literacy

Discussing Literature

At Knovva Academy, we love classes that focus on reading literature. There is no better way to increase literacy, as well as to learn more about ourselves and the world around us, than close readings accompanied by thoughtful conversations. We have seen countless excited students, eager to read whatever books we give them. Yet, just reading something doesn’t always prompt a conversation.

Students can have various responses to a text that they’ve read. Even if they enjoy the story, they may not know “what” to say about it. 

Then, there are some students who have no problem speaking. Yet, as many teachers have seen, even these students can tend to speak in generalities, often reverting to expressions of “feelings”. These generalities and feelings usually fill discussions with people claiming to ‘like this’ or ‘like that’, instead of planting the seeds which can bloom into a complex conversation.

Running our classes, we are always wondering about the following question: How to steer students away from emotional reactions, and cultivate educational conversations?

3 Analytic Tools to Cultivate Conversation

Teaching, like any conversation, requires a certain degree of improvisation. Yet, every musician knows that improvisation is often improved by learning certain patterns, and agreeing on scales and changes. With this idea of improvisational guidelines, the staff at Knovva Academy turn to the following topics as analytic tools to cultivate conversation:

  • Setting: In it’s simplest form, setting is a matter of where and when. Sometimes there are simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers to questions of setting. Yet, some authors weave complex elements into their plots. Sometimes setting can be implied instead of stated. For instance, weather and cultural practices suggest the time of year, or a famous monument suggests a place. Furthermore, an author can embed a setting within a setting. A whole story could be the retelling of another story that the narrator read at some distant time. Asking students not only to notice these more minute points, but to try to imagine how they affect the story can serve as effective conversation starters
  • Character: Authors do amazing work when developing the characters of their stories. These human fictions can elicit emotional reactions, and even awe. Asking students to describe these characters can foster a richer conversation. They often begin by describing what is stated clearly by the narrator, but the conversation can really take off when you begin to discuss what is ‘not stated’ -- that is, asking students to imagine features of the character that are not explicitly described in the story, while giving evidence in the story to back up their imaginative claims
  • Conflict: Stories tend to revolve around at least one central issue. Asking students to identify the issue is helpful, and then the real conversation starter comes from asking them to relate the conflict to events outside of the story. Once students have identified a story’s conflict, they are ready to imagine how that conflict relates to their own lives, to current events, or even to other historical periods. A conversation that relates fictional conflicts to these other worldly events allows students both to witness and to develop the web of cultural literacy that they are participating in by reading and discussing stories

Keep the Conversation Going

There are no foolproof instructions for generating meaningful discussions about a story. Individual groups call for individual considerations, but we hope that these few points help inspire people to think of new ways to generate conversations. At Knovva Academy, we are dedicated to education, so we will gladly continue to share our thoughts on our teaching practices. Furthermore, we would love to hear if any teachers or thoughtful people have their own tips to help get the conversation started.