Strategies to Get Kids Talking!

I know I’ve been on a tangent about oral language lately – but I want to share some ideas that I thought were fun ways to get all children talking.  I attended a workshop presented by some teachers from New Zealand and I was really excited to hear how much they emphasize oral language in their classrooms.  Here are some notes I saved from their talk that basically reviewed what we know about the components of a balanced literacy program.

But after that they modeled a game they called “Share Wear.”  One of the women told a story about buying a shape controlling undergarment that she was wearing.  Her story was detailed, sequenced and very funny.  Obviously if she were modeling this strategy to a group of children she would probably choose a different item of clothing but her story was very effective at the workshop.  Then she challenged teachers in the workshop to come up and share a story about an item of clothing that they were wearing that day.

Several teachers came up to tell their story.  Most of the volunteers did not give many details, and the presenter stopped them to ask questions.  She would go back to the beginning of their story, repeating it and adding in the new details – so we had a chance to review the sequence too.  Here is an idea of how it went:

Teacher:  “I was walking through Macy’s and I saw this sweater.  I thought it was cute so I bought it.”

Presenter:  “When were you at Macy’s?”

Teacher: “On Sunday, I stopped at the mall after church.”

Presenter:  “Oh, so after you went to church on Sunday you went to the mall and you went into Macy’s?”  “Why did you pick that sweater?”

Teacher:  “Purple is my favorite color.”

Presenter:  “Okay – so after church on Sunday you went to the mall and went into Macy’s and saw this sweater that was your favorite color, purple.  And why did you wear it today?”

The presenter asked a few more questions and kept repeating the basic story and sequencing in the details.  She did this with several teachers – she asked different kinds of questions so the stories weren’t all just a repetition of where they bought the stuff.  Some of the volunteers told a detailed story on their own so sometimes she only asked one or two things.  It was a very effective way to model how to scaffold a child’s story.

It is fun to do this activity with any age group – we did it at a staff meeting after this workshop.  It works very well with young children because they often have a story about who bought them a shirt or why they picked out their shoes.  Giving them a concrete topic and scaffolding them with pertinent questions helps all children feel good about talking in front of a group.

Another strategy they shared at the workshop was called Treasure Box.  They brought a simple box filled with ordinary, easy to find items.  Here is one I made for my children.

I just used an old pencil box that I had in my classroom.

What you put into the box is really NOT important.  Just try to find things that children will relate to or make a connection to.

At the workshop they passed the box through the group and encouraged everyone to take out an item that reminded them of something or that they made a connection to.  The group of adults at the workshop told great stories related to the items they chose from the box, but they modeled how they would extend what a child might say by asking questions and helping them to elaborate.  I think it might be a great way to introduce the comprehension strategy about making a connection also!

I liked to use the Treasure Box game at circle time but it takes a long time to give everyone a turn.  You can call on a few children each day until you get through the group but sometimes after choosing  two or three children to talk in front of the group,  I asked every child to pick an item, and talk with their partner about it.   Of course you aren’t able to scaffold and extend those stories if they tell them to a partner – but it is an effective way to get every child talking.  This could look like a new game  to the children if you picked seasonal items – like things for Halloween, then holiday items, etc.

Using puppets is another way to elevate the amount that your children talk.  I have some puppets that I use as teaching tools – they live in my “castle,” but I also had about 30 other puppets that were available for children to use during free choice time.  Puppets were not a center in themselves, but instead children were free to choose a puppet and take it with them to the writing center or the listening center, play center, blocks, etc.  I did not allow them at the sand table or playdo in order to keep them clean!  I found that the kids who did not often talk to other children in our class were much more likely to talk when they were holding a puppet.  They talked to the puppet and they also used the puppet to talk to other children, it was really fun to watch.  Before I made the puppets available to children they saw me using the puppets as teaching tools, and we had used some to retell stories.  We discussed how the puppets would behave – and how just as children would never growl, yell or bite each other, the puppets would not do those things either.  If a child was playing too wildly I would just tell the child that the puppet forgot the rules and had to be put away.

I tried several ways to store the puppets so the children could have easy access.  Finally I bought a tunnel shaped net storage unit from IKEA, it had about 4 sections with a hole to reach into each section.  It had a velcro fastener at the top to hang it.  It worked pretty well, but eventually I put a basket under it so if the children couldn’t fit the last few puppets in they could just put them into the basket.

I loved beginning Writer’s Workshop by using ideas from the book Talking, Drawing, Writing by Martha Horn and Ellen Giacobbe.  They give detailed suggestions about encouraging oral storytelling before asking the children to write.  Along with giving all children opportunities to speak in a safe, warm environment, and scaffolding their stories to help them be successful; they also modeled and practiced simple drawing with their children.  That book gives some good management ideas like writing each child’s name on a clothespin that is clipped on a basket or box.  When that child shares a story his/her clothespin goes into the box until every child has a turn.

In my class one child was designated the Special Helper every day.  I sent home a monthly calendar that showed the schedule and also told something that child would be asked to do at circle time.  The first month they brought in something to show and tell but it was in a bag.  The other children would ask questions and that child would answer in a full sentence.  Check out my post titled Special Helpers if you are interested in other things they did through the year.  Each month the children were given a task that required them to speak in front of our class.

Singing songs and doing fingerplays is another great way to emphasize and value oral language.  The children learn new vocabulary and often learn new information through songs and poems.  We all sing and tell poems – you might want to tell parents how much that enhances their child’s oral language!

Dramatic play is another of my favorite ways to encourage oral language.  Research has shown that children often use much higher levels of oral language and more sophisticated vocabulary when they are engaged in dramatic play.

at the blocks …

playing with vehicles …

and most of all when they take on roles and interact in socio-dramatic play.

Another way I encouraged the children to talk with each other was at the very beginning of the day.  We had no children who walked to school, most rode the bus, a few were driven by parents – so most children arrived about the same time.  After they took off coats, hats, etc. (in Michigan this can be quite a chore!) and completed morning routines like lunch choice, taking care of notes, etc.; they sat at the circle and just had time to visit with each other.  I know many teachers like to give them a paper to complete as they arrive, and some allow the children to go to free choice centers right away.  I liked using this time as a chance for the children to greet each other and just talk a bit before I started circle time.  Sometimes I put out books for them to read, later in the year I set out chalkboards for them to write or draw, but they were free to talk while they read or wrote.  I rarely had a problem with children running around the room – they enjoyed having this time to talk and usually came in and sat down appropriately.

Another strategy I used to encourage oral language was to take pictures of stuff going on in our clasroom.  I would just take a bunch of random photos – it is great to just be able to print them out – for years I had to take them to be developed!!  Sometimes I would glue the pictures onto a larger paper, other times I would just hold up one or two photos and ask the children to tell me what was going on in the picture.  I liked this because I could take pictures of a child that I hadn’t heard much from in awhile, and that child would usually volunteer to talk about what he/she was doing.  I found that most children love to have their picture taken!

Sometimes I would ask a question and go around the circle giving every child a chance to answer.  At the very beginning of the year I might just ask a simple question like “What is your favorite color?”  Then I might write a sentence on chart paper using each child’s name – “Megan’s favorite color is pink.”  That is a pretty easy low risk way to get all children participating.  You could also graph their answers.  Later you might ask a more complicated, open ended question – by then the children are used to sometimes waiting for their turn, and that everyone is expected to share their thoughts.

We also used to have “Wish you well time.”  I got the basic idea from Conscious Discipline, although I used it differently.  I liked this strategy because it not only encouraged children to speak, it also helped these egocentric little ones think about other people.  I told the children that wishing someone well means thinking good thoughts and wanting that person to be happy.  Sometimes we wished people well because we were celebrating something with them, other times we wished people well when we were concerned for them.  We sang a little tune – roughly to the tune of the Farmer in the Dell.

We wish you well

We wish you well

All through the day today

We wish you well.

We sang that song at the beginning and the end of our Wish You Well time, which only lasted a few minutes.  The children would say “I am wishing my uncle well because it is his birthday today.”  Or “I’m wishing my grandma well because she is in the hospital.”  They could not share something about themselves, only someone else – and I also eliminated pets because I was getting a lot of well wishes for dogs and cats!  I really liked doing this with my classes, we did it about once a week or so when we had a few minutes of time before the buses or a special.  I really liked how children began noticing and thinking and talking nicely about other children in our class as well as people in their neighborhood or family.

The class Playful Literacy reminded me that creating a safe environment and being a responsive listener are essential when you want to encourage children to extend and elaborate their speech.  Here are some of my notes about specific ways to be verbally and non-verbally responsive.

Demonstrate responsiveness

I hope this gives you a few ideas about ways to get every child talking!

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lucille
    Oct 19, 2011 @ 06:19:57

    I’m having our first parent night tonight and I’m using a lot of your wonderful information. We’re focusing on reading so many of your information sheets on reading with children will be discussed. I’m also going to give a blurb of your blog if that’s ok? I really enjoy your site.


    • dbsenk
      Oct 19, 2011 @ 07:33:19

      Thank you so much Lucille, I am so happy you found some information that you could share.You are very welcome to mention my blog anytime!I hope your parent night goes very well!


  2. Lucille
    Oct 20, 2011 @ 06:21:49

    Parent night was great and the parents walked away with a lot of great information thanks to you!! Now, I have another question…..
    What did you do when a parent was concerned that the curriculum was “too easy” for their child? As you know, we get children at all levels and we meet the needs by differentiating instruction, but did you have any information for parents to read about that? Thanks again.


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