Who's Talking?—A Dialogue Lesson


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Dialogue is an important story element, but how do we know who is talking? Although some techniques make it really obvious (like speech bubbles), others (like a new line for each voice) have the potential to be confusing to readers unless they understand the writing approach. 

To help students recognize and understand the different techniques, we might use specific examples from books we've read aloud that our students already know. Or we can have students bring their own good-fit books to our gathering spot and discover together how authors let us know who is speaking.

The following books might serve as examples, moving from the most obvious way to tell who is speaking to the least obvious.

1. Speech bubbles; from Watch Me Throw the Ball! by Mo Willems.

(Piggie’s pink bubble) May I throw your ball?
(Elephant gray bubble) You want to throw my ball?

2. Before the spoken words; from Adventures of Morris the Moose by B. Wiseman.

The man laughed. “You have six! Can’t you count? Don’t you go to school?”
Morris asked, “What is school?”

3. In the middle of the spoken words; from Buzz Boy and Fly Guy by Ted Arnold.

“Yes,” said Buzz. “I’ll read it to you.”

4. After the spoken words; from Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner.

“Why the maskito, dude?” asked Poquito Tito.
“I go incognito,” said Skippito.
“Do you like rice and beans?” asked Pintolito.
Si, I love mice and beans,” said Skippito.
“He might be the dog of our dreams,” whispered Rosalita.

5. After an initial revelation, authors don’t identify the speaker by name, but alternate lines with each new voice. This has the potential to be confusing since the speaker isn’t always identified. Students will really benefit from understanding that a new line means a new voice. From Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins: 

"Your tag says 'dry clean only,'" remarks TukTuk.
“So?” says StingRay. She puts the plug in the bathtub, turns on the water, and gets in.
“So that means don’t take a bath.”
“I’m a fish,” says StingRay. “I can float.”
“No you can’t.”
“Can, too! Look at me!”
“Your tummy is still on the floor of the tub.”
“Mind your own business.” 

I encourage students to be watching for these ways and any that we missed when reading their good-fit books, and I remind them that as authors, they have all these choices when adding dialogue to their writing.

After teaching this lesson in a second-grade classroom,  I sat down to confer with a student who had chosen to Work on Writing. After returning to a story in progress, he realized that it was filled with conversation between three characters but he had never identified any of them. There wasn’t room to squeeze their names in. When I asked him to look at the chart we had just made to see how he might solve the problem, he said, “I just got an idea from Mo Willems! I will put a colored frame around the words: red for the snake, green for the rabbit, and blue for the bird." Problem solved.

I love it when a lesson helps students as both readers and writers. This lesson helps improve reading comprehension and helps our students grow as writers, too. 

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