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Things Good Readers Do: Talk about Books

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Why should readers talk about books? | What do good readers talk about? | How I teach book talk in the classroom | Tips for Grownups at Home

One of my favorite things about reading is how it provides practically endless sources of conversation for those who read. I also love how when two readers discover each other, they all of a sudden have something in common. They may not enjoy the same types of books, but the fact that they like reading automatically gives them things to talk about.

Talking about reading is actually a really effective way to deepen our understanding of books. As James Britton said, reading and writing “float on a sea of talk.” For adults or for kids, talking about books is a very valuable practice.

Why should readers talk about books?

  1. To find other readers in their life
  2. To get new ideas of what to read – especially from people who know you well.
  3. To enrich your reading experience
  4. To get to know what you like and don’t like about books

Let’s break these down a bit more.

Find readers in your life: I can sometimes be surprised at the people who tell me they’re a reader. Some readers are easy to pick out – they just seem like book people. Other people seem like they’d be too busy, or enjoy too many other things to make time for reading.
But when I talk about books – because I pretty much always talk about books – that brings the other readers in my life out of the wood work. And when I find more readers in my life, I’m able to deepen my friendship with them while we bond over books.
It also helps if you’re practically strangers: books present such a wide variety of topics to discuss that it can help an awkward we-barely-know-each-other conversation feel a bit easier.

New ideas: I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read and loved that were first recommended to me through conversations about books. Especially when recommended by friends and family who know my tastes in reading, I tend to really enjoy books that come up in conversation with other readers. I’m so glad I have so many readers in my life!

Enrich your reading experience: I know when I was in elementary school, I thought it was silly to stop and discuss books as we read them. “Just get on with the story!” I thought. However, once I got to high school and discovered discussion of classic literature, I discovered that sometimes I needed help understanding all the layers of what I was reading.
When I became a teacher, I saw firsthand how talking about our books together helped my students the way book talk helped me.
As an adult, when I talk about books, it does the same thing. It could mostly be that I’m a verbal processor, but I think there are benefits even for those who process more internally. Hearing about another person’s experience with a book can enrich and deepen yours because it gives you a perspective you wouldn’t have otherwise had. While we all bring our own background and worldview to bear on what we read, it helps broaden our views to hear about others’ thoughts on a book.

Getting to know yourself more as a reader: When I talk about books I’m reading with people in my life, talking about books helps me see patterns in my reading, and helps me realize why I do or do not like books.
For instance, when talking about why I loved Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine with my siblings, I was able to verbalize that I really love narrators who acknowledge both the reader and have a sense of humor when analyzing their own thoughts and actions.
While telling my mom about the Keeper of the Lost Cities series last night, I put into words how I actually really don’t like book series where the book ends on a cliffhanger. I much prefer that each book have a sense of closure, even if the biggest issue they’re dealing with is still waiting to be figured out – like the Eragon series.

What do good readers talk about?

So what kinds of things do good readers talk about? Well, the possibilities are practically endless, just like the number of books in the world. But I’ll give you some general ideas.

Readers like to talk about their favorite books, favorite genres, and favorite authors. they also can talk about their non-favorites. I find this is how bookish conversations tend to start, but they often go deeper into literary elements.

It turns out there truly is a reason we literature teachers teach you about things like plot, theme, characterization, etc. 🙂

The reason we teach story elements is that they are what make a good story good. And good readers have trained their brains to recognize when a plot or character is working for them. They automatically notice these things, and that’s why when you read book reviews, they go on about the pace of the plot, or the depth (or lack their of) of the characters, and whether or not the world the author built is believable.

But, to put it a simpler way, essentially, readers talk about what they liked and didn’t like about the book. They reflect on their experience with a book, both during and after reading it.

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Some of that reflection happens while they talk about the book that they read. This can happen with someone who has not read the book, and your reflection ends up being a recommendation to read/not read it. Or it can be with someone who has read the book, and your conversation becomes a collective reflection – after all, sometimes someone else’s insight changes the way you view an aspect of the book, which changes your opinion. This is probably why book clubs will continue to be a thing.

So here is a non-exhaustive list of questions that will help you reflect on your reading experience. You can use these questions – and/or their subsequent reflections – to spur bookish conversations with the readers in your life.

Plot

  • Is it a book where nothing seems to happen?
  • Are there parts of the plot where things just seem to drag on and on and you’re inwardly screaming “Stop jabbering and get to the point already!” (that was me last night.)
  • Is the beginning of the book super slow and hard to get into?
  • Maybe the ending wasn’t satisfying?
  • Was the pacing excellent so things never seemed too slow or to action-packed?
  • Was the premise of the plot something you enjoyed or not really?
  • Were there plot twists – and did you like them?
  • Was everything totally predictable? And if so, do you like predictable plots? I know I do sometimes.

Characters

  • Were there characters that annoyed the snot out of you?
  • Was the main character or hero too perfect?
  • Did the main character have flaws, and were they believable?
  • How would you describe the personality of the main characters?
  • Did the main character undergo a change throughout the book that demonstrates growth, or did they struggle under the weight of trauma? These characters can be easy to relate to and help us make sense of our own lives, because growth and struggle are an integral part of the human experience.
  • Were there any sidekicks that were amazing? Sometimes the main character might not be the best, but the author added a sidekick who has an incredible sense of humor and is a really good friend
  • Could you connect to the main character? Why or why not?

Setting

  • Where and when did the story take place?
  • Did you enjoy reading about that time period/place? Why or why not?
  • Were the details realistic and clearly researched? As in, did the author make sure to include phrases in conversation that would be used in that time/place and exclude ones that wouldn’t be? What about the clothing, houses, and technology?
  • If it was a fantasy or science fiction book, did it seem like the world created was believable? As in, were there details that weren’t crucial to the story but helped your mind get more fully immersed in the imaginary world? It might be descriptions of entering a place, or backstory details like the history of the place or the currency they use, or a technological detail about some imaginary tool, weapon, or gadget.
  • Was there anything about the setting that you didn’t like or that seemed “off”? What was it, and why?
  • Was there anything about the setting that you particularly loved? What was it, and why?

Themes

(admittedly one of my favorite topics about books)

In case you need a refresher on this literary element: In elementary school, we teach that a theme is a “life lesson” about the book. A lot of times, teachers will use one word themes, like “perseverance.” In high school, I was taught that a theme is more a sentence about a topic.

So I teach my students that it’s a life lesson or a perspective about life. For instance, “We can learn things from people who are different from us” is a theme my students discover in The Sign of the Beaver. Or “The imagination is powerful” is a theme that is in The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles.

  • What ideas about life, politics, current events, culture, etc. came up repeatedly or were addressed throughout the book?
  • What perspective does the author or the characters seem to have about the things that happened in the book? (Even – or perhaps especially – fantasy and sci fi books can speak to heated topics in our world. I mean, Ender’s Game, which was written mostly because the author was just imagining what life would be like given certain circumstances, probes the idea of when violence is okay and whether or not being ruthless to enemies is morally all right.)
  • Did the character undergo some experience that taught you about how you could approach a situation in your own life?
  • What ideas about life and relationships stuck out to you as you read? For example, in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a theme would be the incredible value of having a true friend who is there for you on the good days and the bad days.
  • Did you agree with the perspective that was represented in the book? Why or why not?
  • Did the themes in the book change your mind about some aspect of your life?

How I teach book talk in the classroom

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I’ll keep this part short, because I’ll be talking a lot more about it in part two of this series. However, I will say that when I’m reading books as a whole class or in small groups, I will pause and ask them variations of the above questions. I’m helping them learn both what the literary elements are and how to reflect on what they read.

One of the best ways I’ve figured out how to talk about the elements is to describe them as layers of the story.

I start with plot, since that’s the most concrete one.

Then I talk about characterization – and make sure we move beyond just describing the physical characteristics (they always seem to get stuck on that). Later, after they’ve grasped how to describe a character’s personality, I add another “layer” of how characters sometimes change or grow throughout the book.

Then I add the layer of theme and tell them that understanding the theme is when reading gets really exciting, because it gives you a far deeper understanding of what happens in the book.

We do talk about setting, though I need to be better about that. I know it’s important, but I don’t get as excited about teaching it. I’d take suggestions from you readers if you have any!

I also ask some of these questions in individual conferences with students, but I don’t necessarily plan it out. I let it be more fluid and organic, depending on the need of the particular reader I’m talking to. As much as possible, it’s good to make one-on-one conversations more casual and reader-to-reader instead of teacher-to-student so kids can practice the type of book talk they’ll do on their own with friends (this recommendation is from Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer).

Tips for Grownups at Home

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One of the questions I get asked most often by parents at conferences is, “How do I help my child get better at reading?” And my response is more and more comprised of these tips from teachers. But one of those tips is to talk about books with your kids. Just as I help my students learn how to reflect on the books they read, you can too.

While you are welcome to use whatever questions in the earlier section are appropriate for your child or for the particular book, I have a few more suggestions and resources for you. These are easiest, perhaps, when you’re reading with your child, but they can also be used for a book they’ve read independently.

The most important thing is to ask your child both about elements in the text (such as the plot for fiction or the main idea for nonfiction) and what they thought about them.

If you’re reading the book with them, make sure you share your own thoughts too, so you’re modeling how to talk about books as well.

Suggestions:

  • Make it natural. After you read to them (which you need to do regularly), before moving on to the next thing, ask a few questions about the part your read. That’s the most natural time to talk about what you’re reading. It’s a great time to talk about themes and how your child is relating to the characters in the book, even if you don’t explicitly say any literary terms.
  • Make it expected. If talking about the book, instead of just reading and closing it, is what you do every time, your child will get used to the expectation and it won’t be something you need to force (for most kids, any way).
  • Make it brief. You don’t need to ask a zillion questions every time. Switch up the types of things you ask, based on what you read, but don’t beat questions and answers into the ground. The goal is to help them reflect, not hate the process of reading because they’ll be interrogated afterward. 🙂

Resources:

What are your favorite things to ask the fellow readers in your life? Comment below!


Previous posts in this series:
Series Introduction
Finding Just Right Books
Abandoning Books
Setting Goals & Tracking Reading
Make it a Habit

8 thoughts on “Things Good Readers Do: Talk about Books

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