Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Learning from the Text Talk Experiences of Years 5 and 6 Students Discussing Contemporary Picture Books

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Learning from the Text Talk Experiences of Years 5 and 6 Students Discussing Contemporary Picture Books

Article excerpt


Imagine sitting with a group of students, exploring Jeannie Baker's (1991) picture book Window. As you turn the pages, viewing and talking about what the images mean to members of the group, the conversation develops. Many students make astute comments such as 'The bugs and butterflies disappear from the windowsill when there are more buildings' and 'it feels like it must be noisy living there by the time the motorbikes and trucks appear'. A reasonable expectation could be that many students' comments align with Jeannie Baker's concern as to the destruction of our wilderness. But can you disagree with a boy who can only see good in the progress that has brought McDonalds to his local neighbourhood, now that his mother finally has a job and his family can afford the groceries they need?

It's moments like these that have inspired my research. I am compelled to look more closely at the text talk experiences of individuals within diverse Years 5 and 6 classrooms. A plethora of researchers (e.g., Anstey & Bull, 2000; Au & Jordan, 1981; Comber, 2011; Pantaleo, 2004) have investigated the benefits students gain from reading quality picture books, including improvements in thinking and problem solving, consideration of alternative viewpoints, debating, justifying and developing deeper understanding as well as literacy skill improvement, such as fluency, vocabulary and comprehension (Bourdage & Rehark, 2009; Fisher, Flood, Lapp & Frey, 2004; Lewison, Leland & Harste, 2000; Lobron & Selman, 2007).

Whilst these benefits can be of great value to learners, different students enter discussions about books, or are silenced from them, in different ways according to who they are. Their participation may be influenced by their backgrounds, interests, abilities and beliefs (Heath, 2000). We can learn, therefore, from a close analysis of who benefits, who is silenced (Delpit, 1995, 2003), and how Years 5 and 6 students construct relationships, interactions and knowledge when talking about picture books, particularly contemporary picture books that explore important social, cultural and environmental issues.

This article considers discussion activities conducted with Years 5 and 6 students and the ways in which the students seemed to experience agency, the ability to have some control over their learning and other events within the small group discussions about contemporary picture books.

The picture book discussion activities

In order to explore the different ways in which diverse groups of students experience talk around contemporary picture book texts, I conducted a series of lessons with four diverse groups of six Years 5 and 6 students within two low-socioeconomic schools in southern metropolitan Melbourne. Each group comprised male and female students and represented a range of academic abilities. Six of the students were bilingual.

Six sessions of approximately one hour duration were implemented with each of the four groups within their classrooms. During this time, the students' regular teacher was implementing learning activities with the other students. Two different picture books were used during these sessions, with three sessions being dedicated to close reading and discussion of one text then a further three sessions with a second text. The lessons were conducted over a period of seven weeks.

The book discussions and activities were planned and implemented based on the findings of research into effective literacy tasks. These included recommendations about teaching effective critical literacy (Anstey & Bull, 2000), reading aloud (Frank, Dixon & Brandts, 2001) and book discussions (Booker, 2012). Activities included explicit explanation and use of metalanguage (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002), defining and modelling the use of unfamiliar words (for content words and for literacy terminology) (Pentimonti, Zucker, Justice & Kaderavek, 2010), open-ended questioning (Lane & Wright, 2007) and discussion of writing, illustrations, authorship, metafiction and postmodern devices (Sunanon-Webster, 2009). …

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