The Importance of Conversation in the Library

One of the more fulfilling aspects of my work in the Lower Division library is my monthly book club meeting with a group of fifth grade girls. The books we read and share propel us into conversation. All too often, however, our conversations stray from focus areas such as character analysis and plot twists and move toward the personal. In these more candid conversations, I still strive to guide the girls and develop their ability to converse.

Implementing 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, and problem solving not only make for a more interesting classroom, but are necessary for assisting students with critical skills.  In Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that the amount of interaction between typical American parents and their 1- and 2-year-old children had important ramifications for the children’s vocabulary growth rate, vocabulary use, and test scores. Children who did not engage in conversation were found to be at a serious disadvantage with regard to their vocabulary at an early age.  As librarians, we have numerous opportunities to foster rich conversations with our students and develop their social skills.

In Growing a Reader from Birth, Diane McGuiness makes several suggestions about behaviors parents should avoid based on Hart and Risley’s work. Her guidance can be easily applied to our work as librarians in order to make our daily interactions with students more meaningful. In this post, I have highlighted and adapted three of McGuiness’s recommendations for working with students.

Engage passive or inattentive students in conversation or an activity. Not every student looks forward to time in the library. For students who may find reading difficult or have not yet mastered the art of reading for pleasure, I try to offer resources aligned to their interests. Although it’s not a maker space yet, origami books and piles of pretty paper have been a huge success in my library. Through subscriptions to both Dog Fancy and Cat Fancy and flipping through the issues side by side with my students, I have learned about aspirations to be a veterinarian and the responsibilities my students have for their pets. Cake Pop and Holiday cookbooks have opened up doors to conversations about nutrition, eating out, and family rituals.  When students learn to enjoy their time in the library and are at ease talking with me, the road to reading gets shorter.

Let students lead the interaction. When I choose a new book to share or revive an old classic, I am extremely mindful of my own perceptions and connections related to the book. As I read aloud, I always strive to let the children lead the discussion.  I allow conversations to unfold as students contribute to learning and making meaning from the text. My approach is a think-aloud model, guiding the active thinking of the listeners. Moving from a teacher-centered focus to a student-focused classroom has been a journey for me. It represents a complete shift from my own schooling experience and a very welcome change.

Pay attention to all of your students. We are all doing more work than ever, and far too often the depth with which I can prepare for classes or devote to reading professional journals is limited. The student who enjoys reading and loves the library may often be the student to whom I don’t specifically reach out because they are self-sufficient in accessing the library and selecting materials. In short, they are the students who do not need my help or recommendations. In overcoming this habit, I ensure that I keep these students engaged with conversation, typically through a quick discussion about a new book I have read or an article online that I think would interest the student. This contact initiates conversation and keeps the students coming back to talk and share.

How do you keep your students engaged in conversation?

Works cited:

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

McGuiness, D. (2004). Growing a reader from birth: Your child’s path from language to literacy. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Conversation in the Library

  1. What an interesting post! Not only from the perspective of librarianship, and connecting with students, but also because I have a nearly three year old son, and want to make sure he has the foundation to grow into a curious, engaged reader.

  2. Thanks, Faith. There are some great ideas here. I was just looking at all the origami paper I have at home and trying to figure out what to do with it. Now I know! I also like the reminder to pay attention to the kids who are pretty self sufficient–those conversations are important, too.

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