Teachers often feel immense pressure to cover too much material in too little time. They work tirelessly to ensure that their students are adequately prepared for the high-stakes testing that permeates the world of education. In addition to these accountability measures, today’s teachers are asked to communicate a dense and rigorous curriculum to classrooms full of students who have widely varying needs.
In their committed efforts to meet and exceed these expectations, instructional focus can get lost. It is time to move away from a spotlight that is solely placed on curriculum and instead shift back to successfully teaching students. In particular, we need to teach students how to think for themselves.
Students often spend much of their school day listening to teachers and then completing assignments related to the teachers’ mini-lessons or lectures. They have limited opportunities to orally process what they are learning, to make meaning in the company of their peers, and to read or write for authentic purposes. Why is this? Time. It takes time for students to talk, read, and write about academic topics. It is precious time that teachers are not sure they can afford to give.
As Schmoker (2011) clearly explains, however, “It should go without saying that most students won’t optimally learn facts (much less care about them) without abundant opportunities to read, write, and talk.”
Many leaders in the field of literacy, as well as those in educational research, contend that in order for students to achieve at the highest levels, they must actively participate in learning through conversation, reading, and writing (Wilkinson and Silliman, 2000; Tovani, 2004; Daniels and Zemelman, 2004; Gallagher, 2004; Zwiers, 2008). Students develop deep conceptual knowledge in a discipline only by using the habits of reading, writing, and thinking (McConachie et al., 2006; Schleppegrell, 2004).
In other words, in order for students with a vast array of needs to master dense, rigorous curriculum and to demonstrate success on high-stakes assessments, they must have consistent opportunities to talk, read, and write about content-area concepts.
To meet this challenge, teachers may reconcile their constrained time with the need to provide students opportunities for critical literacy practice by adopting the talk, read, talk, write (TRTW) routine.
TRTW is a simple way to deliver content that is centered around students’ practice of literacy skills rather than centered on a teacher’s direct teaching of a concept.
The TRTW routine can be used to teach an entire lesson but is also easily adapted as a routine for teaching individual terms or concepts.
At its core, students are reading a text to learn, rather than listening to their teacher to learn. In addition to reading the text, students engage in structured opportunities to discuss and write about the content.
The TRTW framework is instructionally significant for several reasons. Paramount on the list is that no student, not even the struggling reader, is invisible. All students participate in two conversations with peers, and those conversations directly support their ability to successfully complete both the reading and the writing tasks embedded in the lesson.
Additionally, there are many ways to differentiate within this approach. The selection of the text itself is a differentiation point. For example, a teacher can provide a grade-level article to the majority of the students in his or her class as well as a simplified version of the same article to any readers who are not proficient enough for the original text. The teacher could also provide a more advanced option, offering students a bank of additional resources that also meet the students’ same purpose for reading. Other ways to differentiate the text include providing copies with key points highlighted, teacher notes in the margin of the text, online versions of the text, or native-language text for beginner English language learners.
Differentiating the task is another effective option. For example, the teacher can have more than one purpose for reading a text. Some students may read for a literal and basic purpose, while others might read for a more inferential or evaluative purpose. The teacher can provide more than one version of any graphic organizer or note-taking support in order to specifically target what individual students should focus on during the reading. Furthermore, the writing task does not need to be the same for all students.
Some students might also need differentiation within the talking tasks. Teachers can give sentence stems and word banks to those needing additional support. Another option is to provide different questions to different groups of students. Some discussion groups only have the capacity to address one question at a time, while others could benefit from a list of questions that increase in complexity.
Lastly, the structure of this approach gives valuable time back to the teacher. While students are talking, reading, and writing, the teacher can provide individualized support for those who are struggling. Teachers are no longer the “sage on the stage” but rather true facilitators, equipped with the tools to consistently provide differentiated support as needed throughout the lesson.
Aside from differentiation, another significant benefit of the TRTW routine is that every step of the process builds academic language. Students are listening, speaking, reading, and writing in the language of the content area. They are active users of academic language, rather than passive observers of the teacher’s use of academic language. The responsibility for learning is shared with and then passed on to the students. The TRTW routine requires the students, not the teacher, to accept responsibility for learning. When they do, they become independent thinkers and problem solvers prepared for tasks both within and beyond our classrooms.
Daniels, H. and Zemelman, S. (2004). Subjects Matter: Every Teacher’s Guide to Content-Area Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
McConachie, S., Hall, M., Resnick, L., Ravi, A. K., Bill, V. L., Bitz, J. and Taylor, J. A. (October 2006). “Task, Text, and Talk.” Educational Leadership 64, no. 2, p. 8–14.
Motley, N. (2016). Talk, Read, Talk, Write: A Practical Routine for Learning in All Content Areas (K–12), 2nd ed. San Clemente, CA: Canter Press.
Schleppegrell, M. J. (2004). The Language of Schooling: A Functional Linguistics Perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Tovani, C. (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Wilkinson, L. C., and Sillman, E. R. (2000). “Classroom Language and Literacy Learning.” In M. L. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, and R. Barr (eds.) Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 3, p. 337–360. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Zwiers, J. (2014). Building Academic Language: Essential Practices for Content Classrooms. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Joley-Bass.
This article originally appeared in Language Magazine in September, 2017. At the time, Nancy Motley was an educational consultant for Seidlitz Education and had written Talk, Read, Talk, Write: A Practical Approach to Learning in the Secondary Classroom. She was also the co-author of The Diverse Learner Flip Book and has developed a variety of training sessions in thinking strategies, vocabulary development, nonfiction reading and writing, and ELPS implementation.
Nancy’s previous educational roles have included classroom teacher, reading specialist, intervention program coordinator, professional development instructor, and curriculum developer.
She was awarded the Alief ISD’s Teacher of the Year Award in 2003. While teaching for Alief in Houston, Texas, she specialized in increasing student achievement for a variety of special populations, including English language learners and students with dyslexia.