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Literary Conversations in the Classroom: Deepening Understanding of Nonfiction and Narrative

reviewed by Abigail Rombalski & Cynthia Lewis - July 10, 2017

coverTitle: Literary Conversations in the Classroom: Deepening Understanding of Nonfiction and Narrative
Author(s): Diane Barone & Rebecca Barone
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807757330, Pages: 160, Year: 2016
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Literary Conversations in the Classroom: Deepening Understanding of Nonfiction and Narrative by Diane Barone and Rebecca Barone is a book for middle level practitioners that centers on experiences from an upper elementary classroom. Despite ongoing literacy research stressing the importance of dialogue for meaning-making, conversation continues to be underused in classrooms (Zwiers & Crawford, 2011). This book builds off the work of book clubs and literature circles (Daniels, 2002) and references reading researchers Diane Lapp, who wrote the foreword, Fisher and Frey (2009), Hattie (2012), Tompkins (2010), and more. Barone and Barone define literary conversations as “those where a heterogeneous group of students read and participate in sophisticated conversation centered on their reading” (p. 2). Teachers learn to model, mentor, and support students to develop literacy conversations together. According to the authors, student engagement is tied to their fully participatory roles in the groups. The text offers pragmatic advice to teachers, yet misses some key opportunities due to the limited diversity of recommended texts and little attention to socially and culturally critical conversations.

This book includes seven chapters and lays out strategies, rationale, text selections, and student samples. In Chapter One, Barone and Barone address the work that is necessary to build these conversations. They remind teachers to take the time, to be patient, and to be transparent with administration about the purpose and the standards connected to classroom conversations. It takes scaffolding and a gradual release of responsibility to form conversational habits around a common text. Barone and Barone address comprehension, fluency, close reading, vocabulary, and background knowledge through student-led roles. Benefits beyond reading include feelings of belonging and motivation to learn independently and collaboratively.

The second chapter, “Getting Started with Literary Groupings” provides background to facilitating classroom conversations. This book may support teachers who print out “literary roles” from the internet. The authors explicitly teach students to respond to text. They use choral and partner reading, previewing and predicting collaboratively, and writing for thinking. They share a “QUACK back” method for active listening and build expectations that students practice across disciplines. Barone and Barone stress that the role of the teacher shifts, but teachers are reminded to prepare focus questions, to give feedback every day, and to be mindful of closing a lesson together, even if groups are reading different books.

Chapter Three is “Organizing Role Expectations Based on Generic Expectations and Genre.” Becky Barone uses picture books as mentor texts to teach about role expectations. Roles include: illustrator, summarizer, passage picker, vocabulary finder/word wizard/interpreter, fact finder, character trait finder, conflict finder, investigator, choice tracker, visual viewer, journaler, solution suggester, and director. The director lists questions reflective of question-answer relationships or depth of knowledge questions. There are different or additional roles depending on the text genre, and students take the lead. One drawback to this method is that students in the role of director were selected from among students who “showed they had matured into leaders” through strong academic and behavioral performance (p. 39). Many studies of book groups have challenged this method because it privileges students who are already viewed as achievers, and leaves out students whose life experiences might be more relevant to particular texts than that of more conventionally achieving peers.

Chapter Four, “Possible Literary Groupings,” again prompts teachers to model, starting with one book for an entire class. Middle level texts and questions are grouped using genre, topic, author, and gender (in this text, gender groupings do not explicitly discuss student choice or the fluid nature of gender identity, reifying a gender binary). The authors make the case for teacher-selected texts to encourage students to read across genres, extending from independent reading preferences. “We also listen closely to what students are saying about the books they are reading” (p. 60). Students develop their identities as readers and active citizens; youth from this classroom advocated for new books within their libraries, stemming from their literary conversations.

In “Exploring Student Literary Responses to Fiction,” Chapter Five, Barone and Barone share schedules and emphasize daily literary conversations, in which “all students are nurtured into full participation” (p. 85). Student responses illustrate the social collaboration within student roles. For example, “Travel Tracer” records not only setting locations, but also the emotional qualities of characters. This can take deliberation and interpretation from the group. “Vocabulary Finder” does not only define words, but also calls the group to find additional evidence from the text in order to support the importance of words or concepts. Students build background information through digital literacy and examine collectively how the text fits the genre. This chapter encourages teachers to listen and to give regular feedback to groups, on paper, and one-on-one. Focus questions, used for formative assessment, are introduced without disrupting the flow of discussions. Students also respond through writing and drawing, although readers are reminded that “conversation is the heart of this process” (p. 81).

“Exploring Student Literary Responses to Nonfiction,” Chapter Six, addresses a genre too often left out of literary circles. Student samples demonstrate close reading and movement between print and images. The authors note how much students love nonfiction. Students respond with text-features, visuals, and graphic organizers. Writing and drawing become an additional stimulus for participation in literary conversations, and inquiry is encouraged. Recommended categories of texts in this chapter (p. 103) seem dominated by books that are often associated with the reading tastes of boys, which might serve to reify the common assumption that boys prefer nonfiction.

The final chapter “Exploring Assessment,” outlines ongoing and project-based assessments. Projects serve as another catalyst for conversation and increased motivation for further reading. It is important to note that students who were pulled out of class to meet other needs were the students who did not reach proficiency standards. It is worth emphasizing that teachers need to advocate for these students and plan for conversational time when all students are present.

One distinct value in this book is the support for heterogeneous groupings over more commonly tracked and leveled reading groups. Another value is the emphasis in Chapter Six on nonfiction texts, including multimodal production to spur further questions and ideas. The authors ask teachers to expand ideas for literary conversations into their classroom contexts.

Unfortunately, Barone and Barone missed the opportunity to use sufficient diverse mentor texts. Teacher-selected texts need representation from Asian and Pacific Islander and Indigenous authors, people of color outside of immigrant fiction, and African American people beyond slavery, poverty, and the Civil Rights Movement. Non-binary gender-related texts, for instance, could include Lily and Dunkin or I Am Jazz. Selections at this level could include authors Meg Medina, Sharon Draper, or others from http://weneeddiversebooks.org/. Maniac Magee (Spinelli, 1999) is a recommended title that has been criticized for promoting the idea of a white child savior who builds bridges across racial and cultural divides (Enciso, 1997). Barone and Barone claim that teachers understand the problematic racial formations found in the text, but that children “want to understand Maniac and how he survived when he ran away at 8 years old.”  We wonder which children (and whose children) the authors have in mind given the preponderance of empirical research demonstrating children’s interest in and capacity for discussions of race and racial justice (Rogers & Mosley, 2006).

Most classrooms will need to prepare more deliberately for difficult discussions, especially about race/ethnicity or identity. In our experience, important conversations can involve intense emotion and conflict. In the conversations valued by Barone and Barone, conventional notions of academic discourse prevail. All responses must be cited with evidence (“no opting out”, p. 25), and conversations should follow protocols for rational academic discourse. Recent scholarship has suggested on the other hand that feeling, or affective intensity, is central to engaged learning, with anger and unbridled enthusiasm as fully embodied, meaningful responses to texts and talk (second author, 2017).

Barone and Barone’s book offers important starting points for teachers to deepen literary conversations in the classroom. They write, “Trust your students to respond to the challenge” (p. 130). We agree. Students are ready for conversations!


Daniels, H. (2002). Literature circles: Voice and choice in book clubs and reading groups. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Enciso, P. (1997). Negotiating the meaning of difference: talking back to multicultural literature In T. Rogers & A. O. Soter (Eds.) Reading across cultures: teaching literature in a diverse society (13–41). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2009). Background knowledge: The missing piece of the comprehension puzzle. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gephart, D. (2016). Lily and Dunkin. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London, UK: Routledge.

Herthel, J., & Jennings, J. (2014). I am Jazz. New York, NY: Dial Books.

Rogers, R. & Mosley, M. (2006). Racial literacy in a second grade classroom: critical race theory,

Whiteness studies and literacy research, Reading Research Quarterly, 41(4), 462–495.

Tompkins, G. E. (2010). Literacy in the middle grades: Teaching reading and writing to fourth through eighth graders. Boston, MA: Pearson.

Zwiers, J., & Crawford, M. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 10, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22090, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 8:36:54 PM

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About the Author
  • Abigail Rombalski
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    ABIGAIL ROMBALSKI is a teaching specialist in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. She worked as an English teacher in urban schools for fifteen years. She is currently working on her doctoral dissertation that examines interracial dialogue and youth activist literacies in and out of school.
  • Cynthia Lewis
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    CYNTHIA LEWIS, Ph.D., is Professor and Chair of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota where she holds the Emma M. Birkmaier Professorship in Educational Leadership. She has published widely on classroom discourse in response to literature and media as well as on the intersection of social identities and literacy practices in and out of school. She is currently studying the role of emotion as it circulates in classrooms focused on critical media analysis and production.
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