Reading Dialogue and Finding Good Examples

Image by palomaironique  (CC BY 2.0)
Many students have difficulty reading and understanding the dialogue found in narrative selections on the OSSLT. According to EQAO results for the 2012 test, the task that required students to read and understand dialogue
  • had the second-fewest students receiving top marks
  • produced the widest performance gap between boys and girls, with girls significantly out-performing boys
  • was especially difficult for ELLs and students with learning disabilities
  • exposed the greatest overall difference in performance between academic and applied students
 Where Students Get Stuck
Dialogue is used to show a conversation between two or more people in a text. Occasionally, dialogue also depicts a conversation inside a character’s head (interior monologue).
The main difficulty students have with dialogue is keeping track of who is saying what. A lot can be happening on the page, especially if there are more than two characters involved, and often dialogue is not marked with dialogue tags to indicate who the speakers are. Finally, in some writing, dialogue isn’t marked with quotation marks at all, and the reader must figure out what is dialogue and what is narrative.
Tips for Reading Dialogue
Students must be clear about who is saying what in order to understand what is happening in the story and to make inferences about the text, characters, themes, and so on.
Here are a few suggestions for keeping track of dialogue:
  • Encourage students to go back to the beginning of a passage of dialogue when they lose track of the speakers. Ask them to read the passage again, this time more slowly, making note of who is talking.
  • Students may need only to go back to the last point in a passage where a speaker is identified.
  • Have students mark dialogue with highlighter pens – a different colour for each speaker.
  • Ask students to draw on their own decoding skills. What do they know about the characters’ traits, habits and personalities that would provide clues about who is speaking?
 Tip: Comic strips aren’t technically dialogue, but students can easily transcribe a comic strip into dialogue to review the idea of a conversation taking place.
 Finding Examples of Dialogue
  • Dialogue lives in fiction – novels and short stories in all genres, including fantasy, science fiction, suspense and mystery, to name a few. Any library will have a good selection of fiction.
  • There is a huge selection of digital fiction available from sites like Amazon.com (and, recently, Amazon.ca). Download a free ebook. Find out how in our previous post, BYOT (Bring Your Own Tech).
  • Review sample passages of dialogue posted in previous tests on the EQAO website. Google “osslt previous tests” and you’ll have several years of past tests to choose from.
 Tip: Don’t rely on the dialogue you find in news reports. It usually consists of one isolated quote at a time and doesn’t replicate a conversation or exchange between two or more people.
Checklist for Reading Narrative Texts with Dialogue
Use this checklist from Don’t Panic: More Practice for the OSSLT, 2nd Edition to develop a game plan for reading dialogue in narrative selections. This checklist can also help you remember what you read.
  • Have I scanned the first and last paragraph so I know how the selection begins and ends?
  • Have I read the middle part of the selection, focusing on what the characters think about, say and do?
  • Have I paid particular attention to dialogue?
  • Have I reread the ending to remind myself of how the selection ends?
  • Do I know what the selection is about?
  • Have I reflected on what the selection means to me?

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