Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Most Important Conversation: Teaching the Use of Dialog in Writing

One of the things I miss most this school year has been teaching writing.  My day is spent in either guided reading groups or small supplemental groups for math and reading.  Rarely, do I get to focus with students on their writing skills. I am surprised at how much I miss teaching it.  

However, I was talking to one of my colleagues the other day regarding some trouble she was having getting her students to include dialog in their writing.  After talking about it for a bit, I was able to offer an idea that has worked really well for me in the past.  I thought I would share it with you.

The problems with dialog in student writing can be many:

  • It's fluff.  They simply write dialog that does not contribute to the piece in any real way.
  • It's overused.  There is dialog everywhere!  Sections that could/should be narrative are turned into dialog. Or, everyone is talking all the time!
  • It's underused..  They can reach an important point in the story where dialog would enhance the mood, convey emotion, build background, or provide information to the reader in an interesting way but they don't include it.  Yet, there might be really ineffective use of dialog at another point in the story.
  • It's not used at all.  I have often read stories with the most interesting characters and shocking events and yet never a word is uttered.
One way to help a student to effectively incorporating dialog is to focus them on what I call "The Most Important Conversation."  I sit with a friend and ask him/her, "If two characters could only speak to each other once in this story, what is the most important thing they would talk about?  What is a conversation they would just have to have with each other? What is it they simply must talk about?"

This important conversation will usually happen at a story point that either takes place in the beginning (to set up the story or build background for the story), at the climax (discussion of that amazing thing that just happened), or at the very end (where they wrap it up.)  If your friend is having trouble identifying where to place the conversation, point out a part in the story where something interesting happens and ask what the main characters would say to each other about it.  Sometimes I have even resorted to role playing where we both pretend to be a character and talk to each other about the story event.

I should mention that prior to this, I have found it helpful to first give my friends a mini lesson on why and when we include dialog. Sit down with your class and make an anchor chart that lists the ways dialog can enhance a story, such as set a mood, advance the plot, provide background to the story, show a character's feelings, etc.   Then, read them some examples from books they know.  I promise they will get it!

After some more discussion to flesh out who will have the conversation, when in the story it happens, and what it will be about, I give my friends one of the sheets below. There are two depending on the writer's ability.  Some will stick to basic dialog while others will write more involved dialog and need more space.   I usually copy the same sheet two sided so they aren't too limited on the length of the conversation.  I then send them off to write this conversation.  Having an organizer like the one below has been very helpful to my friends.  It helps them with the flow of the conversation between the characters.

Once they have the conversation written, we incorporate it into the story.  Now, depending on how much your friends know about dialog you may or may not have to go in and work on tags.  Great time for a lesson on not overusing said and using dialog tags to convey character's feelings.

Essentially, by focusing on the most important conversation, you are teaching your friends that dialog has purpose and can be a powerful tool for a writer.  It's not just put in a writing piece because the teacher says you should or we know it will get us a better score on a state test! Focusing on the most important lesson address all those problems I bulleted at the beginning.  It takes the fluff dialog out of the piece, limits the overuse or under-use of dialog to that one important conversation, and for those that never include dialog at all, it's a first step.

I've included a link HERE WHERE YOU CAN DOWNLOAD AND PRINT THE DIALOG SHEETS SHOWN ABOVE.  Of course, you don't need the sheets to do this.  I just find having the two types of speech bubbles helps to keep my friends visually organized on the flow of the conversation.  

By the way, I included a credit page on the download.  But, just in case you were wondering, the speech bubbles are by by Dancing Crayon Designs  ( and the chevron background is from  Designed by Coffee, Kids and Compulsive Lists (  

On another note,
 I have this little list I keep of experiences that remind me
 "You know you're a teacher when. . . "  
Here's one!


  1. I love the "most important" conversation idea. My 4th graders struggle with dialog as well and I think this would be a great activity. Thanks for sharing! Glad I found your blog!

    Mrs. Laffin's Laughings

    1. I'm so glad you and Brandee like the idea. It always works for me, so it's tried and true! :-)