By the time a student is in second or third grade, she should consistently be reading texts in which dialogue is punctuated with quotation marks. That’s the time students should first be taught how to punctuate dialogue in their own writing. For the first time, they are reading texts where dialogue stands out by means of punctuation and paragraphing. With plenty of models from actual texts, it should be easy to teach kids to write their own dialogue, right?
Well, whoa, there…I think you should tackle this with a plan…a tangible plot for teaching this very abstract concept to very pre-abstract-thinkers! There is so much to have to understand in order to be proficient at writing dialogue and at varying how dialogue is written:
- Dialogue from a new speaker is always presented in a new paragraph
- Quotations marks go around the actual dialogue, but not around the dialogue tags or any other action that is described in the paragraph
- Dialogue tags can come after, before, or between lines of dialogue
- End quotation marks come after the comma, question mark, exclamation point, or period that comes at the end of the dialogue
- When the same speaker’s dialogue goes into a second paragraph (because they’re talking uninterrupted for a long time), quotation marks are not used at the end of the dialogue in the first of the two paragraphs, but are used at the beginning of the dialogue in the second paragraph…
See what I mean? It can really get quite complicated…
Part One – Dialogue Inquiry
I suppose some authorities might tell you to directly teach how dialogue is punctuated and paragraphed and then have students try it on their own. However, I have found that if students discover how dialogue is written on their own, in a guided learning environment, they catch on to it more quickly and internalize it more efficiently.
Take a look at this video lesson. Notice the way I:
- Do the reading of the text for the student…especially if it is unfamiliar text…thereby taking away the work of reading something new in order to allow the student to focus all of her efforts on working to learn about the dialogue
- Make sure the student has an idea about the story so examining the dialogue is a natural part of understanding the story, not just some exercise done with a book.
- Guide the student to differentiate between the dialogue and the tags, and make sure they have the vocabulary (dialogue tag, indented, and quotation marks) to describe what they see.
- Begin with a fairly simply structured piece of dialogue to examine.
- Always be encourage the student(s) to notice details about how the dialogue is written and verbalize what they notice.
- Make sure the student can differentiate between what the author is saying and what the character is saying.
- Keep using the technical vocabulary and encourage the students to do the same.
- Occasionally jump in and verbalize details that the student might be missing.
- Ask questions that scaffold the student in making discoveries about how the dialogue is written.
Part Two – Dialogue Delving
You’ve been a teacher long enough to know that you can’t just teach students something once and call it good. Students need lots of worthwhile practice, especially with complicated topics like writing dialogue.
One of the most effective ways I have found that students can really delve into dialogue is by practicing with what I call the “Macaroni Method.” Watch this video…then we’ll talk about it!
Now, for this activity you’ll need to pull together and prepare a few materials:
- Long pieces of paper (I cut large roll paper into strips that would fit on tables or desks pushed together in the classroom) & markers for writing…
- Elbow macaroni (the kind I got for the video was very small, I found…I liked the bigger kind I had in my classroom better). You can warn the kids not to eat the macaroni because of all the germs that will be on it after so many little hands touch it, but, let’s face it…there’s always that one kid who is going to eat it anyway!
- Several books from the classroom library for finding and confirming samples of dialogue (hey…here’s another way to put unfamiliar books into the hands of your students. Maybe they’ll find the next book they want to read because of doing this activity!)
- An accountability sheet on which they will record the correct placement of the macaroni (quotation marks) for each of the strips of dialogue.
Before the students arrive in class:
- Locate the sample dialogue texts in the books and copy the passages onto the long strips of paper. (Don’t forget to locate a sample dialogue and prepare a sample dialogue strip to use when you MODEL this activity for the students before they begin.)
- Prepare the strips of paper by writing everything EXCEPT the quotation marks on the strips. Be sure to leave plenty of room for the students to fit the macaroni on the text to simulate the quotation marks.
- Type up accountability recording sheets on which the text looks just like it does on the long strips…with just the quotation marks missing. (Later on, when the students become more proficient you can play around with leaving off commas and periods, but to begin with, keeping the main thing the main thing.)
- Write the title of the book and the page number on which the dialogue is written correctly on each of the strips (but smaller, in the lower corner). Hmmm…this could double as a good exercise in SKIMMING (reading quickly for specific information as opposed to scanning which is reading quickly for general information).
- Put several pieces of macaroni on the table with the dialogue strips. Be sure to leave plenty…some will get knocked on the floor and broken, some will get eaten or at the least broken in little ones’ hands, etc.
When the students arrive…you could have them do some type of startup activity that is a review of what they’ve already discovered about dialogue and how it is written. Then, MODEL doing this activity for them. Here are the steps:
Step 1 – (in groups or with partners…it doesn’t matter where they start in the room, they’ll travel to each station) Read over the passage. Discuss where the quotation marks should go.
Step 2 – Place the macaroni where the quotation marks should go.
Step 3 – Look up the passage in the book to confirm where the quotation marks (macaroni) should go.
Step 4 – Move the macaroni to where it should be as demonstrated in the book.
Step 5 – Fill in the accountability recording sheet with the proper placement of the quotation marks.
Step 6 – Move on to the next station—in an orderly manner, of course. And continue until they have been to all the station.
Step 7 – THIS IS SO IMPORTANT…DON’T SKIP THIS…Have the students do a reflection by writing down (you determine how many, according to the abilities of your students) what they now truly understand, may have learned new, etc. about how dialogue is punctuated. If they say they did not learn anything new in this activity, then have them write down what they already knew. This is your ASSESSMENT of what they have learned (at least what they think they have learned) in this activity. Have them do this reflection BEFORE you try to do any whole class discussion/debriefing of the activity.
This whole activity could fall apart in a hot minute if the teacher just goes to his desk and waits for the kids to be done with (whatever they do when they’re not supervised)…so it is imperative that the teacher circulates, enthusiastically, throughout this entire activity, keeping the students on task, challenging them, congratulating them, etc.
Part Three – Dialogue Writing
After lots of exposure to correctly written dialogue, the time comes when the students have to begin doing it on their own. I have had students use cartoon strip approaches, first writing dialogue in speech bubbles, then writing it out, narrative form, on paper. But my favorite exercise for having the compose their own properly punctuated, properly capitalized, properly paragraphed dialogue comes from an activity I call the “Norman Rockwell Method.”
Take a look:
Note: before we begin writing dialogue for this assignment, I have my students read a short biography about Rockwell (here’s a good one: https://www.biography.com/people/norman-rockwell-37249) and practice some informational reading strategy and/or had them watch a short video about the artist.
Norman Rockwell created numerous paintings involving two subjects. I find them perfect for students to use to practice writing dialogue. This, as with method “The Macaroni Method,” will require some prep of materials before class.
Here are the steps for doing this activity:
Step 1 – Begin by downloading and printing out several Norman Rockwell two subject paintings that might be of interest to students (paintings might have more subjects, but the dialogue the students will write need only be between two of the subjects in the painting).
Step 2 – No need to print these in color. I generally made 4-5 copies of 6-8 pictures so each student could have his or her choice of what painting they wanted to write dialogue about.
Step 3 – Be sure you MODEL writing dialogue for one of these paintings BEFORE you assign the task to your students! Here are the steps you will want to model:
- Choose a picture from the copies of the paintings that you want to work with.
- Obtain 6 sticky notes (three of two different colors) and arrange them thusly on the copy of the paintings. Number them 1-6 as shown. Then, write the names you have given to each of the two subjects on the sticky notes. Notice subject one (Tina) has green sticky notes numbered 1, 3, and 5. Subject two (Tom) has sticky notes numbered 2, 4, and 6. The numbers represent the order in which the two subjects will speak to each other.
- Now comes the fun part! Students should imagine a conversation between the two subjects and treat the sticky notes like speech bubbles, writing what the characters are saying back and forth to each other on the sticky notes as shown in the video.
- Now, remove the sticky notes from the painting and place them in order next to a sheet of notebook paper, keeping the painting handy to look back at as needed.
- Write a two or three sentence introduction paragraph that sets the context for the dialogue.
- Now, the student should write the dialogue between the two subjects, being sure to indent for new paragraphs, capitalize, and punctuate as needed to make the written dialogue correct. At first, it’s ok if they consistently just use “said” to tag, but eventually, you’ll want to teach them to incorporate more sophisticated vocabulary in their tags. Keep the main focus on the main focus, though…help the students concentrate on getting the dialogue punctuated correctly before they starting having to worry about varying word usage in the tags.
- Have the students give their dialogue piece a title.
- Optional: Word Process and insert the image.
As with the “Macaroni Method,” it’s so important for the teacher to resist sitting back and letting the kids just go at this assignment (but you wouldn’t do that, would you?).
Part 4 – Dialogue Skill Maintenance
So you’ve led the students through discovering how dialogue is written, paragraphed, and punctuated. You’ve had them practice just placing the quotation marks in dialogue and reflecting on what they’ve learned. You’ve had them write original dialogue. Whew…that’s it?
Absolutely not…as kids become more and more sophisticated writers, they will learn how to make their dialogue writing more and more sophisticated as well. Here are a few ideas for not losing focus on what they’ve learned about writing dialogue:
- Occasionally have them focus on dialogue writing, paragraphing, etc. as they read books by different authors and have them copy down interesting tags, etc. in their reading logs.
- Require students to write correct dialogue into stories they write for class.
- Do an occasional class opener (I call them start-ups) wherein they have to write a little dialogue.
- Come up with homework assignments that involve analyzing or writing dialogue.
- Think aloud about and show students interesting dialogue pieces when reading aloud to students.
Like with teaching and other aspects of reading or writing, this is a marathon, not a sprint. The goal is to finish in the long run with the students skillful at writing dialogue, not just able to reproduce correct dialogue for one or two assignments!