Remember to STAR: Honing Communication Skills in Reading Class

by Bethany Peachey

In reading class, students practice the reading skills that allow them to spend time in a book all by themselves. But reading is not merely a private affair. How can you make reading class an opportunity for communicating clearly and respecting others? Bethany describes the STAR technique and how it helped her students remember to practice good communication skills in class.

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As teachers, we want our students to engage well and participate in discussions in our classroom. We want them to focus and pay attention, but I find that ultimately we want them to be able to communicate well. To communicate with the teacher, of course, and then the other classmates and to think about life beyond that, and communication skills.

What I find is that in our classrooms, our typical setup of rows is not very conducive to fostering good communication skills. What tends to happen, I find, is that our discussions can end up being between a specific student and myself, the teacher. The other students participate if it sounds interesting to them, or if they really would like to get the work done. Then they try to slip in a few answers or—It’s not—They don’t feel accountability to participating in the discussion that’s happening.

Something that I did this past year in my classroom was I would have a poster on the wall that would look something like this. I would remind them to STAR. STAR is an acronym for “Sit up,” “Track the speaker,” “Ask and answer questions,” and “Respect those around you.” I read about the technique in Doug Lemov’s book Teach Like a Champion.

When we had reading class, I would ask my students to bring their books and we would sit in a circle. We would do our reading. Students could see each other. We would pause in our reading. We would be discussing something, then everyone is supposed to look at the person that’s speaking. That’s what we call tracking the speaker, looking at them and showing them that what they’re saying is worthwhile listening to. That’s part of being respectful to someone who’s talking.

Then asking and answering questions, of course, is just participating in the discussion that’s happening. In our classroom sometimes we get interesting remarks from students or things that others might think are a little bit off the wall. Respecting just involves listening to them, maybe even if you disagree with them. It doesn’t mean you can’t voice your opinion otherwise, but you listen.

Something that we can work on is when students have things to say, they’re sitting there with their hand up. It’s all about my hand and what I want to say. We’re not really listening to the people that are talking. Just put your hands down until they’re finished talking. Then we’ll take the next one.

Last year, when I used the STAR technique in my classroom, I had 18 students. Depending on what your classroom setup is like, it’s harder to form a circle. My students could move their chairs. We would just sit around the desks that were there, but we would just form a circle. Of course, the sitting up and asking and answering questions and respecting, those are all—You can do that when they are in rows. Tracking is a little harder, especially if you’re the person in the front row. There are gestures you can use, such as even turning your head slightly, pausing in your work or whatever you’re doing.

In my fifth and sixth-grade reading class, we were doing a trade book Door in the Wall. We read the book together. When I introduced the book, then I showed them how we’ll sit in a circle. I talked about how STAR is going to be part of their participation grade. I just stepped through these and talked about the importance of them and why we do this.

We would get to reading class and someone’s slouching or reading ahead when they should be tracking the speaker. I would then just say, “Remember to STAR.” So, it brings them back to, “Oh, yes, this is what I need to do.” Having the chart on the wall is a very easy way for them to, “Oh, yes, this is what I’m doing. This is what STAR means.” A checklist for them to see, “Am I participating well in this discussion?”

It didn’t revolutionize my classroom or my discussions, I would say, except that just the factor of sitting in a circle where we can see each other—I don’t know, it does something to the environment. We’re reading the story together. It becomes—We’re experiencing it together in a different way than if we’re sitting in our typical rows.

We’re part of a community. Life is about more than just what I’m doing right now and reading my book and communicating what I want to communicate, but to be able to think about communicating with the people around me, not only communicate, but also to listen to other people, which is all part of working well in community.

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CONTRIBUTOR: Bethany Peachey

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