The Secret of Teaching Dialogue to Students
Teaching dialogue is about more than introducing grammar formatting and dialogue words (although that is important.) To learn how to write dialogue, students need to learn when and why to use it in their writing. This is a mystery to many writers, even in adulthood – but you have to understand it to write effective dialogue.
Read on for:
- the five functions of dialogue in stories
- how students can learn to identify these different functions
- activities for teaching dialogue structure to different kinds of learners
- an example step-by-step assignment to get students writing effective, focused dialogue
- sample reading sets for students to get comfortable with this story element
The Secret, Nearly Neglected Part of Teaching Dialogue: Identifying Purpose
While dialogue is sort of the written equivalent of conversation, it looks and acts in a different way when it’s written down on paper. Before you can actually go about teaching students how to write dialogue, they first have to understand why dialogue is important and how to actually format it.
Five major functions of dialogue in a story:
1. Defines the characters.
The kinds of words a character uses, and the way they say them, offers readers a fast, rich insight into a character’s:
- current setting or place of origin (i.e. where they grew up), through their accent/vernacular
- level of education, through their vocabulary
- age, through their slang (and how recognizable that slang is to a certain audience)
- occupation, through the kinds of words used (e.g. history puns from a history teacher)
- energy levels, through how quickly they speak
- personality, through the words they use and how quickly they speak
These are only some of the types of character traits and background knowledge that a writer can convey using dialogue.
2. Provides information.
Every time a character asks a question, makes a speech, or argues with another character in a story, this is an opportunity for the writer to offer up some information. This information could be about the speaker, another character, or something that could be relevant for the story later.
Note: Elementary schoolers probably won’t have this problem. But as students get older and write longer stories, they may use dialogue to info dump. This is how to avoid info dumping in dialogue.
3. Pulls readers into a scene.
The narrator can just tell you what happens: “The two characters met in the classroom. They talked, then decided to move forward with the plan.”
Technically we (the readers) understand what happens, and we are placed in a setting during this part of the story (i.e. “the classroom”).
But this does not put readers within a scene – we do not get the sense of being in the room with the two characters as they are agonizing over whether to do something or not. We don’t get to watch the interaction happen, or catch their tone of voice.
It feels very much like when someone tells you about a juicy, scandalous argument or event that you missed. You get what happened, but hearing “they yelled at each other” is much less impactful than actually witnessing the yelling. (This is literally called “making a scene.”)
Keep this analogy in mind when teaching dialogue: the very phrase “making a scene” really connects writers to the idea that dialogue creates scene. And with scene comes emotions: ones expressed by characters and the ones you feel as you’re reading.
4. Develops the characters.
Characters have to change throughout the story. Conflict changes them: Their worldview shifts, they start to want different things, they have to grow in some way to face their problems, etc. If they don’t change, there’s no conflict – which means there’s no real story.
Dialogue is an easy way to portray one’s character arc. You may use it to express a change in how they think and feel towards themselves, others, and the world in general.
Instead of describing everything a character is feeling or thinking, the writer can just use the tone of a character’s voice. A character might sound more harsh towards someone who has wronged them. Or they may soften towards someone they end up liking, despite how their relationship started.
They can also change a character’s vocabulary throughout the story. A character might live somewhere sophisticated. Despite their best efforts, they end up soaking up the new culture and accepting where they are.
As you’re teaching dialogue, expose them to all the possible ways to develop characters. Character arcs are hard to write, and the more literary tools they have, the better their stories will be.
5. Moves the plot forward.
When you’re talking with someone in your everyday life, it doesn’t always change the trajectory of your own life story. For example, when you’re just talking about a funny video with a friend, it’s probably not going to change the course of your friendship. If every word you said impacted your life in some big way, it’d be exhausting.
However, in stories, everything should be relevant to the narrative arc in some way. Whether it’s a description of something, or an action, or dialogue, everything has to be relevant, or readers will stop paying attention.
It’s really important to stress this to students in general, but especially when they learn how to write dialogue. Also, stress that “moving the plot forward” comes in many forms.
Moving the plot forward could include:
- getting to know characters , so you can better understand them and their actions
- developing a relationship between characters
- someone making a decision based off a conversation they had
- a character hearing bad or good news
- telling a secret to someone else
Even silly conversations can do these things. Writers can entertain and move the plot forward.
How to teach grammar and “dialogue words” to students with different learning types:
To learn how to write dialogue, they have to be able to read dialogue. Reading a variety of short reading passages and stories will expose students to different styles and usages of dialogue.
To identify dialogue, students need to know:
- Dialogue words that indicate the exchange of words: said, cried, shouted, told, yelled, etc.
- Punctuation marks: quotations and commas
When teaching dialogue mechanics, there are different ways to engage young students.
For visual learners, you can provide worksheets with dialogue text. Create a key using different colors, shapes, etc. Students can read aloud, with partners, or silently to themselves, and mark different dialogue words and punctuations according to the key.
For auditory learners, read passages aloud. Assign students to read for certain characters, like in a play. When their turn comes up, they read only the dialogue. Instruct them to speak according to the dialogue word. For example, if the dialogue word is whisper, they should whisper. The punctuation will indicate to them when they should start and stop.
And for kinesthetic learners, bring in a box of elbow noodles (we promise, we’re going somewhere with this.) Write down sentences on large pieces of paper for group work, or print out worksheets with dialogue sentences. When you’re creating these sentences, leave out the punctuation marks. Give students elbow noodles. Have them place the noodles where the punctuation marks should go. Have them create “noodle circles” around dialogue words.
Related: Many dialogue words are high frequency words. Here’s how to help your young readers learn more high frequency words.
Synthesize the “why” and the “how”. Use several simple passages, or a few more rigorous stories.
It’s one thing to be able to spot dialogue. Students only need single sentence examples to learn what dialogue is.
But it’s another thing to be able to spot how and why certain dialogue is being used. For this, students need to read scenes and stories.
Choose examples that contain at least one of the five functions of dialogue within it. If you want to do a close reading, choose one rigorous text that contains several types of dialogue, rather than many small passages. As students read, ask them to take note of where dialogue is and what the dialogue does in the story.
Ask them questions like:
- Does the dialogue tell you something about the character’s background or personality?
- Are emotions being expressed through spoken words?
- Is the character having a conversation with someone else? Does that conversation show how they feel about another character?
- What did you learn from the dialogue, if anything?
For every question, ask them to show evidence from the text. This builds critical thinking skills, which are required by Common Core standards.
Actively using dialogue: It’s time to create.
At this point, students are pretty comfortable with reading and thinking about dialogue. But now it’s time to write.
There are a few options here: you can assign a prompt, ask students to turn an event in their lives into a story, or have them interview someone and turn that into a story.
But to make sure they understand when and why to use dialogue, you could do something more focused, like the following:
1. Come up with a situation, such as two characters getting into an argument, or a few characters trying to figure out where to go on a road trip.
2. Create a prompt that asks students to create a scene around this situation.
3. Ask them to choose what they want the outcome of the scene to be: Do the friends make up, or do they become sworn enemies? Does the group go on the trip, and are they prepared for it? If students have difficulty choosing, give them some options.
4. Give students a checklist of every element they need to create this scene: character descriptions, a setting, and especially dialogue. Create a minimum requirement of lines spoken, interactions between different characters, etc. (What good is teaching dialogue if your students have one character shout “hooray!” and that’s the extent of their writing career?)
5. Assign or allow students to choose what their dialogue will do for this scene. Does the interaction between two friends hint that they’re secretly in love? Does the decision between the group of friends catapult the plot forward?
Consider doing this exercise a few times to see how the dialogue changes depending on it’s purpose. Are adjectives helpful for describing? What portrays a character’s enthusiasm better: long sentences or short ones?
This is the perfect exercise for not only teaching dialogue, but for noticing different types of wording, sentence structure, and any opportunities to use figurative language,
Talking comes more naturally than dialogue. But the two are not as different as they may seem.
Most of the time, we don’t just start talking for no reason. We want to share information, tell people about our lives and hear about other peoples’ lives. Conversations can offer information about what’s going on, entertain others, and motivate us to do things.
If we think of dialogue having the same purpose as regular talking, learning how to write dialogue may not be as mysterious as it seems to be.