Choosing Clear and Varied Dialogue Tags: A Minilesson
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In this minilesson, students explore the use of dialogue tags such as “he said” or “she answered” in picture books and novels, discussing their purpose, form, and style. Students identify dialogue tags in stories, collaboratively revise a passage from a novel to add more variety to the tags, and then apply the text structure to stories that they have written.
Dialogue Tags (handout): This sheet contains a list of dialogue tags that students can use in their own pieces of writing.
Dialogue Tags (interactive): This online tool provides students with information about dialogue tags, including their purpose, examples, how to use a variety of tags when writing, and other tips.
From Theory to Practice
By teaching students how to identify the text conventions in their own writing, revision activities help students become more responsible writers. The power is shifted from the "correcting" teacher to the writers, who are able to make their own corrections.
Constance Weaver argues in Grammar for Teachers (1979), "There seems to be little value in marking students' papers with ‘corrections,' little value in teaching the conventions of mechanics apart from actual writing, and even less value in teaching grammar in order to instill these conventions" (64). Instead, learning about grammar, conventions, and text structures (such as dialogue tags) is most effective when student writers "learn through language". Contextualized in the students' own writing and their need to communicate with their readers, self-editing activities allow students not only to learn through language but to learn through their own language.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Picture book which includes dialogue among the characters
- Chart paper and markers
- Transparency of the Dialogue Tags Revision Activity, using an excerpt from Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls (Yearling Books, 1998), or a similar passage from a novel the class has read which relies primarily on the dialogue tag "said"
- Overhead projector
Dialogue Tags handout
- Make copies of the Dialogue Tags handout.
- Test the Dialogue Tags interactive on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- Choose a picture book which includes dialogue. This lesson uses Yertle the Turtle by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1958); however, any picture book which demonstrates a variety of dialogue tags will work.
- Make a transparency of the excerpt from Summer of the Monkeys or another passage you may have chosen for this lesson.
- Additional background information on writing dialogue can be found at the Collaborating to Write Dialogue page.
- understand dialogue's purpose in literature and their own writing.
- be able to give examples of dialogue tags.
- become more aware of the use and abuse of common tags (e.g., said).
- write or revise a story using dialogue tags.
Instruction & Activities
- Read the picture book that you’ve chosen aloud. Explain that you are sharing the story to talk about how an author tells a story. Ask students to pay particular attention to the things that the characters say in the story.
- Use the Dialogue Tags Interactive to define dialogue and dialogue tags and their purpose in stories. Encourage students to share details that they remember from the story.
- Draw a chart on the board with one column for character names and another for their dialogue tags.
- Read the picture book again, while students listen for dialogue tags.
- Pause when a tag is identified to add the tag and the character whose speech it describes to the chart. At the end of the reading, you should have a list of all the tags used in the story in the order in which they appeared.
- Discuss the range of dialogue tags used in the text and what the tags communicate about the characters and situations in the story. For instance, the tags describing Yertle’s speech in Yertle the Turtle progress from “said,” “cried,” and “snapped” early in the story to “shouted,” “howled,” and “snorted” at the end. Discuss how the dialogue tags tell readers about the character of Yertle as they become progressively stronger and angrier.
- Read the excerpt from Summer of the Monkeys (or the passage that you’ve chosen), noting the dialogue tags on the overhead. Students will likely notice the difference between the range of dialogue tags Seuss uses in Yertle the Turtle and the rather simple tags in this excerpt.
- Distribute copies of the Dialogue Tags handout.
- Customize the handout for your class by inviting students to share additional tags. Add these tags to the chart and encourage students to write the words on their copies of the handout.
- Go through the excerpt from Summer of the Monkeys, adding alternative dialogue tags that would fit the conversation, using the lines to the right of the passage. Reinforce the tips and instruction from the Dialogue Tags Interactive as you work.
- Once the tags in the passage have been revised, reread passages from the original and the revised version so that students can hear the differences.
- Answer any questions students have about using dialogue tags then ask students to choose a piece of writing from their writer’s notebook or another piece of writing that they are working on.
- Ask students to identify the dialogue in the pieces that they’ve chosen and to consider the dialogue tags that they’ve used, revising to strengthen the dialogue using the examples from the stories and from the Dialogue Tags handout.
- If desired, invite students from the class to share narratives they've written which include dialogue among the characters. Ask students to pay attention to the dialogue in the stories and discuss how the stories might be revised, based on the text structures explored in this minilesson.
- Extend the minilesson by having students choose a picture book from the classroom library and collect all the dialogue tags. Once the data has been collected, share the lists and create a word wall of possible dialogue tags that students can refer to as they write their own stories.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Listen for students to add ideas from the story or from their own readings as you compile examples and revise the excerpt.
- Monitor students progress as they revise their own writing. Look for use of dialogue tags as they work, offering support and positive feedback.
- More formal assessment of the use of dialogue tags, if you choose to include it, works best as a part of the assessment of the narratives that students write.