Taboo Table Talk

Create memories for your family that are enjoyable, as well as helping to enhance their ability to read and understand information.

By Alicia Johnson


old fashioned family at the dinner table

Often when parents think of helping their children academically, they think that means doing their homework with them (or for them.) I have an idea to share that does not involve homework in the traditional sense, but does start at home. The result, however, can be informational reading experiences for children wrapped in some enjoyable family moments.

The Idea

I tried an experiment in my home for a year. I wanted to initiate more interesting talk at the dinner table to help us all become a little more thoughtful about things going on in the world. I stopped it after a year because now, often, we bring up things in the news to discuss at the dinner table without the prompt. I called it "Taboo Table Talk" because I thought it would be interesting to talk about taboo things like politics and religion. After selling the idea to my family, I started e-mailing everyone each morning with the link to an article from an online news source, and a few questions. The questions were often related to the article, but also sometimes pertaining to the subject matter in general, or opinions and feelings. Many of the discussion prompts were simply reflective in nature; what does this mean to you and your life? My family members would be prepared by dinner that night with something to say about the article or the subject matter.

I chose fairly short articles, but they were all informational in nature and allowed for an opinion. I started noticing that some family members would even do more research and send other articles back to me that applied to the same subject if they found it interesting. Some articles interested more than others, but everyone participated. When my older daughter’s family came to visit, she wanted to be included in our e-mail list so that she could send her thoughts to us on the articles and one of us would read her comment at the table, as if she was there with us. The same thing happened when my sister came to visit; she was also added to the Table Talk list.

Setting Guidelines

We all shared the same feeling that it was good to read about current events and then talk about how we felt. Each day, our whole family was reading a news article, an article from an online magazine, or an excerpt from an online interview and then had a safe place to discuss it. We found that it was a good idea to set some guidelines about interrupting a family member, or self-control issues about other people voicing an opinion that no one else agreed with. We also found that it was a good idea to bring the iPad to the table so we could refer back to the article if necessary. I realize some people don’t like to bring electronics to the table, but I felt this was not the same as checking one’s e-mail or Twitter account at the table, during dinner.

Non-Teacher Approach

I tried my best to approach this idea as a mom who was interested in having real discussion with my family, not as an English teacher. I admit that my teaching background probably helped to shape my questions, but it is not necessary in order to create memories for your family that are enjoyable, as well as helpful for enhancing their ability to read and understand information. As a parent, you can go to the The Common Core Reading Standards website (this link takes you 5th grade but the left margin has all the grades listed that you can hyperlink to). Once you get there, look around and read what sort of standards your child’s teachers are shooting for and work them into the Table Talk conversation. 

For example, take a look at the “Key Ideas and Details” section of Common Core State Standards Initiative Common Core Standard: RI.5.2 that strives to help students to “Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.” You can use this to guide you. When at the dinner table, you and your child(ren) can take turns refreshing everyone’s memory (summarizing) what the article was about before the Table Talk begins. After each person gives their comment, the question of the night can be, “what was one thing in the article that helped give you your opinion or helped you to understand the subject?”

Helpful Guidelines

  • If you normally don’t have this type of conversation at the table, start slowly; we want our children to view it as an enjoyable experience—not a chore. I suggest starting with something less deep, like we did. For the first couple of months, we discussed prompts from a free app I found called Chow Chat. There are probably others out there, but that is the one we used. This will give your children experience in learning how to freely discuss from a prompt. There really is no reading involved with this app except whoever gets to read the question of the day at the dinner table. It is a great way to prep your family for a future deeper approach to the Table Talk.
  • The idea is that all should participate, but never force a response. Once again, this should be an inviting time.
  • The dinner table needs to be a safe place to discuss opinions and feelings. If a family member gives a response that you think is immature or doesn’t go deep enough, thank them for their response and let it go. When it is your turn, you can be mature and go a little deeper. They will catch on.
  • Never interrupt someone’s thought process in a response with a lot of questions. If they feel like they are being attacked or criticized for their response, you will notice they will stop responding honestly or not respond at all. This, of course, would defeat the purpose of encouraging reading and discussion. A safe place to discuss is one of the goals.
  • Don’t use the articles to teach a lesson. Example: Little Johnny wants to get a tattoo so the Table Talk article is about how some people get infections from tattoos. Maybe you could discuss that article after dinner or before dinner, but not during dinner. The dinner talk should be the safe place where thoughts are encouraged and all can look forward to participating.

Sample Table Talk

I have provided a copy of a sample table talk I've used in the past. I encourage you to try table talks at home with your family, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Lesson Planet has more ideas that encourage reading informational text. I have listed three below that I think you will enjoy.

Related Sources:

Advertising in the Contemporary World: An Introduction to Persuasive Texts

I love this series of lessons because it is in such a user-friendly format. The format is easy to follow, the Common Core standards are referenced, and the content links are still good. For teachers, you will find all the necessary handouts to complete this series of lessons as well as a colored Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions for your middle school readers to use while analyzing ads. There are group efforts incorporated into the lessons and you will also find a scoring rubric. The subject matter is relevant to middle school aged students as well.

Fiction or Non-Fiction? Considering the Common Core’s Emphasis on Informational Text

The New York Times has provided a wonderful forum for students to understand the Common Core standard’s view of reading fiction and non-fiction. Here, students will read the standards and will reflect on their reading experiences in and out of school, and also have an opportunity to discuss the roles that both nonfiction and fiction have played in their lives so far. As with all the Times lessons, this provides all the materials necessary such as the article links, links to the handout they use, the step-by-step process and the standards being met while completing this lesson. There are excellent sources included. This lesson would also be a good one for parents to browse through to gain a better understanding of the intention of the Common Core standards.

Characterization and Non-Fiction: Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?"

When I was teaching 8th grade English students, lessons like this made me smile. It is complete, and although it is standards-driven, it is so relevant. All you need is included. Of course, you will need to find a proper place for it in your unit plan, but after reading through it, I am certain that you will find a place. After a close reading of Sojourner Truth’s speech, students will reflect, analyze, and discuss it from many perspectives. There are links to YouTube pages where the speech is read by actress Kerry Washington. Your students may find it helpful as she recites with such emotion. Wonderful subject matter.

English Guide

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Alicia Johnson