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Encouraging Class Discussion

by Gloria Moeller

Getting Started
Next Step: Teaching Basic Content-Reading Skills
Cornell Notes
Possible Starters for Experience-Based Questions
Examples of Experience-Based Questions
Time to Silent Read!
At Last, Time to Talk!
Suggestions for Classroom Practice
Closing Thoughts


You've probably noticed that upper-elementary, middle-school, and high-school children love to talk. They chatter continuously during passing periods. Yet, when it comes time to discuss what they are learning, only a few of the more outspoken students join in the classroom discussion.

In contrast, when you finish reading an especially suspenseful novel, you perhaps can't wait for someone else you know to read it so you can discuss it with them. Wouldn't you love it if your students felt this same passion for the content area you are teaching?

Are you dreaming? No. You can accomplish this exciting classroom situation. The following procedure is designed to get students talking about what you want them to talk about and to awaken in your students that same need for discussion. More of your students will become involved in an animated discussion of the topic and consequently gain a better understanding of the content.


The first few days with your new class, use team-building activities and establish your requirements for a smoothly functioning classroom. These skills will support your students in being successful when working in groups. A good beginning-of-the-year activity that builds group cohesiveness is to have the students in a small group pair off into partners. Have the partners interview each other and then introduce the partner to the rest of the members of the small group. Suggestions for interview questions might include such topics as favorite music groups, favorite free-time activities, favorite movies and TV shows, favorite foods, areas of strength in school subjects, and numbers and ages of siblings. This activity helps students to find out a number of things that they may have in common with one another. This will facilitate succeeding discussions. Also, students' discoveries about their strengths will help them later with group work.

Another activity to promote team building early in the school term is to provide your students with a "scavenger hunt" for items in their textbooks. Social Studies teachers might include items from the textbook's table of contents, index, glossary, and atlas as well as picture captions of certain events. Allow partners in the small group to work together. When partners have found as many answers as they can, have them compare answers with those of the other partners in their group and come to an agreement on the correct answers. When you feel your students have built some small-group identity, you're ready to move on to teaching small-group discussion techniques.


Students will need to be taught about the differences in the structure of the textbook from the narrative texts with which they are most familiar. Because students mainly read fiction material until the fourth or fifth grades, you may find that some students will read only the left column, whereas others may ignore boldface headings, as if they did not exist. Do a lesson with the pages on overheads, and indicate the ways the structure differs from fiction material. Point out that boldface headings, sidebar information, captions, maps, charts, graphs, and pictures are techniques the author uses to make the material more understandable.

Point out that most textbooks are written by multiple authors. Therefore, the reading level and understandability of the text may vary from lesson to lesson. If students realize that other people are sometimes challenged by the difficulty of the text, they will be more apt to admit the difficulty they are having and ask for help!

Students will need instruction on how to determine the main ideas that are relevant to the learning objectives. If you provide the students with note-taking skills, study guides, graphic organizers, and a purpose for reading, they will be supported in narrowing the focus for their reading. [Reference also eTeach archives, Reading in the Content Area]

Using overheads of the readings when you first teach this concept will help students to learn how others determine the main ideas. Model your own thinking aloud as you decide what you believe to be the main ideas and why. Then, begin asking your more proficient readers to verbalize how they decide what are the main ideas. Taking the time in your first few lessons to do all of this may seem painfully slow, but it helps your students develop the skills that will allow them to work more independently later. Using this modeling format helps your less proficient readers become aware of the way proficient readers find meaning in difficult text.


As a suggested method for adapted Cornell note taking, have your students divide their paper into two columns as shown below.

Boldface Headings and Questions

Initially teach this note-taking technique, modeling the steps to be taken by the students:

  • Students should write the boldface heading for each section as they begin to read it. It is helpful if the students use markers to highlight their boldface headings in this column.

  • In the Notes column, students should include information that is related to the previously stated purpose for reading, ideas "important enough to be on the test," and ideas that are especially interesting.

  • Call on individual students, asking them their opinions of what main ideas and details should be included and why. When consensus is reached, list these ideas on the overhead and have students copy them on their papers.

For the questions that are to be included in the first column, teach your students effective questioning techniques (See Moore, No. 233–961.) Research shows that when students write their own questions for discussion, they engage in the text more completely and become more involved during small-group discussion time (See Simpson, 1996). One technique to teach effective questioning is to teach students to recognize and use experience-based questions. Experience-based questions are based on the reading. However, they cause the students to have to think about what they know already and synthesize this information with the details in the reading in order to formulate an answer. Instruct students to write questions that cannot be answered with one or two words, questions that have multiple possible answers, and questions that will create discussion.

Students should write at least one experience-based discussion question from each boldface-headed section of the text.

Once you feel students understand this process, they will be ready to take the first steps to become independent note takers. This requires more than copying from the text or from modeled overheads. When readers put what an author has said into their own words, they begin to "own" the information. The engagement required to do this facilitates true understanding.


  • How would you …?
  • What would you …?
  • If you …?
  • Do you think …? Explain why.
  • Would you …? Explain why.
  • Why do you think …?
  • Could you …? Explain why.
  • Where would you …? Explain why.
  • What would it be like …?
  • If someone …?


(Drawn from student notes on the Empire of Mali.)

  • Why do you think so many people traveled with Mansa Musa on his pilgrimage to Mecca?
  • If you were the ruler, what else would you have done to make Mali more powerful and/or better?
  • Why do you think better farming techniques changed the way people in Mali lived?
  • What would you have done if you were the ruler after Mansa Musa's death?
  • Why do you think Mali's kings weren't able to protect the kingdom?
  • Do you think the take over of Mali by the Songhai could have been prevented? Explain.
  • Would you have traveled 3,500 miles across the Sahara desert for gold dust? Explain.


After these strategies have been taught by doing a whole lesson with guided teaching, begin a new lesson with prereading activities. These activities might include showing a video related to the text material, doing a class brainstorming activity, or doing a "walk-through" of the lesson, pointing out all the sidebar information, pictures and captions, maps, and graphs. Establish a purpose for reading, and then provide class time for most students to silent read the materials. Research (See Armbruster, 1991) shows that most students will learn and retain the material more effectively if they read it silently. If you choose to use "round-robin" oral reading, it should be only an introductory first reading to be followed by individual silent reading and note taking. While your capable readers are silent reading, have your struggling readers use partner reading or pull small groups of your English learners and limited readers together and work with them on reading a simplified summary of the lesson and note taking. Some students may need to complete the assignment for homework if they do not complete it in class.


Now that your students have completed reading the material, taken notes, and written effective discussion questions, they are ready to begin their small-group discussions. Keep things structured at first. You will find that, over time, the discussions will become more fluid and interactive.

  • Form mixed-ability groups. Groups of four work best. If you have extra people, it works better to make groups of five rather than making smaller groups.
  • Have the students number off or choose a letter A through D (or E if a group has five members) in their small groups.
  • Explain the difference between arguing and debating. Emphasize that it is okay to respectfully disagree as long as evidence can be found in the text to support their opinion.
  • Next, state which letter will go first. That student asks the group one of his or her questions. Each other student, in letter order, must answer the question. Students may not pass or answer with one or two words or say, "Yeah, I agree with so-and-so," unless they explain why they agree. The student asking the question must state the answer after all other group members have responded.
  • Then, the next student asks one of his or her questions, and so on.
  • Students continue the process until the teacher calls for a close to the small-group discussions. Should they run out of written questions, they need to make up more questions about the text until time is called.

While students are holding their discussion groups, walk around listening to the different groups. Control your compulsion to jump into the middle of the discussions. If you must make your opinion known, wait until each student has expressed his or her opinion. Otherwise, students may just mimic your thoughts rather than develop their own thoughts. For a while, you will need to give reminders regarding respectful disagreement. Notice whether students have picked up the important points from the reading in their notes.

After 10 or 15 minutes, bring the groups back together as a whole class. Ask the groups to share the question that caused the most discussion in their small group. Use those questions for whole-class discussion. Then, add in main points you feel students missed in the reading.

The following is an excerpt from Janice F. Almansi and Linda B. Gambrell in their article titled "Conflict During Classroom Discussions Can Be a Good Thing," found in the book Peer Talk in the Classroom, Learning from Research:

Suggestions for Classroom Practice

The results reported here provide clear evidence that peer-led discussion groups result in improved reading comprehension, higher level thinking skills, and increased motivation.

  1. Providing opportunities for students to ponder confusing aspects of text or to challenge the text improves their reading comprehension. Often students think that by exposing their confusion about a text their grade will be affected adversely. That is, students feel that if they overtly express confusion, then the teacher will know they do not understand. This type of thinking results in students' viewing discussion as an assessment tool rather than as a tool for constructing meaning. It is important for teachers to create a classroom climate that values good reasoning over correct answers.
  2. Providing opportunities for students to form their own questions enhances critical-thinking skills. When students add to or challenge the comments of others, lively debate is sparked and students reveal that they are listening and responding to their peers. This type of interaction provides students with the scaffolding for higher-level thinking skills as they observe the cognitive processes of their peers, and it enables them to make similar attempts.
  3. Providing opportunities for students to explore issues that are personally relevant enhances motivation. Permitting students to decide what aspects of the text they want to talk about during a discussion results in increased motivation and participation. When students have choice in the agenda for a discussion it becomes personally relevant and enables them to take ownership of the discussion, thereby increasing engagement.
  4. Limiting the amount of teacher talk and teacher questions results in increased opportunities for students to develop discussion skills. When we support students who engage in peer-led discussions, the discussions provide a means for increased language growth and development of social interaction skills. We can support children in developing discussions skills by taking a coaching position and intervening momentarily to guide students' interactions.


This model has been used successfully with third-grade through adult-age students. You will find that with regular use of this small-group discussion model your students' reading skills will improve because they hear other students' ideas about what was important in the text. Their note-taking skills will improve as they compare their notes with other students in the group. Your students' reasoning skills will improve as they interact with the text while deciding what questions to ask their group members. More students tend to complete the reading assignment when they know they will be discussing it with their small groups and will be accountable for asking the group questions about the text. Finally, students' social interaction skills will improve as they learn to listen to other students' ideas and know how to respond respectfully when they disagree with other students' opinions. Students have a need to discuss their reactions to content-area-reading text just as much as they love to talk about their favorite narrative stories. Provide your students with that opportunity in your classroom and you will hear lively, interactive discussions.


Almansi, Janice F., and Linda B. Gambrell. "Conflict During Classroom Discussions Can Be a Good Thing." Peer Talk in the Classroom, Learning from Research, International Reading Association Publication.

Armbruster, Bonnie B., and Ian Wilkinson. 1991. "Silent Reading, Oral Reading, and Learning From Text." The Reading Teacher. Vol. 45, No. 2, October.

Armbruster, Bonnie B. 1988. "Why Some Children Have Trouble Reading Content Area Textbooks." Eric Document. 300–782.

Beck, Isabel L., Margaret B. McKeown, Rebecca L. Hamilton, Linda Kucan. 1997. Questioning the Author, an Approach for Enhancing Student Engagement with Text. International Reading Association Publication.

Feathers, Karen M. 1993. Infotext Reading and Learning. Ontario: Pippen.

Hagberg, Betty, 1975. "Making the Right to Read in the Content Areas a Reality." Teachers, Tangibles, Techniques, Comprehension of Content in Reading. 123–127, New York: International Reading Association.

Keene, Ellin, and Susan Zimmerman. 1997. "Mosaic of Thought." Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Monson, Michele Pahl and Robert J. Monson, Guest Editors. Literacy in the Content Areas. International Reading Association Publication. No. 398–961.

Moore, David W. Prereading Activities for Content Area Reading and Learning. International Reading Association Publication. No. 233–961.

Olson, Mary W., and Thomas Gee. 1991. "Content Reading Instruction in the Primary Grades: Perceptions and Strategies." The Reading Teacher. Vol. 45, No. 4, December.

Simpson, Anne. 1996. "Critical Questions: Whose Questions." The Reading Teacher. Vol. 50, No. 2, October.

Thomas, Ellen Lamar, and H. Alan Robinson. 1977. Improving Reading in Every Class, A Sourcebook for Teachers. 2nd ed., Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

International Reading Association Address: 800 Barksdale Road, PO Box 8139, Newark, Delaware 19714-8139, USA