Class discussions can help students process different ideas and interpretations of texts, create opportunities for students to practice academic language, and allow teachers to gain insight into what students do and do not understand about a text. In order to have a lively and engaging discussion, it is important that as many students in class participate as possible.
Class discussions can be very daunting to students who struggle with verbal language. The following strategies are designed with English Language Learners in mind, but can also support students who process language in different ways and also those who may be self-conscious about speaking out in class.
Provide as many questions as possible in advance of a class discussion. While the nature of a class discussion is somewhat free-form having some questions the teacher intends to ask in advance, in order, allows students to prepare answers. Two or more days prior to a class discussion, provide a list of questions to students. Be sure to indicate whether you want students to respond with evidence from the text, and what references you would like them to make (e.g. page number, paragraph or sentence placement.)
When using advance organizers, you can also support students who struggle by allowing them (prior to the discussion, away from their classmates) to indicate which answer(s) they would like to share with the class. Be sure to call on them early on in the answering of the indicated question so they have a chance to provide a perspective on the topic before someone else does. Email, notes to students or quiet conversations as students file in or out are good opportunities to ask the student which question s/he would like to answer.
For example, a class discussion about the importance of setting could have this advance organizer:
Similar to advance organizers, conversation maps can help students follow and participate in partner, small group, and class discussions. Conversations tend to follow general patterns, [i.e., one person asks a question (initiates), the next answers the question (responds), and the initiator then provides input in the form of an additional thought, comment or another question] so it is not very difficult to design a conversation map.
Conversation maps can be designed with questions or sentence frames/stems that might commonly occur in a conversational situation. Providing students with the questions or stems can help them track the direction of the conversation. Conversation maps can also be used to guide students to more complex or challenging thinking.
Sample Conversation Map: Text-to-Self Connections
A: When you read ______________, what did it remind you of in your own life?
B: When I read ______________ I thought about the time when...
Reading _____________ made me think about someone I knew who....
A: What about _____________ made you think about that?
What part of __________ caused you to remember...? Why?
B: The quote on page ___ in paragraph ___, because...
One barrier to student participation in discussions is the fear of "sounding stupid." Students, especially teens, are self-conscious about taking academic risks in front of their peers. To help mitigate this fear and allow language learners the opportunity to get feedback in lower-stakes situations, plan to provide students opportunities to rehearse what they want to say during a discussion. In addition to helping students become more comfortable speaking, the practice conversation can also provide an opportunity for students to process their thoughts and hear the thoughts of others.
Pair-Share is very easy to implement prior to a class discussion. You can have students turn to their "elbow" or "shoulder" partners to have a quick mini-discussion or you can provide students with choices about their mini-discussion partners. Keep the mini-discussions short (2-3 minutes) and focused on one or two questions you will discuss as a class. Providing clear instruction (e.g. partner 1 will speak for 1 minute, partner 2 will then have 1 minute) and sticking to your timing is essential to keep the conversations focused.
An alternative to pair-share that is a little more complicated to coordinate is the group-to-class discussion. Although there are multitudes of ways to arrange this, successful use of this strategy includes the clear use of these processes: expectations that everyone will speak, clear timing, and accountability for the discussion.
One way to ensure that all students in a group have the opportunity to speak is the use of "talking slips" or "chips." Each student gets 2-3 slips or chips at the start of the discussion. Students are instructed that they must lay down a slip (or chip) when they say something in the group. For at least the first slip/chip, they may not lay down a second slip/chip until every other group member has spoken (laid down a slip). You know your class best, so you can have the "everyone gets a turn before the next slip/chip" for some or all of the discussion, as appropriate.
If students feel they have unlimited time, they will veer from the academic topic into social language. Occasional lapses are to be expected, but having a firm timeframe for accomplishing all of the steps in the task will help students get back on track. Giving time checks as students discuss, circulating to monitor discussions and see if time needs to be extended or cut back are practices that will help the timing process.
Student groups must be held accountable for producing ideas, evidence or perspectives for the class discussion. Having clear targets and engaging, multi-perspective prompts will help students focus on the discussion. Be clear about what you want students to produce, the format you expect (e.g., statement and reference to text) and the protocol for reporting out (e.g., designated speaker) at the outset of the group discussion. Post these expectations clearly for student reference during the experience.
Fishbowls allow students to observe a conversation being modeled, and to participate informally. It does require setting up both the physical and social space in the classroom as it is a structured activity.
Arrange two to four chairs in an inner circle. This is the fishbowl. The remaining chairs are arranged in a circle outside the fishbowl. Ask for student volunteers to fill the fishbowl, while the rest of the students sit in the outer circle. In an open fishbowl, one chair is left empty. In a closed fishbowl, all chairs are filled. The teacher introduces the topic and the students in the fishbowl start a discussion.
In an open fishbowl, any student can, at any time, occupy the empty chair and join the fishbowl. When this happens, an existing member of the fishbowl must voluntarily leave the fishbowl and free a chair. The discussion continues with participants frequently entering and leaving the fishbowl. When time runs out, the fishbowl is closed and the teacher (or a pre-selected student summarizer) summarizes the discussion.
In a closed fishbowl, the students speak for a given time. When time runs out, a new group of students is invited in to the fishbowl. Once the final group has concluded, the teacher (or designated summarizer) summarizes the discussion.
Consider providing interesting roles for students to take in small group and whole class discussions. Providing "frames" or "lenses" through which students can look at text can stimulate deep, thoughtful discussions. Some possible roles could be:
ABSENCE READER: What is not there in the reading, but either implied or ignored by the author? What questions do these absences raise in your mind? What kinds of information or analysis are needed to address these questions?
ANALYST: What roles do fact, theory, and political advocacy play in the reading, and how would you account for these roles?
BORDER-CROSSER: Are there "strange" aspects of the reading that may relate to a historical or social context different from your own? What are these, in what ways are they strange, and how do you respond to the strangeness? Or, are there very familiar aspects that speak to something in your experience?
CLARIFIER: What terms or concepts does your group need to understand? Find definitions and facts that will help the group grasp the article.
DIALOGUE DIRECTOR: What is shocking or controversial in this reading? What questions would you raise to open a dialogue among different points of view? Why do these questions matter?
ILLUSTRATOR: Find or create visuals (artwork, photos, graphs, icons) that illustrate the reading. Your job will be to draw the other group members into the process of interpreting the visuals in relationship to the topic you're studying.
IMPRESSIONIST: What in the reading is particularly striking—tone? word choice? method of argument? approach to the topic?
INVESTIGATOR: Dig up some background information—anything that will help the group to understand the reading better. Find something that really interests you, something that struck you as curious or puzzling as you read.
LINK-MAKER: What does this reading bring to mind—in other readings or in the world as you know it--by way of comparison or contrast? What do these different materials suggest about one another?
MAPPER: What places does the reading talk about? Get or draw a map; locate the events in the world; provide some description of what this place is like and how it is connected to other places.
PASSAGE MAVEN: Choose a few special sections of the reading to which the group should return; help people in your group pay attention to the most interesting or puzzling or important sections of the text. In discussion, read the passage, or find another way to call the group's attention to it.
PROFESSIONAL APPLICATION EXPERT: How does this reading apply to your own major field of study or area of interest? What problems or new insights arise in the application?
SYNTHESIZER: What are the writer's key points? What is the central argument, and how is it supported? Are there parts of the article that are difficult to place within the overall argument or seem to contradict it? How would you connect those points with the author's central position?