Literary discussions permit students to move deeply into the layers of meaning in a text. Such discussions also include the 21st century teaching skills of collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. The talk I’m referring to is led by students and invites them to think critically and discover multiple, valid interpretations of a text. In addition, such talk teaches students to value diverse interpretations of a text as long as they can cite text evidence to support a position.
Five ways Student-Centered Talk Enhances Comprehension.
Student-led discussions invite students to move beyond recalling facts and answering questions with one correct response to digging deeper and exploring the diverse ideas in a text. Student-led discussions support:
- comprehension and recall;
- engagement and motivation;
- activating ideas for writing about reading;
- changing how students think and feel about fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; and
- developing a model for in-the-head conversations.
Six kinds of Talk That Improve Comprehension
These six kinds of student-led literary conversations become purposeful talk that allows students to find their way into diverse reading materials. Purposeful talk is an oral text that student create and involves complex thinking and reasoning. As students develop oral texts, they have to think, clarify, return to the text, adjust, and then present their ideas in ways others can comprehend their position and analytical thinking.
- Turn-and-Talk: one to three minutes
- Whole-Class Discussion: ten to twenty minutes
- Partner Talk: five to fifteen minutes
- Small-Group Discussion: ten to twenty minutes
- In-the-Head Conversations: while reading
- Teacher-Student Talk, Conferring to Scaffold: five-Minutes in one class period. Teachers can schedule a series of conferences.
Moving Students to Independent Literary Conversations
- Start with the Turn-and-Talk strategy so students have brief talking encounters and can experience sharing, questioning, and listening. Use interpretive or guiding questions.
- Move to a whole-class discussion and motivate talk with a guiding question or an open-ended question; encourage a student to volunteer and start the discussion. Tell students that they don’t have to raise their hands, but they can participate by adding thoughts or asking questions once the student speaking has finished.
- Debrief after the first whole-class discussion and ask students to reflect on what worked and what could be improved.
- Invite students to design guidelines for productive discussions. Revisit the guidelines after two to three months so students can make adjustments based on experience. Here are the guidelines fifth-grade students developed early in the school year:
Come prepared; do the reading; bring your notebook.
Continue using Turn-and-Talk to give students the experience of sharing ideas with and listening carefully to a partner. If students have difficulty maintaining a conversation, you can provide the following ideas for adding ideas and points to the discussion:
Ways to Contribute to a Discussion
- Restate the speaker’s idea. If a student would like to clarify an idea, he or she can restate it in his or her own words and ask the speaker if that was the intended meaning. I heard you say <>. Does that sound about right?
- Ask a question. If a student would like the speaker to elaborate on or clarify his or her thinking, or is curious about a speaker’s take on a related issue, the student can ask a question. Can you say more about < >? / I’m not sure what you mean when you said < >. Can you help me understand? / What do you think about < >?
- Connect to the speaker’s idea. Students can build on a speaker’s idea by first connecting to it. I like the point you made about…, and I have this to add. I had a similar idea….My idea diffesr from yours….
- Offer a different view. Students can acknowledge the speaker’s contribution and then share their own perspective in a respectful way. I hear what you’re saying about <>. I had a different thought when I read that part. / I have a different perspective on that scene.
- Disagree respectfully. Sometimes students will disagree with each other, and that’s fine as long as they can frame the talk respectfully. Teach them language they can use to respectfully disagree. I didn’t see it that way. Instead, I think . . . ; I don’t agree; I think it means… because ….
- Refer to the text. Since we want students to ground their thinking in the text, we should encourage them refer to the text during discussion, either to provide evidence for an idea or as a point of discussion. When it says …, I infer… because …. Let’s take a look at this description; it says a lot about the protagonist.
Initiating Literary Discussions With Interpretive Questions
Research shows that students who are taught to generate their own questions after reading can develop a deeper understanding of the text than students who receive no training and practice (Rothstein & Santana, 2011; Zimmerman and Keene, 2007). Deep comprehension develops because students must have a thorough knowledge of the reading material to create questions. Moreover, using their questions motivates students to discuss texts and also leads to greater independence.
Explain to students that there are two kinds of questions: open-ended, interpretive questions that have more than one answer and closed questions that have one correct answer. For example, an interpretive questions for The Giver by Lois Lowery is Why does the Giver encourage and help Jonas to escape the community? A closed question is Who does Jonas take with him when he leaves the community? An interpretive question has more than one answer that can be supported with text evidence. Tell students that as soon as they can find two valid answers to a question, they can think about composing another question. You’ll also want to teach students to ask guiding questions so they can explore ideas in multiple texts.
Initiating Literary Discussions With Guiding Questions
In a unit on war that has students reading different texts is ideal for developing guiding questions that move beyond a specific book to exploring a topic, issues, and common themes. For the unit on war, students developed two guiding questions: Is there such a thing as a just war? Why do conflicts escalate into wars?
Help students develop guiding questions for a unit of study by telling them the issue, theme, or concept they’ll be exploring. Then ask students to use a theme such as stereotyping or obstacles to compose a question that can’t be answered in one or two sentences. Guiding questions such as–How do obstacles affect the course of a person’s life? or Why does stereotyping limit a person’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?—compel students to read texts closely, think critically, and agree or disagree as they exchange ideas in order to build understandings and a knowledge base.
Repairing Derailed Discussion
If students’ behaviors derail a discussion, address the problem as soon as it arises. These issues might never occur in your class. However, if one of them does, here are suggestions for helping students move to positive, collaborative behavior that respects everyone’s ideas and promotes their ability to share them.
If no one talks: First, ask students why they aren’t responding; they might tell you they can’t recall details or didn’t read the selection. If the text is at their instructional or independent reading level, suggest they read it again to deepen their recall. If the text is too difficult, you can provide an audio version or read it aloud to students. If preparation and readability are not the issues, you can also try a different prompt.
If one student consistently interrupts: Have a private discussion with the student, explaining what you noticed and giving the student strategies that help him or her restrain the need to interrupt. You can try asking the student to squelch the urge to interrupt by counting to 100 and listening carefully. Another effective strategy is to give the student an index card before talk starts. On the card write: “Remember to be a good listener and share ideas when the person speaking has finished.”
If one student talks over another student: Confer with the student and ask him or her to step into the other person’s shoes and discuss how he or she might perceive the situation. Suggest that when ideas pop into the student’s head, he or she jot them on paper to remember and share when the other student has finished.
Polite Ways to Disagree With a Classmate
Here are prompts the help you disagree with statements and ideas classmates present.
- I understand your idea, but I have a different interpretation.
- That’s an interesting point that I did not think of, but here’s my idea.
- I find that idea interesting, but I’m not sure you can support it with text evidence.
- Even though our positions seem different, I believe they have common points. Let me explain.
- You proved your idea with text evidence. Let me share my idea, which differs from yours.
- It’s okay to have more than one interpretation. Here’s what I think.
- Your idea intrigues me and I’m thinking my idea grows out of it. Let me explain.
Student Resource: Prompts That Keep a Discussion Moving Forward
- So we’re supposed to [restate prompt].
- Does anyone have a different idea?
- Can you find evidence in the text that supports that?
- Is there more than one way to think about that?
- Can you explain that term?
- What points in the text support that claim?
- I’m unsure of your point. Can you clarify it?
- What made you say that? Can you give text evidence?
- Tell me more about that idea.
- Here’s how I see that idea.
- Let’s check the directions (or rubric)
- I agree with ___but disagree with ______________.
- Let’s check that idea against the question we’re discussing.
Journaling About Discussion Highlights
What follows are questions/prompts you can use that ask students to summarize their discussions. Have students choose one to respond to and ask them to include specific text evidence to support their thinking.
- List 3 to 4 important ideas your group discussed.
- Write two questions you discussed and under each one, list the points the group discussed.
- Write two inferences your group made and give the evidence that supports each one.
- Note one to two questions the group discussed that enabled you to figure out themes and big ideas. Now, write one theme.
- What did you learn about your book’s genre from this discussion?
The Principal’s Corner
During faculty or department meetings, reserve time for teachers to discuss the elements of active listening during student-led literary discussions:
- Listen carefully to the speaker and remain focused on what he or she is saying.
- Set aside distracting thoughts that arise.
- Permit the speaker to talk without any interruptions.
- Ask questions that relate to what the speaker said.
- Continue questioning and offering feedback until the speaker’s ideas are clear.
- Think of a response that differs or adds to what the speaker said.
Help teachers understand that in order to become active listeners during discussions, students benefit from having multiple opportunities each week to talk with a partner, small group, and the whole class. All participants should listen actively during discussions, but this doesn’t come naturally to most students.
Take some time to define active listening, discuss why it’s important, and model it for students. Listeners may jot notes to help them remember what the speaker said, but the focus should be on understanding the ideas the speaker is conveying first, rather than formulating their own ideas.
The Principal’s Leadership Sourcebook, Scholastic, 2007.
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My New Book
This book reminds us why Laura Robb continues to be such an important voice in our field: She looks through kids’ eyes and sees into their futures. Literary conversations don’t just enrich kids days; they offer young people gifts that keep on giving: the ability to take risks, exercise creativity, build empathy, and develop the ability to negotiate.”
—from the foreword by Harvey “Smokey” Daniels