Cultivate Active Discussion of Assigned Texts

A flexible and adaptable method for opening learners up and engaging every individual in on-topic conversation.

By Noel Woodward


Eager students raising their hands

"So what did you think about this section?" Silence. A few shrugs. "Did anything stand out to you?" Crickets. Students avoid eye contact. "What is a symbol in the book?" The class is quieter than it has ever been before.

Sound familiar? It's so easy to slip into asking open questions after reading something as a class, but open questions asked on the fly have rarely ever led to a meaningful discussion in my classes. Often, there are those few class members who will give me a response no matter what I ask, but is that really a discussion?

When I am well-prepared, and I don't give in to the temptation to ask the whole class an open and probably vague question, conversation flows more freely and goes deeper. One method for fostering discussion that has worked for me is reading guides. I've found that this strategy requires students to look back into the text and discuss their ideas with classmates while helping them prepare for that moment when the teacher asks the whole class a question.

The Process

Reading guides do take some prep time, but the result is worth the effort. Before class, take some time to read through what you'll be covering in class and draft some questions. Try to base the questions directly off the text so that pupils will need to look back into the reading in order to respond. Ease into the questions by starting with more basic comprehension questions, and then moving on to larger ideas and concepts. And stick to five or six solid questions. This way, learners will not feel overwhelmed, but will still have enough to talk about. Type these up and draft out your own responses as well as extra guiding questions that build upon what you have asked. You'll have a chance to try your questions out in the next class.

When it's time for the discussion, pass out a copy of the questions to each individual and then break the class off into small groups. In their groups, they will discuss each question and write down a response. Emphasize that you should hear everyone speaking and see everyone writing. If you are worried about students not completing the work, tell them you are going to collect one paper randomly from the group. This should help keep them on track.

Once the groups have completed their discussion, meet back as a whole class. Every individual should now be prepared to engage in a whole-class discussion. Not only did they practice discussing the text with small groups, but they also have responses written down right in front of them. Go through the questions, switching between calling on raised hands and cold calling to bring everyone into the conversation. I've found that, despite the question and answer format, the discussion moves smoothly and leads to organic shifts in conversation.

One of the best things about this method is that it can be used with any text. Reading something informational? Great! Literature? Definitely! It's versatile and surprisingly effective for getting class members to open up and discuss texts in the classroom. However, you might miss that perfect silence that your class settles into when they are asked a question they really don't want to answer.

Resources to Facilitate Active Discussion:

Personalized Notes That Lead to Learner-Directed Discussions

Here is another great idea for structuring an in-class discussion. Pupils choose what they want to talk about by attaching sticky notes to whatever text they are reading and writing a brief note or response on the sticky note. Allow learners to direct the flow of conversation by using these notes as the basis for a whole-class conversation.

Speaking and Listening Strategies

Use this comprehensive speaking and listening unit guide to strengthen the discussions in your class. The resource includes a long list of methods for encouraging active listening and active vocal participation. Pick and choose what stands out to you!

Stage a Debate

Try out concept chairs for a debate. This discussion format allows class members to sit in an agree, disagree, or neutral section. They can change their opinion and move at any time during the discussion. While the lesson focuses some on the judicial system, this format could be used in any class. The yellow and red cards for disrespectful individuals is a clear way to enforce politeness.