Discussions that are particularly effective in promoting students’ comprehension of complex text are those that focus on building a deeper understanding of the author’s meaning or critically analyzing and perhaps challenging the author’s conclusions through reasoning or applying personal experiences and knowledge.
In effective discussions students have the opportunity to have sustained exchanges with the teacher or other students, present and defend individual interpretations and points of view, use text content, background knowledge, and reasoning to support interpretations and conclusions, and listen to the points of view and reasoned arguments of others participating in the discussion.
Providing opportunities for discussion and interpretation of texts
To engage students in high-quality discussions of text meaning and interpretation, teachers can:
- Carefully prepare for the discussion.
In classes where a choice of reading selections is possible, look for selections that are engaging for students and describe situations or content that can stimulate and have multiple interpretations. In content-area classes that depend on a textbook, teachers can identify in advance the issues or content that might be difficult or misunderstood or sections that might be ambiguous or subject to multiple interpretations. Alternatively, brief selections from the Internet or other sources that contain similar content but positions that allow for critical analysis or controversy can also be used as a stimulus for extended discussions.
Another form of preparation involves selecting and developing questions that can stimulate students to think reflectively about the text and make high-level connections or inferences. These are questions that an intelligent reader might actually wonder about — they are not the kind of questions that teachers often ask to determine what students have learned from the text.
Further, the types of discussion questions appropriate for history texts would probably be different from those for science texts, as would those for social studies texts or novels. Because part of the goal of discussion-based approaches is to model for students the ways that good readers construct meaning from texts, it seems reasonable to suggest that discussions of history texts might be framed differently from those of science texts.
- Ask follow-up questions that help provide continuity and extend the discussion.
Questions that are used to frame discussions are typically followed by other questions about a different interpretation, an explanation of reasoning, or an identification of the content from the text that supports the student’s position. In a sustained discussion initial questions are likely to be followed by other questions that respond to the student’s answer and lead to further thinking and elaboration.
If the reading comprehension standards that students are expected to meet involve making inferences or connections across different parts of a text or using background knowledge and experience to evaluate conclusions, students should routinely have the opportunity to discuss answers to these types of questions in all their reading and content-area classes.
- Provide a task, or a discussion format, that students can follow when they discuss texts together in small groups.
For example, assign students to read selections together and practice using the comprehension strategies that have been taught and demonstrated. In these groups students can take turns playing various roles, such as leading the discussion, predicting what the section might be about, identifying words that are confusing, and summarizing.
As these roles are completed, other students can then respond with other predictions, other things that are confusing, or different ways of summarizing the main idea. While students are working together, the teacher should actively circulate among the groups to redirect discussions that have gone astray, model thinking strategies, or ask students additional questions to probe the meaning of the text at deeper levels.
- Develop and practice the use of a specific “discussion protocol.”
Because it is challenging to lead the type of discussion that has an impact on students’ reading comprehension, it may be helpful for teachers to identify a specific set of steps from the research or best practice literature.1 This could be done either individually or collaboratively in grade-level or subject-area teams. An example of a discussion protocol is provided in one of the research studies used to support this recommendation.2
In this study teachers were trained to follow five guidelines: ask questions that require students to explain their positions and the reasoning behind them, model reasoning processes by thinking out loud, propose counter arguments or positions, recognize good reasoning when it occurs, and summarize the flow and main ideas of a discussion as it draws to a close. To be effective these types of discussions do not need to reach consensus; they just need to give students the opportunity to think more deeply about the meaning of what they are reading.
Potential roadblocks and solutions
- Students do not readily contribute their ideas during discussions because they are either not engaged by the topic or afraid of getting negative feedback from the teacher or other students.
Students might not actively participate in text-based discussions for a number of reasons, but these two are the most important. One strategy to deal with the first problem is to create opportunities for discussion by using text that has a very high interest level for students in the class but may only be tangentially related to the topic of the class.
For example, a newspaper article on the problem of teen pregnancy might be integrated in a biology class, one on racial profiling in a social studies class, or one on child labor practices in a history class. Students typically find discussion and interaction rewarding, and once a good pattern is established, it can be generalized to more standard textbook content.
It is also important to establish a non-threatening and supportive environment from the first class meeting. As part of this supportive environment, it is important to model and encourage acceptance of diverse viewpoints and discourage criticism and negative feedback on ideas. Teachers can help students participate by calling on students who may not otherwise contribute, while asking questions they know these students can answer.
Student-led discussions in small groups can be another solution for students who are hesitant to engage in whole-classroom discussions. As mentioned before, the quality of these discussions can be increased, and student participation broadened, if teachers provide an organizing task or activity that students can focus on as discuss the content of a text.
- Discussions take classroom time, and too much time spent on an extended discussion of a single topic may interfere with coverage of all the content in the curriculum.
This problem may require district- or state-level intervention. If curriculum standards require shallow coverage of a very wide range of content, the pressure teachers feel to teach the curriculum may limit opportunities for extended discussion of particular issues. Pressure to cover a very broad curriculum could also limit teachers’ freedom to bring in additional material on a specific topic that might help stimulate more engaging discussions.
However, if literacy standards require students to think deeply (that is, to make connections, criticize conclusions, and draw inferences), many students will require the opportunity to acquire these skills by being able to observe models of this type of thinking during discussions.
In the absence of adjustments to the curriculum, teachers should carefully identify a few of the most important ideas in their content area for deeper consideration through extended classroom discussion that focuses on building meaning from text.
- Teachers lack the skills in behavior management, discussion techniques, or critical thinking to guide productive discussion and analysis of text meanings.
Leading instructive discussions requires a set of teaching skills that is different from the skills required to present a lecture or question students in a typical recitation format. It is also true that discussions can create challenges for classroom control that may not occur in other instructional formats. Most teachers will need some form of professional development to build their skills as discussion leaders or organizers.
Within schools, it could be very helpful for content-area teachers to experience these kinds of discussions themselves as a way of learning what it feels like to participate in effective, open discussions.
Also, a number of useful books on this topic can be the basis for teacher book study groups. The following resources provide helpful information and strategies related to improving the quality of discussions about the meaning and interpretation of texts:
- Adler, M., & Rougle, E. (2005). Building literacy through classroom discussion: Research-based strategies for developing critical readers and thoughtful writers in middle school. New York: Scholastic.
- Applebee, A. N. (1996). Curriculum as conversation: Transforming traditions of teaching and learning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2006). Improving comprehension with Questioning the Author: A fresh and expanded view of a powerful approach. New York: Guilford.
- Beers, K. (2003). When kids can’t read—what teachers can do: A guide for teachers 6–12. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
- Langer, J. A. (1995). Envisioning literature: Literary understanding and literature instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.