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The way to engage students in classroom book discussions is to simply ask great questions. But that’s easier said than done. Which questions will elicit one-word answers from students, and which will generate rich, meaningful conversation? Here are 23 tips to help you take book discussions to the next level.
1. Choose great books!
Look for books that address universal questions that people throughout history and all over the world have pondered, such as the nature of the good, the true and the beautiful; the relationship of the individual to society; the meaning of justice; and the implications of mortality. This list of 101 books to read before you grow up could be a good starting place if you’re looking for outstanding literature to explore with kids.
2. Help students arrive prepared.
The most successful book discussions occur when everyone in the group has carefully read the material. Make sure you offer multiple ways for students to access the text. For example, let students know that they may listen to an audiobook or watch a film about the story if that is helpful. Consider reading the story aloud to the class. The important thing is that everyone gains meaning from the text and can participate in a group discussion. You want your struggling or reluctant readers to feel supported and included.
3. Read and repeat.
A first reading can be in a group setting where you, as the leader, read the text with expression. When students reread the text, they often notice details that they may have missed the first time through. They may also have a better sense of the questions they have about the material.
4. Solicit questions.
On their second or third time through the work, ask students to jot down their own questions, which you can fold into the discussion when relevant.
5. Adopt an inquiry stance.
As Kath Murdoch states on her Just Wondering blog: “Whether you are using literature to inspire wonder, provoke curiosity or deepen conceptual understanding, the act of sharing literature is always an opportunity to adopt an inquiry stance as a teacher. Inviting questions, thinking aloud, making connections, noticing the way our thinking changes as we read … these techniques are part of the repertoire of an inquiry pedagogy and help make the most of what can be a profound, shared experience.” Her post Inspiring Inquiry Through Picture Books offers several gems that should be on any book lover’s shelf. Also check out this video of Kath talking about what makes a good inquiry teacher.
6. Use the Shared Inquiry technique for your book discussions.
What is Shared Inquiry? According to the Great Books Foundation, “Shared Inquiry is a method of teaching and learning that enables people of all ages to explore the ideas, meaning, and information found in everything they read. It centers on interpretive questions that have more than one plausible answer and can lead to engaging and insightful conversations about the text.”
Read a brief explanation of the Shared Inquiry method, then see these guidelines for Shared Inquiry Discussion for a great overview on how to use the methodology in your classroom.
7. Prepare an opening question.
Think of it as an icebreaker. Ask a question that is open-ended enough so that everyone in the class can share a thought. There should be more than one possible answer and it should be something you genuinely have questions about. You can ask these interpretive questions throughout the discussion, but they are especially important as you begin your group discussion.
8. Follow up with another question.
As the group dives into the discussion of the material, respond to their input with follow-up questions that will take students deeper along a train of thought. Your follow-up questions might help clarify a comment or draw out explanations and additional opinions from the class.
9. Use factual questions to highlight supporting evidence.
Asking questions with only one answer is a good technique when you want your group to focus on a fact that supports a premise you have been pondering together.
10. Go beyond the basic who, what, when, why and where questions.
The anchor chart above offers five better questions to ask instead.
11. Ask, “What do you think?”
And then ask it again! According to Dr. Mariappan “Jawa” Jawaharlal on his Huffington Post blog, “Seeking students’ opinions makes them feel that you value their input and respect them. They, in turn, think of you highly, thus creating a favorable learning environment. By asking, ‘What do you think?’ you are elevating your students from mere observers to active participants in the discussion.”
12. Invite students to question one another.
Ask, for example, “Do you agree or disagree with that?” or “Do you have another idea about that part of the text?” Be sure to give students the tools to disagree with one another in a respectful way. Here’s an anchor chart to help with that:
13. Ask why the characters act the way they do.
When discussing this, see if your students can also ponder what the author thinks or feels about the characters.
14. Question the order of events in the story.
Why do students think things happened in a certain order? This will prompt a discussion about the beginning, middle and end of the story and how the story might have turned out differently if events had occurred in a different order.
15. Ask students to find evidence from the text.
Can they point to a page in the book or give a specific example to support their ideas? Watch this video for a short explanation of why evidence is an important part of the conversation.
16. Give students the language they need to supply evidence.
Here is an anchor chart to remind students how to go about answering your prompt for evidence.
17. Ask students to read between the lines and beyond the covers.
What do your students think happened before or after a certain action took place or even before the beginning of the book? What do they think other characters, not mentioned, were doing during a specific plot point in the book?
18. Be an active listener.
Model good listening so your students will learn the skill too. When you’re teaching kids, you’re learning too. Model for your students how to listen to what people are saying, rather than focusing on what you want to say next. This video shows why that strategy is so important.
19. Ask for new ideas.
If the conversation seems to be going in circles or students stray from the main point, redirect by asking for someone to offer a new idea. If the conversation stalls, pose another interpretive question to move the discussion along.
20. Try to keep your opinions out of it!
As the group leader, try to avoid posing questions that are really statements in disguise. Also resist the urge to steer the conversation in a specific direction or offer your personal opinions.
21. Sum things up.
Ask questions that prompt students to make personal judgments about the author’s point of view. These evaluative questions encourage students to draw on their own experiences and relate them back to the book or to other things they have read.
22. Join a book group with other adults outside of school.
According to the Great Books Foundation’s Shared Inquiry Handbook, “The best foundation for becoming a skillful leader is to participate regularly in Shared Inquiry discussions.” You’ll be a better leader in your own class by simply attending book discussions led by other trained facilitators.
23. Find resources to help.
The Great Books Foundation has a host of free tutorialson their website as well as several professional development courses for more training in the Shared Inquiry methodology. Having a growth mindset and a willingness to continue to learn and grow will make you a better, more effective teacher and discussion leader.