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Webs (The Discussion Kind!) in the Classroom

Discussion Webs are a great way to engage students in meaningful conversation and spark critical thinking at the same time. Included: Tons of ideas for active discussions across the curriculum and across the grades!

It's time to dust the cobwebs off your old discussion routines and introduce your students to -- Discussion Webs!

Discussion Webs are "a special kind of graphic aid for teaching students to look at both sides of an issue before drawing a conclusion." They help students to organize their thinking, examine (and learn tolerance for) other points of view, and draw richer understanding from the materials they read.

But Discussion Webs aren't just for reading. Creative teachers use discussion webs across the curriculum. And Discussion Webs aren't just for use in middle schools and high schools. Kindergarten and first-grade teachers are using them, too!

AN APPROACH THAT INVOLVES ALL STUDENTS

If Discussion Webs were homes to spider families, the Spider "Queen" would be Donna E. Alvermann, a professor of education at The University of Georgia. It is Alvermann's treatise on Discussion Webs (published in The Reading Teacher back in October 1991) that many turn to as the definitive work on the subject.

Often, in what passes for "classroom discussion," a few highly verbal students monopolize the stage, notes Alvermann. But the Discussion Web approach involves students -- all students -- in the process.

It does that by incorporating an adaptation of a discussion approach called think-pair-share. Using this approach, students are asked to respond to a yes-no thinking question. Then:

  • Students think individually about the question that's up for discussion. They look in the text for information they might use to support their opinions.
  • They discuss their ideas with a partner (as a pair). The partners share supporting ideas from the text and from their own experiences.
  • Then the partners pair up with another set of partners. They work as a group of four to eliminate contradictions and inconsistencies in their thinking as they come to a consensus and decide upon one idea that a spokesperson for the group will share with the class. (There'll be plenty of time during the classroom discussion for dissenting opinions to be heard.)

"By talking with partners and pairs of partners prior to engaging in whole-class discussion, students have multiple opportunities to interact," explains Alvermann in "The Discussion Web: A Graphic Aid for Learning Across the Curriculum."

"This type of discussion differs from the more traditional pattern of classroom interaction in which teachers call on students to respond one at a time," Alvermann adds. "Small group discussions also encourage active participation by shy or quiet students and by students whose first language is not English."

DISCUSSION WEBS INCORPORATE ALL FOUR LANGUAGE ARTS

The Discussion Web, as defined by Alvermann, has its basis in an article written by James Duthie in The History and Social Science Teacher. Duthie used what he called the Web Outline to help his students write analytical essays in response to classroom readings.

The physical layout (we'll get to that in a second!) of the Discussion Web is similar to Duthie's Web Outline. But Alvermann has broadened the approach and incorporated the think-pair-share strategy. The Discussion Web differs from the Web Outline in several distinct ways, Alvermann says:

  • "The Discussion Web incorporates all four of the language arts (reading, writing, speaking, and listening), not just reading and writing.
  • "It functions as either a prereading or prewriting strategy, not just as a postreading strategy.
  • "The Discussion Web requires students to work in cooperative learning groups, not alone."

AN EXAMPLE

"The Discussion Web approach can be used with students of all ages," says MaryEllen Vogt in Lively Discussions!, published by the International Reading Association. Vogt provides several examples of the Discussion Web strategy in action across the grades.

For very young children, Vogt provides the example of Nancy Shaw's Sheep series, published by Houghton Mifflin (Sheep on a Jeep, Sheep in a Ship, Sheep in a Shop, Sheep Out to Eat...). Teachers love these books for the language and phonics skills they teach. And kids love them for the goofy fun, the humorous illustrations, and the rhyming text.

Vogt uses young children's exposure to these delightful books as the basis for discussion. She poses to students this question: Would sheep make good pets?

Vogt follows a Discussion Web form prescribed by Whisler and Williams (see references):

  • Students draw on information from the texts, from previous classroom discussions, and from their own experiences as they think about this yes-no question and discuss it with a partner.
  • The partners must come up with evidence that supports a "yes" position and also a "no" position. Opinions are fine as long as they are supported by information from the text or by personal experience. (See illustration below.)
  • Then the partners are paired with another set of partners to form a discussion group. The members of the group share their responses. Together, they reach a consensus on a pro or con point of view. Then students have the opportunity to share their point of view with the entire class.
  • As a follow-up, students might be asked to debate the question or to support and write their individual opinions.

This is how one pair of students might have responded in the second step above:
 

Yes

 

- Would sheep make - good pets?

No
They are soft to lean on. They're too big.
|| ||
They would be fun. They eat too much.
|| ||
They're cute. They are messy.
|| ||
They're my size. They are noisy.
|| ||
They're easy to hold on to. They are stinky.

Source: Lively Discussions!, p. 189

DISCUSSION WEBS ACROSS THE GRADES AND THE CURRICULUM

The simple format demonstrated above could be used across the grades and across the curriculum, Vogt says.

"Older students might debate the merits of current events issues, political questions, or decisions that were made in years past," explains Vogt. "For example, students might respond to the question Given the information he had, should General George Custer have mounted his attack?"

"The Discussion Web works equally well with narrative and expository text," Vogt adds.

Alvermann, in her article in The Reading Teacher, provides many examples of Discussion Webs as they've been used by teachers across the grades. Among her examples are these:

  • After reading Jack and the Beanstalk, kindergarten students were asked to discuss Was it right for Jack to bring home things from the giant's castle?
  • After reading The Hobyahs, second-graders were asked to discuss Was Turpie wise to jump into the Hobyah's machine?
  • After reading Stone Fox, students are asked Did Willy deserve to win?
  • After reading Island of the Blue Dolphins, fourth graders were asked to respond to the question Should Karana have gone back to get her brother Ramo?

Jeanne Swafford, an associate professor of language literacy education at Texas Tech University, uses Alvermann's article to introduce her college students to Discussion Webs as a classroom strategy.

Swafford provides students with ideas for literature-based Discussion Web questions and solicits additional ideas from her students. Among the examples she shares are:

  • After reading The Little Red Hen to kindergartners and first graders, she asks Should the little red hen have shared her bread?
  • After reading Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People and War by Yukio Tsuchiya to upper-grade students studying World War II, she asks Should the animals have been killed?

MOVING UP THE GRADES

The higher up in the grades you go, the more potential uses for Discussion Webs! Questions relating to literature can become more involved. The opportunities for using Discussion Webs across the curriculum widen. And as students polish their critical thinking and debating skills, they are able to handle more involved issues.

Swafford uses the Discussion Web strategy across the curriculum. In a paper she presented at the World Congress on Reading (1990), she suggested a number of possibilities for using Discussion Webs including:

  • Social Studies. Swafford provides the example of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. Students can use the Discussion Web format, substituting "Lincoln" and "Douglas" for "Yes" and "No." In the box where the question usually goes, the word "Slavery" could be substituted. Then students can use their texts and other resources to research the stances taken by each of the men and to complete the diagram.
  • Science. Students can use the Discussion Web format to support possible explanations for scientific hypotheses. Instead of labeling the columns "Yes" and "No," in this case the columns could be labeled "Hypothesis 1" and Hypothesis 2." (Sample question: Why is acid rain harmful?)
  • Literature. Read Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart. One possible follow-up discussion would focus on the narrator: Is the narrator of the story sane or insane? Students write their thoughts in the appropriate columns.
  • Math. Teachers might provide for students a math word problem such as:
The two children, 9-year-old Susan and 11-year-old Mario, delivered 3 dozen cookies to their neighbor. If the cookies sold for 90 cents a dozen, how much money should Susan and Mario collect?

Students label one side of the Discussion Web "relevant" and the other side "irrelevant." Then they sort the number facts presented in the problem into two categories -- that information needed to solve the problem and that information that is unneeded. (For example, in the problem above, the numbers two, 9 and 11 are irrelevant numbers; the numbers 3 and 90 are the relevant numbers.)

Another possible literature-related use for Discussion Webs from Alvermann's article: Students might use the Discussion Web to analyze an author's perspective. For example, after reading E.B. White's Charlotte's Web, students might be asked to respond to the question Did E.B. White believe in animal rights?

USING DISCUSSION WEBS TO TEACH DIFFICULT CONCEPTS

Discussion Webs can be used to teach difficult-to-understand concepts -- concepts that often contradict students' experiences and ideas, says Swafford. For example, a Discussion Web could be created that has at its center the question (concept) "Why Do the Seasons Change?"

"In the column on one side of the question, students record what they think before they engage in reading and other classroom experiences," Swafford explains. "As students gather information about why seasons change from other sources, they list that information in the second column."

"Throughout their study of the seasons, students have the opportunity to discuss the information they add to their Web," continues Swafford. "If the information they've learned contradicts their original ideas about why the seasons change, that cognitive dissonance will hopefully help them to modify or change their ideas to more closely match the scientific explanation."

"A study done in the early 90s by Guzzetti found Discussion Webs to be one of the most beneficial strategies for promoting conceptual change," adds Swafford.

MORE SUGGESTIONS FOR ADVANCED DISCUSSION WEBBERS!

In a 1996 Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy article, authors Julie Fisher Robertson and Donna Rane-Szostak provide a two-step approach for students to analyze written dialogues for bias and errors in thinking. They offer a laundry list of questions that might serve as fuel for their approach. Some of those questions would be perfect ones for applying the Discussion Web strategy and format at the upper grades:

  • Are televangelists hypocrites?
  • Is it wrong for lawyers to defend accused people?
  • Does media violence cause real violence?
  • Is feminism responsible for the family breakdown?
  • Is assisted-suicide a crime?
  • Should education remain compulsory?
  • Should World War II criminals still be tried?
  • Are pay differences by gender unfair?

The possibilities for using Discussion Webs in the classroom are endless. They are limited only by the creativity of teachers. No! The possibilities aren't even limited by that! Because once the strategy is used -- once students grow familiar and comfortable with it -- the students are bound to start coming up with their own questions!

And the benefits of using Discussion Web strategies are many.

Perhaps James Barton best summed up the value of Discussion Webs (and other graphic organizers) in a recent Journal of Reading article: "To put it simply, the human mind craves organization... [Webs] are one practical way of giving the mind what it requires."

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2002 Education World

Related Resources

  • "The Discussion Web: A Graphic Aid for Learning Across the Curriculum" by D.E.Alvermann, The Reading Teacher, October 1991.
  • Using Discussion to Promote Reading Comprehension by D.E.Alvermann, D.R.Dillon, and D.G.O'Brien. International Reading Association (Newark, DE, 1987).
  • "The Web: A Powerful Tool for Teaching and Evaluation of the Expository Essay" by J.Duthie, The History and Social Science Teacher, volume 21 (1986).
  • "Creating a Response-Centered Curriculum with Literature Discussion Groups" by M. Vogt; chapter 12 in the book Lively Discussions!, published by the International Reading Association; Newark, DE (1996). [Read a review of Lively Discussions! this week on Education World's Books in Education page.]
  • "Discussion Strategies for Improving Reading and Writing to Learn" by J. Swafford; paper presented at the World Congress on Reading in Stockholm, Sweden (July 1990).
  • Literature and Cooperative Learning: Pathway to Literacy by N. Whisler and J. Williams, Literature Co-Op, Sacremento, CA (1990).
  • "Cueing Thinking in the Classroom: The Promise of Theory-Embedded Tools" by J.McTighe and F.T. Lyman, Educational Leadership, volume 45, number 7 (1988).
  • "Using Dialogues to Develop Critical Thinking Skills: A Practical Approach" by J.F. Robertson and D. Rane-Szostak, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, April 1996.
  • "Conducting Effective Classroom Discussions" by J. Barton, Journal of Reading, February 1995.
  • "Approaching Literature Through Talk" by P.M. Dolyniuk, English Quarterly, Summer 1995.
  • "Literature Webbing Predictable Books: A Prediction Strategy That Helps Below-Average First-Grade Readers" by D.R. Reutzel and P. Fawson, Reading Research and Instruction, Summer 1991.

 


Last Updated 11/15/2011

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