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Lively Discussions!

Lively Discussions! is BIG on ideas for teachers across the grades who want to get high mileage from classroom discussions.

Book Cover ImageLively Discussions! is a virtual dissertation on the subject of classroom discussion!

The new volume, published by the International Reading Association, is BIG in all kinds of ways.

  • The book is a BIG one. Count 'em. Three hundred pages in all!
  • Putting together this volume was a BIG undertaking. The project brought together two dozen educators, experts in the field. For a project of this magnitude, the result holds together remarkably well. Clearly, many of the authors took time to integrate the work of the other authors into their own.
  • It's BIG on research. The book thoroughly details research in the field. All that research can seem overwhelming at times -- more than you needed to know. But it's there to provide context for the discussion of "discussions." If anybody you know doubts the value of classroom discussion, the research to refute them is here!
  • Finally, and most importantly, Lively Discussions! is BIG on PRACTICAL IDEAS for teachers! Ideas for teachers who wish to promote good classroom discussion. Ideas for teachers who need some help managing authentic discussions. Even ideas for teachers who have difficulty staying out of their students' discussions!

It's about time someone took on this BIG job! It's about time teachers had a resource like Lively Discussions!


Lively Discussions! assumes a few things. It assumes that the teachers reading the book want to get more mileage from their classroom discussions. It assumes that they are motivated in their desire to be "supportive and guiding coparticipants" in the process (and that they understand that the teacher-directed questioning that currently passes for discussion in many classrooms often falls short of true "discussion"). And it assumes that students, if allowed and encouraged and trained, are willing and able to assume more responsibility for worthwhile talk.

Lively Discussions! provides the needed tools for teachers to train themselves and their students.


Ask students that question and you'll get a variety of responses. A study by Janice F. Almasi (one of the book's authors) shows discrepancy in students' understandings of "discussion."

Almasi asked a group of students one simple question: Why do children talk about stories after they read them in school? She asked the question of fourth graders who came from classes where teacher-directed questioning was the primary source of discussion and of students whose teachers were known to encourage authentic discussion (cooperative discussion that led to enhanced understanding). Check out some of the fourth-graders' responses and guess which students' comments come from each of those two groups:

Why do children talk about stories after they read them in school?
a. So that you can answer questions when the teachers asks you them. (Kristin)
b. So that the teacher can see if you were paying attention or not. (Ben)
c. So that if you don't understand the story you might be able to understand it better. (Jimmy)
d. So the teacher knows when we can change books or move up or down a level. (Alicia)
e. To see if we know a lot so that when we do our seatwork we can answer the questions. (Laura)
f. To tell what you think of the story, explain why you liked the story and why you didn't. (Bridget)

It's fairly clear that Kristin, Ben, Alicia, and Laura came from classes where discussion focuses on a check of comprehension -- on teacher-led questioning. Jimmy and Bridget came from classes where students were encouraged to think about the material they'd read, react to it, and share their personal thoughts about it.


Following are a handful of sound bites from the research.

"[In multiple studies] researchers have found that in a single day teachers ask hundreds of questions of their students. In one study of third-grade reading groups, on average teachers asked a question every 43 seconds." On the other hand, students ask few questions. (Gambrell, Journal of Educational Research, volume 75, pp. 144-148.)

"In a study of kindergarten students, children who engaged in small group discussions of stories that were read aloud had superior story recall compared to students who discussed the story one-on-one with the teacher or participated in whole class discussions." (Morrow and Smith, Reading Research Quarterly, volume 25, 1990, pp. 213-231.)

The benefits of participating in classroom discussions of literature are numerous and center around cognitive, social and affective dimensions: "From a cognitive standpoint, students may gradually internalize some of the interpretive behaviors that are associated with higher levels of thinking. From a social perspective, students may develop better competence during social interactions. Participation may also elicit affective benefits as students begin to enjoy reading literature." (Almasi, a summary of research, Lively Discussions!)

"If students are to develop critical and creative thinking skills, they must have opportunities to respond to text. The ability to respond to text, or response-ability... is nurtured when students have opportunities to [discuss] meaning [of that text with their peers]... Engaging in discussion about text results in deeper understanding, higher level thinking, and improved communication skills." (Gambrell, a summary of research, Lively Discussions!)

"Student-led discussions resulted in more extensive and higher level discussions than teacher-led discussions... student-led discussions were typified by more student talk, higher level thinking, wider participation from group members, greater cohesion within the group, and richer inquiry." (Almasi, Reading Research Quarterly, volume 30, 1995, pp. 314-51.)


Much of the text of Lively Discussions! focuses on different types of discussions. Lively Discussions! provides teachers with the knowledge to effectively create each type of discussion in their classrooms. Explanations often include background, tips for teachers, examples of student exchanges, and teacher resources. Among the discussion types described are:

Interactive Read-Alouds. Well planned and well thought-out interaction during read-aloud time helps students make meaning of text. "Before and during reading, the teacher elicits predictions, poses questions, and utilizes illustrations... There is a sense of mutual discovery...." that helps students learn to make such reading discoveries on their own. Interactive read-alouds seem effortless, but to be successful they require careful story selection and careful question planning. Examples in this chapter focus on the works of popular children's author Robert McCloskey.

Idea Circles. Idea circles are "peer-led, small group discussions of concepts fueled by multiple text sources." Students work together to build abstract understandings from the facts, data, and details provided by a variety of resources. Idea circles demand organization from teachers. One example of an idea circle demonstrates how important organization is to their success:

Students form separate teams. One team learns about rivers, another team learns about mountains, a third team learns about climate, etc. This study might go on for some time. Each student in the group brings his/her understanding of and experiences related to the topic to the table. Students learn many concepts related to their area of study as they share ideas.

Eventually, students might regroup. For example, they might form new groups, each group assigned to study a different continent. Each of the new groups includes at least one representative from the rivers, mountains, and climate (etc.) groups. Students bring knowledge learned in their previous group to their new idea circle. Lively Discussions! provides additional "idea circle" ideas.

Inquiry-Oriented Discussions. Inquiry-oriented discussions, like all other worthwhile classroom discussions, involve careful teacher planning. These discussions involve the use of a variety of text and other (video, music, photography, paintings, etc.) resources as they explore a given topic. Students discussions are centered around careful exploration of resources. As they explore, they are looking for similarities and differences among sources, how pieces of information from one source fit (or don't fit) with information from other sources. As students work together, their thinking about -- and their knowledge of -- the topic grows and changes. Lively Discussions! provides resources for inquiry-oriented discussions related to concepts such as how the rain forest works, diversity around the world, exaggeration and reality in the media, needing to belong, number sense, dealing with hardship, and more.

Reading Between the Lines (RBL). This form of discussion helps students move beyond the literal level. It helps them to critically evaluate texts by "looking for author intention, hidden agendas, and missing information." This section of Lively Discussions! provides a series of questions for students to use as they learn to read between the lines of news stories, historical accounts, editorials, essays, advertisements, and more.

Discussion Webs. Students use discussion webs to help them look at two sides of an issue. This approach utilizes a think-pair-share process and a graphic organizer to sort out information and to come to a conclusion about a thought-provoking question. For example, in an elementary science unit on water and pollution, students read Spill: The Story of the Exxon Valdez. After reading, students use the think-pair-share approach to respond to the question: Should we continue to drill for oil in the Alaskan seas? (To learn more about Discussion Webs and think-pair-share, be sure to see Webs (The Discussion Kind!) in the Classroom, this week's Education World LESSON PLANNING story. The story includes many examples of discussion questions for use across the grades with Discussion Webs.)

C-4 Yourself. The 4 Cs referred to in the title of this discussion technique include Challenge, Choice, Collaboration, and Creation. The C-4 Yourself approach spins off from a class or small-group discussion of a book. In the example provided in Lively Discussions!, third-grade students are challenged to listen and to be willing to share their ideas about the book How to Dig a Hole to the Other Side of the World, which the teacher is about to read aloud. During the follow-up discussion, the teacher takes notes as students bring up idea after idea. Among the topics kids talk about in their discussion are careers in earth science, tools used for earth exploration, and the makeup of the earth. From the discussion, the teacher forms five questions, including

  • What careers are possible if you wanted to dig a hole through the earth?
  • What tools would really have to be developed to make a hole through the earth?
  • How are the layers of earth different and which ones would be easiest to dig through?
Each question becomes the subject of a small group discussion, and each student has a choice of groups to participate in. Within each group, students explore their question of choice. Students explore multiple texts as they collaborate on answering the question at hand. Finally, they decide what kind of project(s) they'd like to create as a result of their group discussion. They work to complete those projects.

And that's just the tip-of-the-iceberg when it comes to student-centered classroom discussion formats!

Best of all, all of these discussion techniques have one thing in common. They require students to have (or to learn) discussion skills, including "listen to each other," "speak one at a time," "let everyone have a turn," and "listen to the leader." Now there are some skills that will serve your students well!

Lively Discussions! is available from the International Reading Association. To order a copy of the book or a catalog of books and other products created by the IRA, contact them by phone at (800) 336-READ Extension 266 or by mail at 800 Barksdale Road, P.O. Box 800, Newark, DE 19714-8139.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1997 Education World