Cultivating Discussion Skills in Literature Circles

Cultivating Discussion Skills in Literature Circles

by Abi Frost and Kathleen Stern

Why Discussion Skills?

Discussion skills are easy to neglect, especially when there are so many reading and writing skills to teach our middle school students. We want our students to become stronger readers and that means more time reading in class, right?  However, we’ve realized that student conversations about books can be equally worthwhile.  Literature circles (aka “book clubs”) are an authentic, engaging way for students to synthesize their understanding of a text and for teachers to assess their understanding. The book club discussion is one structure to help students connect reading comprehension with the Common Core Speaking and Listening Standards:

Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1).

The Look and Feel of Literature Circles/Book Clubs

Twice a week in our Book Club unit, groups of four students engage in Book Club discussions about open-ended “why” or “how” questions created on their “reading log” after reading on the prior day (click here for a link to reading log file).


Some of the open-ended questions are teacher-generated, but there is also room for students to create their own questions to pose to the group.  For example, students may discuss their opinions about a book’s message, debate the reasons for a character’s sudden change, or discuss the impact of the story’s ongoing conflict.   During a Book Club discussion, we encourage students to discuss three questions for about 10 minutes each. The remainder of class time is used to prepare for discussion and subsequently, to reflect on the discussion.

Diagnosing Skills: How Do Students Talk About Books?

Two years ago, we started explicitly focusing on building students’ discussion skills. At first, we observed what students already did well. Most students were able to externalize their thinking (“I think X…”). Unfortunately, this skill often leads to one-way, pseudo “conversations.”

Students needed other skills in order to have a productive and interesting discussion (and very few of them knew how to use these skills):

    1. Rephrase/summarize what others say (“I hear you saying…”)
    2. Build on others’ ideas with justification (“I agree/disagree because…”)
    3. Ask for clarification (“What do you mean by X?”)
    4. Ask others to provide evidence or reasons for a claim (“What led you to think X?”)
    5. Support a claim with text evidence (“When I was reading X, I noticed…”)

 How did we teach these conversation skills so that they are internalized and our discussions, however formal or informal, were completely student-centered?

Cultivating Discussion Skills

Before each Book Club meeting (we have seven), we spend five minutes explaining the skill focus for the day. At first, students focused on one discussion skill at a time. Each week, we layered on another skill.  By the sixth and seventh meetings, students were practicing all the relevant discussion skills.  At the start of a Book Club meeting, we wrote the day’s skill on the board and provided sentence starters for students to use during the discussion.

 We also modeled how to use the skill. Our first skill was “rephrasing others’ ideas” and then moved onto “building on others’ ideas.”  With this in mind, we would model the use of both skills by saying something like “I hear you saying that One Direction is the best musical group today, but I disagree because I think that The Wanted have more creative lyrics and better voices.”

In-The-Moment Feedback

During the Book Club meetings, we pull up a chair to a group, listen, and provide (quick) feedback in the moment. Afterwards, we each conferenced with three groups during our co-taught class and were able to conference with each group at least six times during the unit. When needed, we would jump in to prompt the use of the skill with comments such as “Eddie, let’s rephrase what Emma just said before you add your comment.” We provided oral feedback to the entire group at the end of their time discussing one open-ended question. Lastly, we provided written feedback in the form of a rubric which focuses on one or two discussion skills at a time (click here for a sample discussion rubric).


Student-Centered Roles in Promoting Discussion

Every student in the book club plays a critical role in making the discussions successful.  In addition to the organizational tasks necessary to prepare for the meetings, each student has specific responsibilities during the discussions and completes a reading role sheet.

Group Leader:  The group leader’s job is to pose the discussion questions and ensure the group stays on topic.  He or she tracks participation and is responsible for bringing quiet students into the conversations, and making sure some students do not dominate the conversations.

Detective:  Like a real detective, the detective’s job in discussions is to make sure the students are using specific evidence to support claims.  The detective tracks students’ use of text evidence and reminds the group to open up their books.

Skill Master:  The skill master tallies when students use the “discussion skill of the day” from the mini lesson, reminding students to use the sentence starters on the board and on their discussion cards.

Reporter: This role was created to promote student listening skills.  The reporter takes notes on student comments and ideas to be used for a “report” at the end of the discussion.

Discussion cards such as the ones shown below are another tool we use to make the discussions student-centered.

When we created these roles and discussion cards, we worried that they might distract from the conversation and make the discussions feel less authentic.  What if students did not listen to their peers or provide thoughtful comments because they were too focused on tallying?   Would students overuse the sentence starters just to get tallies?  However, we have found that the roles actually help students stay focused on the discussion and self-monitor their use of specific skills that “good discussers” use.  The students do sometimes overuse the sentence starters, especially at the beginning of the unit, but the starters provide students with the necessary vocabulary to effectively articulate their ideas.   Our goal is that, by the final group discussion, students have internalized these sentence starters and more naturally self-monitor their use of the discussion skills without the requirement of roles.

Of course, like most classes, our literature circles include students with a range of reading and discussion skills, so differentiation is key!  As we observe students demonstrating strong discussion skills, we gradually take away the discussion cards.  By the third discussion, some groups are ready to discuss without the sentence starters, while others rely on them throughout the unit.  After we have taught all the discussion skills in the first few book club meetings, we differentiate the “skill of the day” based on what we observe.  For example, one group might still need to work on building on other’s ideas, while another group is ready to play “devil’s advocate” or ask follow up questions.  Since we are lucky enough to have each other as co-teachers, we divide up and conduct the mini-lessons in the small groups.

 Next Steps and Takeaways

Conversations can always get stronger. After reflecting on students’ progress toward meeting Speaking and Listening Standard 1 (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1), there were a few takeaways:

a)      Listening to others and rephrasing others’ thoughts was the hardest skill for students to develop. Students need more practice and time to stop and summarize the discussion that has taken place so far.

b)      Asking open-ended questions is a must. Students can revise their discussion questions to make sure they are truly debatable (i.e., is there room for disagreement?)

c)      Conversations can become “dead ends,” but there are a few ways to redirect them. Our students should learn to:

    • —  Change their minds (“Now that you mention X, I think that..”)
    • —  Take on the perspectives of others/play devil’s advocate (“Someone else may think…”)
    • —  Keep the conversation going (“yes, and…,” “yes, but…,” “no, and…”, “no, but…”)

While book clubs might seem daunting to organize and even a bit chaotic, we have definitely found them to be worth the effort. Once the routines are established, students are engaged, orally making persuasive arguments with evidence, and discussing literature like little college students.    They work well for students on different levels and, most importantly, reinforce  their ability to think about and understand what they have read, making them more active and successful readers.


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