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What is leading group discussion in English Language Arts?

In a group discussion, the teacher and all the students work on specific content together, using one another’s ideas as resources. The purposes of a discussion are to build collective knowledge and capability in relation to specific instructional goals and to allow students to practice listening, speaking, and interpreting. The teacher and a wide range of students contribute, listen actively, and respond to and learn from others’ contributions.

Discussion is not synonymous with discourse; it is a specific kind of classroom discourse that centers on the co-construction of meaning in which teacher and students use one another’s ideas as resources in the pursuit of a specific instructional goal. The teacher sets up a discussion to create multiple entry points so all students can participate confidently. As students share ideas, the teacher facilitates, eliciting and keeping track of student thinking, helping students put their ideas in conversation with one another’s, and, when appropriate, consolidating ideas. While student talk is at the heart of the practice, the teacher intervenes as needed to maintain focus on the text or task, to ensure that norms for healthy and productive discussions are upheld, and to encourage and allow all students to engage in and benefit from the discussion.

While student-led discussions are an important feature of many English language arts (ELA) classrooms, they require the teacher to do a significantly different kind of work than do teacher-led discussions. While we offer resources for supporting novice teachers to plan rich and equitable student-led discussions, our decomposition of the practice focuses on teacher actions and requires some modification when considering student-led discussion. In both cases, we conceive of leading a group discussion as the work a teacher does to enable and facilitate collective knowledge-building in the classroom. Importantly, discussion of this kind may occur in short intervals in the course of other kinds of activities—for example, activating prior knowledge, evaluating a mentor text, debriefing a warm-up activity, or sharing small group learning with the class often call for short teacher-led discussions. The more commonly envisioned seminar-style discussion of a literary work also draws on this high-leverage practice, the difference being primarily in the amount of time dedicated to each part of the discussion. Ultimately, the techniques of leading group discussion come into play in nearly every class meeting.

How can leading group discussion in English language arts advance justice?

Much like eliciting and interpreting individual students’ thinking, the practice of leading a group discussion provides opportunities for students to realize the power of their ideas and their voices. The free and fair exchange of ideas is a bedrock of a healthy democracy. Being an engaged world citizen requires the ability to share, justify and defend one’s ideas and—perhaps even more importantly–to listen attentively and thoughtfully to the ideas and perspectives of diverse groups of others. Group discussion offers an opportunity to practice the skills of reasoned argument, debate, and collective knowledge-building with common goals. Teachers can frame group discussions as opportunities for young people to make sense of something difficult together, and to support one another to both speak and listen in ways that advance the classroom community and common good. Finally. when well-led by a teacher, discussion provides students with the cultural capital needed to engage in academic discourse: using content specific vocabulary, practicing disciplinary norms and routines, and engaging with rich and rigorous content.


How do we decompose the practice into learnable parts?

Leading a group discussion includes enabling, framing, and orchestration, each of which entails specific kinds of work as the teacher plans, equips students to engage in, and facilitates discussion that supports the group to collaboratively build understanding in service of a shared instructional goal. This high-leverage teaching practice, unlike many others, is relatively linear.

Note that some work cuts across all stages of a discussion—namely, identifying and then focusing on the central point of the discussion in terms of English language arts content. Recording and representing content in English language arts may take place in various ways, depending on what best serves the goals of discussion: For instance, the teacher may record contributions on the board or projector; students may take notes or write reflectively at the conclusion of the discussion; the discussion may draw on and/or contribute to a chart or graphic organizer.

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What is challenging about learning to lead group discussion in English language arts?

Eliciting, coordinating, and focusing student thinking in pursuit of shared understanding is demanding work. Teachers must field unexpected interpretations, recognize uncanny brilliance that students demonstrate, and address misinterpretations of the content in the moment. This work demands deeper and more flexible knowledge of the content than that which novices likely developed as students of English. Shifting from the role of discussion participant to that of discussion leader can be difficult not only because of the added demands on content knowledge, but also because novice teachers are often themselves engaged and passionate readers and writers. This can make it difficult to share intellectual space with their students, as sharing space requires teachers to shift their own thinking and theorizing into a supporting rather than starring role in the discussion. On the other hand, when students are especially engaged in the intellectual space of a rich group discussion, it can be easy to lose track of the learning goal in the midst of displays of enthusiasm that are exciting to witness as a teacher. Leading a discussion that foregrounds students’ sense-making and invites the lively exchange of ideas while remaining focused on the instructional goal demands from the teacher a combination of skill, restraint, and specialized content knowledge.

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