ELA Teaching Strategies for Small Group Discussions
Small group discussions are a beneficial way for students to share ideas in an informal atmosphere that is, perhaps, not as intimidating as whole class discussions.
As a teacher, it is important to consider the goals for small group discussions. Is it to create or reinforce basic understanding or to extend student learning? Do you want to purposefully design groups for differentiation purposes or randomly group students together?
And what about group size? Well, this depends on the task. For non-paired tasks, I think that 3-4 students is a sweet spot. Any larger than this, and you risk some students opting out of the discussion or simply being overshadowed by others in the group.
Going beyond Think-Pair-Share for Paired and Small Group Discussions
One of the first paired discussion strategies I used as a student teacher was the good old think-pair-share or, as I call it, “elbow-buddy” talk. This turn and talk routine usually helps to encourage discussion, particularly in a quieter class or when the material or skill is new. The problem with my good friend TPS is that, like TPS reports (any Office Space fans?), they become routine, a hoop for students to jump through. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love me a good TPS…however, I suggest setting and projecting a timer and keeping them short and sweet. Also, give students a specific question or task to accomplish with a clear product and time frame, i.e. Talk to your elbow buddy for 59 seconds (because I enjoy random times). Find at least one line in “Lose Yourself” that can connect to a line in Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy. This is much better than simply saying Talk to your elbow buddy about ways the song can connect to Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy.
This being said, you didn’t come here to hear about think-pair-share. So let’s take a look at some of my favorite strategies for small group discussions that will help you to engage your students in meaningful academic conversation.
1. Scoot/Discussion Stations
The Gist: This versatile strategy incorporates movement as students “scoot” around the classroom. It is key to think about where you want the students to move and why? What materials will you have at each spot? Will they explore different texts? Work on different skills? Build on the ideas of others? No matter what, students should have a specific task to complete or question to answer each time a “scoot” is announced, and there should be a clear direction for movement, i.e. clockwise around the room, to the next color/number/table, etc. It is also helpful if you have a way to monitor student progress – how will you check for understanding or task completion?
Examples of Scoot in Action:
- Literary Lenses – Have students “scoot” in small groups (3-4) from table-to-table, applying different literary lenses to the same text.
- Peer Editing – Have students “scoot” around the table, highlighting different items in their paper or a peer’s paper. Each student could travel around the table, highlighting examples of different skills, one at each spot OR the papers could stay and each student could be assigned one skill to highlight and/or provide feedback. Then, students come together to discuss trends, find “rock star” moments, and talk about each paper’s strengths/areas in need of revision. Individually, students could complete a goal-setting form to respond to feedback and make a plan for moving forward.
- Discussion Stems – Have students scoot around the room to discuss a text, focusing on different questions, or different discussion stems at each station. At each station, they will focus on a different skill, i.e. summarizing.
2. Collaborative Mind-Mapping
Online collaboration tools can be a great way to involve students in a discussion-based task.
The Gist: You can have students create an online mind map (pen and paper works, too!) using MindMup which is completely free and compatible with Google Drive for easy sharing with group members and teacher. Students can “discuss” virtually through creation of this mind map, which forces them to purposefully think about how they are building a conversation (great for practice using conversation stems), OR students can track the progress of their discussion by creating the mind map together as they go. They will begin by posting an initial question or topic for discussion in the middle of the mind map (or multiple topics) and then insert child nodes which build on a main topic and sibling nodes for multiple branches off of one common idea. I always ask students to identify themselves by writing their name before their comment or assigning a certain color to each group member so that I can easily see who added what to the conversation.
Side Note: This works great for individual or collaborative writing and brainstorming, as well!
3. Buzz Words
The Gist: Choose at least five key words that directly relate to the reading and write them on cards or in grid boxes on a sheet of paper. Have students discuss how the words connect/disconnect, what their significance is, and find textual evidence to support their ideas.
Change it Up: You can have students map out their ideas on a sheet of paper as they talk. You can also invite more movement by calling out “connect” or “disconnect” and having the students move to find a word that their own word can connect or disconnect with as the start to a new paired conversation.
4. Save the Last Word
The Gist: Students take turns being the discussion “leader” who opens by asking a question or making a comment about the text. The conversation continues for a set amount of time or around the circle with each group member building on what the previous one has said. Then, the discussion leader has the “last word” in the conversation by providing a “recap” summary for everyone.
5. “Task Card Discussion”
The Gist: In the beginning of the year, as I am working with students on small group discussion skills, I find it useful to provide them with task cards to keep the discussion moving. This way, I know that students have questions which will sustain a student led discussion for any length of time, and I set the expectation that every student will contribute, and groups will discuss for the entire time given which is usually 10 minutes to begin, gradually increasing to 20 or 25 minutes at a time by the end of the semester.
6. “Roll-a-Die Discussion”
The Gist: Students roll a die to select from six different discussion questions and/or quotations. Students take turns rolling and being discussion leader.
Change it up: I like to do roll-a-die and flip a coin discussions. With a regular die, this gives students 12 different possible combinations. I usually pick 12 different quotations from the text, and also create two “repeated roll” questions so that the discussion keeps moving.
You can also get dice with more than 6 different numbers. Or, have students fill in their own quotations/questions to make their own game.
7. Interview Grid
The Gist: Create a “grid” or table with different questions for discussion. Ideally, these should be questions that focus on Bloom’s Taxonomy levels of application, analysis, and creation as you want the interview process to involve cognitive challenge, representation of multiple perspectives, and result in new learning. Make sure to include a column in the grid for students to record the names of their interviewees and a row for them to summarize and/or respond to the comments of others.
Here is a sample grid from a recent discussion students in my class had about social justice:
I had students first brainstorm their own responses to each question. Then, they arranged themselves into two concentric circles for a “speed dating” interview session. With each partner (the outer circle rotated every two minutes), they took turns being the interviewer. As the interviewer, students asked a question from the grid, practiced asking follow-up questions, and paraphrased the response in the interview grid box. As the interviewee, students responded to questions, clarified their responses, and practiced using specific details to support their thinking. After this activity, I posted this question to Google Classroom:
Students, as a result of this structured discussion with each other, had insightful ideas to share as a response to this question. We have been focusing on social justice during this first quarter, pulling in different fiction and nonfiction texts, including our “article of the week.” This activity came at the beginning of the year as we were exploring and defining social justice together. If you are interested in what came prior to this for my students, be sure to check out this Social Justice HyperDoc I created to allow my students to explore and define social justice before coming together and discussing as a class using the interview matrix.
8. Minute…Win It…
The Gist: This is a discussion strategy that asks students to practice argumentation, whether it be use of rhetorical appeals and techniques, recognition of a counterclaim, or avoidance of logical fallacies. You’ll want to put students in pair + 1 groups and give them a debatable topic (silly or serious). Two students face off (pro/con), with the third student acting as their coach. Each student gets one minute to “win” the argument for his/her side. Who wins? It works well to have the coach decide, and you may want to set a clear, quantitative goal.
Change it Up: You can do several rounds of this, focusing on different skills, or allowing students to refine their argumentation, and you should rotate roles within the trio. Or, you can give students one more minute after initial arguments to respond to the ideas brought up by the “opposing side.” Just for fun: have students follow this up with a silly “minute to win it” game: see who can make the highest vertical tower of items from their backpack in one minute. You can also walk around the room, listening for good candidates for a whole-class minute to win it argumentation where two students play the game in front of the class.
9. Discussion Continuum
The Gist: Choose one or more two-sided issues. I’m using this in my class this week as a discussion activity for our article of the week which focused on the NFL protests. I gave half of the students in my class a sheet of paper with a continuum line drawn down the middle, with the two sides of the issue at either end of the continuum. Students with the paper met with students who did not have the paper, asking them to sign their names to the continuum, share their opinions on the issue and justify their opinions with examples and paraphrasing to show understanding. Then, partners switch roles before moving on to discuss/repeat the process with someone else.
Extensions: After 10 minutes of partner conversation, ask students to come together as a whole class and discuss the issue. You can create a whole-class continuum by drawing one on the board and adding student names to it (or asking them to come up, sign their name, and explain why). As you do this, model discussion skills by paraphrasing what is said, asking students to elaborate and connect to the ideas of others. You can encourage debate back and forth, or ask students then to write a journal response to the discussion/topic.
10. Role Play for Characterization and Perspective
The Gist: Students are assigned a role of a character from the text. In the case of a nonfiction text, you could give the role of author, the subject of the article, or person interviewed/represented in the text. Assign partners, and have students prepare questions for the other character which they will then discuss while remaining in character and referencing the text. After talking, have students write a journal entry as their characters describing and reacting to the conversation they had during class.
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