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Engaging With Literature: A Workshop for Teachers, Grades 3-5

Classroom Dialogues

The teachers examine the various roles the teacher plays in class discussions — maintaining a careful balance among leading, being a part of, and observing discussion — as well as which topics are better discussed with the whole class and which are better for small groups. Additionally, they offer important suggestions for folding traditional elements of the language arts curriculum, such as identifying literary elements, into the ongoing class discussion.

“What we’re doing is really negotiating the meaning of the text. I believe there’s not one meaning in a text that I have and the students are supposed to get. We all bring what we bring to the book based on what we’ve experienced in our lives and other things we’ve read. And we put all those out into the mix and come out with a totally different reading at the end. So that’s what I’m hoping for.”

-Katherine Bomer, 5th-Grade Teacher,
Pleasant Hill Elementary School,
Austin, Texas

Many teachers are afraid to promote classroom discussion in which students assume control of its shape. And with good reason. What happens when students set the agenda? How much direction should the teacher provide? What should a teacher do when a discussion doesn’t work? How does a teacher help students learn to treat conflicting points of view with respect? What happens when students veer off the topic, or reveal information of a highly personal—perhaps even private—nature? Clearly, facilitating such discussions is a complex—and sometimes risky—business.

Authentic conversation is, however, central to the success of an envisionment-building classroom. In this video, the teachers discuss the complexities of encouraging such discussions. As they share ways in which they help students develop as proficient conversationalists and strategies they have discovered for dealing with difficulties, think about how their strategies might work for you and your students.

Key Points

  • Good conversations about literature help students reach new insights about the text, themselves, and the world around them.
  • Good conversations help students become better critical thinkers as they test their understandings and ideas against those of their classmates.
  • Enabling good conversations provides teachers with a number of ongoing challenges.
  • Good discussion topics—those that are interesting to the students or ones to which they have personal connections—encourage rich conversations.
  • Teachers who value good discussions learn to be open to, and supportive of, spontaneous developments in the conversation.
  • Teachers have to be sensitive when presented with confidential or highly personal revelations from students, relating those issues back to the text in productive ways.
  • Teachers assume a number of roles during discussion, from taking part as a participant to stepping back as an observer.
  • Teachers’ roles in a discussion change as they help students become more independent in their discussion groups or as specific groups need additional support and direction.
  • Teachers often play a supportive role in discussion groups by letting students shape the discussion and stepping in only as needed.
  • During discussion, the focus often shifts from the teacher’s to the students’ agenda as students focus on the issues that matter most to them.
  • Teaching specific literary concepts is done most effectively in the context of grappling with a text as a whole.
  • Envisionment-building teachers learn to be sensitive to identifying “teachable moments” and using them to present specific concepts within the larger context of the ongoing literary discussion.
  • Teachers in envisionment-building classrooms use both large- and small-group discussions depending on their agenda and the needs of their students at a particular time.
  • Many teachers use large-group discussions as platforms to teach and model strategies for effective conversation that they expect students to take into their small groups.
  • Helping students debrief about what went well or what didn’t work in group discussions helps them develop strategies that will make them more successful in later discussions.


Learning Objectives & Background Reading

Learning Objectives

After participating in this session, you will be able to:

  • Determine ways to make both large- and small-group discussions an important part of your literature instruction.
  • Develop ways to help your students become more effective in discussion groups.
  • When training students in effective discussion strategies, introduce one new strategy at a time, and remember Jonathan Holden’s advice to use “baby steps” when first exposing students to classroom discussion.
  • Identify role(s) you feel comfortable in during group discussions.
  • Identify ways you might help your students become more independent in their discussions.
  • Be realistic about your initial expectations for implementing student-centered discussions in your class, and patient when doing so.

Background Reading

In preparation for Workshop 4, read “The Classroom as a Social for Envisionment Building” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, 1995.

A compendium of resources and articles about Dr. Langer’s research and the envisionment-building process can be accessed from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement’s Web site.

Explore the “Envisionment-Building resources” to access articles and guides to fostering literary communities in your own classroom.




Respond to the following in your journal:

What is your biggest anxiety regarding the implementation of real and substantive conversations in your classroom? What are some things you might do to ease that anxiety?


What has been your biggest difficulty with student-directed conversations in your classroom? How did you address that difficulty, or what strategies might you try now that you have watched this video?

In preparation for Workshop 5, read “Literature Across the Curriculum” in Dr. Judith Langer’s Envisioning Literature from the Teachers College Press, 1995.

For additional resources, refer to the Additional Reading section of this workshop’s materials.


Bileni Teklu monitors a whole group discussion in her classroom.Classroom Connection

Student Activities

Try these activities with your students.

  • Because some students confuse recitation—exchanges used by teachers to assess learning—with discussion, you may wish to probe the understandings of your class. The Attitude Survey (PDF) included in this program can help you do so.
  • Choose a book to read aloud that will engage your students. Read, stopping at an emotionally charged moment. Ask them to respond in writing to what they have heard. After they have had several minutes to write, invite them to share their thoughts, first with a partner and then with the whole class. After the first student has shared, ask, “Does anyone have something that connects to what X has just said?” When you feel the conversation has run its course, stop and ask students to reflect on the discussion and the effect(s) of making connections to earlier comments. Suggest that they take this strategy to their small-group discussions.
  • Offer mini-lessons in which you discuss effective conversational strategies and teach students how to apply them to their discussions. You may wish to refer to Conversation Strategies: Mini-Lesson Suggestions (PDF).
  • Tracking Student Contributions to Discussion (PDF) is included in this program to help you monitor student participation in discussion.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner

Make a list of several important things you learned about yourself, about others, or about the world through conversation. Choose one or two items on the list and analyze how the conversation worked. What was the topic? Who participated? What caused your moment(s) of insight? What application(s) might these experiences have to the kinds of experiences with literature you offer students?


Additional Reading

This educational database provides access to thousands of helpful resources for teachers. A search for “classroom discussion” identifies a number of articles useful for teachers interested in improving their students’ discussion skills.

This non-profit site collects booklists, authors, reviews, and “must reads.” The children’s literature section of the site features a wide variety of links and author lists.

Newbery Medal Homepage
This site lists all the Newbery winners and authors as well as providing information about the selection process.

Professional Journals About Literature Instruction:

CELA Newsletter
The National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement, State University of New York, Albany, publishes a newsletter in the fall, winter, and spring. The newsletter addresses a wide range of issues concerning literacy.

The National Council of Teachers of English
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) publishes many subscription journals including Language Arts for the elementary school level. Many issues are available online to members.

Texts mentioned by teachers or students in this workshop program:

Sounder by William Howard Armstrong
The Big Bike Race by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
“Last Touch” by Donald H. Graves
The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph
Drawing Lessons by Tracy Mack
A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon
Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco
Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams
Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff