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

Starting Classroom Conversations

This session concentrates on the basics of good discussions: defining "good" questions, identifying those who should have an opportunity to ask questions, and explaining the goals for this technique. Learn how teachers can make everyone feel comfortable contributing to a literary discussion and strategies for involving reluctant participants.

“Language is so generative that as soon as we start talking, as soon as we start having conversations, we reach these new insights. And so if we’re talking about literature, deep levels of understanding and interpreting literature take place when you’re talking about it or when you’re listening to somebody else talk about it.”

-Tim O’Keefe, 3rd-Grade Teacher,
The Center for Inquiry, Columbia,
South Carolina

Think about the last time you and a friend or family member chatted about a book or movie. You probably shared things you each found particularly interesting and talked about what you liked or didn’t like. You may have pointed to incidents you connected to personally. Possibly you raised questions about the way things happened or things that puzzled you. These are the kinds of authentic discussions teachers in envisionment-building classrooms encourage among students.

Helping students recognize, acknowledge, and articulate their responses to texts becomes the focus of instruction for teachers leading students in authentic talk about their readings. Teaching students to value questions as useful points of departure enriches their thinking as they explore and develop meanings from texts.

As you watch this video, you will notice students interacting with texts and with one another in both small and large group discussions. Listen as these teachers discuss their goals for such conversations, and the strategies they use to teach students how to interact in such rich and thoughtful ways.

Key Points

Authentic discussion is at the heart of an  envisionment-building classroom.

The processes of conversation—both talking and listening—help students think deeply about their reading.

  • Discussion allows students to hear and respond to ideas different from their own.
  • Discussion allows students to test their own thinking in the context of peer feedback.
  • Discussion helps students expand their understandings of both a text and the world.

Other key points include:

  • Open-ended discussions encourage genuine inquiry, thereby enriching student thinking.
  • Because language generates thought, discussions develop and expand understandings of texts.
  • Discussions can help participants confront significant moments in their lives.
  • Rich classroom conversations develop with practice when students feel the classroom atmosphere is safe and comfortable.
  • Students come to class with a rich array of personal experiences on which to draw during literary discussions.
  • Encouraging students to bring up their own ideas and experiences helps them assume increasing ownership of their discussions.
  • Envisionment-building teachers use extensive modeling of their own literary questions and responses as well as generative, open-ended questions to encourage and extend discussion.
  • Tools such as the Consensus Board (PDF), response journals, and a Question Board (a place where students write questions as they arise) can help students generate and organize material for discussions.
  • Teachers need to help students learn how to articulate authentic questions about texts and use them as starting points for literary conversations.
  • Encouraging and reinforcing the importance of good, thought-provoking questions from the students helps them expand their thinking and delve deeper into the literature.
  • Open-ended questions encourage the expression of multiple answers and multiple points-of-view, generating rich discussion.
  • Sometimes teachers need to ask questions that help students consider aspects of the text they might not have thought of on their own.
  • Questions indicate active engagement with a text and an attempt to resolve problems.
  • Respect is an essential part of a literary community and a key element in good discussions.
  • Placing student ideas, questions, and concerns at the center of the discussion honors student reading processes and their participation in texts.
  • Helping students reflect on their discussions—what worked and what needed improvement—helps students improve conversational skills.
  • Silences during discussion may mean that a question needs to be rephrased or that students need time to consider it thoughtfully.
  • Classroom arrangements where students can gather in a circle and see one another support full-class discussion; tables or desks grouped together for four to six students encourage small-group conversations.
  • Asking students to prepare ahead of time for discussion gives them an opportunity to organize their thoughts about their reading and leads to rich conversations.
  • Teachers sensitive to individual personalities and the nuances of group discussion find ways to invite quieter students into conversations.

Learning Objectives & Background Reading

Learning Objectives

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

  • Incorporate discussion strategies into your literature instruction.
  • Trust the power of student experience as an effective starting point for literature discussions and respect their contributions to conversation.
  • Incorporate two or three general open-ended questions into your classroom conversations.
  • Encourage students to share and discuss questions they have about texts.
  • Arrange your classroom to encourage rich conversations in both small and large groups.
  • Determine ways to help students reflect on and improve the effectiveness of their discussions.
  • Be patient and accepting of silences during discussion.

Background Reading

In preparation for Workshop 3, read “Building Envisionments” 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:

Briefly tell the story of a discussion (in or out of school) that you found extremely interesting and helpful. What was the topic? Who were the participants? Analyze your role and the roles of the others in the conversation. What elements seemed to combine to make this discussion memorable?

In preparation for Workshop 4, read “The Classroom as a Social Setting for Envisionment Building” 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.



Classroom Connection

Student Activities

Try these activities with your students.

  • After you have had a shared experience such as a field trip, a film, or a school visitor, ask students to write brief responses. Then hold a class discussion in which you invite students to share one or two ideas from their writing. Suggest that they choose when to participate by connecting their contributions to ones that have gone before. When you feel the group has completed the discussion, ask them to talk about the importance of connecting their ideas to those suggested by others in the class.
  • Ask four or five of your active talkers to help you prepare a fishbowl discussion or a training video for the class. Give them a poem or a short story to read and ask them to prepare for discussion by marking things they noticed with sticky notes and writing a list of questions they have about their reading. Ask them to begin their discussion by responding to what they liked or didn’t like about their reading while you film. As they continue their discussion, you may need to prompt them with additional open-ended questions, but try to allow them to direct their conversation as independently as possible while the class watches, or while you film for 10 or 15 minutes. Ask the class to pay attention to how the conversation developed. In your debriefing discussion, focus attention as much as possible on effective conversational strategies such as turn-taking, listening, connecting to what others have said, posing questions, and positive body language. Suggest that the students work to incorporate these behaviors into their own discussion processes. You may wish to give students a copy of the Discussion Etiquette Checklist (PDF) to help them monitor their discussion processes.

Teacher as a Reflective Practitioner

Review your class lists. Which students are your most willing contributors to a discussion? Which are the most reticent? Identify several strategies you might use to help the reticent students join in conversations more readily.


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.

The International Reading Association
The Reading Teacher from the International Reading Association typically includes excellent articles about literature instruction as well as regular reviews of new children’s literature titles.

Texts mentioned by teachers or students in this workshop program:

Sounder by William Howard Armstrong
The Big Bike Race by Lucy Jane Bledsoe
The Pinballs by Betsy Byars
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
Yolanda’s Genius by Carol Fenner
“Last Touch” by Donald H. Graves
Just Juice by Karen Hesse
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
“The Wall” by Langston Hughes
Cold and Hot Winter by Joanna Hurwitz
The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph
A Family Apart by Joan Lowery Nixon
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Riding Freedom by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman
Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams