Communication Skills

More Talking in Class, Please

Strategies for facilitating small group and whole class conversations with students in grades 3 to 12.

August 13, 2018
Two young boys smiling and talking with each other in a classroom

Providing consistent, structured time for students to participate in collaborative conversations can improve the overall classroom environment because once the need to sit quietly is replaced with opportunities to discuss course content, the amount of off-topic talking declines. Both small group and whole class discussions can provide these opportunities.

Small Group Discussion Recommendations

Teachers can facilitate quick small group collaborative conversations during class and provide immediate opportunities for students to verbally process their learning.

Students often benefit from a few moments of quiet before speaking. I call this time Silent Seconds, when students spend around 10 seconds collecting their thoughts before they speak. Once they’ve done so, I remind them that we have a variety of conversation starters to propel the conversation forward, including “I think _____,” “I wonder _____,” and “I was surprised by _____.”

Create class and individual discussion goals, and be sure to give students time to reflect on their success.

I use two guided discussion strategies—idea interchange and revolving discussion—to provide students an opportunity to move around and discuss their ideas with their peers.

Idea interchange: There are multiple variations to this strategy, but all begin with designating enough “idea interchange” locations around the room that kids will be able to break into groups of three to five students each. In each location, post a different question or discussion topic related to the lesson.

In one variation, the teacher assigns students to groups, and the groups move around the room together to discuss each question, jotting down notes individually or as a group as they rotate. The teacher sets a time limit for each idea interchange location depending on the age of the students and the topic. Students can move through all the locations on the same day or over multiple days.

Another way to do this is to assign each group a home location, where they’ll start out. At each station, each group decides on one statement that sums up their ideas about the question, writes it down, and puts it in a folder with the question. Once all groups have circulated to all locations, each group reads the statements left by their classmates at their home station and then creates a synthesis statement to share with the entire class.

You can also use this strategy successfully by creating groups based on interests or pre-assessment data and using the same information to assign appropriate stations for each group to visit.

Revolving discussion: Students form two circles, with one inside the other—the students in the inner circle face a partner in the outer circle. The teacher then poses a question that is open ended and requires critical thinking. Students spend one to three minutes (depending on topic and age) discussing the question with their partner. When the teacher calls time, students rotate so that they are facing a new partner, and they discuss the same question.

At this point, depending on the complexity of the question and the age of the students, students can rotate to another partner and continue discussing the same question or be given a new question to discuss.

This strategy allows students to talk through their ideas, gives them multiple perspectives on the same questions, and allows them to move around the room. The process can take however much time is appropriate for the content.

Whole Class Discussion Recommendations

The most successful class conversations start with an engaging topic, clear procedures regarding how ideas will be exchanged, and sufficient time for students to gain confidence in their knowledge of the topic.

Some points to bear in mind:

  • Silence doesn’t have to immediately be filled with a comment. Students should review the text or other content and craft a response before speaking.
  • Before participating in any type of whole class discussion, students should take time to research the topic, gather facts to support their ideas, and generate their own questions for discussion.
  • Students should have access to the texts and other relevant content and refer to them during the discussion.
  • Students should have a place to jot down questions and new ideas during these discussions.
  • After whole class discussions, students benefit from taking time to reflect on what they have learned.

There are many structured ways to conduct whole class discussions, including seminars, summits, and debates.

Seminar: This discussion is designed to allow students freedom to share ideas and questions with each other by discussing without raising their hands. In practice, when students are learning the strategy it is helpful to begin by having them raise their hands and transition over time to free discussion.

Summit: This discussion is designed to encourage collaboration and problem solving as students generate ideas and come to a consensus. Students are given an open-ended question or problem to solve. They share out ideas and, through critical discussion in a seminar format, decide together which ideas are best supported by evidence and agreed upon by the majority of their classmates. They then come to a consensus to present to the teacher. This strategy works best after students have some experience participating in the seminar format. If more scaffolding is needed, students can practice in smaller groups before working as an entire class.

Debate: This discussion is designed to have students use facts to support their opinions and engage in civil discourse with their peers. Before a debate, students are assigned a side to argue for, and they research both sides and gather facts to support their ideas. A debate can be structured so that students freely share their arguments and counterarguments and then ask questions, or it can be structured as a round robin, in which each member of the class is given two minutes to talk. Alternate between the two sides until everyone in the class has spoken. During their turn, students can choose to bring up their own point or provide a counterargument to the person who went before them.